Type-oh



Advertisements

Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”

…What?

In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.

_______

It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.

Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

Being There, Part II

In our little blue hued bubble, my consciousness surfaced and submerged like the bow of a submarine in heavy seas. Below, all was quiet, calm and where I seemed to belong. Above though, no matter what the noise and harshness, was where the action undeniably was. It was the reason we were here and only with caution did I let my mind wander just under the waves. One eye partially opening, I’d check on my boy, then the clock on my cell phone, then drift back off for a few precious minutes. Only perhaps sixty feet away, stood the bandstand and with the guest astronaut, framed by steamer trunk sized speakers on poles carrying, at three-zillion decibels, his explanations of what exactly was happening at that moment. Again, I am stunned at what one can sleep through when your tank is truly empty.

The gigantic part of my brain that loves and lives for minutia dearly wanted me to perk up and listen to his every word our resident expert had to say. He was an actual Shuttle astronaut after all, a commander even, and I’m sure what he was saying was fascinating stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I tuned out the earth shaking voice and snoozed off for another fifteen minute dive into the abyss and recharged as much as I could.

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Eyes snapping open, I grabbed by cell phone and looked at the time.

6:00 AM

Liftoff was scheduled for 6:22. Plenty of time to get Short Stack up and functional, I hoped. Unzipping the tent flap, I peered out into a still dark sky. Dawn wasn’t due until after launch time and things looked much as they did when we crawled in less than three hours ago. Except one thing: The energy.

Everywhere I looked, people whom had previously seemed to exist only as lumps under wet blankets or decorative, if not over sized picnic table centerpieces, had come to life and were milling about now. Things had definitely started to move. The hum of it was in the air and the level of chatter had risen audibly. Great things were afoot and we all knew it.

The excitement was building.

“As you might already know,” Our astronaut M.C. was still going strong with his monologue and somehow had managed to speak nearly continuously since two in the morning. “ …the Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and a new module as well. Well, it’s such a beautiful night tonight that if we’re lucky, we MIGHT just get a look at it a few minutes before liftoff. It will be rising just over the rockets in the Rocket Garden and be heading almost directly overhead and then in the direction of the launch pad.”

At my elbow, in all his angelic cuteness, Short Stack snored on. Seeing the Shuttle was a fantastic opportunity but to be able to see the ISS too? That was the proverbial cherry on the cake. I didn’t want him to miss that. It was time to do the unthinkable and wake my sleeping child.

“Hey, Buddy. Time to get up.”

As gently as I could I began to rouse him. Though notoriously hard to get to go to sleep in the evenings… every evening in fact, getting him up is another thing entirely. The kid starts as cold as any fully fledged teen could ever dream. It’s going to be impossible when he has had another ten years or so to perfect his armor of unconsciousness.

“Come on, Short Stack. It’s Shuttle time.”

His eyes pop open like blinds on a window… only to then sink fluidly back down to fully closed.

“Hey… Let’s get up. There’s something special going on here! Hup! Hup! Hup!”

A few tries more and some wounded looks from my son at the indignity of being woken up six or seven times in the span of a couple of minutes and we eventually found ourselves out side in the cool night air once again. The astro-announcer continued on with a decoding of the radio feed that was piped in from launch control and the Shuttle crew. To the right of the stage a massive TV, easily bigger than a king sized bed sheet, had been switched on to give us all the view we so badly wished we could have but was obscured by trees and distance.

“We’re looking good here, folks! So far, we are ‘Go’ for launch!” Another string of codes and system checks cracked by, meaningless to me, but quickly explained away by our resident expert… and then…

A problem.

I didn’t quite catch what it was, but there was a problem.

Somewhere, buried deep inside some obscure part of the literal tons and tons of technology that makes up the Shuttle, one of the tens of thousands of bits of science and engineering failed.

“Hold on folks. There’s an issue here.”

My heart sank. This was EXACTLY what I was afraid of. We had come all this way. We had pushed so hard. It had all been just… PERFECT, and now, now I was going to have to explain to my sleepy little boy why he wasn’t going to get to see the launch. That exact thought seemed to be traveling through everyone’s mind and all around me. No one seemed to breath, let alone, spoke. This group of space fanatics whom surrounded us stood stock still in the wet grass, eyes riveted to the jumbo-tron video feed and ears cocked to listen to a message, any message, from Launch Control.

