Jackie Gleason believed in extraterrestrial life.

And Away We Go

Jackie Gleason set his elegantly smoldering cigarette on the edge of a large brass ash tray. The tray was nearly full. “I’m dying,” he said, staring into the ashes.

“We are all dying,” Carl Sagan reminded him.

“And away we go,” Gleason muttered, his face a gallows grimace, deeply etched by the sickness consuming his body. In the entertainment biz, a good catch phrase carries a career for decades. But never forever. “I’ll get there much quicker than you,” he said. “Colon cancer. They ripped out a big tumor, but they tell me it’s spread to my lymph nodes. I have a couple of months, maybe. So that’s what it will say on my stone, when they plant me. ‘And Away We Go.’ My last laugh. And I’m going on my terms. I told ’em to get rid of the oxygen tent. I didn’t want to blow up when I lit one of these.” Gleason picked up the cigarette and took a short, weak draw. “I’ve been a Marlboro Man for too long.” He gestured at the pack. “You?”

Sagan declined. He was a marijuana man and, in fact, had smoked a joint while sitting in his rental car on the street outside of Gleason’s house. Pot, that helped his thinking expand, kicked it into a fifth gear. And relaxed him before meeting a television legend. Odd that he, an astronomer who moved in celebrity circles, would feel edgy. Now, sitting in Gleason’s house overlooking a Florida championship golf course, the pot helped Sagan appreciate the otherworldliness of this scene. The two of them at Gleason’s octagon-shaped bar, in the evening gloom, like Toots Shor’s after closing time. The bar stools were tall, wide-stanced monstrosities designed to be nearly impossible to fall out of, no matter how much one of Gleason’s pals drank. Lush mood music drifted around the room. Was it Gleason’s own music? Sagan picked up one of the record albums lying on the bar. Lonesome Echo, “Presented by Jackie Gleason.” The front cover, a Salvador Dali watercolor. The back, a photo of Gleason and Dali, shaking hands, while still managing to hold each other at arm’s length. The last time Sagan had seen a photo of two men shaking hands, yet looking so uncomfortable, was Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler.

Gleason stared at Sagan, this boyish fellow he’d never before met, yet so gracious to call on him out of… what? Kindness, he hoped. Surely not pity…

Sagan stared at Gleason, this 71-year-old man who looked 90. He was no longer the overwhelming physical presence Sagan remembered from TV as a kid. This Gleason was a sallow, shuffling bag of yellowed bones.

“I read your book,” Gleason said. “Contact. I liked it. I thought it was important.”

“Thank you.”

“What are the odds? That someone’s out there. Here, even. Visiting us. In space ships.”

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Gleason snuffed out his cigarette on the edge of the ash tray and reached for a new one from the pack sitting in front of him on the bar. That took a few moments, as his hands were weak and trembled. He didn’t ask for help. Sagan suspected Contact was the reason for this meeting, and Sagan was happy to oblige. Producers had been pitching him the idea of turning his best-selling novel into a film. Perhaps Gleason was going to make an offer on behalf of industry friends.

“Well,” Gleason finally said, pausing for dramatic effect, cigarette now firmly in hand, the smoke coiling up in front of his face. “I have extraordinary evidence.”

“I’m a skeptic. But I would be thrilled if it were true.”

Gleason nodded. “I’m in a position to know. You know,” he said, leaning toward Sagan, his voice lowering to a whisper, “I counted Richard Nixon among my friends. We played golf frequently. Right there.” He waved his arm toward the windows looking out onto the course just outside, now in darkness. “Look at these.” A stack of a half-dozen books at his elbow. Gleason slid them over to Sagan. “Most of this house burned down a couple of years ago. I had it rebuilt. I lost a lot of my memorabilia.”

“I’m sorry. That’s some great history.”

Gleason waved a hand dismissively. “The world doesn’t need another pool cue signed by Minnesota Fats. What mattered was the fire skipped my library. Thousands of books. Ghosts, spiritualists, cryptozoology. But mostly, UFOs. Here,” he said, tapping the cover of the book on the top of the pile. Project Blue Book, the government autopsy of UFO sightings in the 1950s and ’60s. Sagan fanned the others across the bar, tipping each one to catch the light from the closest neon beer sign, so that he could see the cover. George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed. The Urantia Book, The Roswell Incident, Long John Nebel: Radio Talk King, Master Salesman, Magnificent Charlatan. And a mimeographed, 95-page, first-person account of an alien ship landing in rural Kentucky. Typed single space.

“Why are little green men always showing up in these places?” Sagan mused, flipping through the self-published book, Incident at Flatwoods. “If you came all of that distance, wouldn’t the first place you would want to see be New York City?”

