Grains of Sand
A cool morning breeze brought the smell of salt to David’s nose. Fine wet sand clumped between his toes as the ocean tide flirted with his feet. His father, towering above the four year old boy, held his right hand firmly so that he would not fall. With his left hand, David grasped at a glob of sand that had settled on the arch of his foot.
“How many grains of sand do you think you have there, son?” he asked as he picked up a loose piece of trash blowing along the beach.
David lifted his gritty fingers close to his face and mimicked the way his father would ponder his books at night after dinner. He strained to think of the largest number he knew. “Hmm…a thousand!” he declared with an official tone.
His father smiled and chuckled. “You might be close.” He picked up his son and placed him on his shoulders as he ran toward the water. They spent an hour building a sand castle like ones David saw in his father’s history books on the coffee table.
Now it was David’s turn to ask. “How many sands do you think are in our castle, daddy?”
“A few million, I’m sure,” he replied and smiled again. He saw David’s eyes grow wide and his face contort as he struggled to think of the number.
“And how many are on the beach?”
Russ hoisted David on his shoulders again. He pointed to the end of the beach until it curved out of sight, then did the same in the opposite direction. “We’re standing on a beach that is about a mile long. If you get your Tonka tractor and dig between our feet for a mile, and then dig out to sea about a mile, and you keep it all, you’ll have as many grains of sand as there are planets in the universe. Hundreds of billions.”
David wowed as his mouth tried to form the word, and began to play with his father’s hair, plucking at the grains clinging to each strand. “Dad, here’s one! Two!” They went back to the sand castle to build a moat and guard towers. Later that night, David snuck out into the yard and climbed to the top platform of his jungle gym to look at the stars. Their border collie, Scooter, laid on the bridge next to him. “Good boy, Scootie. Look!” he smiled and leaned to pet the dog. “Hundreds of billions!” Scooter wagged his tail eagerly for a few seconds. Countless thousands of points of light glinted in the darkness, accented by a creamy arc. He stayed until the first rays of light from the sun rose above the horizon.
It was the second week of Astronomy camp in the summer before 6th grade. Though David was a camper, he knew just as much as the college age counselors. That night, Kelly and Thomas joined him on the observatory deck. They could see all around the clearing to the silhouette wall of trees at the edge of the park. There were no lights for miles and the stars were even brighter than his first memories.
“I wonder how many stars there are out there,” Kelly mused. “I mean, I know what the estimate is, but it’s so big it doesn’t mean anything to me. I just can’t wrap my brain around it.” She laced her fingers behind her head and laid back.
Thomas agreed, keeping his eyes pointed skyward. “Same with planets. Livable planets, that is. How cool would it be to be the first astronaut to set foot on another planet?” His eyes settled onto Mars, a rusty speck low on the horizon.
“Or to make contact with an alien civilization,” David concluded. They sat in reverent wonder, pointing out constellations, shooting stars and satellites as they passed through their line of sight. After an hour, David called their attention. “Hey, guys, look what I snagged.” He was holding a pair of Frequency Optics.
Thomas’ face was a picture of shock. “Are those the same ones from class? What are you doing with them?” he said in a fearful tone.
David smiled and waved his concerns. “Relax. They’re not going to notice them missing as long as we get them back before the counselors wake up. Now, do you want to use them or not?”
They took turns wearing the headset. It allowed them to enhance low-level light that was blocked out by the stars. Galaxies burst forth into view all across the night sky. Orbs of crystal blue, columns of crimson red, disks of gold each came into and fell out of focus in turn.
“I’m so proud of you, son,” his father told him as he hugged him tight. Four years of university study at Southern California had passed so quickly it was as if they were only a dream. A diploma in Aerospace Engineering reminded him that his blissful memories were real. They sat down together at David’s favorite downtown restaurant, an urban bar and diner near the school. David ordered a dark stout beer for him and his father, then poured the toasty drinks into their glasses, letting the foam heads settle. “Tell me, what’s next in your plan? Are you sure you want to jump straight into grad school?”
David sipped the cool brown liquid, savoring the roasted malt and notes of coffee. “Yeah, I’m sure, Dad,” he confided. The advisor I want to work with just had a spot open up and I've spoken to him about my research ideas. He’s just as eager to get the ball rolling.”
Russ beamed at his son, the handful of wrinkles on his face adding to his smile. He wouldn’t tell him, not now. Maybe after the summer. “You think you’ll be on Mars in the next ten years?”
“I hope to be out of the solar system,” he replied. We’ve been sending people to Mars for seven years now. I want to do something a little more ambitious.” The waitress served their filet mignon as they each poured a second beer from its bottle.
They spent the summer on the road. They fished and hiked in Colorado; kayaked the Grand Canyon; camped along the beaches of Southern California; celebrated the Fourth in Washington, DC. David asked about his mother. Russ spent weeks telling him stories of how they met, when they fell in love, their life together, up until the complication during David’s birth.
Twenty years of consistent research after earning his Ph.D had led to the development of an engine capable of interstellar travel. It was days before launch, and David found himself on the stretch of beach his father had taken him to when he was a child. Now it was pristine. He grabbed at the sand and let it trickle through his fingers, tickling the soft skin by his knuckles. He wished his father was still alive to see the launch.
“Dad, we can’t build this thing by ourselves. We need you for the bridge,” his daughter commanded.
He looked at the progress Kathleen and his wife Soraya had made. The castle was already half the size of their car and boasted a three foot tower. “You two might as well enter the competition tomorrow. Now, where’s that painting knife?”
He kissed his wife and hugged his daughter before stepping into the preparation room. “I’ll be back in a year’s time, I promise.”
Soraya smiled, knowing that David was never one to break a promise. “I hope you don’t mind being with an old woman when you get back,” she teased. “Don’t get fat on space ice cream.”
David threw his head back in a laugh, then embraced her a final time. “I’ll actually take pictures this time around.” He held her gaze as if to engrain her smile in his mind. But it came without effort. Her voice was an addiction and her eyes had the unique capability of making him forget what he was talking about. He once calculated the curve of her lips in a full smile to provide a mathematical proof of perfection. When she had corrected the math and framed it anyway, he knew he would spend his life with her. “I love you, mi vida” he whispered.
The shuttle rumbled as the engine prepared for liftoff. Robert’s voice in the command center broke through the receiver as he marked the countdown. The rest of the four man crew began to daydream about the world they would explore and what name they would give to it upon arrival. He pressed the last pre-ignition switches and closed his eyes, remembering the day on the beach with his father, the first time he saw a total dark sky, the first time he saw distant galaxies through Frequency Optics, his research breakthrough, his wedding day, his last day with his father, the birth of his daughter, his last dinner with family and friends, his last night with his wife.
“‘Hundreds of billions,’”
“‘Like grains of sand.’”
A puff of white cloud crawled across the sky above him. He extended a finger as if to push it away from the shuttle.
“Dad, here’s number one.”