The radio had gone spookily quiet.

What would they say?!

“This could be a potential launch delay right here.” It was our astronaut breaking in to snap the spell we had collectively been enthralled by. “They need to decide if this will halt things tonight or if they can still fly with this issue.”

A low groan rolled across the field and he immediately tried to save the enthusiasm.

“It’s not a given, though! There are sub-systems that might be able to take up the slack here. What they’re doing right now in Launch is trying to decide what to do. We could still go forward if they think it’s safe.”

I was a good attempt, but I don’t think any of us dared to believe him.

Quietly at first, we could here some unintelligible talking whispering through the loud speakers again. Somewhere, someone had queued a microphone, but hadn’t spoken yet. Far way from that mic, thousands of lips were nervously chewed and fists clenched.

I actually crossed my fingers.

Then the big voice spoke. “ Systems will be rerouted to secondary. Launch will continue as scheduled.”

The woman giving the run down on the radio at Launch, who ever she was, must have heard our collective cheer! There was only one thing that could have been louder, and that was now officially on track to happen in just a few more minutes. The relief was punctuated almost immediately by the yell from the podium.

“THERE IT IS! RIGHT THERE!”

It was our astronaut again, and in unison, our heads snapped up to scan the sky. Somehow, even with all the light pollution from the surrounding floods and displays, you couldn’t have missed it. Above us in an inky and starless sky hung a fat half moon and toward it rushed a brilliant point of white. It was the Space Station. It was right there for us all to see and with an audible gasp from the group, it passed directly in front of that beautiful, perfect half moon.

It was a magical experience. Within a minute or so, it had passed right on by and disappeared over the horizon to be chased down by our Shuttle crew. That was where they were going. They’d just have to catch it first.

“Did you see that, Buddy? Did you see that speck? That’s the Space Station! The Space Shuttle will dock with in once it gets to space!” I was having difficulty now dividing my attention between my own geeky nature and my duties as a responsible parent. I wanted to make sure that he was getting this, but I was neck deep in my own revelry.
“Dad?”

“Yah, Bud. What is it?” I smiled at him with the thrill of the moment.

“I have to pee real bad.”

Oh…. you have GOT to be kidding me!

Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

Lost to the Playground, Part II

It’s a funny thing about growing up. When we’re kids, we look forward to the birthday-mile stones when special access is granted to us and we revel in our newly acquired abilities; being allowed to use the stove or trusted to walk to a friends house all by your self; things like that. Because we are so focused on looking forward, we almost never notice what we leave behind until confronted with it. It’s especially poignant when you’re obviously too old for some shenanigans and are confronted with looks of startled bewilderment from those who are not. For me, this was one of those moments.

The playground / jungle gym / rocket park had been built with kids in mind, and not overly big kids either. Once inside, anyone over four foot six would be forced to scoot along with a hunch lest they graze their forehead on the rubberized ceiling or brain themselves, (though softly) on the padded, low doorways leading off the main thoroughfares and snaked along to other levels.

It wasn’t hard to come to the notion, “This must be what life must look like to an ant.”

Running through all this were the squealing, squeaking children, whom had been lost to the worried parents out side… plus me, and it was obvious from the startled looks I received that I was most definitely an unexpected guest. I was out of my territory, and they knew it. This was their place.

In the end, it only took perhaps three minutes of crawling and shouting before I found him.

“Hey, Short Stack!” His little red haired head whipped around, an enormous smile comically plastered across it. He immediately started pointing with both hands at a circular opening on the wall to his side.

“Dad! Come try this slide! It goes forever!”

I was already feeling rather out of my element simply by intruding on this space and though I was sincerely touched by his enthusiastic efforts to share in the fun with his Dear Old Dad, I wasn’t sure if joining in on the play equipment wasn’t kind of pushing it too far. That, and the thought that, though I am still a fairly trim individual, this place was most definitely not constructed with grow men in mind. At least I sort of hope not. Instead, I begged off.