“They’re gray,” Gleason said. “I’m a skeptic, too. I offered a million bucks to anyone who could give me absolute proof that we’ve had contact with aliens.” He smiled. “The check’s still in my pocket. I do the research. Even if it is from my reading chair. I can separate the shit from the Shinola.” He pushed Flying Saucers Have Landed to one side. “This is crap, Adamski made it all up. Bluebook? Overworked Air Force clerks typing up reports, without any imagination. Urantia? Maybe it’s a new way to think of Jesus, history, the universe and the future, given to us by beings from another world. Or it’s a hell of a great science fiction story. See this? Long John Nebel. I wrote the forward. I was a guest on his radio show. Many, many times. As a debunker as much as an advocate. He liked the guests who talked about CIA mind control experiments, swamp monsters, levitation, secret races of beings living inside the Earth.” Gleason leaned toward Sagan again, for emphasis. He was still an actor. “But when I hear a story of alien abduction, I want facts, not fantasy.”

“And Roswell?”

Gleason smiled. “The Don Quixote of ufology.”

“Isn’t this the same fellow who’s written books on Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle? And made billions and billions of dollars off those subjects?”

Gleason chuckled, then coughed, at Sagan’s joke. With every appearance by Sagan on Carson, uttering “bill-yuns and bill-yuns” – a catch phrase that he’d actually never said on his TV series Cosmos – the studio erupted in laughter. “This stuff, the real stuff, all has to be connected in some ways,” Gleason said. “Alien abduction, UFO bases on the floor of the Caribbean, saucer sightings over the Capitol. Even Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle. If it’s all separate, all independent of each other, that makes any of it all the more unlikely. But put it all together, as it should be, and it leads to flash points like Roswell. And that brings us to Nixon.”

“And is that what brings me here?”

“Back in 1974, we were on the 15th hole here at Inverness when I mentioned UFOs to Nixon. We kind of stopped playing for a few minutes. He wanted to tell me something, he was just aching to say something. Then he tells me he’s kind of interested in UFOs as well. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the bonanza. Who can know more about UFOs than the President of the United States? All he has to do is make one phone call and get those Roswell files on his desk.’ But then he kind of clams up. Shoots a 10 on 16.”

They stopped and listened as the turntable spindle dropped another record. The needle crackled for a second, then found the groove. Sagan recognized the melody, “Alone Together.” The song was from one of the albums in front of him, Music For Lovers Only. Albums, with covers that looked like romanticized scenes from Gleason’s private bar. Exotic women lounging, two smoldering cigarettes balanced on an ash tray, martini glasses at the ready, a room key, a woman’s clutch purse and gloves casually cast aside. All of the non-verbal signals. An atmosphere of ease. The two men were sitting in the midst of Jackie Gleason Presents Music to Change Her Mind. And Music, Martinis and Memories. Talking about aliens from other worlds.

Sagan reached into the inside pocket of his corduroy sports coat, one of the ones with leather elbow patches, and took out a small notebook. “Mind?” he asked, flipping it open and pulling out a small pencil tucked inside the looped wire binding. I have to write down things, or I forget.”

“You won’t forget any of this,” Gleason said. “I’ve spent the last couple of weeks making phone calls, writing lists of people who I want contacted after I go. Make amends, tie up loose ends.” He sighed. “I’ve been an ass to a lot of people. Art Carney. You know, Art called me, after he heard. That’s real… that’s real grace. I told him… well, I told him I loved him.”

Exhale. Blue smoke drifted across the bar. Gleason crushed the remainder of the cigarette into the ash tray. “Can you believe I did that? I had to. When you get close, you do a lot of thinking about God.”

“God does exist,” Sagan assured Gleason. Sagan, an agnostic. But he understood the need. “Perhaps not as a being, that’s something we simply don’t know. But he is in all of the physical rules in this world, in this universe, in the cosmos. He is the law of physics that creates all of the insects, all of the plant life, all of the grains of sand on the beach. We know they exist, we know those laws of physics are irrefutable. Therefore, God does exist.”

Gleason smiled. “You made that argument pretty easily. I’ve got a lot of unfinished business. Got to send a note to Nixon, too. All of my books, I’m sending them to the University of Miami. This UFO business, I got Rod Serling to sit down and listen to this story a couple of years after it happened.”

“You wanted to tell this story to The Twilight Zone guy? Master of the zinger wrap-up? ‘To Serve Man… It’s a cook book!’”

“Not because of Twilight Zone. I knew him because he wrote Requiem For a Heavyweight. You’ve seen it?”

“Of course. You were excellent.”

“Yeah. I figured Serling could make this happen, he’d get it.”

“What did he do with it?”

“Nothing. He died a couple of weeks later. I sure can pick ’em, eh? I’ve had that kind of luck at the track, too. So I’ve really only told five, six people, maybe. My second wife, Barbara. She gave it to The National Enquirer.”

“I’m not a subscriber.”

“They got it wrong, anyway. Here’s what happened.”

Gleason coughed. A bad, agitated, wheezing cough. He turned the cigarette pack on end and another cigarette tumbled out. Gleason’s trembling hands lit it with a beautiful gold lighter.

“Jackie?” a woman said from a shadowy doorway. It was Marilyn, his wife. The third one.

“We’re fine.”

Marilyn slipped back into the shadows. She said nothing about the cigarettes. No one could tell Jackie Gleason what to do.

“I’m tired,” he said. “Can’t do the all-nighters. James Bacon’s already written my obituary.” Gleason took another drag from the cigarette and set it in the ash tray. “That night, after Nixon and I played golf, at around midnight I’m walking around my front yard with a thermos of Rob Roys, wondering if I should call anyone, get ’em to drop by for some cocktails, shoot some pool. And this car pulls up to the end of my driveway. Big, black Lincoln. The driver rolls down the window and motions me over. So yeah, I walk over to the car. And it’s Nixon. Alone. No Secret Service. He says, ‘Get in, Jackie.’ He’s the president, so I get in. I hand him the cup from the top of the thermos and pour him a Rob Roy, and he starts driving. Fiddles with the radio the whole way, looking for the late-night talk. The car has this huge radio in it. I mean, not something the average civilian gets with his Lincoln. Finally Nixon finds something he likes. Some guy’s talking about the Nazca Lines in Peru. We drive all night. Stop for gas twice. He’s got a bucket of fried chicken in the back seat, and we eat that, toss the bones out the windows, wipe our greasy fingers on his road map. He doesn’t talk much, at first, but after a few hours he starts to get a little more chatty. I fall asleep at one point. While I’m dozing, I keep thinking I’m hearing Henry Kissinger talking about Joey Heatherton. It might have been a dream. I wake up and Nixon’s listening to that Bob Dylan song. ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ And Nixon’s saying stuff like, ‘Dylan, he’s a Jew. So’s Neil Diamond.’ By mid-morning, we’re at Homestead Air Force Base. They wave us in. We drive deep inside. No one stops us. I’m thinking they’ve seen this car before.

“We get to this low building, really tightly guarded. We park in front and a sergeant escorts us inside. We walk past rooms set up like laboratories. We find this huge room, like a warehouse, big as a football field. It’s laid out in a grid with white numbers and letters stenciled on the floor. What looks like twisted beams and sheet metal is all laid out. Nixon takes the toe of his shoe and pushes on one of the beams. It looks solid, but kind of yields to his foot, then slowly comes back to its original shape. Some soldiers pull a big tarp off of the largest piece of wreckage. Nixon tells me it’s the main section of the ship. A space ship. I ask him, ‘Whose? From where?’ Nixon says something like, ‘Let me show you whose ship this is,’ and we go on to another room, much smaller. It’s pretty dark, with a bluish light that’s coming from the tops of these boxes, like four or five or maybe six, these things the size of big chest freezers. I look at the first one, and I can see something like a real pale-blue child suspended in there, suspended in liquid. I look closer, and I see this huge head, these big, half-closed eyes, no ears, wispy-looking limbs, and I know what I’m looking at without anyone telling me. Aliens, killed in that ship when it crashed. I look at the rest of them. Each one mangled worse than the last one, until I just have to walk away. I can’t take it anymore. I end up standing in the big room, looking at the wrecked space ship, asking some of the soldiers there where it came from. They just shake their heads, some of them tell me they don’t know, some of them tell me they can’t say. Nixon’s gone, I lost him in the room with the dead bodies. A couple of soldiers escort me out, back into the daylight.”

Gleason stopped talking. Sagan stepped into the moment of silence. “Miami Beach aliens are the greatest aliens in the world.” Another damn good catch phrase, but you had to be old enough to remember The Jackie Gleason Show to get the joke.

Gleason remembered, of course, and laughed, until the laugh broke up into another chest-grating cough. “They flew me back in a helicopter. A big military chopper. Dropped me off in my back yard.”

He coughed again, and Marilyn was at the door. “I gotta lie down now,” Gleason said, smashing his cigarette into the ash tray. “Like I said, I can’t do the all nighters anymore.”

They sat quietly for a moment, listening to “Misty,” the Erroll Garner piece. “I scored all of those strings,” Gleason said. “That’s Charlie Ventura on tenor sax.”

“Did you ever see Nixon again?”

“He disappeared for a while, when things got hot for him. But we’ve seen each other a couple of times, talked on the phone a little. He doesn’t know anything much more, like where those little fellas were really from. At least, he’s not been telling me more. I’m sure he knows the story of where we got them, and the ship. Maybe we’re working with them now. Negotiating to return the bodies, in exchange for some of their advanced technology. And then” – Gleason made a swooping motion with his hand – “away we go. But I’m sure it was Roswell. Everything fits just right. Stuff like underwater bases in the Caribbean, that’s all just conjecture on my part. But too many people know about Roswell to be wrong about that.”

“Why didn’t you write Nixon a check for $1 million, right there?”

“I left my check book at the house.”

Sagan thought perhaps that was a joke.

Gleason stood unsteadily, holding the edge of the bar for support. “And besides,” he said, “who knows more about government cover-ups than Nixon?” He smiled, that most-complicated of expressions, a sad smile. “Maybe a guy like me knows more than you’d think. When you get older, and the phone stops ringing, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands. And I’ve got a lot of resources.” Gleason pointed to the pile of records. “Take one. I’m as proud of my music as anything I’ve done. The Honeymooners, The Hustler.”

Smokey and the Bandit?” Sagan asked.

Gleason shrugged. “It looks like it’ll out-live me. Go figure.”

He signed a copy of Lonesome Echo for Sagan.

A month later, Gleason was dead. Sagan read about it in the newspaper. He thought of Gleason’s fascinating and unlikely story of aliens, with its clichéd pile of space wreckage. And Sagan moved on, deeply involved in the writing of a book condemning the spread of nuclear weapons, he was in demand for anti-nuclear protests. Exploring the universe was important, yes, but so was not having a hand in destroying a vibrant piece of it.

Yet he left the door was left ajar. Open to the strange night with Gleason. Small prompts summoned images of an ash tray filled with bent cigarette butts and Nixon fiddling with the radio dial in a dark Lincoln. It could be a movie on late-night television, Skidoo, with Gleason as a mob hitman accidentally exposed to LSD. Or an interviewer asking Sagan, “What about Roswell?” A question quickly dismissed with a bemused shake of the head. No.

Summer was nearly gone. Ten-year-old Bee Gees disco drifted through Sagan’s home while a handful of activists gathered to drink beer, toss lawn darts and discuss strategies for getting arrested without having to take a billy club to the side of the head. Sagan, looking relaxed in a beige turtleneck, was putting on a Grace Jones album when a guest pointed to Lonesome Echo, signed by Gleason. A curio partially hidden on a shelf among Ann Druyan books, star maps and back issues of High Times magazine. “I played mandolin on that record,” the elegantly graying man said. He wore a brown leather vest with a peace sign on the back, erratically but earnestly hand embroidered in white thread. “I played on a lot of his records.”

A cumbersome thumping of feet searched for unity in the dining room. Grad-student anarchists and college professors are horrible dancers.

“I met him, just before he died,” Sagan said. “He was proud of his music.”

“Well, I’m sure he loved music. But he didn’t know the first thing about it. He couldn’t read notations. He didn’t know how to conduct. The couple of times I saw him step in front of an orchestra, he just flapped his arms. It looked like one of his comedy routines.”

Sagan frowned and raised an eyebrow, as though examining a particularly vexing bit of space debris mounted on a microscope slide. Suspect story of aliens aside, Gleason’s clearly earnest interests in music and the paranormal seemed to have at least a modest degree of integrity to them. How much did Gleason have to do with the creation of his familiar theme song, “Melancholy Serenade?”

“Have some respect for the art form,” the mandolinist said. “Gleason might have had some ideas. He probably picked a lot of the songs. Maybe he whistled a tune to a real musician, who wrote it down, and Gleason put his name on it. He just put his name on all of those albums, and they sold.”

Sagan felt his face flush. Gleason, a fraud? He nodded, said he was sorry to hear that, because he’d liked Gleason in their brief meeting. He excused himself tend to the turntable. “Pull Up the Bumper” was skipping. Maybe it was time to get a CD player. But he and Ann had all of these vinyl records…

It is fall. When Ithaca is at its most beautiful, trees peaking at yellow, many reds. Sagan sat in an Adirondack chair as a breeze chased the brown leaves around his feet and across the yard. It had been a week since the anti-nuclear party, and Sagan was smoking a leftover joint expertly rolled for him by an astronomy student, and reading a newspaper story about the world’s largest private collection of books on the paranormal being delivered to the University of Miami library.

Why would Gleason, a man of such accomplishment, mislead him about his musical skills? Sagan slipped on his corduroy jacket. The one with the leather elbow patches. He reached into the inside pocket and pulled out a notebook, one he’d scribbled a few pages of notes on during his meeting with Gleason. On impulse – out of character for Sagan – he flung the notebook into the air. The pages fluttered like a quail startled from its hiding place and sailed over the fence, into the yard next door. The neighbor poodles barked in alarm, then tore at the paper. Gleason’s hoax was an aggravation, Napoleon and Kiki would avenge the deception.

There may very well be other worlds out there, Sagan thought. But technology-based civilizations are relative fireflies passing through this universe. And they destroy themselves too quickly to ever reach the point of ships passing in the night.

Fall deepened, the trees were bare. As Sagan rested in his Adirondack chair, thinking, measuring time, Ann brought him a heavy packing envelope. He tore it open. A small book, Incident at Flatwoods. Sagan had paid particular attention to it at Gleason’s house on that otherworldly night. The amateurish binding had split, but held together well enough that the book fell open naturally to a spot held by a folded piece of paper. Sagan examined it. A short note from Gleason.

I left instructions with my estate to send this to you.

Yes, the powerful always wanted to maintain control, even after they were dead and handing out the possessions they couldn’t take with them. Nevertheless, this was flattering. It seemed unlikely that Gleason had ordered any books about the lost continent of Lemuria be sent to Art Carney. Gleason wrote:

Never mind the parts where the hillbillies are blasting shotguns out the windows at shadows in the trees. It’s what’s on page 81 that matters. When Eugene senses that the aliens are describing – through telepathy? – where they’re from.

Sagan found the passage:

In just a few years, astronomers from Earth will have detected thousands of possible new worlds, and confirmed the presence of hundreds. We are of a circumbinary world circling its twin suns in a habitable zone.

Circumbinary, Sagan mused. That hillbilly was getting a hell of an education. The aliens were telling Eugene that they came from a Goldilocks planet. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.

Sagan pulled his cardigan sweater tight around his chest. He was chilled. The years had unfolded far too quickly. Bone marrow transplants were merely suspending the inevitable. God, or something, was closing in. Sagan had spent the afternoon at an Ithaca cemetery, picking out his space. How odd it was that Rod Serling was buried just down the road, in nearby Interlaken.

Contact, the film, was close to becoming reality. It looked like Jodie Foster would play Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, the SETI scientist who finds evidence of extraterrestrial life. Sagan’s book had gotten ahead of him. He would know of only nine planets, and would never see signs of life elsewhere in the universe. The skeptic in the celebrity astronomer, and the agnostic, was cautious about endorsing the journey to worlds that might never be. Yet he knew for certain we would never find such worlds without taking that first step.

Sagan stood and studied the clouds for a moment. Old astronomer habits die hard. Then he went inside the house. Travel arrangements needed to be finalized.

Miami Beach. Rest? Sagan would go on his terms. Like Gleason, and that night they sat in his basement bar, listening to Erroll Garner. Sagan delivered his message of hopeful wonder to a room full of astronomy students and middle-aged men who worshipped Star Trek, then wandered off from the hotel for a cool evening walk alongside the ocean.

Why had Gleason summoned Sagan? And then had that ridiculous book, aliens terrorizing a Kentucky family, sent to him after he died? To pass it on, perhaps? It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. What if you’re right? Don’t let the words die on a library shelf. Maybe this time, maybe next time, the right person will see it.

Sagan lit a joint and, as the narcotic kicked in, felt his brain slide into that fifth gear. Who would get Incident at Flatwoods when his time came? He considered the beach, and the grains of sand. Bob Dylan had written about those grains of sand. Sagan recognized Dylan as a fellow dreamer who understood this planet is a humdrum corner of the universe. Dylan saw the passage of time and the hand of God in every grain of sand. Sagan saw the universe, each grain of sand a star, a planet. He could never examine them all on this walk. And there were many, many more beaches. Their numbers reassured Sagan: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

A tune came to his head, and he hummed the melody, as best he could recall it. “I Wished on the Moon,” from one of Gleason’s albums. There were lyrics for it as well. Written by, of all people, the acerbic wit Dorothy Parker:

I wished on the moon for something I never knew
Wished on the moon for more than I ever knew

It was late, and he tired easily. Sagan slowly climbed the sand-dusted cement steps back up to the parking area. He reached the top, close to where a lone black Lincoln Town Car sat, idling. The tinted window on the driver’s side silently slid down, and a hand waved him over. Sagan walked up to the car and looked inside. It was an elderly Nixon, alone. “Gleason sent me,” he said. “Let’s go for a ride.”