Type-oh



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.

Halloween Story Break…

There was a time not so very, very long ago that I wasn’t sure.

Oh, I suspected! That was, after all, easy to do. How could a child not? Though we live in what we believe to be an age of reason and technology, the less than subtle hints from popular culture, invade our lives from every turn.

Ghosts.

Haunts,

Those whom should be gone…

…but are not.

Growing up, I was a pretty jumpy child. Skulls in particular scared the Hell out of me. There was something in those black, empty eyes and the malicious grin that made me want to scamper straight up a tree. I can remember a book I had of popular ghost stories which unsettlingly had a large, white and slightly befanged skull on its front and though I was drawn to reading the “true accounts” that were written in its pages, the cover so unsettled me that I kept it under, rather than in my bookshelf. Like most young people, I was deeply curious about the notion of ghosts, but had to hang on to my skepticism in an effort to also hand on to my cool and well as some impartiality. I had been taught by my parents not to simply swallow what was handed to me, but to think about and experience things for my self. To make up my own mind rather than have it made up for me.

Good advice.

The problem with all things spooky though, is that it’s a very nebulous thing. What can very much unsettle one person might not even appear on the radar of another. Take graveyards. Personally, I love them and find them quiet and contemplative places. I have long said that my dream job would be Cemetery Keeper, and I whole-heartedly stick by it. No, cemeteries don’t bother me. At least, most don’t.

When I had gone away to college, I didn’t know my own thoughts on ghosts. I had been scared before, but never seen anything. There were places that I didn’t like for no good reason, but there was nothing conclusive in that. I had had some bad experiences which I could not adequately explain, but haven’t we all? I was neutral. I neither scoffed, nor bought in.

Then I moved into room 201.

My school was a small liberal arts college located in the old mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire. In the valley, a strong river flows and here, at one time, the largest textile mills the world has ever seen ran nonstop, their productive noise ringing through the city. It was an icon of the industrial revolution and on the hilltops, high above the clamor, were the houses of the mill owners and managers. My freshman year dormitory was located in one such house.

Long since converted to student living, it had once been a very nice, three storey Victorian and my own room was located in what was called, the “Florida Porch.” Essentially, a south facing room with large windows to let in as much light as possible, a welcome place in any house, it would have been especially refreshing back in the days predating electric light. It was here, that my roommate and I lived for several months and it was here, where my opinion about the supernatural was solidified. There was no other opinion to take.

Mike, my roommate, was set heavily in the “No” camp when it came to ghosts. To him, the idea was foolishness and when stories would come up among the group of us in the dorm, he could be counted on to scoff, point an incredulous finger and laugh. He didn’t buy it. It was all foolishness. I disagreed.

Over the course of my year in this old, creaky house-come-student housing, I had had my own experiences, which had become progressively stranger and more overt. Things that defied easy explanation or even, the more complex. Some were simple if not baffling. The light switch which would turn its self off. Not merely the light, mind you, but the actual switch. “Click!” You could hear it snap down and you were left in the dark room to fumble across it in the effort of getting it back on. Or my bed, which, all joking of nocturnal dalliances aside, had a tendency to shake, sometimes violently and for minutes at a time with me, bug eyed, in it. Oddly enough, other than to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it never really freaked me out. There was nothing to see after all. Nothing to hear. It was more odd than frightening and besides, living with a bunch of other young guys, the practical jokes flew fast and thick and you had to be on your guard. It was however… curious.

Late in the year, long after the initial newness of school and uneasiness of fresh friendships had faded into routine, Mike and I had settled into our own. Though roommates, we were not friends and though not adversaries either, we simply didn’t click. The room was ours though and we got along well enough to live amicably and eventually, settled on a layout that included bunk beds to maximize space: he on top, I on the bottom. Oddly enough, for what ever reason, this arrangement stopped the bed shaking I had previously lived with on a nearly nightly basis.

It was late. Very late actually, and the house was quiet. The actual time I can’t recall but in the small hours, advanced enough that even unsupervised eighteen year olds had turned in. I was asleep and deeply so.

Then… I wasn’t.