“Ehhh… Tell you what! I’ll go to the bottom and you come down it! I’ll be there waiting for you!” I flashed my best reassuring smile.

“Okay! Go, Dad! Go!” And with the go-ahead of my boy, I dashed off back through the rubberized maze and out the same door I had entered. A few seconds later, he popped out a different hole at the base of the playground, two stories lower than where I had just seen him. He was in Heaven.

Now that I knew where he was and he knew that I was within reach, I relaxed a little more, even daring to put my shoes back on and grabbing a seat at one of the benches that ringed the scene. From my new vantage point, the people watching was simply fantastic. New batches of kids would come screaming in from the surrounding area like a swarm of crazed bees, followed briskly by heavily encumbered parents and grandparents. The kids would disappear into the throng while the adults would circle and search upwards until, eventually, one would crack, whip off their shoes and tunnel in after them. This cycle repeated its self about once every ten minutes. It made for some pretty good theater, actually and I eased into a more laid back pose now that I better understood the cycle and I started to look at the other adults who stood awkwardly on the periphery as possible chatting fodder.

I have never been accused of being reserved or bashful and much to my wife’s perennial dismay and embarrassment I happily engage perfect strangers in conversation based solely on the fact that we both are carbon based life forms. When we are out as a couple and I try this, I’ll normally get a hand squeeze or a roughly subtle-ish kick to the foot or leg to let me know that I’m entering potential spousal embarrassment territory. Tonight however, I was on my own and I’m not afraid to admit that I was somewhat reveling in the fact that I knew I could talk to strangers with abandon and that it would be a kick-free affair. At least I hoped so. I fired my opening salvo at the nice looking couple standing like all the other adults at the edges of the playground.

“Hi! How are you this evening?”

They looked to be in their sixties or so, trim and very friendly and happily for me, they turned out to be as nice as they looked. They were also not averse to talking with random people whom might have been looking for some grown-up conversation.

Yay!

They introduced themselves as Tom and Annette and as it turned out, they we residents of Florida, having retired here some years ago, as seems to be the law. They too were here with a child, their young grandson, whom they wanted to have the chance to see the Space Shuttle launch before it was all over for good. After the initial, “Where are you from?” and “How long are you here for?” sort of inquiries, we started doing what everyone else here was doing: talking rockets. And Tom, a retired engineer, had a lot to say on this topic.

“I just don’t understand why we’re stopping the Shuttle program at this point only to go back to conventional rockets. It makes no sense to me. It doesn’t seem like Constellation is a fair trade at all, but more like a step backwards” On these points I actually agreed. The last days of the Shuttle were in sight now and the notion that all this would be ending very, very soon made just about everyone here uncomfortable and they’d tell you that eagerly if you asked them. It became obvious that this would be a real ending of an era as a technological progress arc goes.

Balloons, gliders, airplanes, jets, space capsules on rockets, Space Shuttles… then, capsules and rockets again. I was afraid that he was spot on in his assessment. It just felt wrong.

Constellation was the new baby for NASA and was mandated during the George W. Bush administration. The idea had been for the U.S. to go back to the moon and see first hand what had been happening there since we last visited in 1972. It had been a long, long time since Jean Cernan had stepped back into the Lunar Lander and blasted his way back to Earth along with the other Apollo 17 crew and it had punctuated the end of not only the Apollo Program but also the cessation of mankind reaching beyond our own little blue-green planet save by robotic proxy. It was the last time any person had seen the whole of the Earth with the naked eye. No one else has been far enough away to do that since. How’s that for a thought? That we had abandoned the moon after all that effort is something that had always rather irked me, but, much to my surprise, when our return was finally announced what bugged me even more was the way we were planning to go back: The exact same way we went the first time.

Well, pretty much, anyway. We were going to use the “astronauts packed in cans and put on the tips of rockets” method. Big, pointy rockets.

Not to talk down all rockets, though!

