In the days before we left, I had been busy in my little workshop in the basement. I fully admit that I’m a serial “Do it Your Self”-er and I had been cranking at full steam to get this particular project done in time for our trip.
Last Christmas, I had picked him up a little wooden Space Shuttle with magnetic boosters that clicked satisfyingly onto its bottom. From an aesthetic point of view, it’s quite nice and even came with a little truck you could use to pick up the boosters once they fell away after launch. From an accuracy point of view, it was totally wrong.
Guess what side Short Stack saw it from?
The first thing I was requested to correct was the obviously missing, orange, external fuel tank. I could see how that would bug him. It is, after all the largest part of the entire Shuttle Launch Vehicle. With the use of a very fat dowel, a belt sander, some screws for the magnets to stick to and some orange paint, he was in business. Then he started to notice other things.
“These boosters are very short, Daddy. Do you see how long they are in the picture? Mine are too short. Can you make me some that are longer and have a point on the top? Mine just are round, and that’s not the way they are supposed to be, see?” He held them about three inches from my face to make sure that I couldn’t possibly miss this undeniable fact. Instinctively, I pulled my head back so as to avoid any unintentional eye injuries. That, and my focal length isn’t what it used to be.
“Ah, Oh yes. I see what you mean.” Here, most normal folks might try and beg off and get the child to enjoy what they have, but I have an Achilles’ heal that gets me every time. I LOVE to build stuff… and Short Stack knows it. “Well, is that how you ask?”
“Puh.LEEEZE!?” The giant grin and toothy, “EEEEEEZE” part was all I needed. Back to the basement!
A little while later, things were looking better. The boosters were the right shape and size, the orange tank looked solid and correct and… “Daddy, look. This Shuttle is kind of flat on its nose. It should be rounded. And why doesn’t it have a vertical stabilizer?” As the son of an airplane nut, Short Stack has some vocabulary that falls outside of the normal four year old demographic, Vertical Stabilizer being a good example. What can I say? He makes me proud. He was also, again, correct. This was going to take some heavy thinking on my part.
Altering the little wooden Shuttle that he had was out of the question. It would have simply been too much to change. Nope. It was time to do my favorite thing and make it from scratch. In the end, it wasn’t as hard to make as I though and I was happily vindicated in my obsessive hoarding of every scrap of wood that I make as I work on our house. The wings are a piece of cedar shingle. The body is made from a bit of pine. The engine bump-outs and the much needed vertical stabilizer were fashioned from bits of ash and the rocket nozzles, from some old Chinese takeout chopsticks. Some grey, while and black paint, and it was ready for the finishing touches. These, I am most proud of.
As a trained artist, I have done a lot of detailed, fine work. I’ve painted carefully and skillfully at times and know what my limitations are. Replicating the miniature flags, NASA shield, escape hatch and cockpit windows… was beyond them. It was time to cheat a little.
For those of you who made plastic models as a kid, remember water slide decals? They came on a tiny sheet of paper and needed to be carefully cut out one by one. To shaky kid fingers, they were always a trial and knowing that they were also irreplaceable made it worse. After cutting them out, you needed to soak them in water for thirty seconds. What’s happening in that time is you are loosening the printed decal part from the paper backing. Once its time is up, you take them out and slide them onto the model. As a child, I remember stressing over the process and wondering why they couldn’t just make them peel and stick. The reason is, because the water slide ones look so much better! The awesome news is, you can now buy the blank paper and print your own, which is exactly what I did. With a little Google-fu, I managed to find some images of Space Shuttle decal sheets, pick the parts I needed, get it to scale for the model I made, print them out and attach them. A topcoat of spray poly over the whole thing seals them in for good and voila!
Naturally, I decided to make it Discovery.
I had finished it the day before with not a little stress. As I’ve said before, I seem to, regrettably, be at my most creative and focused when under the gun, time wise. I had presented it to Short Stack while the fumes were still detectible and he was instantly launching it into orbit from the living room couch. The Christmas Shuttle, with all its wrong glory was relegated to standby status and waits for less picky imaginations to take it on adventures. Oh well. There’s always Lulu Belle.
Now, as we arrived at our departure gate and claimed our spot, I reached into Short Stack’s backpack and pulled it out. Happily and with out a though, he established a launch site next to the huge picture windows in the departure lounge and, to the enjoyment of several onlooking adults, picked up where he left off back at home.
“10, 9, 8,… Ignition sequence start. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. LIFTOFF of the Space Shuttle Discovery! Flying into space and missions beyond!” All of this is said with gusto, focus and most of all, sincerity. With his nose almost pressed to the external tank, the Portland Airport had its first Shuttle launch, Short Stack in command.
I had another surprise for him. Something I had managed to keep to my self until now. The something special I had snuck out of his room the night before.
“Hey, Short Stack. Look what I brought.” I dug into the bag again and he dutifully scooted away from his discarded solid rocket boosters to peer over my arm in an effort to see.
“Is it a rocket?” This is his de facto question for any surprise you have.
“Nope, but you can’t have a rocket with out one.” That got his interest! With a little flourish, I pulled out a single, old school LEGO astronaut and flag and handed them to my son. These particular pieces had actually been mine when I was a kid. Now, they were his.
Short Stack smiled.
Then he looked again. “Where are the rest of them?”
What he was referring to were the red, blue, yellow and black colored astronauts which I had not collected that evening and who now remained back home on his dresser. I figured that keeping track of all of them on the trip would be a nightmare and had opted for only the white suited one since he looked the most like a real astronaut.
“I just brought him. I though that would be enough.” I have to confess, I was a little taken aback by his reaction. Here, I had brought something special, something unexpected and personally important to me and my son was simply asking for more. I tried not to overtly show my disapproval and started to formulate a mini lecture in my head about being thankful and not always wanting. Just then, I was hit with that pure, laser like kid logic that can make you completely regret whatever you’re thinking.
“But he has no friends. He’ll get lonely.”
Short Stack: +1
After taking a couple of seconds to think the worst of my self, I did my best to come up with an answer to satisfy my kind, sensitive kid whom I obviously didn’t give enough credit. Thank God they can’t hear you think.
“No he won’t, Buddy! He’ll be with us… We’ll be his friends.”
In a moment of guilt fueled inspiration, I decided to make the little LEGO man fully a part of our mission. To do that though, he needed to be more than just “LEGO guy.” He needed a name.
“Let’s call him… Neil.”
Short Stack’s nose crinkled up, squashing many of his abundant freckles in the process as a bemused smile spread across his face. “Neil? That’s a funny name!”
“Not really.” I assured, “Lots of people are named Neil. And one Neil is a very famous Neil. Do you know why?” A shake of my son’s head gave me the chance to play up the drama of the moment. “He… was the first astronaut to walk on the moon!”
That was all it took. Short Stack immediately picked him up and started telling me the adventures that Neil was off to. In no time at all, he had Neil walking on the moon again, riding on rockets and floating in space. Neil and he were inseparable and the little LEGO man was once again finding himself the central figure in the playful imaginings of a child.
For Neil, unnamed until now, it had been a long wait.
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