Rocket Garden, Part II

The amazing thing about situations like the one the two of us found our selves in, being with a large crown of like minded individuals intent on a common goal and all sharing a common interest, is that the air practically crackles with joy and exuberance. Everyone is happy as a clam to be there and just feels lucky to have had the chance to attend, and in fact, they were. Each and every person who I was now looking at busily milling about and reading the various informative plaques and laughing as their picture was taken, arms locked over their neighbor’s shoulders, grins plastered a half mile wide on their faces, all of them had been vying for their own golden ticket in that computerized virtual waiting room, hoping against hope that they would be picked next so that they could race through the reservation process and get to be here right now. We were all thrilled at the prospect of spending the entire night in the out of doors, feeding the Florida mosquitoes and gazing in awe at the constructions of, now forty or more years obsolete.

“Dad! Look at them!” Short Stack was riveted to the spot as he watched two young boys leap gleefully into a mock up of the two man Gemini capsule.

….This was seriously noteworthy for him. Long before we had even gotten anywhere near the airport in Maine, he had asked me about the possibility of getting to climb into a real capsule. At the time, I was seriously dubious about this possibility and said so.

“Boy, Buddy. I don’t think that they let people just hop into the old space capsules.”

“Why?”

Always with the ‘why’.

“Well, because they are really important. They’re something very special to a lot of people and they want to make sure that nothing happens to them.”

He had looked shocked. “ I wouldn’t break it! I’d be REALLY careful!” And to be fair, I honestly believed him on this point and I had told him so. I think he’d rather brush his teeth with a Brillo Pad than damage something that had to do with space.

“The problem is, that not everyone is as careful as they should be. And even then, accidents do happen. So, I think we’re just going to get the chance to see some capsules, but not get into them.”

It made sense to me. When was the last time they let you try on the Queen’s crown jewels or sit in the Spirit of St. Louis? And yet I, in my dopy literal way, hadn’t even considered the possibility of capsule mockups for the kids. Even the big kids! I was wrong and there was little chance that I would be allowed to forget that any time in the near future. Short Stack ran for the display as if fired from an enthusiasm gun, stopping just at the base of the stairs to wait for his turn and then scooted up to the opening. Though the capsule was designed for two, my happy little astronaut was solo.

“Dad?” He was incredulously studying the control panel which was nothing more than a giant sticker vaguely resembling what might pass as space capsule controls.

“Yah, I know.” I was anticipating his line of questioning at the lack of authenticity he had sadly discovered. I was trying to work out how to lessen the let down.

“Oh! I bet it’s so people don’t break things. Right?” He seemed to quickly brighten with his logical explanation and was visibly proud at what he considered a mystery that he had solved all by himself. You could practically see the lightbulb switch on over his head.

I smiled and told him that he had it figured out, “Exactly!”

His spirits buoyed, we continued on through the grounds to see what else awaited us. The crowd was still filing in through the entry gates and would be for the next several hours. Right now, the groups of Shuttle watchers were pretty thin on the ground. It felt like a private party and to some degree, it was.

The paths that wound around the grounds like open water through a swamp brought Short Stack face to face with items after item of his adoration. Pulling him away, even for a moment, was going to be difficult. Even though we still had something in the order of five hours to wait before any action on the launch pad began, I was getting worried about finding a good spot to watch from and every minute more and more people were flowing in.

“Woah! Look at THAT!” For once, it wasn’t a rocket that had caught his attention. It was something far more universal for kids his age. Off in the not too far distance, plumes of water blasted out of the ground at regular intervals, lit from unseen sourced in lurid greens, blues and reds and it immediately mesmerized him.

“A fountain?!? What’s that doing here?”

We’ve seen fountains before, naturally, though most are not run-throughable like the one he was standing transfixed before just now. No pool of water surrounded it nor was there any impediment at all. Just the bare expanse unfenced of concrete with hidden, subcutaneous nozzles blasting skyward and beckoning him with an open invitation to soak himself extensively and dramatically in a half second of unsupervised glee. It was this moment that my Dad Radar started to chirp madly. Not because of the water hazard, but rather due to the subtle but definite change on the wiggling that my son was doing. Like most four year olds, he is constantly in motion, even when sleeping. I’m convinced that children his age are made up of roughly seventy to seventy-five percent raw, nuclear core-with-the-rods-pulled energy. The trick is not in containing this power, but rather understanding and harnessing it. To do that, you have to be able to read it like a rafter reads the ripples on a river. With enough practice, you get to be a master at telling the, “I have ants in my pants and need to play” wiggle from the, “I have thirteen seconds before I have to explosively pee” wiggle.

