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Breaking free: 50 years after Sputnik I - Daniel Silliman

Mike lives in a little apartment at the top of six flights of skinny stairs. The way he sees it, he has escaped from Atlanta. He has moved north, broken free from the South, and is now experiencing the big wide world.

When I met him, he had two Swiss students sleeping on his couches, crashing at his place on their tour of America, and he was pumping them for information.

The two guys, Frank and Manuel, had seen more of this country than he had, and more of the world than he had, and he wanted them to tell him about it. But he didn't seem to know what he wanted to know.

He asked them if there was salt on the tables of Swiss restaurants. He asked them if California girls all had breast implants. He asked them if their fathers used corporal punishment when they were children.

After a while, and after a list of odd questions, the Swiss students seemed to tire of Mike's inquiry and started giving him patently silly answers, testing the limits of the Atlantan's gullibility.

"Come on," Mike said. "Be serious."

"'Serious?'" they said. "What does this mean, 'serious?' In Switzerland, we do not have 'serious.'"

The way Mike sees it, he has escaped, he has gotten out and is seeing things, seeing the outside. But the way he talks, he's still trapped inside, and still trying to gain that revealing perspective, that coveted vision. He says he's thinking of moving again. Maybe to Boston. Maybe to Mexico City.

One of the world's first philosophers got frustrated that same way, frustrated like Mike. A Greek thinker, he felt like he'd made a major breakthrough, had figured out a way to understand the world, but he was still stuck. His idea would only work, he said, if he could get outside of the world. He was bound to the earth, weighed down by gravity and even his good idea wouldn't allow him to break free.

Gravity gets us all. That may have been the Greek's real revelation.

I was thinking about how gravity gets us, how we can't break through to the outside, when I was listening to the recording of Sputnik I, this past weekend. It's been 50 years since the Soviets launched the satellite and surprised and scared the Western world with the pulsing sound of "beep-beep, beep-beep."

They played that sound on the radio, and it still sounds eerie, but also archaic, like listening to the modulations in the voice of a broadcaster announcing the latest list of suspected Communists from Senator Joe McCarthy.

This is the first man-made thing to achieve that philosopher's dream of getting outside, of breaking away from the earth, at least enough for an orbit, and yet the satellite was turned around, oriented back toward us on the inside.

The beeping lasted for less than a month, and then the battery died. The satellite stayed in the sky for about three months, going in circles, almost free from gravity but, in some ways, more trapped than ever, before it crashed down again, flaming its way into the atmosphere. Americans heard the sound of Sputnik and they heard the terrifying sound of Communism's threat, they heard the start of a space race, the changing dynamics of global power, the chill of the Cold War.

Listening to it now, 50 years later, I hear something different in the "beep-beep, beep-beep." I hear a electronic pulse messaging: Gravity gets us all. Gravity gets us all.

When I met Mike, he said he was free, but he seemed trapped to me. He asked questions about the outside like a gulag prisoner asks for last year's news. He had two windows, in his tiny apartment: One looked out at a Dumpster, which had been spray-painted with a Walt Whitman quote, and the other looked over the corner of a church with a discolored statue of Pope John Paul II. He hadn't left his little apartment for a week.

Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.