It was an odd sort of awakening. I wasn’t startled. I wasn’t groggy. I was simply… awake. My eyes opened and I there I was, in bed. If anything, I was confused. Then, my eyes shifted to the open wall opposite our end of the room. Though covered with the normal layers of posters and whatnot that you find in college rooms, what I noticed, noticed right away in fact, was the shadow.

It wasn’t human. It wasn’t animal. It didn’t seem to have any real shape at all. What it was doing though, was moving… and changing.

All across the wall, an amoeba like thing seemed to flow, parting into pieces, only to rejoin again. A rolling sort of blob moving almost aimlessly, but still, looking a bit like it was hunting for something. Reaching out to feel every nook and edge of the room. It was not a shadow cast from leaves out side. They had long since fallen. It was not from the streetlight across the way. That had been blocked by a pulled shade. If the shadow I saw was cast by something, it was something that broke apart, moved in pieces and reformed like oil on a hot skillet. I watched transfixed, silent, and scared.

Honestly scared.

Then I heard a voice, thin and from above me. It belonged to Mike.

“Do… you see…?”

I clipped in quickly before he could name it.

“No, Mike. Go to sleep.”

Nothing more was said.

Some how, at some point, we both did just that. I don’t know when.

The next morning, as was our normal way, the two of us roused, dressed, completed our bathroom ablutions and walked wordlessly across the road to the cafeteria for breakfast. Neither of us were morning people and preferred not to speak until coffee was had in hand. There we sat, facing each other over scrambled eggs in the light of the morning sun and our eyes met.

Mike arched his eyebrows.

“I had the strangest… dream.”

The hair on my arms prickled. “No…” I bit my lip in remembering it. “I don’t think so.”

His eyes widened with the understanding and I knew that he would not be laughing at the stories we recounted late at night any more.

“That happened, didn’t it?”

“Yah. It did.”

Over breakfast we compared experiences and they were pretty much identical. He had woken in the exact same way and somehow had managed to speak to me, assuming that I would be watching the form on the wall as well. He couldn’t have known I was watching too. Being in bunk beds after all, he couldn’t see me. He said that he just assumed I was awake as well. We tried to figure it out, what could cast such a shape, and come up with nothing. There was no explanation that passed muster that we could find. It was simply there and was unnerving as Hell.

In the end, it wasn’t the skull or the hand or the cloaked shape fear of my childhood imagination that had convinced me, but something shapeless and hunting. Something, which seemed to pay little heed to us but moved with its own concerns, its own destination in mind. It moved. We saw it. My mind has been made up since that day, and Mike’s was changed 180 degrees.

Though we were fine after that night and never saw it again, it also solidified two things in my mind. First: There is something out there which we do not understand and to be in its presence is one of the most deeply unsettling things a person can do. Second: Ghost hunters, people who actively seek out the supernatural, are fools who have yet to experience this. Once they do, if they do, they will not look for it again.

At least, if they have any common sense at all.

Happy Halloween!

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!

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…

Arrival, Part III

The tricky bit about going to some place like the Kennedy Space Center, is that they rarely if ever have a street number. Heck, if they’re big enough, they often are on their own special street purpose built just for them and these places pretty much universally are without signage. It would be like saying, “What’s the Pentagon’s address?” I’m willing to guess that if you wrote, “The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia” on an envelope and put it in the mail, not only would your letter there with no issues but you’d also get your very own little file with your own name on it in the very same building. It’s huge. Far larger than any puny little street sign or set of brass plated number that they might put out front. The thinking goes that if you can’t seem to take notice of the massive complex to your left, than a small green sign on a post isn’t going to help you either, and this I believe, it true. The trouble comes when you inject a computer into the equation. They want specifics.

If the Space Center has a driveway address, then I couldn’t find it.

What I had settled for was punching in “Titusville, Florida” into the screen and then selecting the button marked, “City Center.” My hope was that with NASA being kind of a big deal with the locals that once there, I could revert to my eyes and brain method of navigation, hopefully without a hilarious-in–retrospect sort of outcome. My worry now was just where in Titusville was the city center versus the place we needed to be. I continued to watch the GPS and follow its direction, but I began to talk back it with the same strange hope that inhabits the minds of sports fans as they watch the game on their TV. Maybe, if I tried hard enough, I could get it to listen to my concerns.

“Turn left onto Route 95 North”

“Really? Are you sure about that? The road sign says that I should keep going strait.”

“Exit right in one hundred yards.”

“I don’t know Erma. (I had named the female voice in the little black box Erma since I felt that I needed something to call her) I think you might be wrong on this one.”

“Exit in fifty yards.”

“I don’t know…”

“Turn now onto Route 95.”

One last thought of independence went flitting through my head like a moth as the exit opened wide to my right, leading to its own dark and unknown path. It was decision time. Who’s smarter: Erma or me?

The triangle of grass delineating the end of the exit ramp came rushing on at highway speed.

“Gah! Alright! Fine!”

A heavier than normal deceleration and swerve quickly followed.

“Who are you talking to Daddy?”

“Ummm. The GPS.”

Then a pause from the back seat. “Can it hear you?”

I shifted a little in my seat.

“Eh, no. Not actually.”

“Then why…”

“Hey Buddy! Look… um… There are some…” I groped for a distraction worthy point of interest in our dark surroundings. Anything to save face for being caught acting like a nimrod by arguing with an inanimate object. “That sign says that we’re almost there!”

And to make matters even better, it was the truth.

As I gazed at the signs telling me that I was indeed approaching the Space Coast, my confidence in Erma renewed and I once again realized that betting against myself was almost always the safe money. In this case I was happy to be wrong. After pulling off the highway and into the more populated areas, signs came with more and more frequency and eventually I was able to thank Erma for all her help before yanking the plug and unceremoniously stuffing her under the driver’s seat. To my right, behind some trees and an embankment, massive shapes suddenly loomed up against the darkness, pointing rigidly as if to indicate there intended destination. They were rockets. Real rockets.

“Hey Short Stack. Look over there. What do you think those are?”

Spotting things that I point out as we drive along is not his strong suit and I looked in the rearview mirror to see if he was awake enough to take direction.

“What? Were? Where are you point…” Silence. Then. “ROCKETS! Those are ROCKETS!” Any of the remaining brain fuzz affecting his performance was burned out of his cranial clockwork with the fire of a freshly lit J-2 hydrogen engine. I heard the seat belts strain against his body as he strained forward in his chair.

“DADDY! Those are ROCKETS! Right THERE! Can we go see them?!?!”

“You bet, Buddy!” The blast wave of pure joy and excitement that erupted from the back seat ripped through the fatigue that had started to pull me down and there was no way I could not join in with my son. I laughed out loud, sharing in the experience of a passion that was to be imminently fulfilled. That jolt was more than sufficient to have us back up at full power and ready for anything.

Pulling into the drive that lead to the vast parking lots, I reached down and jammed the special parking placard that had come with our tickets for the launch. We were waved into our directed parking area and I looked around to get my bearings. I’d need to find this car again in about six or seven hours but things would look substantially different by then. I gazed up at the massive lot identification pole marked that we were only a few rows away from.

As I scanned across the giant plateau of paved and neatly lined parking lots, I spotted another pole not too far away emblazoned with a Number five and the name Wally Schirra below. Number three, in the distance, was too far away to read, but I bet I knew what it was. Each lot, it seemed, was named for one of the original Mercury astronauts and emboldened with knowledge of these men via a recent viewing of the movie, The Right Stuff, I was tempted to point this out to Short Stack.

But he was four and it was midnight. Once again I felt a bit like the bad parent for dragging my very little boy out at such a ridiculous hour. The fact that he was still dressed in his jammies and had remained barefoot didn’t help ease my mind either. Then I spotted the car next to us and the young couple who had just arrived seconds after we had. They were here to enjoy the launch and so were both their small children, one of whom couldn’t have been possibly more than two. It was then that I realized we were in good company and it was time to get ready.

Hotel Guests From Home

Where we were driving was not my originally intended destination. Three weeks before, we had booked all our nights at the Jamison Inn at Palm Bay, but now we had someplace much closer to go. I always sort of dread making reservations for a hotel I know nothing about because you just never quite know what you’re in for. Will it be a fleabag motel? Are you destined to spend the night next to the ice machine or a roaring party? Is it really a new and clean as the pictures make it or has it been worn out by two decades worth of weary travelers and revilers and in bad need of a serious gutting?

Thanks to the Internet, we could at least see what other people had to say about their experiences at one place or another. It’s still kind of tricky because peoples’ perceptions are so radically different. Still, no one likes rude staff, closed pools or extra, unexpected room guests in the form of bed bugs. The Jamison had looked clean, the staff well liked and it was reasonably priced…with a pool! The one problem that I had come up against was that it was far away from our destination. About an hour or so, actually.

With the Shuttle’s carrier coming to a swift end, people had once again raised their heads and taken notice of the program and there was urgency now for those who cared to see it but hadn’t mustered the initiative to actually do something about it yet. If you wanted to see a launch, you’d better move fast. And people had. In the process, we last-minuters had bought up every viewing ticket and booked just about every room within reasonable driving distance. This put Short Stack and I at Palm Bay. “An hour in the car isn’t so bad” I had rationalized… but had forgotten about that first day. It would mean an hour drive down to the South East, checking in, sleeping for a couple fitful hours and then driving for an hour to the North East, completing a huge, two hour “V” by the time we finally made it to the Space Center.

While talking about this with my wife two nights before I left with our son, she made the point that we didn’t actually have to spend the whole time at the Jamison.

“Why don’t you book some place in Orlando for the first night?”

“Because… well… it’s Orlando. It’ll cost an absurd amount of money and so will everything else.”

I have a hard time with Orlando.

Being a home for Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios, the Orange County Convention Center and roughly twenty three thousand restaurants and hotels, the place is built with one goal in mind. Money. Specifically, YOUR Money.

I have never, in all my travels, seen a place that is more geared to sucking your wallet dry then Orlando, Florida. Everything costs and it costs in astonishingly large amounts. If they could charge for the air, I have no doubt that they would. I have traveled more inexpensively through Switzerland than through here and I wanted to avoid it as much as possible. I always dread going to Orlando.

“It’s a big place you know. You don’t have to go downtown.”

“Yah… but…” I was getting squirmy. I was letting my natural repulsion of paying for twenty-two dollar hamburgers affect my judgment and I knew it. “It’s Orlando. I really don’t want to stay there if I can help it.

As I whined about having to navigate the nightmare of International Drive without a copilot, she dutifully ignored me while finding a quick and semi-affordable solution.

“There! You can stay there for the first night!”

“Night” was a dubious word to choose since we would actually be checking out on the same day as our arrival, but she was right in that is was a neat solution. Right near the airport was a new and shiny Hyatt Hotel. It was geared to business travelers, had a pool and restaurant and was miles from the tourist traps, which could, I was sure, already smell my credit cards from here.

“Look, it’s only about five minutes away from where you fly in. That way you get an extra hour of sleep and one less driving on unfamiliar roads.”

She had a good point.

“Well…” I could feel my budget slipping away like sand through the fingers of my convictions.

“And an extra hour of sleep means that you will be more rested to drive and thus keep our son safer. I’m booking it.”

That last bit was impossible to argue against and so, now I found my self on the afternoon of our arrival pulling in to the parking lot of the Hyatt for the shortest hotel stay of my life.

Lugging out our giant suitcase and smaller bags, I hesitated over bringing the stroller. Did I really need that? Short Stack was bounding around like a ping-pong ball on a sugar rush as he gleefully checked out all the unfamiliar plants in the gardens and commented on the palm trees. “Look at that one! It’s so tall and funny looking!”

He was a bundle of enthusiasm and it seemed foolish to lug yet another thing in with me when I would need to lug it back out again in just a few hours. I went back and forth on this a few times as I stood at the open trunk.

“No. Bring it. You may not need it, but if you do, you’ll want it on hand.”

I often talk out loud to my self in situations like this. Some might seek medication, but I’ve decided to embrace my vocal self advice since it tends to be good. Plus, it helps keep the seat next to me empty on long trips.

With some light cursing and knuckle scraping, I lugged it all out and pointed the mass in the direction of the front doors. My jeans, so perfect for the northern weather I had just left, were now working against me under the strain of my load and the heat of the Florida sun. I couldn’t wait to get inside and into a bathing suit.