As I looked down at my son gazing into the multitude of squirting, gurgling, rushing jets of joyful water launching into the air and then spatter back to the ground in big wet droplets the size of quarters, I understood that I had little time left indeed, before his own personal dam broke and I’d have to spring into full blown damage control mode.

“Hey! Let’s go find a bathroom, Pal!”

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. “Yah! Let’s go do that!”

When a four year old admits that they have to go pee, it means that the countdown is easily into the single digits. Time to run!

I briefly entertained the notion of watering one of our countries national space monuments, or at least the flowers that had been planted around them but… no, I quickly decided that it probably wasn’t a great lesson to impart to my son unless I wanted to look forward to having progeny who would later be picked up and booked on a public urination offence. That, and I was pretty sure we’d get caught this time too. For expediency’s sake, I pressed our weighted down stroller into service once again, tossed him into it and flew through the crowds toward the first building I could find that advertised relief for all. I was starting to understand more and more about what exactly my duties were going to consist of on this adventure and Chief Bathroom Scout and Enforcer seemed likely to rank high on the list. Minutes later, refreshed and happy, we were back outside in the late night air, heading for the launch viewing lawn. By now, it was pushing one thirty in the morning and things were starting to fill up. We needed to set up camp before all the good spots were taken.

The grass was thick, course and wet by now, heavy with the evening dampness that had settled on plant and slow moving person alike and once again I was relieved that my wife had insisted on some warm weather clothes in addition to the Hawaiian shirts and shorts that I had selected. Short Stack seemed to utterly miss the point of trying to stay on the paths and within seconds his feet were soaked. He didn’t seem to mind.

All around us, people had set chairs, coolers, blankets or simply sat on the grass, their patch claimed by the dispersal of their backpack’s contents. My gaze zipped around until I saw what I had hoped I would.

Tents!

On the slight hill that marked the boundary of the viewing area sat two, large dome tents. Each was easily big enough for three or four people and what it meant was that our little low profile, one man job was going to be a-okay. If the NASA police hadn’t said “no” to them, then there was no way that they could say boo about our set up. Happily, I found what I guessed would be a nice place to make camp and pulled it out of its stuff sack, ready to assemble.

When, a few weeks ago, I had tested this thing out in the front yard, I had been concerned about one aspect of its design. In the same way some animals have retained odd and now outdated bits of their evolutionary past, this tent actually required the use of guy wires to hold its shape. My worry had been that I, personally had been a victim of nighttime guy wire trips and the idea of essentially setting up a booby trap in the middle of several hundred people, all of whom would be looking up, seemed like a scary proposition. When it came time to actually use the tent now, I found that I had inadvertently solved this problem by cunningly forgetting the tent pegs back in the car.

Peeeeerfect. Okay. Time to improvise.

“Is that how it goes together, Dad?”

I don’t know if it was the fact that the tent hung down alarmingly in the middle like the sway in an ageing horse’s back that had caused Short Stack to doubt my abilities or perhaps it was that I had secured the far end to our stroller, the only object I could find to use as an anchor. It wasn’t elegant, actually, it looked pretty poor, I had to admit, but it was standing in its own sort of way. I doubt it would have earned me a merit badge, but providing someone didn’t trip over it, the wind didn’t pick up and the mosquitoes weren’t overly persistent and/or fat, I looked like it just might do the trick for our one night under the stars. With our home secured, I happily unburdened myself of extraneous equipment and popped it into the tent.

“That’s it, Short Stack. Our tent is all ready for us later on.”

“But dad, there’s one thing we didn’t check.”

I perked up. He’s a sharp cookie and I try to pay attention when he points out items of interest. More often than not, he’s usually right.

“What did I forget, Buddy?”

A big smile broke across his face.

“I think I should test it out and make sure it’s okay on the inside too!”

