Aim for the Stars
by Tom Pendergrass
I can usually tell within seconds which of the homeless men are going to be
trouble. The ones with the fruity smell of alcoholism or the missing teeth and
cracked gums of meth addiction are easy. Sometimes you can tell by the way they
look at you when you talk; some ignore you and some hold on to your words only
to spit them back at you. But John Truro was different. He didn't scare me, at
least not in the way that some of the men do. But he made me fear for my life
more than anyone I have ever known.
He came in one brutally cold night, when the police emptied the tent city under the
interstate. I didn't notice him at first; there was soup to serve and a scuffle
between one of the lifers and a newcomer. It wasn't until time for lights out in the
men's dorm that I met him.
He came to me clutching a fresh blanket in one hand and a long tube, like
architects use to hold blueprints, in the other. He was thin, with a full gray-streaked beard; but his hair was trimmed, and he didn't smell of the street.
Cleanliness is a good sign and it put me at ease.
"Do you keep a guard at night?"
That question usually leads to a threat or a pulled knife. I guess he saw my
"I have this," he said, holding up the aluminum tube. Dents and scratches marked
its surface, but it was still shiny, as if he polished it every day. "I need to protect
"I don't have a safe or anything." He didn't seem dangerous. I usually have a
good sense for these things, so I thought he was telling the truth. I wondered what
was in the tube. No telling with my clientele; they have nothing, and can become
attached to the oddest things. I guessed he had picked it up on the street
somewhere, or out of a trash bin, and imagined it was Excalibur.
He nodded like he understood me and handed me the Rescue Mission blanket. He
headed for the door.
"Wait, you can't go out there. It's below zero tonight." I reached and touched his
shoulder and could feel the protruding bones through his army surplus jacket.
He said, "There are some rough characters in here tonight. They'll try to take it."
I couldn't let him go back outside and I didn't have time to talk him down. But he
was right. When the cops roust the streets on cold nights, we get plenty of
"I can lock it in my office."
He clutched the tube tighter to his chest and shook his head. "I have to stay with
I wasn't about to let a man fresh off the street spend the night in my office. I'd
made that mistake once and it took days to clean up.
"You can stay in the pantry, I keep that locked . . . It's not comfortable."
He followed me into the room where we keep all of our food supplies, most of
them donated by overstocked grocery stores. He settled in by a case of canned
jalapenos. I handed him the blanket.
"So what's in the tube anyway?"
He thought for a second, seeming to struggle with himself. "The stars," he said.
I laughed, then saw his face and realized he wasn't joking. I've worked with the
homeless now for thirteen years, the last nine running this shelter. All sorts come
in; but the one thing they have in common is that no one takes them seriously. I try
to make sure they know that I value them. I was sorry I had laughed, sorry he
thought I was demeaning him. It was okay with me if he thought he had the whole
damn universe in that thing.
"Scott Bradley," I said, holding out my hand.
"John," he said. "John Truro."
I shook his hand. It was dry and paper-frail like an ancient origami.
"Listen," I said. "Stay in here as long as you want, nobody will bother you. Only
two keys, mine and Jason's. He runs the kitchen. He'll be in about six. If you
need something, push the intercom. It rings in my room."
"Thanks . . ." he said, staring at me for a long moment. "Scott. Did you ever want
to go to space?"
What an odd question. "Sure. Just like every other kid in third grade. My father
took me to see the shuttle launch one time at Cape Canaveral." Dad had moved out
that spring, but he came back one last time to take me on that trip. I remembered
the roar of the engines on the pad, the bright flash of flame that could be seen for
miles, the awesome power of human ingenuity. "I had a picture of Buzz Aldrin
over my bed," I said.
"Me too. I met Buzz once."
"Must have been something."
"It was," John said. "Would you go?"
"Where? The moon?" I hadn't thought about it since I was a kid. But my answer
was the same as it had been then. "In a heartbeat."
"Yeah, me too." John Truro began to cough, violent spasms rocked his body.
"Are you okay? Should I get someone, a nurse or something?"
"It's just the cold. I'm kind of tired."