The iconic Saturn V that had carried our Apollo astronauts to an alien world was a technological marvel of its day. It had been built of hundreds of thousands of individual machines and sub-systems systems that all had to work together without the aid of the powerful computers which we are now accustomed to. No microprocessors hidden on circuit boards buried deep in the depths of its belly. No redundant failsafe systems automatically poised to take over in the event of error. It was mechanical, not digital and it did, if not the impossible, than the very, very improbable. It was then and remains to this day, one of the most deeply amazing pieces of hardware mankind has ever built and still capable of making any engineer or technology wonk speechless in its presence. It was beyond cutting edge for 1969. The problem is, it’s not 1969 anymore and I was having a hard time swallowing the concept that after the radical leap in design brought about by the Shuttle Program, we were headed right back to rockets.

To give credit where credit is due, Constellation has some impressive technological advances over its predecessor. It would use two rockets, named Ares I and Ares V, instead of the single mighty, massive Saturn V of the 60’s and 70’s moon program. Both of those new and very different looking machines would incorporate solid fuel booster technology just like that used on the space shuttle. The Ares I, a slender and fragile looking affair would be used to put the capsule and crew into orbit, while the Ares V, many times larger, would deliver the ALTAIR, the newly updated lunar lander “bug” which would actually bring people back to the surface of our one natural satellite. The two would link up in Earth Orbit and make the journey together. Looking at this new delivery system, you could see the Shuttle’s fingerprints all over it. The Ares I is strangely bulky at the top third, making it look dangerously top heavy. The reason becomes clear if you take a moment to look at the segments, though. The wider, stubby, upper stage rocket is perched on a near duplicate of the Shuttle’s iconic, white, solid rocket booster.

The Ares V is even more startling in its appearance since it pretty much comes across like the Space Shuttle’s external tank and boosters all ready for launch, but with a nose job and without that beautiful orbiter attached. It almost looks as if they simply forgot to put the Shuttle on and then decided to just go with it and launch as-is. It’s longer, modified to accommodate engines at the base of that big, orange tank and a payload bay up top and it’s been given its own class and name but any child can see what they’ve done, and that’s what didn’t sit well with Tom, Annette and most of the rest of the people I talked with. It was as if they had looked around at what was left in the LEGO box after a fit of industrious building and playing and then, finding it mostly empty, had said, “Hey, I bet we can still make another rocket out of this!”

I know that’s unfair. It took a lot of people a long, long time to make it work. It was hard and difficult work, I’m sure and I can imagine the gargantuan cost savings by adopting previously tested and ready to manufacture aspects of the design… but it lacked innovation. It lacked style.

It lacked… “Wow!”

In truth, it’s was still a pointy rocket with astronauts packed into a sardine can and balanced on the tip, just like we had done in ’62. But to make it that much harder to swallow, it was also constructed with the disassembled parts of an icon we loved. To Shuttle lovers, of whom I was surrounded by, it was sort of a knife twist and Tom, Annette and I expounded on this with emotion and what technological expertise we could muster. It was a lively conversation which absorbed us entirely.

“Excuse me, is he yours?” A nice looking woman’s interruption broke me out of our discussion and back into the present.

“Ah, oh! Yes! Thanks!” Short Stack, just visible at the very top of the structure was kneeling down and sobbing. There goes my Dad of the Year award. It was time to mount a rescue. Once I managed to wriggle my way back in and finally to the upper levels of the hive, I discovered that the injury was more to his pride than anything else and the little kid whom he had konked heads with had long since moved on to play in other parts of the Thunder Dome. What the real issue was had more to due with lack of rest and proper food than any actual pain, but when you’re four, you’re in a strange place with strange people and you sustain a good head-butt, what you really want is….

“DAAAAAAAAAAAADDY!”

At least he still thought I was Dad of the Year even if I was mentally beating my self up for getting my eye off the ball again.

What he really wanted was for me to carry him out, but since that would have required him to cling to my belly like a possum, instead we talked our way down out of the crying before journeying our way down and out of the play area.

“Let’s get something to eat, Bud. Then we can get some rest in our tent.” This idea seemed to meet with some approval and soon we were at the food tent, looking over the choices for our dining pleasure. Now to find one of the four things that were on my son’s “edible” list…

%d bloggers like this: