Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

Medium Pleasures

Poetry, this morning…

Medium Pleasures -6/10/05

They say it is the small pleasures in life that make us happy.

We can all recall the great joys in our lives, and each day, hopefully, is punctuated by the small things we enjoy, but rarely dwell upon. Between the two, however, lies a forgotten collection of the Medium Things.

They are not life shaping such as the birth of a child or the long awaited forgiveness of past and regrettable transgression. Nor are they the small change of the ice cream sandwich bought on a hot summer day or the crunch of fresh snow underfoot on a Sunday morning walk in the cold.

As I strain to think of the Medium Pleasures, it amazes me how difficult they are to account for, though I know they have been there.

The rain that stayed away for the entirety of the hard won vacation.
The friend who found success and shares it freely.
The recognition of a correct decision when most thought you wrong.
The enjoyment of a wise investment, be it money, property, family or friends.

They don’t come so often, these Medium Pleasures.

But they rarely keep me up at night with worry ‘til they unfold like flowers and show us their favor.

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.

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…

Lost to the Playground

Not everyone likes all museums, and that’s a simple fact of life.

To a disinterested party, museums are a long walk filled with items they could literally not care less about if they tried, each tidbit labeled with an accompanying plaque covered in small type explaining in detail exactly why this individual would rather be in a coffee shop somewhere drinking warm beverages and eating stale pastries. Personally, I love museums, or at least, the vast majority of them. I just love history. I can’t help it. It’s a rare building filled with old relics that I can’t get into, though they do exist. I recall a certain textile museum in Switzerland which I happily managed to sidestep, leaving my wife to indulge in a previously unknown and unsuspected love of cloth, while I was set free to wander the streets and search for… well, coffee, probably. After meeting up again later, she told me about how fascinating is all was while I pointed out the place around the corner where the coffee was. We had both had a good time, it seems. This, I can’t help but feel, is a good lesson to take to heart. No one likes to be dragged along through building after building to see things that make little to no sense to them. In a lot of ways, this trip was going to be a real challenge for both my son and me. I like historical minutia… and he’s four.

Short Stack, though deeply into space, rockets and big shiny objects in general, is still a young pup and no matter how interested, this meant two things: First, he has very little in the way of historical perspective when it comes to what he’s looking at, and therefore limited appreciation. Secondly, like most people his age, he has the attention span of a sparrow.

These two factors would bring him again and again into conflict with his own burning need to know stuff, especially rocket stuff, and as we had walked around the Garden to gaze in amazement at the towering displays there, I could watch this inner battle play its self out over and over again. He had wanted this for a long time, had been dreaming about it for months, but now confronted with it, in all it’s looming massiveness, he was having a hard time standing still long enough for me to answer his questions. He can’t have been alone in this, because the Kennedy Space Center people had installed the ultimate item for kids like mine to relate to, dead center in the middle of all the hubbub.

Though my own son as well as his father had been looking forward to this trip and were now enjoying the fruits of their labors and travels, I can easily imagine some random and unfortunate child, utterly ambivalent on the subject of rocketry, science, history or worse, all three, being dragged along by a parent or grandparent who is completely enraptured by the entire NASA experience and blissfully oblivious to the toxic level of boredom that is building in their offspring’s circulatory system. As the star-eyed adult in charge drags them from museum after museum of space flight, the whining would start, then the pleading followed shortly after by bouts of faked kidney stones in the last ditch efforts to trade this experience for one judged to be more interesting such as an afternoon spent at Brevard County Urgent Care. Then, near to the activities and historical displays that are scattered around the Center’s outdoor attractions like so many giant toys, it would appear on the horizon to that child, like an oasis in the Sahara.

The playground.

Playgrounds are like rare earth magnets for munchkins and this one truly took the cake. It was so far above and beyond anything seen or played on before, that it could only have been made for NASA. Kids around the world have no doubt spent many hours thinking about, drawing and describing what THEY would build if it were up to them to create the ultimate playground. This one looked as if they had actually let the kids do it up for real.

Note: Photo's brightness adjusted like CRAZY so you can actually see what's going on.

Rockets stood like spires at the corners of its frame looming at least twenty feet tall, and each hollowed out with landings, ladders, windows and escape hatches. Between them stretched a labyrinth of corridors, slides, bridges, ladders and secret passages, the whole thing encased in a rubbery, bouncy mesh which made the whole thing tremble with the sympathetic vibration of the play being dished out by the dozens and dozens of bug-eyed kids marveling at the shear amazingness of the entire contraption. I’m willing to bet that if you gave your average three to five year old the choice of going to Disney World or spending the day within the confines of this sculpture of fun, then The Mouse would be in serious trouble.

It’s that good.

To cap it all, literally, the entire thing is covered by a massive, mushroom-like permanent tent that sits low over the structure and keeps possessions and parents alike shaded from sun and rain. For night launches like ours, it is lit by floodlights. There is, however, one major setback for parents, grandparents or other munchkin escorts.

Visibility.

Here’s a little science lesson for you… Wait until night, turn out the lights in your home and then go outside with a flashlight. Walk to an open window with a screen and now try and see into the house with your light.

Ok. You’re not going to do that. I understand.

Here’s the crib sheet. You can’t easily see in the house. What happens is that the beam of light mostly illuminates the screen and not the stuff in the house. In short, it doesn’t work well at all. You get a great view of the screen but as for what’s happening inside, you have little idea of.

There, now you don’t have to worry about having the cops called on you by your neighborhood watch. You’re welcome.

This is exactly what happened with the playground.

As kids by the hoard-load ditched their shoes at the thoughtfully provided cubbies and flew into its inviting ground floor entrances, they disappeared within its confines looking for all the world like a swarm of mad, yelling bees returning to their hive. On the outskirts of this bedlam, parents slowly circled the periphery, often clutching their lost children’s shoes and squinting inscrutably at the impemnitrable mesh in the vain hope of spotting a familiar hat or coat. It made me smirk to myself at first but as I continued to peer at the melee, hoping that by the power of will alone I would somehow develop latent x-ray vision, I began to understand the varying degrees of worry worn on the upturned faces of most of the adults. The chance of seeing Jimmy, Suzie, Carl, Sharon or any one child whom might be your responsibility to keep safe and sound, was infinitecimally small. It was like trying to keep track of one superball out of hundreds as they bounced around in a cement mixer.

…While wearing sunglasses.

…At night.

I cupped my hands on either side of my mouth in the effort not to blast those standing nearby and possibly direct my voice up and into the Maze Of Fun.

“SHORT STACK!”

I cocked my head to listen.

…General squeals of glee, fear, and adolescent adrenaline.

“HEY, SHORT STACK!”

More of the same.

“Crap!”

Popping off my shoes and stuffing my dignity in the left one and my hat in the right, I ducked my head at the chest-high door jam and shimmied in. He had to be here somewhere. It was time to go find him.

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