I watched him as he settled in, wedged between the peppers and a case of out-of-date Corn Flakes. He tucked the tube under his arm. I flipped the lights and
locked the door behind me.
I didn't get much sleep that night. A toilet overflowed in the men's dorm after one
of the temps stuffed it with a couple of rolls of toilet paper and then started pissing
on the bathroom floor. By the time I got everyone settled down it was time for
I saw John again at our morning prayers. Most of the time when the city clears the
streets, the pick-ups leave as soon as we unlock the doors. We don't force them to
stay, just like we don't force them to go to chapel. It's part of my mission just to let
them know they can come in if they want to.
"I hope the floor wasn't too hard last night," I said to him after the service.
"I've had worse."
He talked in clipped well-enunciated sentences, which put him on a different planet
than most of the men who came through. Most of them ramble or slur or speak in
some obscure street lingo. A good number don't talk at all. John was different.
Maybe he really had met Buzz Aldrin.
"I need to talk," he said.
I looked at my watch. The city council was coming for a tour in two hours. I was
requesting money to fix a nasty wiring problem and the place still smelled of urine.
"Let's go to my office."
I put my hand on his elbow and felt the bone like a reed through his jacket. My
God, how much did he weigh? "Did you get breakfast? It was oatmeal."
"Yes sir, just a little. I have trouble holding it down."
I was close to him and studied his face as we walked. His eyes were yellow and
"Are you sick?" I asked as I opened my door. I moved a stack of files off my
green vinyl sofa and motioned for him to sit.
"Cancer," he said.
The single ugliest worst word in the English language.
"It's terminal," he added. "Nothing anyone can do." He fidgeted with the stopper
on his battered tube. "I was wondering . . . why are you here? As a career, I
Another surprise. None of my clients had ever asked me that. They're either too
absorbed in their own misery or they look at me as a role model. They never see
me as human. I'm the guy that feeds them, that clothes them, that prays for them.
It took me back, this dying man asking such a question.
"Sometimes you just fall into things, I guess. I volunteered at a shelter one
Thanksgiving when I was in school. I felt a connection, like it was something I
should be doing." I didn't mention that I had worked there because I had nowhere
else to go. My mother had died the previous year and my father had never come
back after that trip to Canaveral.
"So you gave up the moon?" he asked, a thin smile crossing his cracked lips.
"The moon was never an option to someone who can't pass trigonometry. How
about you? What made you give up the moon?"
"I haven't," he said. He looked at the door to make sure it was shut and lowered
his voice to a whisper. "I was a physicist for NASA. Recruited out of Princeton
by Wernher Von Braun himself. We were still sending men to the moon then."
He looked me in the eye as he talked, and I could tell he believed what he was
saying. Truth is a funny thing though. I had a guy who came through a few years
back who swore he was Mick Jagger, and I bet he would have passed a polygraph.
"Von Braun was my idol. He was everything I wanted to be; brilliant, visionary,
driven. I modeled my life on him. He could do no wrong. So when he picked me
for his secret project, I was in heaven. Not really in heaven, I guess, I'm not a
"But you were in chapel."
"You start to doubt yourself when you're dying," he said. He coughed again, his
frail body shaking with the violent spasms. "Anyway it's peaceful, and I wanted to
hear you talk."
I glanced at my watch. Another hour and a half until the city council arrived. "I
hope I didn't disappoint you."
"No, you exceeded my expectations."
I tried to remember what I said at the meeting, but it escaped me. I usually read a
few verses and say what comes into my head. Half the men are asleep or
mumbling to themselves anyway.
"It confirmed what I suspected, and what I'd heard on the street. You're man of
faith who is unsure of what he believes. I'm the same as you. Except I'm a man of
science who thinks that science causes as many problems as it solves. Let me
show you something."
He placed the battered silver tube on my desk and untwisted the cap. He pulled a
roll of aging yellow papers from the tube and carefully untied the twine that bound
them. He rolled the pages flat. Equations crowded every inch of the first few
pages, but my eyes were drawn to the third page; engineering drawings with
comments written in black ink.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Our destiny," he said. "It's Von Braun's secret project. An interstellar drive.
With this we can reach the stars."
I stared at the drawings, trying to make some sense of them. There was a sketch of
cylinders fed by various pipes or hoses, with scribbled notes about "flow rates" and
"tolerances." At the bottom of the drawing in black ink was the letter B in a fine,
precise hand. I couldn't even think of a question to ask.
"Anti-matter." John Truro said. "It's the only thing in the universe capable of
generating enough force over a long enough period."
"Like Star Trek?"
He laughed. "Not exactly. Nothing will let us go faster than the speed of light.
But this could let us travel to the nearest stars within the lifespan of a man."
"Is it real? Does it work?" A feeling of absolute awe ran through me, tempered
only by the voice in the back of my head that assured me John Truro was nuts and
possibly so delusional as to be dangerous.
"In theory," he said. "We never tested it."
There was a knock on the door, and we both jumped.
"Scott, the city council's here." It was Jason, my number two and one of my
John was on the plans in an instant and had rolled them and put them in the tube
before I could make it to the door. I looked at my watch. They were an hour early.
"Jason, walk them to the dining room and get them some lemonade or something.
I'll be right there." I looked at the emaciated homeless man clutching his tube.
"John, I'm sorry. It's about money. They have it and I need it. I'll be back as
soon as I can."
He nodded, but he had a furtive look about him that made me worry that he would
be gone when I returned. I wanted to talk to him more, wanted to know his story.
And I wanted to know more about those drawings.
When I made it to the dining hall, I discovered only half of the council had
showed. Apparently the rest had a better offer. I can't blame them; I'm sure there
are plenty of things more enjoyable to do on a Saturday morning than count vomit
stains on the floors of a homeless shelter.
I took them on the standard tour, showing them the facilities, and introducing them
to some of the more presentable clients. I've learned over the years that people
like their bums well-groomed and smiling. If they see the ones that really need
help, their wallets clamp shut.
By the time the tour was over a minibus of teenagers from St. Joseph's Episcopal
had come to volunteer. It was their first time, so they needed instruction. Most of
them didn't know which end of the knife to hold. I had a feeling they didn't do
much cooking at home. It wasn't until I went to get the serving dishes from the
pantry that I thought of John. He was sitting on the cans of jalapenos, clutching his
"John," I said, reaching over his head. "Sorry I had to leave. This place . . ."
"Can I help?"
"Sure, if you feel like it. Can you take these trays to the dining room?"
He took a handful of the trays with him. When he came into the kitchen, all the
kids stopped what they were doing. He was the first client they had seen up close.
He worked beside me in silence while we loaded the dishes with creamed corn and
two-day-old rolls and canned green beans and chicken broth. I gave the kids their
final instructions and unlocked the door. Most of the pick-ups had gone back to
the streets, but we still had a larger than normal crowd due to the cold. I guided
John toward a side table.
"This is my favorite part," I said. "See that girl serving the green beans. I don't
know anything about her except that she lives in a nice neighborhood and her
clothes cost more than I earn in a month. Watch her face as the crowd gets there.
See, she's smiling -- and it's not some forced beauty-pageant smile. Now, look at
the boy on the end, the one with the saggy jeans and the gray hoodie. He looks like
he's going to throw up if one of the men touches him. These kids go to the same
church, same schools, probably have the same hair stylist. But their reactions are
so different. You know why?"
John Truro laid his aluminum tube on the table. "Because she understands that the
world is about more than her . . . that she owes something back. Right?"
I actually was going to say something far less profound. I liked his idea better.
"So tell me more about this . . . thing," I said, pointing at the tube. Then, dropping
my voice to a whisper, I asked, "Why do you have it, and not NASA?"
"When Von Braun hired me, he set me up in a special office with a vague title and
a high security clearance. I worked through the physics and he worked through the
mechanics. I never reported to anyone but him. I liked it that way, I've always
been . . . uncomfortable . . . around people. The last time I went to his office he
told me he was resigning.
"I was floored." Jon Truro said.
"What about the stars?" I asked him.
He looked at me with those piercing blue eyes and ran his fingers through his
beard. He asked me if I had ever seen the movie they made about him: I Aim at the
Stars. "Have you seen it, Scott?"
I admitted I hadn't.
"It was a horrible movie, but he was my idol and I had watched it three times
anyway. There was a comedian who used to make a joke that Von Braun aims at
the stars but sometimes hits London. Von Braun looked at me and repeated that
line, with his voice cracking when he said London. Scott, you should have seen
the man at that moment. He had worked his whole life to put a man on the moon,
had ignored the fact that he was designing rockets for Hitler, that his rockets now
carried nuclear weapons that could hit anywhere in the world, that he had brought
mankind to the brink of self-destruction. He did it for a great cause, and I think
most times he didn't regret it. He was a proud man, he was proud of his rockets, he
was proud of the moon. But on that day he couldn't look me in the eye."
John was rolling the cylinder in his hands as he talked. He closed his eyes as if
struggling to remember every word in detail.
"Von Braun told me that we only went to the moon to beat the Russians. Now that
it was done, nobody cared about the stars. He said that the power of our drive, the
power of anti-matter, was enough not only to reach the stars, but was also enough
to level cities in the blink of an eye. It could make a weapon more horrible than
any nuclear bomb ever tested.
"But the stars?" I asked. "What did he say about the stars?"
"He told me the plans were too valuable to lose," John Truro said. "He told me to
keep them secret until the time was right, until I could trust that we would use it for
the stars and not against ourselves. I promised him. I swore I would do exactly as
Truro paused, looking down at the floor. "That was the last time I saw Wernher
Von Braun. He died of cancer three years later. His estate forwarded me a letter
he had written and kept in his drawer. Just a few words. Aim for the stars, he
His voice broke when he spoke of the letter. I put my arm around him while sobs
wracked his body.
"I've never said a word about any of this. I quit NASA after a few years. We were
aiming at low-earth orbit, not the stars. I followed the news, when the Cold War
ended I thought that would be my chance, but there was always war, always greed,
always people using each other. I had never noticed it before, that humanity
doesn't deserve the stars. I lost hope. I quit job after job. How can you work if
you've already created the greatest thing imaginable? How can you top it?"
"And you've told no one?" I asked.
"Why me?" I was afraid I knew the answer to that already.
"I'm dying," he said, "and I can't let the stars die with me. You're a good man,
Scott. I want you to take this after me. Keep it safe. I need you to honor my
"I don't know anything about physics. I'm not the right man."
"You know about people. The physics explains itself."
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I didn't know about people, except that
they're all scum who will cheat, lie, and steal to prove their dominance of their
fellow human beings. That the only people that I trusted were the ones that had
been brought so low by the trials of life that their pride had been ground to a pulp.
But I think he knew that already. I think that's why he had chosen me.
"So you'll do it?"
"I'll think about it."
That night I let John Truro sleep in my office. I set up a cot that we used for
overflow nights and gave him an extra set of blankets. He tucked the tube beside
him. As I locked the office door, I heard the rasping sound of his breathing.
The next morning John Truro was dead. His cold, bony hands were still clutching
the battered aluminum tube.
I said a prayer over him, and then took the tube from his hands and put it in my file
cabinet. When the coroner came and asked for his personal effects I lied and said
that he only had what he was wearing.
They cremated him and buried the ashes in a pauper's grave. The tube sat in my
cabinet for a month before I looked at it again. Finally, one night when the
weather was warm and the halls were quiet, I opened it and spread the sheets on the
desk, trying to make sense of them. Was it the pathetic scribbling of a delusional
bum, or the greatest, and most horrible, technology ever devised? What was I
supposed to do? Nobody would believe me, even if I believed it myself.
I began to roll the drawings up when I noticed something stuck in the lip of the
tube. A small plain white envelope. I opened it and pulled out a note in precise,
small handwriting. "Aim for the stars," it said, and it was signed Wernher Von
I watch the news every night now, hoping that today will be different than the last.
It never is. Some days I want to give up, to destroy those drawings and be content
with the lot we have been given.
But then I remember that girl's smile, and I hear John Truro's whispered words,
"Aim for the stars," and I pray that one day we will become worthy of his dream.