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Of Time and Stars

Earlier this year I was looking through Ben’s room, and on this particular occasion I decided to catalogue the books that he had deemed important enough to keep there permanently. I will write elsewhere at length about that bibliography, and what I think it tells us about the intriguing person Ben was, and will remain.

But there was one particular book amongst the group of about 30 that had me scratching my head. It was clearly the oldest of the collection, having been published almost 50 years ago, in 1972. Inside the front cover, attached with a tiny bit of sticky tape, was a small handwritten note that read: “To Geoffrey, Wishing you many happy returns of your birthday – and success in all you do. With love from Professor & Mrs Elkin”. The note was dated June 27, 1976; my 13th birthday.

If you do an internet search on Professor Adolphus Peter Elkin you will discover that he was at one time, and for many years, Australia’s foremost anthropologist. For five of those years he and his wife were my family’s next door neighbours.

Two things intrigued me straight away. The first arose from the fact that in June 1976 we no longer lived next to the Elkins. We had moved out of the house in Lindfield that adjoined theirs in April 1975. So the efforts made by the Elkins (both then aged in their mid-80’s) to (a) know and remember my birthday, (b) purchase a present for me, and (c) arrange delivery of it, were nothing short of remarkable.

The second significant curiosity was how on earth the book had made its way to Ben’s bedroom more than forty years later. I had a vague recollection that it had resided with my parents for much of the intervening period, and that at some time during the preceding decade it had been returned to me by one or other of them. But that still didn’t explain how and why Ben had come into possession of it.

And then I looked again at the title of the book, and its cover, and suddenly things started to fall into place.

From a very early age Ben had a fascination with the world around him – or should I say a fascination with the universe, of which we and our world represent an infinitesimal part. At the age of 4, whilst at pre‑school, he produced a drawing that was returned home to us by his teacher. Although we would have been hard-pressed to make much sense of it without explanation, the teacher, Julie, had, under instructions from Ben, inserted a number of captions onto various elements of the drawing. These included “Our world”, “A spaceship with aliens in it”, “Mars”, “Pluto”, “Caravan world”, and “Another spaceship”. How I would love to quiz Ben now about what we might find on Caravan world!

The following year, his first at primary school, when asked to write a sentence using the word going Ben wrote: “I wish I was going to the moon tonight”. All pretty standard stuff for a young lad with an adventurous spirit one might think? Maybe.

But by age eleven Ben’s pre-occupation with the rest of our galaxy (and the worlds beyond), and his passion for the concept of space travel, remained undiminished, as this piece of prose clearly indicates:

Whale truck howls [1],

A building-high space plane,

Clapping, cheering all around,

Astronauts bowing in their NASA suits,

Thumbs up to the crowd,

Climbing high, feeling anxious,

Stagger inside to what awaits,

Crowd stepping back,

Relatives pleading for their safety,

Rumbling so very loud,

The engines ferociously roar,

Clicking, sparks fly around,

3, 2, 1 … the announcer exclaims,

Blast off!, Up away!,

Dust and grass blows away like a tornado,

Vibrating, shaking like an earthquake,

Clouds billowing like a sail in a storm,

I hope they come back some day,

A trail behind, a memorial of them,

A speck now, people sadly leave for home,

The wide rocky moon waits silently for them.

High school is often a place where childhood obsessions flicker and die ‑ whether the result of ridicule received from one’s contemporaries, or through one’s own gradual maturation, is sometimes difficult to distinguish. I am proud to say that Ben’s interest in cosmology remained unaffected by either of these influences.

Which led happily to a wonderful shared experience for the two of us in late 2014. On October 21 of that year Ben and I attended Professor Brian Cox’s show “Making Sense of the Cosmos” at the State Theatre; the tickets being my present to Ben for his 17th birthday. If I am being completely honest, this wasn’t subject matter that particularly appealed to me, but I was pretty sure it would be of interest to Ben, and he didn’t let me down. He took no time at all, once the offer was extended, to tell me he would love to go.

That night, before going into the theatre, we purchased a light meal together at a coffee shop nearby. The occasion seemed so special to me that I felt the need to confide in him: “It means so much that you’re happy to come along with me to something like this. I mean, that you’re not embarrassed to be seen out with your old man, you know, just the two of us”. Ben smiled, possibly at my awkwardness, and responded in his typically matter-of-fact manner – although, on this occasion, there was a hint of bemusement as well: “Why wouldn’t I be happy to come out with you? I enjoy your company”.

What else do you say in that situation but “Thank you”? And then, “But you know, there are lots of guys your age who wouldn’t do something like this with their Dad, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate it, and that I don’t take it for granted”.

That night when we got home after the show, Ben and I talked in his room for a long time about what we’d seen and heard ‑ most of which was well over my head it must be said ‑ and shared what we hadn’t understood, or, to the contrary, had found compelling. It was during this conversation that Ben confessed to me for the first time as a young adult that he still harboured a serious and genuine desire to be an astronaut.

I was shocked to hear him say it, I don’t mind admitting, and yet strangely thrilled and excited to have been taken into his confidence in this intimate setting. After all, these are the sorts of conversations we parents aspire to have with our kids, aren’t they? Conversations where our children share their hopes and dreams and, in doing so, express to us in the most powerful way possible that we have their trust.

We talked about the realities and practicalities of that career choice, and about the other types of careers that would potentially contribute to the advancement of the space programme without him actually having to don a spacesuit – the thought of which scared the bejeezus out of me! I was desperate to ensure that my innate (but occasionally unfortunate) brand of conservative pragmatism didn’t sound like cold water being poured on his long-held aspirations. The last thing I would have wanted to do was discourage Ben from pursuing something that so obviously still fascinated him, let alone cause him to regret having taken me into his confidence. I sincerely hope I managed to pull that off.

What I do know is that within a short time thereafter Ben had committed himself wholeheartedly to achieving a sufficiently high ATAR to secure entry into a course in Advanced Science at Macquarie University; a course at which (as will be detailed elsewhere in this blog at some point) he excelled, and which gave him immense pleasure and satisfaction during the final three years of his life.

And the book to which I refer in the introduction to this piece? It was a collection of short stories by the much celebrated science fiction author, Arthur C Clarke – a collection including “The Sentinel”, a story said to have inspired the highly successful film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The collection was entitled “Of Time and Stars”; a name that would have appealed immediately to Ben I have no doubt, as would the helmeted head of the square‑jawed astronaut adorning the front cover.

If ever I miraculously develop the ability to write music, you can rest assured the first piece penned will be called Of Time and Stars ‑ in honour of one of life’s great thinkers and dreamers. I refer here not to Arthur C Clarke, but to the greatest thinker and dreamer I have ever personally known; my amazing son Ben.

Earlier this year, as I was attempting to put the finishing touches on this piece, I noticed a movie called Gattaca was showing that night on Foxtel. I knew I had seen the film many years before, and that it starred Ethan Hawke, an actor I admire, but the storyline eluded me. Somewhere in the back of my brain I felt sure there was a connection to Ben, so I taped the movie, and watched it a few days later. I was not disappointed.

It turns out Ethan Hawke’s character in Gattaca, named Vincent, is another young man obsessed with the idea of space travel, and who eventually gets to realise his dream. The final lines in the film are delivered by Vincent in voiceover as he heads off on a mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons: “For someone who was never meant for this world I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving. Maybe I’m going home”.

Gattaca was filmed and edited in 1997, during Linda’s pregnancy with Ben, and released in October 1997, the month of his birth. Sixteen and a half years later the nickname Vincent would be given to Ben by his schoolmates in Year 11 at Epping Boys High School (for reasons explained in a related article that will be appearing here soon, entitled Loving Vincent).

And just in case you suspect I have gilded the lily in describing the extent to which a desire to understand the mysteries of the universe formed a fundamental part of Ben’s psyche, consider the quotations below, taken from the two other people who knew him best, and expressed within minutes of one another at the Celebration of Ben’s life on 13 February 2019.

The first comes from my wife Linda: “Ben told us not that long ago, quite seriously, that he wished he could be an astronaut. He has always been fascinated with planets, galaxies and all that is beyond this world. I truly believe he has got his wish. Ben is now up above us, travelling through space, exploring the universe. The brightest stars shine to remind us that the special people we lose are always with us”.

And the second from my elder son Tim, so different to his younger brother in so many ways, but no less extraordinary, who concluded his moving tribute to Ben in verse, entitled “The Man of My Dreams”, thus:

There’s a star up above, lighting up the night sky,

And though once I’d have lifted my head and asked why,

From now on when I turn my eyes to that star,

It is you that I’ll think of, wherever you are,

With the heart, smarts and soul of ten ordinary men,

Yes the man of my dreams is my little brother Ben.

Sometimes dreams come true they say. We can only hope.

[1] I have no idea what a whale truck is, but Ben’s handwriting was never his strong point!


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