So, in the spirit of teamwork, thoroughness and letting my kid be a kid, I stripped off his sodden footwear and tossed him in.

“How does it fit? Do you think it will do the trick?” I squatted in front of the entrance and tried to see into the dark nylon cave. A freckled, smiling face beamed back at me from out of the semi-darkened cave.

“It’s awesome!”

Sensing that there was a real possibility of loosing a lot of time to zipping around in this little synthetic cocoon, I lured him back out with the one thing I knew would work for sure.

“Hey, I think I see a playground!”

“WHERE?!?”

He popped his head out like a prairie dog looking over the plains.

“Right over there. Just behind the food tents. See?”

The allure of a playground, better than that, a NEW and unknown playground rivals the pull of the largest super massive black holes when it comes to children and this one, as we could now see, was one not to be missed. Covered by a dome like canopy, we could just make out the shapes of ladders, slides, stairs and rockets. A rocket themed playground. That sure wasn’t here when I last visited. My parent’s would never have gotten me out of it again.

“Can we go play on it?!” Now?

“Yah, but let me.. Ack! Hang on! You need your… Woah! Almost… One more… Ouch!” Somehow, I had managed to get his shoes back on him as he pretty much ran for the attraction. I only stopped briefly to zip the tent shut and lock it with a mini-padlock I keep on my bag. A silly step perhaps, but it made things feel a bit more secure. When I turned around, he was nowhere to be seen. My heart stopped. At least I knew where to look, and I ran toward the play area, alive with kids clambering over its structure like ants.

My heart beating faster than comfortable now, I scanned the venue. How to find my own little ant?

The Rocket Garden

Up until this point, Short Stack had been doing a stellar job holding it together. He had endured a long and confining trip to Orlando, a late and greasy dinner, a foolishly short night’s sleep and now a line and two more security checks before entry to Nirvana was permitted and by now, his edges were starting to fray.

“Let’s GOOOOO, dad!” His little body was rocking impatiently in the stroller. He had just about had it and I had a hard time blaming him. It was, after all, five hours past his bedtime. I quickly zipped up my bag after the last security guard had checked through things, ensuring that I hadn’t tried to smuggle in anything on the extensive, “No, no” list such as explosives or a broken digital camera (both listed) and I quickly zoomed us out of the crush of people getting ready for a long night’s wait.

“We’re in, Buddy!” I could hear a very tiny, exasperated sigh emanate from beneath the stroller’s canopy. I couldn’t see him under all the gear I had balanced on top of the unfolded sun cover, but I could easily picture the eye roll that stood in for an audible, “It’s about time!” At four, he didn’t understand the point in all the hooha that had to be taken care of in order to get where we were and to explain it now was really not a worthwhile endeavor. Normally, I don’t let any form of parental disrespect pass without a quick correction, but tonight, with the extenuating circumstances, I felt that I could let this one slide. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fried myself.

We wheeled around a corner, out a door and back into the cool night air, but this time, we were in. Shops, shows, café’s and displays surrounded us, all driving one message home.

Outer Space. REAL outer space!

A massive mockup of the new Orion Space capsule stood in the middle of the courtyard and the lit up front window of the gift shop, already filled with midnight shoppers beckoned to us, but I had a plan. Something that I wanted Short Stack to see. Something that would totally make up for the long trip and wait.

The Rocket Garden.

Some people plant flowers, some plant vegetables. The Kennedy Space Center, plants rockets.

Well, perhaps they don’t plant them, but they do display them and they do it with style.

Nearly a lifetime ago, my parents had taken me to this very place and though my memory is more than a little fuzzy on the details, I do remember being here. Back then, there was no Space Shuttle and the whole notion of going to space was one of only passing interest to me. The moon landings were long over and Skylab, though a technical marvel, was pretty uninteresting to your average kid. When America launched a rocket, it barely made the evening news anymore and of the Space Program’s history, I knew precious little. When, on a federally mandated family Disney trip, my parents took me to the Space Center I had walked out onto a grassy lawn behind some buildings and looked up at these very rockets. Back then, the display of these history shaping machines had seemed nearly an afterthought. Almost like they had needed a place to stick them and thought that the back yard would do for now. They were in no particular order and seemed to be randomly scattered across an otherwise unremarkable expanse of course green turf, a small plaque at the base of each giving the only indication that these were impressive engines of change and deserved note. At the time, I recall my highest priority being getting back into the air conditioned display building.

