Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal

When Stanley Kubrik’s epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, opened in American theaters in 1968, I went to see it – with my parents.  I was twelve, and going to the movies was still something of a family affair in those days.  The movie was a jolt to my tween psyche. I recall watching the Pan-Am space plane transporting Dr. Floyd to an orbiting space station, food tray items floating weightlessly through the cabin as the Blue Danube waltz played in the background, and was blown away by such realistic imagery of how travel might look in my lifetime.  2001 seemed so far in the future back then.

While I haven’t boarded a space plane for the moon recently, I do travel by subway to the Library of Congress and the National Library of Medicine every week as part of my job to conduct research for my longtime employer.  Although the Washington Metro trains, like most electrified third-rail systems, have a driver in the front car, the rest of the train is largely automated, with doors opening and closing robotically.  

Yesterday’s commute from my home in Baltimore County, Maryland, started like any other.  Brilliant sunshine backlit the autumn foliage at their peak of color.  Those leaves which had already fallen lay in a thick, undulating carpet of earth tones across my back lawn.  The air was crisp, although a touch warmer at 50 degrees Fahrenheit than the preceding few days had been.

A movie poster on display in
theater lobbies in 1968
I was all about celebrating those earthy hues, so I chose attire to highlight them, the individual pieces reflecting more than five decades of apparel-gathering.  I started with western-themed moleskin gauchos from in a warm fawn, which I bought five or six years ago, and topped them with a vibrant yellow cross-collared turtleneck by Units, which I purchased on a shopping spree with girlfriends back in the early 1980s. Over the tunic I layered a vest which was handmade for me by Elaine Terrell, a talented seamstress in Dallas, Texas, who gave the vest to me for Christmas in 1995.  

I finished my look with cuffed suede boots by Wendi, a 2008 steal from Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW), a long gold-colored pendant necklace that belonged to my grandmother in the 1970s, and a beaded cuff bracelet and chandelier earrings that I found at Cost Plus World Market last year.  Space travel was far from my mind as I bounded out the door into the sunny day.

The Washington Metro Subway trains run like any other.  As I departed one train at the L’Enfant Plaza station in downtown D.C., I knew I had only seconds to sprint down a set of escalators to catch my connecting train to the Library of Congress.  Two young women raced down the escalator in front of me.  The three of us were determined to make that connection.  I heard the intoning chime of the departing train, signaling that the doors would soon close, and the automated warning played through my mind that, “unlike elevator doors, these subway doors do not bounce back when they encounter an object”.

A final scene in the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey
The two girls ahead of me leapt through the opening.  I followed just as the doors began to move.  I felt the crush of steel on each side of me, and my adrenaline surged.  With an audible “oomph”, I forced those heavy doors back open far enough to allow the rest of me to get through the narrow gap.  They closed quickly behind me.  I took a seat amid incredulous stares and assessed the damage to my body.  One wrist was bleeding slightly where the door’s edge had pressed hard against it.  A slight bruise was forming on my other forearm.  Other than that, I was unscathed.   My adrenaline, however, was still a force to be reckoned with.  My whole body was shaking.  I felt, in that moment, as if I could have lifted an entire automobile off the ground. 

What I did was reckless.  I had never before tested whether those subway doors would really “not bounce back”, but now I know they don’t.  I won’t be so foolish again. Another train would have been along in minutes to speed me on my way.

The doors on the Washington Metro Subway trains
do not bounce back when they encounter an object
For the rest of the day, all I could think about was the automation of modern science, the cybernetics of mass transit that have made travel so much easier and faster.  When the HAL 9000 computer on board the Discovery One bound for Jupiter erroneously predicted the imminent failure of a device that controlled the ship’s main antenna, Drs. Dave Bowman and Frank Poole began to plot to shut down the computer.  HAL resisted disconnection by killing all the scientists on board except for Dave. The two of them, one man, one computer, then engaged in an epic battle of wits that left but one survivor.  

As HAL famously said about his misdiagnosis of the parabolic antenna: “it can only be attributable to human error.”  I considered my folly.  I knew those subway doors weren’t going to bounce back, and I went through them, anyway.  Lesson learned.

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over." ~ The HAL 9000 computer, upon learning Dr. Dave Bowman is intent on disconnecting it.

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