Those who drove past that particular stretch of road would have caught a glimpse of what they thought was a dead animal; it was dead alright, but it was no animal. It was the body of Eugene Cairns, the victim of a driver who also thought he’d hit an animal and therefore didn’t bother to stop.
These old dark roads hide many things and they helped to hide ‘Gene in his final days.
He first came to Scotland when he was young man who worked as a sailor at the American Base on the Holy Loch. Many young Americans came to this part of the world and many left with Scottish women in tow. They took the girls as wives – some stayed in the US and some came home.
Eugene and Irene were happy with their life lived out in Northern Virginia. They raised two kids, a boy and a girl and nothing could wreck this all American family.
Sometime in the mid-1960s Gene was asked to apply for training with the Apollo mission. He had proved himself in conflict, and in peace time and had shown himself to be of the right stuff. Was he interested in being considered for a moon landing?
Of course he was, who wouldn’t be?
Every time they threw an obstacle in front of him, he would jump over it and be a stronger man for it.
Then one day he came home with the news that he was in the shortlist for a trip to the moon. Irene didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry, but she knew that it was everything he talked and possibly dreamt about. So through a false smile she told him that she and the kids gave their blessing. She had to gamble on giving her consent rather than living with a man who would always have had ‘what-might-have-been’ written across his soul.
Irene sent out one version of Eugene Cairns to the moon and received a very different soul on his return. He had been debriefed on all the side-effects that were caused by a trip into outer-space (least ways, that’s what he called it when he was a kid) but somehow the folks who knew, who really knew, what it was like to leave the Earth and see your home from a quarter of a million miles away all kept quiet.
Some of those guys who came back saw God out there and returned as Evangelical disciples. Others saw the fragility of the Earth and started campaigns to halt the destruction of that little pearl they witnessed from space.
But for Gene, it had been the colours out there. They had been too bright and when he had returned home he had no way of explaining what that meant.
It was the same for everyone, when you returned from vacation you would show your friends and family the photos of the trip. But it was only in your head that you could see and smell the place for real. So loving families tended to smile convincingly and throw in little comments about how nice the place was, but they were secretly hoping that was the last photo. The difference was, everyone vacationed on Earth – at least there was some commonality in it all. But Gene had no way to describe what he had actually seen or felt out there – to anyone.They had no idea what it was to hang in a tin can and head towards the moon.
The first summer after his return Irene suggested it would be nice if they took a vacation back to her home in the West Highlands of Scotland. To keep the peace, he agreed and they sailed from New York to Greenock in June.
All Irene’s family wanted a piece of Gene. The All American Hero was celebrated everywhere he went. Even the provost of the little town on the west coast, held a procession for the astronaut. They bought him drinks, they bought him many drinks and Gene found that he liked the way the alcohol made him feel. The booze toned down the colours in his head and he could feel like a human again. Some nights when he was on his fifth or sixth whisky, he would start to doubt that he had ever been out there.
At the start of August, Irene suggested that they head home and that was when Gene came up with a plan. He would like to spend a few more weeks in the Highlands and Irene could go back to see the kids. He’d return soon enough.
Irene reluctantly agreed and happily Gene went back to his old hunting grounds from the Holy Loch days. When he was stationed at the submarine base on the Clyde, he used to spend his weekends cycling up Loch Fyne, staying a night at Inveraray, then pushing on to Glencoe and Fort William.
Apart from marrying Irene, it was the happiest time of his life.
He rented a small cottage just outside Bridge of Orchy and spent many a day hiking up and down some of the West Highland Way: a popular walk from Glasgow to Fort William.
There was a small hotel about a mile from his cottage and every night he would walk there and walk back – with several whiskies drunk in between.
He would tell the locals about his time in space and that would get him a few more drinks. After a while people grew bored with his stories and began to wonder if he wasn’t just making it all up.
Irene kept asking when he was coming home and each time he gave the same answer, ‘probably next week – probably’.
Then one night, one clear night, as he was walking back to the cottage, he looked at the sky full of stars and realised in a split second what it was he had seen out there, and in a split second he understood everything. It was as clear as day. He now understood completely what life was about. He yelled at the sky and shouted ‘thank you’. The truck driver didn’t see Gene, and when he felt the bump, he thought it was just an animal and kept going towards Tyndrum.
bobby stevenson 2017