Fast forward thirty plus years and things have changed.

Shops and cinemas that hadn’t existed at all during my last visit lit our way with their glowing display windows. The excitement of arrival finally wearing off, my little boy had become perilously quiet and limp in his little wheeled seat. Exhaustion was taking over and soon, I was convinced, he would either fall asleep or melt down. Possibly both. I saw my objective ahead and piloting him over a small bridge, stopped just inside the open area that is the Kennedy Space Center’s rocket garden.

“Hey. Short Stack. What do you think of THAT?”

Silence. Oh man. Was he asleep? Did he even care at this point?

I heard the seat canvas creak as his body shifted in the effort to take in the view. Before us was not the grubby little grass patch of my youthful memory but a carefully sculpted display of plants, walkways, fountains, rocket engines and the massive sentinels of our country’s space program, standing like proud giants, all lit dramatically from below against a pitch black night sky.

The stroller seat creaked again. Short Stack emerged slowly and stood, his back to me and remained that way for one of those moments that could have been only seconds long but seemed to be forever. He raised a finger on an outstretched arm.

“That’s… That’s a Redstone Rocket! Look! It’s got a Mercury capsule on it! And that one!” His other arm swung out quickly making him look like a signpost to the stars. “That’s an Atlas! Look over there! That big one is… ahh, a Gemini Titan! Hey, I don’t know what that one is. What’s that one, Dad?” I had no idea and said so.

He stood there agog as he soaked it all in.

“Lets go see!” and with that, ran full tilt directly into the melee, pursued hotly by his empty stroller and father.

Arrival. Part IV

I sifted through the pile of debris in the trunk that was our baggage and I managed to produce a good set of clothes for my boy, our one man tent, the stroller and all other provisions for the adventure at hand. Casting sideways looks at our soon to be Shuttle watching contemporaries, I could see the same ballet being undertaken at hundreds of cars around us. Careful unpacking, sleepy children in strollers waiting as patently as they could or simply sleeping through the entire process and adults looking somewhere between excited and exhausted.

“Is it going to launch soon?” Short Stack was craning his head around at the quickly filling parking lot and taking the odd, weary glance skyward lest he miss the whole show that we had traveled so far to see.

“NO!” I laughed a little bit when I considered the next six and a half hours that we needed to get through before things started, then realized that “soon” was all relative and that I probably ought to elaborate if I was to avoid potentially crushing some heavily stoked hopes. “Well… yes.” I stopped unpacking for a second so we could face each other. “It’s going to launch today, but it’s going to be many hours until that time. The astronauts are probably still getting ready for their mission. The Shuttle too! They need to finish filling up the external fuel tank, check all the systems and make sure everything is safe and ready to go. It takes a lot of people a lot of time and hard work to make a Shuttle launch happen.”

“Why?”

It’s amazing how a four year old can reduce the world to one question.

“Why, what?”

“Why does it take so many people so long?”

This was one of those parenting moments where what you want to say is, “Because” and let it go at that. Being right in the middle of our preparations for the night, the last thing I wanted was to have my attention divided and allow for the line at the door to grow ever longer in our absence or worse, give my brain the slight hiccup it requires that would allow it to forget some crucial part of our cargo such as the tent, the tickets or my name and address. Sadly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t seem to take much. I’ve also learned, however that pat answers do not work with my son and that he WILL call you on them.

“Well… Because the Space Shuttle is a very complicated piece of equipment. There are thousands and thousands of little parts that have to work exactly right just when they are supposed to and they all need to work together. People called engineers check every single last part of the Shuttle, its boosters, the launch tower and everything to make sure it’s all in perfect order.”

Without a pause, he asked the question I had just unwittingly opened my self up to.

“What happens if it doesn’t all work just right?”

That was a question I didn’t really want to get too close to, first because it could mean that we came all the way to Florida only to have the mission canceled but secondly, because it brought up a darker issue.

What I said was, “Then they delay the launch, fix the problem and try again later.” But what I thought was, “Challenger…” and the unexpected eruption of that memory right in the middle of all this fun and excitement caught me as off guard as being hit by a car in the middle of the dessert. In my mind, all I could see right then was grill and headlights.

Tonight, we had come to watch OV-104 “Discovery” lift off and from this time forward, to my son, it was likely to always remain “his” Shuttle. It would be the one that he saw fly with his own eyes. It would mean the most to him for the rest of his life. He’d have that connection. Long, long ago, I was a young boy too wrapped in the awe of the Shuttle program and I had also picked my own Shuttle. The one that, for my own reasons, I had considered “mine” was Challenger. I swallowed hard as the memory of that long forgotten fact flooded back through unseen doorways, unbidden.

Prior to the Challenger disaster of 1986, NASA had had a hugely successful run with their Shuttle fleet of two. Columbia had been the first, fully functional Space Shuttle or OV (Orbital Vehicle) and was designated OV-102, being constructed after OV-101 Enterprise, which had been outfitted only as a test bed aircraft without engines or heat shield and was intended to determine if this 230,000 pound glider could actually do what the engineers and designers had said it could. It was a radical departure in design and theory for the space agency and chocked full of unknowns and previously untried ideas.

Like any technological breakthrough, it was crammed with “firsts”, and as we all know, firsts are risky things. It was the first reusable space vehicle. It was the first to be flown with a real crew for its maiden voyage. It was the first to be covered in the now famous heat resistant tiles. It had a giant robot arm and that monstrously cavernous cargo bay. It was the first time that astronauts looked directly ahead at where they are going when the countdown reached zero. Engineers love the idea of firsts but when it comes time to try them out, they get understandably jumpy. America’s rocket scientists had just spent better than the last twenty years perfecting the art of balancing human beings on the tips of progressively larger and larger rockets and bring those humans back in one piece, and to be fair, they had gotten very, very good at it. For NASA, now to adopt the Shuttle program was the equivalent of taking the playbook, throwing it away and tossing the lot of them back into uncharted waters. Lots of people even within the Space Program were highly skeptical that this was a good path to take.

It was different.

Many of then feared it.

Kids loved it.

I know I did!

It was our ROCKET PLANE and it fascinated and thrilled us.

Now, as I stood at the handles of our red umbrella stroller, my own little astronaut in training sitting happily in its canvas seat, that long faded enthusiasm was coming back to life. As color rushed back into old dreams, I was re-experiencing the excitement, but with the knowledge of some of the costs that were paid along the way, I felt the sadness too. Short Stack knew nothing of these costs and my stomach knotted up a bit as I tried to figure out when he should find out. This was, after all, his dream vacation and he is only four. Who am I to bring up such a hard and unmoving fact?

The answer is simple enough. I’m his father. And so, I feel that it does indeed fall to me… But not just now. Though I have sworn to myself never to tell him an untruth, that does not mean that I am obligated to speak it all. Especially right now.

“Are we ready to go NOW, Dad?”

I hooked into that impatient enthusiasm and tilted the stroller back on its rear wheels and smiled down at his upside down face. “Alright Buddy! I think we’ve got everything.” I locked the car and joined the happy hoards as we rolled toward the gate, the crowd funneling to a pinch point as the doors to the main entrance opened wide. Following a refreshingly short wait in a quickly moving line, I fumbled for our ticket and had the chance to hand them over to the less than enthusiastic woman at the turn stile.

“Tickets…” A robot like hand from a tired looking woman was extended toward me and, in true “like me” fashion, I managed to drop both of them at my feet. Apologizing, I stooped to retrieve them only to find on my return to the vertical that she hadn’t moved an inch and was still staring blankly ahead, hand still extended. She could have been a mannequin.

“Sorry! Here they are.” I handed them over.

“Go through here,” She motioned mechanically to a stile-less opening intended for wheelchairs and stroller pushing parents “and wait at the metal detectors.”

We’re going to see the SPACE SHUTTLE!”

The announcement had, naturally, come from my son and to my surprise, our security robot looked down, donned a weak but sincere smiled and no doubt for the six-hundredth time that evening replied, “Well, you’re in the right place for it. Have fun.” And with that bit of encouragement, we headed on to checkpoint two and three.

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