“Daddy, Is there a pool here? Can we go swimming?”

Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Inside, I headed directly for Check In.

“Let me check your reservation and we can get you all set…”

The young woman behind the counter smiled happily as she looked into our booking. Short Stack was doing his best to contain himself, but the hours of sitting still were starting to show. The boy had energy squirting out his ears and the pull of the lobby furniture was finally too much for him. With a glance back at me to make sure he wasn’t about to get scolded for scooting too far from reach, he happily crawled up on an ottoman roughly the size of his toddler bed and was immediately lost in an imagined world of his own making. There’s something about ottomans. Kids just can’t resist them.

I kept an eye on my son to check any behavior that could cause damage to him, the furniture or his reputation as a well behaved child, but I was sympathetic as well. He had been doing a great job and had easily burned up at least three days worth of patience in the last twelve hours.

“Here you go sir. You’re in room four-oh-five. The Elevators are just around the corner.”

I accepted the little plastic credit card that is used in lieu of good old fashioned metal keys these days and chuckled at the fact that she had handed me two. I trust my boy and everything, but I had serious doubts that he would even be able to reach the key slot in the door, let alone open it. That, and I wasn’t crazy. While we were in Florida, the only time he was going to be out of my line of sight was when I was in the shower. “I think we’ll be good with one key.” I replied with a smile and slid one back. “Oh, will there be someone on desk duty at eleven tonight? We’re heading out to see the Shuttle launch and need to be checked out.”

“Oh, yes! That’s no problem at all. Are you excited to see the launch?”

That last statement was directed at my ottoman surfing son a few feet away and I had to say his name two or thee times to snap him out of what ever game he had concocted for himself to answer her. “She’s asking you a question, buddy. Are you excited?”

With the realization that he has just been included in the conversation, his head snapped up and he smiled as he nodded vigorously. Then, to drive his enthusiasm home, he quickly pointed a tiny index finger up, squinted one eye shut for better effect and started emitting some very convincing rocket noises as his adlibbed rocket slowly traveled skyward.

I turned back to the check in girl. “Oh, yah. He’s excited.”

As soon as we had managed to find the room and successfully drag in what seemed like a foolish amount of luggage, Short Stack was gleefully checking the beds and sofa for bounciness. He was wired and I was exhausted. I put thing down, changed into a pair of shorts and clicked on the wall sized television for no other reason than the novelty of having a television to click on. We’ve been without one since some time in the mid nineteen-nineties but I sill reflexively click them on when I have one at had. I wasn’t ready for what I saw.

Our room was very nice and well put together but narrow and this combined with a flat screen television that was big enough to make into a ping pong table meant that figures on television were pretty much life size. That, and because of the thing being mounted at head height, it was almost like having someone peaking at you through an electronic window. That alone might be a tad unnerving, but when you have traveled over a thousand miles away from your home out on an island in the Gulf of Maine, check into an airport hotel and are left looking at the life sized face of your neighbor, Nancy when you click on the tube… well… that’s just beyond weird.

I had to call home.

“Hey Honey! Did you get to the hotel okay? How’s our little traveler holding up?” She sounded perky.

“It’s great. He’s great. Guess what…” I told my wife who was on TV.

“What? Nancy? You mean from home?”

“Yup. I’m looking at her right now. She’s being interviewed.” Short Stack, oblivious to the madness of this, contented himself with leaping from one bed to the other.

“That’s just weird”

I agreed.

As it turned out, our fellow islander was being interviewed for a travel segment being run on the Weather Channel. As I stood in my room in Orlando, telling my wife about our flight down, I watched images of our little main street and post office flash by. The front door to our one and only little market opened and faces whom I could put names to, walked in and out as usual. It felt almost as if I was spying on what was happening back home. It was very surreal.

With the segment concluded and my wife’s curiosity assuaged, it was time to find some fun. I was pretty sure that if we didn’t, Short Stack was going to eventually start running across the ceiling. In record time, we had both been slathered in sun block, dressed in our swimming trunks and one short elevator ride later, floating in the pool.

%d bloggers like this: