Here, in order, is the beginning of my compilation I’m calling, “Rise of the Rocket Boy.” It documents the trip my son and I took to see the STS-131 Space Shuttle launch in Florida in the spring of 2010.
I’ve moved the ongoing story to the site Rise of the Rocket Boy and will continue to post there as I get the chance. I’d guess that it’s about 75% done by now, but who knows.
My goal here is to have something long enough and complete enough to warrant binding at some point. You can read these in reverse order on the main blog page or here in proper descending order. Whichever! Hope you enjoy! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get writing.
Under Short Stack’s bed sit his large collection of earth moving equipment, gathering dust. Next to the forgotten dump trucks, excavators and front loaders are his personal, private sea going fleet. A car carrying ferry, two landing craft made especially for him in my workshop, and a small selection of tugs, barges and whatnot, carefully painted and ready for duty. If they were not made of wood, they would be rusting at their moorings.
I blame They Might Be Giants.
These toys that have kept him happy for hours on end for most of his imagination filled life have been swept aside for a new, all consuming passion.
The passion of a four year old.
It all started with the arrival of a gift from my blood brother, The Doctor. An educational DVD by the singing duo of John and John that is punchy, fun, well paced, highly factual and was more than an instant hit with our little resident red head. It was all he ever wanted to watch and he would sing the songs with glee. Some were better than others but one came out as the clear winner. The one about the Solar System.
He’d sing about it, ask questions about it, draw pictures of it and then sing about it all over again. For a treat, Action Girl and I took him to a planetarium a while back and I think that might have cemented it.
We didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!
The notion of space in general has totally overridden all his other interests now and no boat or bulldozer has the gravitational pull of a gas giant or the light of a solar flair. They just can’t compete.
At this very moment, my wife is upstairs with him, reading bedtime stories to him before lights out. He gets to pick the book and her words, drifting down the stairs, are as predictable as they could be.
“The Earth is ninety-three million miles away from the sun and completes a rotation on its axis in just one day. Mercury, on the other hand, rotates much, much slower and…”
Our little island library has a good set of kid’s books on the planets, the sun and other celestial bodies and we’ve been systematically going through the collection over the last few months. We’ve done the books on Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Stars and Jupiter. The biggest issue I have is convincing him that we shouldn’t take the whole lot of them out at once. It’s a tough sell.
I don’t know how many times Action Girl and I have read these little space-fact books to him but I’m willing to bet he knows the text by heart at this point. I’m also willing to bet that we could “read” them to him with our eyes closed. Hey, maybe he should be reading them to us!
Then there are the rockets. Ahhhh, rockets.
Belching flames, roaring noise and awaaaaaay they go! What’s not to love?
What little kid wouldn’t get cranked watching a video of that? The object of his purest enthusiasm is for the soon to be retire Space Shuttle. For Christmas this year, “Santa” got him a little, wooden Space Shuttle that came with two detachable rocket boosters and it was far and away the biggest hit of the day and now, though only a few months old, bears the scars of high action missions throughout the house. His only objection was that it was missing the big, orange external fuel tank. For whatever reason, the manufacturers had left it out, which bugged him to no end.
“But daddy, why didn’t Santa make the orange tank? Doesn’t he know?”
“Ummm. I guess he doesn’t Short Stack. Maybe the elves don’t know about the tank. What do you think?” A long pause as he considered this brought him to an unavoidable conclusion.
“I don’t think Santa knows as much about rockets as I do.”
This statement wasn’t said with the smug satisfaction you’d expect to hear from an adult, but rather with a pained, almost regretful edge to it. Santa was missing out. How sad.
Then, the buoyant solution that brought his smile back in a flash. “Maybe I could tell him about them!”
“I bet you could, Buddy.”
To remedy this egregious oversight on St. Nick’s part, he rummaged around in his play kitchen set and came out with a wooden carrot, which made a reasonable, if not vegetable substitute. The Space Shuttle made regular launches from our living room floor, carrot and all, for about a week before I couldn’t stand it any more. One afternoon when I could safely make a racket with a variety of power tools without waking any nappers or be remiss in my munchkin watching, I pounded down stairs with the mission of making a better fit for his space exploration vehicle. A few well placed screws and magnets, and his ship was complete and correct, thus making two detail nerds very happy indeed.
The solid rocket boosters aren’t correct, but it’s what it came with and honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind, so I’m letting this one go. For now, anyway.
Short Stack has always been interested in getting thing just right, and he wants to know everything he can. I’ve been quizzed on the details of the Apollo landings. I’ve had to scrape my personal memory banks in an effort to dredge up information on the Mercury missions. I’ve explained to the best of my ability how the Shuttle works and the work that is does, and Short Stack, he just wants more.
In the past, when the questions finally wore me down, I’d come back at him with a correct but highly detailed answer in the best science speak I could muster. Normally, he’d just stare at me for a few seconds with a look that said, “ I know that what you said answered my question, but I didn’t understand it” and then go wander off to ponder. With space, that strategy isn’t working. When I try my old method, he just stops, thinks about it… and then ask me to clarify.
Possibly five or six times.
I try not to start crying.
It’s been since some time back in November that space exploration took over our son and it shows no hint of releasing. His room, once a haven for heavy equipment and books about bunnies is now bent in devotion of the physical heavens. A picture of a rocket, painted by his own hand, hangs on a wall and just last week, a full set of three dimensional planets took their place, hung in order and radiating away from a suspended tennis ball playing the roll of “The Sun.” The books on the floor are almost universally devoted to objects in the sky.
He’s obsessed. He’s also deeply appreciative for what ever you can tell him about it. Anything. Just get it right.
That brings me to my master plan.
The Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired permanently at the end of this year and since the latest budget proposal has come out, it looks like the end of NASA powered, manned space travel for a long, long time. Like it or hate it, it is most defiantly the end of an era.
Short Stack’s birthday is just around the corner and with my deeply indulgent wife’s nod; I have something special in mind. Tonight, this very night, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is to take off on what will be the last nighttime shuttle launch. I would love him to see that and considered flying to Florida with him so he could watch, but it’s scheduled for lift off just after four in the morning. The prospect of getting him up at that hour is too horrible to consider. Waking a four year old at two AM for a four AM launch? Do I look THAT nuts?
So, I’m shooting for second best.
Tentatively scheduled for the Eighteenth of March, the Shuttle Discovery will be blasting off at around One in the afternoon. That, Short Stack can swing and so, that’s what I’m planning. I’m just waiting for the launch time to firm up so I can buy the airline tickets.
I haven’t told him yet because I don’t want to disappoint if it doesn’t work out for what ever reason. Even once the two of us go, I’ll keep mum about the launch, lest it get scrubbed. I’ll build in a few extra days and see what happens. He’ll be bonkers about visiting the Kennedy Space Center and inspect each and every display with a multitude of questions, I’m sure.
He’ll want to KNOW.
I’ll try not to break down, begging for help after a few days of this.
It’s an ambitious move on my part. I’ll be solo with one of my children, far from home and without a net. He’s a great kid and I trust him to do well. Honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this adventure if that weren’t true. Still, you just never know how these things will play out until they do.
In the end, his contagious excitement is enough to make me want to do this. For him, it’s about the love of the thing. It’s what fills his dreams at night and powers his play all day long. It’s worth the risk. And someday, he’ll be able to tell his children or grand children, “You know, I saw the Space Shuttle launch when I was just a kid. My dad took me there to see it.”
With some luck, they’ll be interested to hear more.
With some real luck, they might even put down their toy trucks and boats and be impressed.
Wish me luck.
I’m nuts, aren’t I?
Yesterday, we headed into town with a mission. On the surface, it looked to be a simple enough one, if slightly bureaucratic. The ultimate goal was to get a passport for Short Stack. I’m fully aware that air travel within the United States does not require this and that additionally, due to his age, very few people would even be looking for this, but I wanted to try and get this done for a few reasons, both emotional and paranoid.
The personal aspect of this endeavor was simply out of my own inevitable nostalgia. As a young child, I was blessed with parents who not only had the means to take their only son on trips interesting and far ranging, but also the inclination and trust to do so. At the age of four, I was introduced to the concept of stepping into an aluminum tube and strapping in, ready to be hurled through the air at mind numbing speeds. It was a long trip as well, starting in Boston, Massachusetts and eventually ending up in Honolulu, Hawaii. At this point, I’m not entirely sure if I remember the flight or not. The story of it has been retold and retold so many times by family and my self that the validity of my mental picture cannot be vouched for any more. The passing of time and the reality that I would later spend a great deal of time on other flights has blended the images in my mind until resembling a suffusion of smiling stewardesses, crisp uniforms, the ever present hiss of the engines and the inexorable draw of the rear galley.
I have never been a shy individual and with the shamelessness and ignorance of youth, I made for an extremely outgoing child. Raised to be respectful toward adults and always interested in what ever was going on around me, I had a tendency to make friends my parent’s age or older where ever I went. My Mother and Father quickly became used to having random strangers walk up to them and say, “Oh, you must be Matthew’s parents”
It was a different age then, as it always is, and for better or worse, people didn’t worry so much about having their children being snatched away at an unobserved moment or making eye contact with people unknown. Kids could venture farther a field and make their own way. I always tended to seek out adults rather than kids my own age. The logic was simple. When you are a kid, you don’t need to complete with an adult. There’s no vying for who’s the alpha in the relationship and who will be relegated to tagging along. You didn’t need to worry about appearing uncool or unknowledgeable simply because that’s not the way the power flowed and if you could side step all this social foolishness, you could simply get right into whatever subject you were interested in.
For whatever reason, I remember a lot of adults I interacted with finding this to be both amusing and endearing. What it got me was someone to talk with whom I never met before and whom I probably never would again plus the chance to see and do a lot of really neat stuff that the shyer or more kid-centric of my peer group could only imagine. It also kept me from getting too bored.
On the series of flights, first taking my family and me across the country and then again, over the ocean to a place I’d never dreamed of before, I spent much of my time chatting away with the ladies (and they were almost universally ladies, back then) who were in charge of the passengers care and feeding. Since they were the only visible adults who were actually doing anything, it was an easy choice who to hang out with. They also all looked pretty to me. Like I said. Easy.
After the little, plastic novelty wings were pinned to my sweater, I did what I always did. I asked if I could help. It only made sense, right? I was a steward now. I even had the wings to prove it. Somewhere along the flight, some flight attendant decided to let me at it and really start to help. Being only about three feet tall, there wasn’t much I could actually accomplish but there was one job they were probably happy to pass off on the new help.
I was shown how to tell when a passenger had pressed their call button and given the assignment of going to find out what the person in seat 23B wanted. Once the order was given to me by the startled occupant, who was no doubt expecting someone a bit taller and leggier, I would scurry back to the galley and report to the smiling ladies what was needed. Once mixed, they’d set it on a tray and as carefully as a four year old could, I’d deliver it back to the bemusement of everyone who noticed.
Back then, it was cute and funny. Now, someone would be calling child services and the airline would fire anyone within a fifty mile radius.
Like I said, it was a different time.
Being anything but shy, I completed my deliveries with a grin and a little light conversation (all part of the service). I don’t recall if I made any tips, but I’m willing to bet that I made some good will, which is saying something when you consider that easily a quarter of the ordered drink was likely sloshing around the wrong side of their glass and collecting at the bottom of my little serving tray. Though I seriously doubt that my own son will have the opportunity to reenact my mini-bar delivery service, the point is this: He would if he could.
If Short Stack thinks that there is a modicum of a hint of a possibility that some random person might like to know what he’s thinking about, rest assured, he’ll let them in on it. It would take little coaching to get him to pin wings on his shirt and set forth to take stock of what was going on with each and every person on that flight. This links into reason number two as to why I want and secure a passport for my chatty little munchkin.
The darker side to being an open and talkative kid is that you inevitably give your parents nightmares about someone walking off with you. I don’t know exactly how many times my own folks and I had “The Talk” about being careful and not too trusting of strangers, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out if it had been weekly.
Mom: “What ever you do, don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know.”
Me: “Yah. I know.”
“Dad” “REALLY! It’s not safe! I know you like to make friends, but you have to be careful!”
Me: “Ok. I will. I promise.”
Mom: “Good, it’s just that you’re so friendly and… well… we want to keep you safe.”
Random Stranger: “Oh! You must be Matt’s parents!”
You can see why I caused them fits. Now it’s my turn to get to see it from the other side and I’ll tell ya, nightmares a-plenty.
So, I wanted my son to have some I.D. and being in character with my normal modus operandi, I had pushed things to the edge in terms of timing. The turn around time to get your passport is four to six weeks. Out trip would be in almost exactly four. I must like living like this, because it’s how I seem to do things the vast majority of the time. Pressure is my friend, if not at least my excuse to have another cocktail.
“Ok Buddy. We’re going to town this morning so I need your help with getting ready, OK?”
My statement of encouragement might sound benign enough but there was some serious pleading involved in a sort of “as read” kind of way. Short Stack is not the most responsive person in the world when it comes to hurrying. As with most of us with active imaginations, what’s going on inside the head is often far more engaging that what’s happening outside. Unobserved, time tends to slip away like water down a storm drain. Add to this mix the fact that we live on an island where the ferry waits for no one, and the race out the door can get down right exciting. Luckily, the landing is down hill. Come to think of it, if it wasn’t, I think I’d have bigger problems.
As my son sat at the breakfast table ignoring his waffle in favor of pretending his hand was the Apollo Lunar Lander, I busied myself with gathering necessary documents needed to prove that he was whom I purported him to be so we could get his own little blue book with the eagle on it. We had fifteen minutes until boat time. Plenty! As I dug through the fire proof safe where we keep the really important documents, I started to sweat.
“Honey…” I tried to keep the panic from my voice. “Where’s his birth certificate?”
“It’s in the safe. Right? Isn’t it?”
No, no it wasn’t. This was bad.
Twelve minutes to boat time.
My wife and I have many strengths. She can cook sumptuous meals for any number of guests. I can wield just about any kind of construction tool and do a pretty good job with it. She can pilot huge ocean going boats. I can quote Monty Python ad nauseum until your ears bleed. What we are bad at, in fact utterly fail at, is paperwork. We both hate it, avoid it and try not to think about it. So, when we have something important that needs to be filed and kept, there is just one place for it: The safe. When it’s not there, God only knows where it might have gone.
*Insert comical running about and tearing the house apart routine here*
As the two adults ripped though piles of ancient and semi-discarded documents which lived in jaunty piles throughout the house, Short Stack did a perfect landing in the Sea of Tranquility, completely missing the luke warm waffle, forgotten on his plate and utterly ignorant of the mad rush going on around him, either of which might have jeopardized his mission and the crew entrusted to his care. President Kennedy would have been proud.
Eight minutes to boat time.
I stood in blank resignation, rooted to the spot in the basement where I officially ran out of ideas where it could be. Doom. Ah, the peppery smell of doom.
“Found it!” The triumphant cry from my wife sent me bolting up the stairs, taking three at a time.
“Never mind that! Get Short Stack ready!”
She was right of course. I could let her take care of her end. My job was to pour a three year old into a coat, shoes, hat and mittens, all in less that a minute. It’s at times like this that it’s simply easier to handle a child like they are a large doll. Giving them instructions will only slow everything down. With a scoop under the arms, my son was swept off his chair, over his little sister dutifully getting into the box of cheerios in the middle of the kitchen floor and right to the front door. He’s used to this sort of treatment by now and puts up little resistance. Mostly he was ticked that I interrupted Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk.
Six minutes to boat time.
As my wife wrestled the baby album that held the now found birth certificate, I wrestled winter gear onto Short Stack.
“Screw it! Take the whole page!” The album had apparently steadfastly refused to release the document and she had officially had it. With a pop, my wife simply yanked out the offending leaf from the book, pictures and all. I dove into my own boots and coat, grabbed my bag, my son, the birth certificate and fled the house.
Letting Short Stack walk under his own power was right out if we were to have any shot at all of making the ferry and since my wife was less than enthused at the idea of me ploinking him onto my shoulders and then running down the sand strewn street to the dock, she kindly drove us down at, if not break neck speed then at least at sprang neck. We made it on with at least two minutes to spare. We weren’t even the last ones. That’s all I ask. I just don’t want to be last.
The opera that is leaving the house, being over, the two of us settled into a seat and watched out island shrink away as we cruised across the bay.
“Daddy, did you bring…”
With a flourish and before he could finish, I reached into my satchel and produced the most important piece of our outing. His wooden Space Shuttle.
Within seconds, he was someplace else and in charge of yet another space launch. Yes, this would all be worth it.
Normally on ferry rides with Short Stack I get to enjoy a bubbly and entertaining conversation with him. Like most his age, he converses almost entirely in the form of questions and we have a great time looking for new things and then discussing them. This trip however, I was going to be second banana to the Shuttle. We’ve watched videos of various launches roughly forty-three zillion times and in these videos, most of the camera angles are very, very tight. Many of the actual movie feeds come from cameras bolted to the shuttle, the external fuel tank or the solid fuel boosters themselves. Because of this and because my detail driven son is a stickler for.. well… detail, he insists on reliving the experience as closely as possible with his own Shuttle. What this means is that he holds the toy up to his face, keeping his eye so close to its surface that it would be within reaching distance of an aphid. His mother and I have tried to dissuade him from needlessly endangering himself this way, but you might as well try to convince a horse to lay off the clover. It just ‘aint going to happen. So, for the last few months, Short Stack has essentially gone about the house with a Space Shuttle for a face, making eye contact with him all but impossible. As I sat and watched him launch STS-2452, I realized that what I hadn’t brought along with me today was daddy entertainment. No magazines, no laptop, no book. Luckily conversational salvation came in the form of Doug.
Doug is a new friend who has recently moved back to Maine and is in the process of getting his various ducks in their assigned rows. Today, he was headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his license changed and the two of us enjoyed chatting away about home construction, the weather and especially the entertainment value of watching small children play when they are totally absorbed in what they’re doing. The red headed object lesson across the table from us obliged by resting the point of the orange fuel tank on the tip of his nose and, with a aspirated “FWOOOOSHHHHH!” separated the Shuttle from its back as it continued to his own personal orbit.
“He’s pretty obsessed, isn’t he?” Doug smiled at my boy as Short Stack hummed audibly while flying his Orbiter over his head for a few seconds, then back to the table for landing and a quick reassembly of the component parts as it was prepared for it’s next mission, STS-2453.
“Oh, you have no idea. This is all we see or hear. It’s going to be great taking him to the Kennedy Space Center, but it sometimes feels like I’m chumming the water, you know? Like he doesn’t get enough of rockets already.”
I then explained to him that every morning, Short Stack got a dose of NASA with his dose of medicine.
For the first three winters of my son’s life, things were pretty horrible. He’d get sick with cold after cold. He had croup, which made his cough sound like he had swallowed a harbor seal whole. He was always run down and tired. He’s a real trooper when he feels sick and never lets it dull his enthusiasm for living but to watch him go through it was simply awful. We were first time parents then and were wary of becoming “those” parents who treated their children like precious snowflakes, freaking out when they all but sneezed by dousing the house in antibacterial soap and Clorox wipes. Short Stack is a tough little customer and we did what we could. Besides, this was normal, right? He’s a kid. Kids get sick, right?
Wrong. Not like this.
It took us two years longer than it should have but a late night trip to the emergency room and some seriously frayed nerves finally got us to a specialist and an answer, He has asthma. One of the reasons if faked us out for so long was that it isn’t the kind of asthma that you’re used to encountering. He doesn’t get winded easily. He can play all day and laugh his little belly sore with joy and never show the slighted sign of distress. It’s just not that SORT of asthma. There are, as it turns out, a variety of asthmas out there and his is subtler than the wheezing, inhaler needing type. His creeps up on him and will slowly make his life miserable until it blossoms into full blown pneumonia, which he’s had three times now in the distance of his short time spent on this planet. The fix was long in coming but it has thankfully, arrived.
The medicine he takes is taken in with the aide of a device called a nebulizer. All it is essentially is a vaporizer that he claps in his mouth and breathes in until the vapor stops. All in all, it takes roughly six minutes to suck it all down and as some of you might know from personal experience, six adult minutes translates into roughly four and a half hours in three year old minutes. A distraction, if not entirely necessary, does at least keep things from getting needlessly antagonistic in the father/son relations category. Essentially, it’s better for all parties involved. I plunk my computer down at the table, set up the nebulizer and then find something for him to watch. In the beginning of this ritual, it was cartoons that he wanted. Now, it’s the “orange tank” video, and nothing else will do.
The video actually has a lot more to it than just watching the Shuttle’s orange external fuel tank for ten minutes, though honestly, I think he’d be fine with that too. It’s actually a very well done production from off the NASA web site highlighting the STS-129 launch of Endeavor that took place a little while ago. The music is good, the editing is well done and it follows the launch from the rollout of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building all the way through liftoff and the eventual separation of the orange external tank in upper orbit. My son lives for this video and it always gets him running over when it comes time to sit down and beat back his asthma with the miracle of modern chemistry. It’s sort of Merry Poppins for the twenty-first century.
“Just a short NASA video, makes the medicine go down…”
The end result is that my son can function normally for a kid his age and also, he can tell you in detail what the launch sequence is for the Shuttle program, and will until you beg and plead with him to talk to you about something else… which isn’t so normal. All in all, I call it a worthwhile trade. I do rather wish we could watch some cartoons sometimes, though.
As the boat pulled into the dock, I picked up our coats and hats and to mild protests, the little wooden space shuttle as well.
“I was going to play Space Shuttle!” The miniature scowl on his little round face looked more comical than menacing but I knew it was the look of displeasure with my actions. He’s a cautious kid and I know how to play that.
“Buddy, we’re about to walk off the boat on the plank. You wouldn’t want to drop your Shuttle in the water, would you?” That made him stop. Besides being neck deep in the freezing temperatures of winter, the water is also way, way down there as you cross the gangplank. The handrails are good and sturdy, but anything dropped while you walk across it is pretty much doomed to the frigid waters below. He thought about this and came back at me with the best that any three year old has to offer:
“Well…” I had to think for a sec. There were a lot of answers to ‘why?’ but only a few right ones. He’s a smart kid and does not cotton to the one word answer, ‘because.’ I’d need to do better than that. “Because if it did drop, there would be no way for me or anyone else to get it. It would float under the dock and you wouldn’t have it anymore.”
That did it. The scowl vanished and the protest ended. We said good-bye to Doug and I wished him well in his battle with the DMV: The Place Where Things Never Go Well.
I had my son, his birth certificate and a check. Our first appointment was a quick stop to get some official pictures of him and then it was off to the Post Office to fill out paper work. The only error being that “quick” and “three year old” never go hand in hand unless you are dealing with a small mountain of chocolate. After paying the seven dollar fee at our local AAA office, I watched in pained fatherhood-ness as the photographer tried time and time again to get a good shot of my son. Over the last sever paranoia laced years, the US has implemented strict guidelines on how passport photos must be aligned and set. Getting a small child to adhere to these rules, even for a tenth of a second is kind of like trying to push water up hill. You can do it, but you’re going to loose your mind in the process. In the end, the sixth try was the winner and the frazzled cameraman happily gave it his resounding stamp of, “Meh, close enough!”
With the hard won pictures in hand, we moved on to the Post Office, place of Passport submittal. I vaguely remember doing this as a child, back in my hometown on some sunny day in a forgotten season. As a kid, the Post Office only meant two things: Boredom and wanted posters. As my Mother stood in a lone that would have made the ones at Disney World look tame in comparison, I would inevitably drift off to look around. Besides the slow moving caterpillar of humanity that zigzagged though the velvet rope obstacle course which I was not allowed to play with, there was little else to do other than study the faces on the FBI’s most wanted criminals which were always posted prominently near the door. Could one of these individuals be coming through town right now? Should I look around at the others here even now? The topic would tantalize my mind for whole seconds until I’d wander away again to have my eighth drink form the water bubbler and start playing with the velvet ropes that made up the customer corral until garnering “the look” from Mom.
Getting my passport was a different experience. We walked right by the twisting line and got to go into a previously unseen office. There was a desk, a smiling clerk and no wanted posters or ropes to amuse my self with. That, and the fact that the attention was somewhat on me, made its mark on my memory. I though about that long forgotten experience as I walked into our local post office with my son hoisted high on my shoulders and proceeded to the one window set aside for such transactions. Apparently, an entire office was no longer needed.
“Sorry. We can’t use this birth certificate.” As the clerk handed it back to me, I was more than a little confused. The paper work had specified that what they needed was an official certificate with a raised stamp, which this one was and had. What it didn’t apparently specify was what KIND of official certificate was needed. Silly me.
“Ok…. Why not? What do I need?”
“This is from the hospital. It’s not official. You need to get one from the city where he was born.” That was unexpected.
Luckily, we live in the city where our son was born so I wouldn’t have to send away for it. In fact, City Hall wasn’t that far away at all, so other than having to deal with yet another layer of beaurocracy, the situation wasn’t so bad.
“Ok,” I said with a pleasant grin which I hoped gave the feeling that I was not boggling at the foolishness of having to get another official birth certificate while I held a different one in my hand, just as official but not official in the right ways, apparently. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with the right birth certificate.”
As I gathered up what I had, the clerk hit me again. “And don’t’ forget to bring the child’s mother with you too. She needs to be here.” That stopped me.
“Both parents need to be present when a child pass port application is submitted. You both need to sign the form here and with me as a witness. You’ll also need to make sure you bring correct identification before you are allowed to sign.”
After a brief, “are you kidding me” pause, I just had to ask. “So… What would be considered proper identification for us to bring?” I waited and was rewarded with the reply I most suspected.
“A passport would be fine.”
For reasons unknown, all I could envision was a snake devouring itself. Around and around we go!
In the end, Short Stack enjoyed his time with me as we skipped along though the various public buildings in search of the correct documentation for his very own little blue book with the eagle on the cover. I’m reasonably sure he has only a vestigial grasp of why we were going through all the trouble, but like most kids, he’s used to going along for the ride while having little knowledge of the final destination. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly accurate summary of much of the time one spends from age zero to eighteen. Some even manage to draw it out longer.
As we finally stepped off the ferry and back onto our island home, we happened to bump into Doug again in the small herd of passengers that disgorged from the boat. In our brief reunion as we walked up the hill and away from the landing, I made a discovery that made me feel a little better. He too had been thwarted by the bureaucracy and was returning home empty handed. At least we weren’t alone.
Short Stack, at least wasn’t empty handed. He clung lovingly the bag containing his Space Shuttle. Within ten seconds of walking back through our front door he was already launching mission STS-2454 in the living room. If only our civil servants were so dedicated in their duty.
Things had to be set in motion to make the dream a reality. The most critical of piece was securing the blessing from my wife. After hinting around in the subtlest way I could manage for well over two weeks, all my gentle prodding finally came to fruition.
As she sat in the living room chair one evening, the hoped for statement came rolling out as easily as a wave rising on the shore. “You know, why don’t you take Short Stack to go and see the next Shuttle launch.” Slightly bug-eyed, I tried to play it very safe. Now was not the time to screw things up by acting hastily.
Outwardly, what I believe I said at the time was, “Hmmmm.” as if I was mulling this thought over for the first time rather than the four hundredth and ninth. Inwardly, I’m pretty sure my brain broke into a sweat as I strained to keep from breaking into a spontaneous happy dance right there in there in the living room. It’s not that I didn’t think she would trust me with one of our children far from home and her watchful eye. No, nothing like that. It’s just that Action Girl is not one to voluntarily miss out on something fun. She can barely contain herself if she knows that I have a small gift for her birthday or even if I simply have an entertaining story to relate later on that evening. My wife has a lot of virtues but patience in the fact of impending fun is not one of them. Forgoing an actual vacation that would include palm trees, crisp bed linens, a swimming pool and possibly a beach… well, that’s like waiting for the IRS to send you a letter saying that, hey, why don’t you just keep it all this year. I suppose it might be possible, but you sure as heck don’t bank on it happening.
Even though I’d be going with my three, almost four year old son, it would undoubtedly be a vacation, as well. After all, I’m the stay at home parent in our household and under normal conditions have two miniature people causing chaos around me all day, ever day. Having to wrangle just one is almost like a vacation on its own. I can look back now at my pre-child days and laugh out loud at what I considered to be a busy day. Then we had Short Stack and I thought I knew what busy was. After Lulu Belle came along, I looked back at my time with just one child and laughed again at how I thought that was so hard to do. I’m wiser now. I barely have time to do anything fun and exciting such as sitting down, taking regular showers or making coffee. The idea of adding one or more children to our batch sends me scampering up the trees. Honestly, I know I could do it, but I don’t know how. Personally, I’d rather not think about it.
As I did my best to slowly, “come around” to this idea I cautiously checked her resolve in what might have been a moment of weakness. “Are you sure you’d be okay with this? You wouldn’t mind if I took just him to go and see the Shuttle?” Again, I tried to act as nonchalant as possible while my heart raced at lemming-on-its-third-cappuccino speed.
“Yah, it would be fun for you two. He’s bonkers on rockets and it would be something he’d remember for the rest of his life. I don’t think I’d want to spend that much time looking at rockets as you two would, so it would be better if just you two went. Besides, there aren’t going to be that many more Shuttle launches, are there?”
Here she was completely correct.
The Shuttle had been rolled out when I was just a kid, back in 1981. As a kid playing in the dirt of the school playground, what we were into were rockets. The last Apollo mission had been flown in 1972 and all we had to look up at was something called “Skylab” which sounded a lot like a place to do school work and thus, didn’t interest us much beyond the fact that al agreed that it looked a lot cooler than what the Soviets had with their bulbous Mir. Since the cessation of anything really wowable in the space race, we, the children of the Cold War, tended to look more to the latest high tech bomber or attack submarine for our chest thumping assuredness when it came to America’s ability and know-how. Then… we saw it.
On April 12th of 1981, something very, very noteworthy happened for all to see. STS-1 was launched. As children who were raised on a steady diet of anti-Soviet, Regan fueled, flag waving patriotism, to see this massive and undeniably beautiful spacecraft blast her way into space, well… it was like pouring sugar on an anthill. We all wanted to see it, touch it, ride it… FLY it! She was unlike anything we had seen before and speaking for the eight year old set at Saint Joseph’s Grammar School, we were impressed. Deeply so.
This was STS-1, the first launch of many to come. At the time, we didn’t know what STS stood for (Space Transportation System, by the way) or that this new “Space Shuttle” even had a name beyond the one we’d been told about on television and at school. We knew it as Colombia, but NASA called her OV-102. There had been another before this, OV-100, or in more common parlance, Enterprise but we hadn’t really been paying much attention to that. Enterprise was never meant to fly into space. Her entire job was intended to be as a test bed for what would later become the shuttles built later on. She was never even fitted with engines. The cool tie in name to one America’s favorite Sci-Fi TV shows aside, she just didn’t have the sexy. It was like looking at a full size model of a Lamborghini. Sure, it was kind of neat, but… so? Your average third grader needs more than that. We needed fire! Fire and smoke! Oh, and a really, REALLY loud noise!
Boy, did we get it!
I don’t actually remember seeing the launch on TV. I was, after all, in fourth grade and memories from that far back in my life tend to get either super specific and highly detailed or so out of focus, it’s like looking trying to watch a ballet through a fog machine. You know that stuff is there and that things are happening, but beyond some blurry shapes moving in the mist, you’re pretty clueless as to the actual story. Though the initial liftoff is lost to my own personal history, I can easily recall the buzz that it created around the playground, and it was BIG!
Rockets still had a use, naturally. We needed them to nuke the Soviets into radioactive grit at a moments notice, or at least that’s what The Gipper told us, but in the most gentle, kind, patriarchal way possible! The Space Shuttle though was all about peace, science, exploration and most importantly, giving us the foolish hope that some day when we were big, that we too might be strapped in and blast off to the stars. It lit not only the fires that propelled the two thousand ton Shuttle into space, but those of our imaginations. Suddenly, television shows like “Space 1999” didn’t look so far fetched and we began to see our selves as the brave young explorers who would strap in and ride the column of fire to the edge of our atmosphere. It might just be possible! Now, we had a rocket plane!
What impressed us the most was that it was reusable! The same Shuttle could go up again and again and again. We’d have our promised moon base in no time flat. Now if we could only get the personal helicopters and jet packs worked out. Things were even looking up on that front as well, ever since Sean Connery had been spotted with one during a weekend TV special reairing of his 1965 Bond flick, Thunderball. We were pumped, and we were not alone.
With this new super cool looking launch vehicle, NASA went from being a place where a bunch of dedicated American and *ahem* newly naturalized German rocket engineers made stuff explode and zoom off the ground; to becoming the place where we might someday work and zoom into space ourselves. Enough of America’s youth looked skyward with reflections of actual stars in their collective eyes for something truly unique to be formed. Something that took that little, kindled hope of becoming an astronaut and poured high octane jet fuel on it.
With a surprising, visionary look forward, a whole camp dedicated to space in general and the Space Shuttle in particular, had been devised, organized and opened. All you needed was to be nuts about space, have parents willing to foot the bill to send you, and the willingness to go. Sadly, I had only two of the three requirements.
As an only child, I benefited from having the full attention of both of my parents at all times. I didn’t have to divvy up anything with other siblings and in turn, my parents had the financial ability to take their only child places few larger families got to go. I got to do some pretty awesome stuff that most of my friends could only dream about. It was an amazing gift and one which I never looked at without full appreciation of what I had and thanks to my folks for making it all possible. It was great!
When they offered some time around sixth grade to send me to Space Camp though… I balked.
There was a very simple problem.
I was afraid.
As an adult, (and even back then as a kid, I think) I have no problem admitting that I wasn’t terribly brave about leaving home. To be one hundred percent honest, I was a big ole’ chicken. I wanted my own bed. I wanted my own room. I wanted to be home with everything that was familiar and safe and where I was sure of every step I made. I’d happily go out for the day at a friend’s house, but come evening, I was pointing the front tire of my trusty bike back to familiar lands. I never spent the night. Why? I have no idea. But there you have it. My folks had to practically force me to attend the long weekend getaway run by my Catholic school for fifth and sixth graders, and that was going with everyone I already knew with teachers I trusted and liked! When I did go the first time, all the way to that far off and exotic land of Boston Harbor, I was terrified and my terror, much to my embarassment, manifested itself physically. On the one, pre-addressed and stamped post card that my Mother had sent me with, I wrote the following after my first night at camp.
“Last night, I throw up. Am better now.
How’s that for a letter home?
Even with the allure of buildings filled with space stuff to tempt me, the idea of getting on a plane and crossing half the country to attend a week long camp with nothing but strangers was just way too far outside of my comfort zone. There was never a chance it would happen. I never went.
I wish I had.
Boy, do I wish I had.
Short Stack is way too young to attend Space Camp and by the time he can, I have no idea what it will be like or if it will exist at all. Hopefully, unlike his dad, he’ll have stronger guts for such adventuring and you can bet that I’ll do what I can to facilitate that for him. I might have to push him and he might not like it at the time, but from this vantage point won by time and experience, (or lack thereof), I can see the size of the payoff for him in the future. Hopefully, he won’t throw up.
With the largest hurdle vaulted, getting the Mom-Seal-Of-Approval, it was time to take a running leap at the next one on our track to Cape Canaveral: Tickets. How hard could it be?
Answer: Stupidly hard.
With a whiff of “our tax dollars at work” in the air, I started to discover that getting to see the launch was going to be trickier than I expected. Now, naturally, simply watching the Shuttle take off could be done from just about anywhere in the state. For those who’ve never been to Florida and don’t live in the Great Plains region of the U.S., you’ll need to redefine the word “flat” for your self. Florida is flat. Really, really, flat. For someone who grew up in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains, my first reaction to this geographical pancake was to actually sort of freaked out. It made me feel uneasy, like I was on some endless movie set. It didn’t feel real. The best vantage spots for looking at the landscape are the highway overpasses. Want to be see farther than anyone else not in a multi-story building? Stand on a stepladder. The upside to this single plane of existence living is that if something is in the sky, you can see it.
This held true for my father as well whom, when he was a schoolboy in Homestead, Florida, was ushered outside with his entire class one May morning in 1961 to see Alan Shepard’s Mercury space craft lift off and push him into the history books as the first American in space. They all watched as a small speck of light trailed by a plume of smoke arch across the sky and out of site. They were 254 miles away. That’s how flat Florida is.
For Short Stack, I wanted to be a little closer. Actually, I wanted to be a lot closer. I wanted us to feel the roar and be able to make out the Shuttle with the naked eye. Ok, let’s be honest here. I wanted to feel the roar. It’s been a long time since I dreamed about that sound as I stood as a starry eyed pup on the playground sand. This was my chance too. There were two options:
The first was to be at the viewing area on The Causeway. The Causeway is a strip of land that, if you’ve watched footage of a launch before, I guarantee you’ve seen. It’s the big, grassy lawn with the oversized bedside clock on it. It’s where all the news networks set up and once, long ago, Walter Cronkite had his broadcast desk incongruously sitting on the grass in the fresh and open air as he described to the world, just what was happening six miles behind him.
The second option was to view the launch right from the visitor center at the complex. There, we would be surrounded by rockets of old, displays of other rocket related stuff, vending machines and most importantly, functional, plumbed in bathrooms. This sounded good, but for one thing. You can’t see the launch pad. From the visitor center, the actual launch pad is obscured by a line of trees and, unfortunately, is a mile or two farther away as well. The visitor center tickets were cheaper, but was this the time to cheap out? I needed to do some research, and by that I mean “ask some people on Facebook who belonged to the ‘Friends of the Kennedy Space Center’ page.” The consensus was quick.
“You need to try and get on the Causeway. It’s the best view!”
“You’re closer on the Causeway and you can feel the engines in your chest!”
“Get Causeway tickets if you can. They are harder to buy, but worth it! You’ll need to be quick, no matter what you decide.”
Harder to buy? Quick?
Naturally, I understand the concept of tickets selling out and needing to be timely, but there was something about the last post that raised a red flag. I still wasn’t sure about keeping a four year old out on a grassy, buggy strip of mown swamp land for a launch that might or might not actually happen on time, but the warning about getting tickets, any tickets “Quick” worried me. The answers to next post on the site was one that made me sweat.
“How fast do tickets sell out?”
“About two minutes”
Okay, that was a shock. Obviously, I needed to call the Space Center and see what the deal was. Now, the Visitor Center, much to my amazement, is not a government run or funded institution. It’s actually a private enterprise and it advertises this fact proudly on its website. I noted this when I was looking through it for a contact number to call and ask about tickets. I prefer to do things like this in person if possible, but since I live in Maine, phoning was the next best thing. I find that Email, though often preferred by places like this, is notoriously ignorable. I discovered the number and within moments, called.
“Kennedy Space Center ticketing. This is _______. How may I help you?”
“Hello, yes. I was wondering about getting two tickets for the next Shuttle launch. How do I go about that?”
“Yah, they aren’t available for sale yet.”
“Yes, I understand that from the web site. I was just wondering when they would go up for sale and how I should purchase them?”
“The time of sale has not been released. You should check back often.”
“Ahhhh, I was told that they sell out pretty fast.”
“Yes, that’s true. About two to five minutes.”
“So, how am I supposed to get them if I don’t know when they will be on sale?”
“Just check back often.”
I was working hard, I SWEAR, to maintain an even tone in my voice and keep things convivial. After all, you catch more flies with honey… though a fly swatter was starting to sound good too.
“So, wait… You’re telling me that they sell out in under five minutes but that you can’t tell me when they will go up for sale. Is that correct?”
Yes sir.” she droned on in a voice utterly devoid of caring “ Just check back often.”
A little mushroom cloud lifted off the top of my head as I visualized the endless loop of doom. My mental clutch burning, I tipped my hand. They might not be governmentally run, but she had the personality pegged.
“Every five minutes?!? How is that supposed to work? How does anyone have the slightest chance of a shot at getting tickets?”
“Just check ba…” She was in full bureaucratic-stuck-record mode and I was too far away to nudge the needle.
“Thanks.” And with that, I did something that I’ve only done a very few times in my life. I hung up on her.
This was a problem. Tickets were needed and it was time to try out some unorthodox channels to get some. My first stop wasn’t far from home at all. Actually, it was next door. I needed to call the neighbors.
Our next door neighbors, Barry and Carole are a lot of fun. They’re a mostly retired couple who moved to the island about four years ago and bought the ancient farmhouse that sits on the opposite side of our backyard stonewall. There are lots of reasons why we like them, the most immediate of which that spring to mind being their good nature, a mutual interest in history, and the fantastic manhattans which appear one after the other almost magically from their bar. Man… the manhattans are just great. Another interest which we have in common is a love of flying.
So far as I can recall, I’ve always been entranced with the notion of flight and as a young child, my father would take me down to the local airport about once a year, charter a small, two or four seat airplane and a pilot and take me for a flight over the little valley where we lived. Things were a lot more relaxed back then when it came to air safety and regulation and I’d simply sit on my Dad’s lap for the duration of the flight. I got to see how everything worked, watch the gauges and if the pilot was feeling particularly friendly that day, even get to “fly” the plane a bit. This really only entailed me steering with the yolk, but I still found it a thrill. What kid wouldn’t?
With the hook firmly set, it was inevitable that some day I’d go and get my pilot’s certificate, which is exactly what I did. It was never something I wanted to do as a profession but rather enjoyed as an unbelievably fun way to unwind on a sunny weekend or after a stressful day at work. When my wife and I lived in Vermont, we were only a few minutes from a wonderful little airport and flew quite often. After I started my business, I didn’t have as much time to spend zipping around, boring holes in the sky for no particular reason. Once we relocated to our current runwayless island home, my flight time dropped off even further. When our son was born, that was pretty much the final blow to my time spent in a cockpit. The concept of free time and extra money are nothing more than the vague and fleeting memories of a life that might as well have been a thousand years ago. Did I actually get to do that? Was that me? Well, I do still have the certificate and it has my name on it, as does the black logbook that details every flight I’ve ever made. It rests dustily on the shelf in the hopes of someday being tossed into a flight kit and being toted into the air once again. It must have been me. I don’t know when it will happen again, but I can be patient.
Barry also liked to fly, though he, like me, no longer takes to the sky these days. He spent a lot of time in the air and now he’s happy to reflect on his experiences and leave it at that. I think it’s fair to say that he was far more into it than I was, however. His joy of flight propelled him from the humble seat of a tiny two seater, where all pilots seem to begin, and then followed it all the way up to becoming a director of the Federal Air Administration in Washington, DC. You don’t get much more enthusiastic about flying than that!
We have a great time on summer evenings, relaxing in his living room, chatting about flights we’ve made, the merits of various aircraft and how low the drinks are getting in our glasses. I knew that Barry had been out of the FAA for a long time now but he still does consulting work in the aerospace industry and has a lot of connections. With my new understanding that getting my tickets was going to require some serious effort, I thought talking to my fellow airplane friend was worth a try. Surely he must know someone at NASA? After explaining my situation to him, I asked if there was anything he thought he could do.
“Wow. That’s…ah, that’s a great thing you want to do with your boy. You know, I used to know the director at NASA very well.”
This sounded promising! I was hoping for a connection like that.
“The problem is that he’s been retired now for ages, just like I have. He’s not there anymore and I can’t think of a single person I know who works there still.“ I could tell that the situation pained him and I was instantly regretting having asked. Barry’s a great person and the only thing that would pain him more than not being able to help a friend is not being able to help a friend when at one time, he could have easily.
“No problem!” I tried to interrupt with out interrupting and save him from making any other apology for a situation completely not of his making. Now we were both feeling uncomfortable. Great. “I just thought I’d call and see and… um.. So, How’s Carole?” My attempt to change the subject must have been transparent as cellophane, but thankfully we managed to steer the conversation to other grounds and ending with only a parting “Sorry about that” from my friend.
Next I’d try something that was less potentially embarrassing, but far more of a long shot. I’d contact one of my Senators.
Now, to set the record straight here, I am not a government botherer by any measure. I don’t’ write letter after letter to Congressmen or even City Council members. I don’t watch C-Span or go to political rallies. I don’t, to be honest, hold elected officials in a lot of esteem. Mostly, government officials seem to be concerned with one thing and one thing only and that is to get them reelected as many times as humanly possible. There’s a very good reason hardly anyone in office likes the idea of term limits. This time though, I thought that it might, just MIGHT work in my favor. What all officials like is good public relations story and this was a pretty good one. What I needed to do was something I did a lot in my youth but almost never anymore. I needed to write a letter. By HAND.
Deep in the confines of the top drawer of a little used bureau sat my few remaining monogrammed letters that I must have purchased some time in during the first Clinton administration. Writing a hand letter was something that was so common not that long ago, but now, with the advent of good and cheap inkjet printers, not to mention email, the common household letter is a thing of the past. An anachronism. Despite this, in face, because of this, it is also the very best way to get your self noticed in our otherwise type written world. Knowing the condition of my horribly deteriorated penmanship skills, I decided to do this thing write… I mean right.
Sitting up straight in my chair at a cleared off kitchen table, I carefully wrote out my letter in the faintest pencil, all the time using an index card to keep the lines of text parallel and neat. Once accomplished and carefully checked for errors, only then did I pull out the pen and overwrote the pencil. When I was sure the ink was dry, an eraser took care of my earlier marks. It reads more or less as follows:
Dear Senator Collins,
My family and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and my three year old son is fascinated with space and rockets to the point of obsession. His birthday is in March and as a very special present, I want to take him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the Shuttle launch on the 18th. The problem is, that it’s nearly impossible to obtain tickets. They go on sale to the public at an unspecified date, at an unspecified time and sell out in less than an hour. The only advice I could get from the space center was to, “check back often.”
As you can guess, the likelihood of me calling in time to get tickets is practically zero. I would happily pay for tickets if there were some why I could be given a chance. I would like to ask you if there is anything you could do or suggest so I might get this chance to show my son a once in a lifetime view. This is something he would remember for the rest of his life as well as I.
Thank you for your time and attention as well as for whatever assistance you might be able to offer.
As I looked over my work, I grinned. Instantly, I was a sixth grader again, just about to hand in my hard work. I was proud! Then, in a moment of balloon like deflation, I realized that Miss Aubin would have sent this right back for me to do again with a terse remark scrawled at the top in her unforgiving red pen. In sixth grade, it would have had to be in cursive. No excuses.
Luckily, Miss Aubin wasn’t going to get a chance on grading this one and without remorse, I stuck it into the envelope, copied the address onto the front, affixed the postage, made sure that my return address was easy to decipher and carried it by hand to our little post office down by the ferry landing.
These moments are interesting things for me. I like to think that I’m not a naive fool, blundering through life with the misplaced belief that people are happy to solve my problems for me, but at times like this, I actually get this sensation that I’ve got a good shot at getting help. Somehow, as I walked back to my house, I was sure I’d hear something from the Senator, even if it was just a form letter. I’d get something.
As hopeful as I was, I’ve also learned not to bank on hope. Hope’s great. It makes you feel good and keeps morale up, to be sure, but I’m willing to bet that most people adrift in life rafts who’ve died of exposure had hope just welling up in their hearts. Personally, I vote for rowing. The problem was picking a direction. Then, as luck would have it, I got a sign from above. Well, the Internet, actually, but the effect’s much the same.
When I had been messing around on that hideous time vampire, Facebook, I had discovered that the Kennedy Space Center had a fan page. It’s where I had gotten the advice about where to see the launch from. Apparently, while I was there, I had clicked the “Become a Fan” button and put on their electronic mailing list. It was the only way I can explain the email that arrived in my in-box.
“STS-131 space shuttle launch viewing tickets at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex go on sale Thursday, February 11 at 9:00 a.m. ET.”
Facebook, if I ever spoke ill of you before, please forgive me.
As things turned out, timing was actually going to be on my side for once. That particular Thursday morning we would all be visiting my in-laws in central Maine. Because of my wife’s somewhat unusual choice of profession as ferry captain, it means that her workweek is anything but the Monday through Friday, nine to five routine which most folks live in. Much of the time she works second shift type hours and weekends fall… well… wherever they can. We’ve done Tuesdays and Fridays; we’ve had Mondays and Wednesdays. You name the combination and she’s had it. All, that is, except for Saturday and Sunday. That’s something that just never ever happens in her line of work except for the very most senior of the senior captains, which se is not. Not yet, anyway. With her current schedule however, our weekend, for the moment anyway, was Wednesday-Thursday. That, and because I’m a full time stay at home Dad, my weekends are… frankly, never. BUT! I don’t have an office to go to. That is, unless you count the kitchen.
We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and after the various pleasantries about the drive, how we’ve been and what should we feed the kids, I explained the situation to my wife’s folks. Tomorrow morning we were going to need the computer. All of the computers, actually.
Being a huge tech geek and former I.T. director, I admit that I like computers. That’s not quite right. I LOVE computers. I like them powerful and portable and I had made darned sure that my wife and I had our laptops with us and ready to go when the time was nigh. To make things even better, my in-laws had just recently switched from the slow-as-tar-in-January connection that they had to a super fast cable connection full of wonderful high speed broadband goodness. Now, it was time to stop rowing and start hoping.
After reading and then rereading the rules of the game on the Kennedy Space Center website, I explained it to my wife.
“Okay, here’s how it works. At eight forty-five the site will open a page that will let us in to a virtual waiting room. Once the virtual waiting room fills up, they will close it off to new arrivals, so we have to be very, very fast on that.”
“And then we can buy tickets?” Action Girl looked a little groggy as she hovered over her steaming mug of coffee, but she was doing her best to look attentive.
“No. Not quite” This was where things got interesting. “That gives us the chance that we might get picked at random while in the waiting room to be allowed to buy tickets, providing that someone else hasn’t hovered them all up already.”
“Agreed. But that’s the way they play. And it’s not over yet. IF, we get into the waiting room and then IF one of us gets picked then we will be given exactly two minutes to fill out the information to order the tickets. If we go over the two minute mark, we get bumped back into the waiting room, but by then it will probably be too late to get picked again.”
Blank, semi-caffeinated eyes looked back at me. One eyebrow arched and was followed by a very flat, “What?”
“Yah, so we need to be ready.”
“I’m gonna need more coffee.” And with full mugs in hand, we sat down and got prepared.
I set the two laptops up on the dining room table and once they were set at the right page on the Kennedy Center’s website, I then attended to my in-law’s machine. Everything was ready and we all had our jobs. Mine was the laptops. My wife’s was the other desktop computer. My in-law’s was to keep the kids entertained and prevent them from trying to climb into our laps and demand to watch (in my daughter’s case) kid shows such as Miffy, Kipper or Maisy Mouse, or (in my son’s case) videos of rockets or the Space Shuttle. This had an added difficulty factor being that the page we had to wait at was covered with a rocket and space motif. Once Short Stack spotted that, the pleading began instantly.
“Later, I swear. Right now we need to do something important.”
“But Daddy, can’t we just watch one video? Puh-LEEZE?”
The easy thing to do would have been to simply explain why I couldn’t. I could just tell him that we were all trying to get tickets for him to go and see these things in person and just how awesome that would be. He is three, and the idea of putting off a little enjoyment now for a lot later on is a difficult concept for him to grasp, but I had met with some success there before. The very real problem was possible failure. Very possible, actually. I had no idea what our chances were to get launch tickets and the idea of getting him all cranked up to see something that would blow his mind that much… and then not making it out of their hideous little virtual waiting room… well, I just didn’t think I could deal with that sort of guilt. I know it wouldn’t be my fault, but still, the look of a deeply disappointed child, YOUR deeply disappointed child is just too withering for me to want to get anywhere near.
I’d rather eat bugs.
So, with my in-law’s best attempts to get him distracted, Action Girl and I sat, drank more coffee and waited.
“Get ready…” I didn’t take my eyes off the clock on my laptop. The clock that is set via the Internet, so you just KNOW it’s right.
Three clicks and all three computers navigate away from their page and into the waiting room. “Okay, so we’re in. Now we wait.”
Here, I give my wife some serious credit. While we had been waiting, it was her idea to copy down all our information, credit card numbers, addresses, names, etc, on another document on the computer. Then, if one of us got in, we could simply cut and paste it all into the appropriate fields without worry of error. That, and it would be faster.
It was all set to go and just as I had hoped, BING, I was in.
The computer that got he magic pass happened to be my own and with a whoop, I quickly focused on filling out everything perfectly. Easy! And as I typed, I realized that it was going to be even easier than I thought! The information that is so commonly needed on forms like this is cached in your computer’s browser memory and the auto-filling took over as I zipped though. Names and phone numbers appeared without me having to do a thing! The only thing that made me pause was when I had to decide on the type of ticket.
Causeway or Space Center?
Causeway was a better view.
Space Center had stuff to look at.
What to do?
I looked at my son who was at that moment playing with his wooden Space Shuttle, making a low pass about three millimeters over his nose as he added rocket noises for effect. He worships rockets. He loves them. He needed to be surrounded by them when the moment came. That, and like I said, they had bathrooms.
Space Center, it was.
I clicked the appropriate button and hit “Complete”
I reached the end with time to spare. I smiled… then went bug eyed.
Instead of being shown the “You’re all set, you lucky boy” page, I was looking at my form again with a message stating that there were, “some errors.”
As I looked down the list of information, I realized that I had been sabotaged by my very own machine. Auto-fill had been less than perfect, but that didn’t stop it from trying! Here and there, I started to see where, in an effort of helpfulness, my computer had put down things that didn’t make sense. Phone numbers that were in wrong fields, Addresses that were either incomplete or overly so. I had to do some quick triage.
A few seconds of work and… “Complete.”
“There are some errors that we…”
I scanned though the form again looking for the offending fields and tried and mostly failed to stop swearing in the presence of my children. I felt like I was an involuntary contestant on some evil game show. I do not know who programmed this site or decided on its rules, but I can safely say that if they were present at that moment, I would have elbowed them in the groin. “Accidentally,” of course.
“Third time’s the charm?” I clicked “complete” again and mumbled through clenched teeth. “Come on you bastard. Take it!”
“Congratulations! You are reserved for two tickets at the viewing area at the Kennedy Space Center for STS-131 on March 13th.
(Note to readers: We didn’t’ miss nor see the launch already. It was rescheduled for April 5th. More on that later)
I’m not certain, but it sounded to me like I let out at least three lungs worth of held breath as I rocked back in my seat and smiled. We were in. We had the tickets. Nothing would stop us now.
“Hey,” My wife said excitedly. “I just got picked from the waiting room! Do you need any more tickets? Are you sure you’re all set?”
It was an odd moment and a possibility that I hadn’t really considered. Did I need any more tickets? I had heard about tickets being resold on eBay for over a grand each and the reality of that notion hung there in the room like low fruit. “No. I’m all set. We’ve got what we need.”
Let someone else get the tickets. Perhaps there was another father and son who were dying to go. Perhaps they were still languishing in the waiting room thumbing through dog eared virtual copies of Field and Stream and LIFE Magazine. To take there dreams away would be totally unfair. Hopefully, they’d get called up next.
With that, we shut down the computers, stood up, stretched and topped up mugs with more coffee. We did it.
“Dad, NOW can we watch some rocket videos?” His Shuttle was gripped in his hand as he looked up at me.
“Yah, I think we can now. What one do you want to see?”
With that, I sat back down, reopened the laptop and let him scurry into my lap as I punched in the URL for YouTube and searched for the NASA channel.
“Let’s watch that one!” and a little finger shot out to direct me to the chosen clip.
“Sure Buddy.” I was one happy dad, and now so was he. All we needed to do now was get there.
Well all, tomorrow’s the big day. I’ll be leaving with Short Stack for a while in the hopes of seeing the Shuttle launch on Monday at 6:22 AM.
Wish me luck with the airports, the rental cars, the hotel and keeping a four year old up all night long for three minutes worth of, “Wow!” Here’s hoping!
Naturally, I’ll be writing more later. Hopefully, I’ll even get a chance while I’m there. That’s assuming that I don’t fall asleep too while he’s napping.
AND, WE’RE OFF!!!
Houston, we have a problem.
There were some unforeseen issues with the date we were to leave. Initially, the launch was supposed to take place on March 18th at the height of the afternoon. It was going to be perfect for viewing with a young child. Then, like massive pieces of monstrously complex machinery are want to do, something went wrong on the orbiter. Nothing major. Nothing catastrophic, but just a big enough a problem to warrant rescheduling the “go” date for the beginning of the next month. No big deal, right?
The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh, thank God I didn’t buy the airline tickets yet.” To say that things are a little strained in the airline industry these days is like mentioning that sticking a rosebush in your pants might be somewhat uncomfortable. With the hysteria that has infused every corner of the airline experience combined with the unadulterated fact that the vast majority of carriers are loosing money hand over fist, despite the fact that they charge you for your luggage, your drinks, your food and even (I wish I were making this up) the pillows, then you can see why I suspected calling them up and begging for a date change on our tickets would meet with non-helpfulness on a wide and impressive scale. They might do it, but there would be a charge. My only question was if the penalty fee might be more than the price of the ticket. For this very reason, I had begged off on selecting our flight. That, and I’m cheap and hate forking over large sums of money for just about anything and tend to put it off until I can’t let it go any longer.
The second problem was that our departure date would now fall, not only on Easter Sunday, but also my daughter’s second birthday. Great.
In some ways, it’s hardly a big deal. Though my wife and I were raised Catholic, neither of us are practicing any more. To be fair, after eleven years of parochial school, I feel that I’ve practiced enough and am ready for prime time. As for the birthday, well, that stings a bit. The good news is that this is probably the last time I could ever get away with that. She is after all, very, very young and the concept of birthdays to her means only two things: “Pwesents” and “Cake!”
If it were up to Lulu Belle, every day would include pwesents and cake. For her, the fact that it falls on a particular day in the year means exactly, precisely, nothing. Therefore, we’d be having our festivities a day ahead. Problem solved! Plus, since the Easter Bunny doesn’t actually work for the Vatican, we figured that we could talk him into a Saturday delivery as well. All seemed to be working out just fine, even if it does sting a bit for me to miss her special day. I was already missing her and we hadn’t even left yet.
The last little entertainment that cropped up due to the date change was the launch time. Previously, it was going to take place in the sunny afternoon, and, as luck would have it, just before naptime! How perfect can you get? Too perfect, apparently.
When NASA, or anyone else for that matter, wants to launch a rocket, they don’t just pick the time arbitrarily. It needs to be very, very carefully worked out. The issue is that if you want to make a multi-million (or billion) dollar chunk of technology go up into orbit, any old orbit, then when you press the big, red launch button doesn’t really matter. (I’m assuming here that the “launch” button is red. If it isn’t, then it should be. That’s how I’d make them) There’s a lot of space out there and if the engine on the back of your rocket is big enough and you can get it to fly consistently up, then you’re pretty safe to hit it eventually.
It’s kind of hard to miss.
The trick is when you want it to go into just the right orbit. Like I said, space is really big and if you’re going to wind up in the correct bit of it to say, meet up with the International Space Station, then you’re going to need and plan things just right. The Earth, after all is moving and pretty damned fast at that. So is the ISS. It’s cooking along at 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kph) and though it might look pretty big in the NASA release photos, it’s barely a speck on the horizon. And then you have to find the right horizon. After all, those lucky few whom are riding it get to see a new sunrise ever ninety two minutes! See how tricky this gets? This is also a perfect example of why I’m not a NASA scientist. I’m much more in the Alan Shepard school of thought, who put it this way to Mission Control after waiting in his capsule for over four hours to blast off and become the first American in Space:
“Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle!”
God love you, Alan.
That might have been how things rolled in the early days, but is sure as heck isn’t how things roll now.
So, with the change in the date of the launch, so comes a change in the time of day for the Shuttle to make its launch window. We were now looking at a 6:22 AM launch. “Not bad” you might think. “I’ve seen worse things than getting up just before dawn.”
Ah, yes, but you’re forgetting something. That’s when the launch actually happens. We have tickets for the viewing and they have a non-negotiable, “arrive by” time. Because this is a highly regulated venue and since we were going to be seeing the launch with roughly sixty zillion other lucky ticket holders, we had to be at the Space Center early. How early?
Wait. Let me say that again. MIDNIGHT!
With a FOUR YEAR OLD!
But wait, there’s more. The hotel we were staying at. Yah, that’s an hour away.
So, I’d be pulling my son, a few hours after arriving in Orlando, out of his soft and comfy bed and packing him into the car to drive, park and then wait for six hours. This would be tough on me but I was afraid that it was going to be brutal on him. What I needed to figure out was how to stuff an Ace up my sleeve.
My horror image was of the two of us, standing out in the dark field that’s used for viewing with several hours to go and him melting down because, well… he’s a little kid, tired and without a safe and comfortable place to try and get some sweet, sweet sleep. I needed to bring my own home base. With only a few days to go before launch, I started looking around on Amazon.com and found my solution.
“Oh, yes! Please!”
In its traveling sleeve, it looks almost identical to one of those collapsible fabric and fiberglass pole traveling chairs that you see everywhere. My sincere hope was that if I could get it in, and if I could find a place to set it up and if I wasn’t discovered by a disapproving security-type individual, then perhaps I might be able to avoid my vision of parental doom.
That’s a lot of “if’s”.
Hey? Was I the guy bashing hope just a while ago? I take it back.
I hope! I hope! I hope!
Quasi-happily, I did find out (yet again through Facebook) that tents were sometimes allowed on the Causeway, but no one seemed to know if that would fly at the actual Space Center. It would be, after all, on manicured grounds filled with spectators and exhibits. Kind of like going to an outdoor symphony and setting up camp amongst the other attendees, but in my case, the orchestra would be igniting with over seven million tons of thrust. The Boston Pops might be good, but they aren’t that good.
In some weird way, I actually didn’t want to probe this too deeply. After all, If I couldn’t find a quick “no” to my tent idea, I could possibly beg ignorance and not purer my self. I try very hard not to lie, but there’s not reason I should make a Herculean effort to actually hang my self, right? No harm, no foul! Right?
When the tent arrived the day before we left, I set it up in the front yard to test it out. The consensus? It was cheap. Very, very cheap. In fact, it used something that I thought had died out years ago with innovations to tent technology. guy wires. Two, big segmented poles were used to give it its basic form, but it used actual tent stakes and wires to hold it out to its full length. Still, it was serviceable, relatively smuggable and I thought it would do in a pinch, provided that some poor soul didn’t do an unanticipated forward somersault in the predawn dark. Possibly me. I packed it into the bottom of my suitcase and made ready to head for adventure with my boy.
“Do you really think they’ll let you set it up?” My wife looked at me with a face that managed to appear both sincere and incredulous all at once. I have no idea how she does this.
“Well, I think so.”
“You think so? But you don’t know?” Her eyebrow arched and the arms crossed. Uh-oh.
Must… not… fidget… uncomfortably! At times like this, I have found that the best course of action is to blame others. Not the moral high ground, perhaps, but it seems to work more than it doesn’t. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first male to use this method of redirecting a womanly gaze of scorn. That, and with its use, I would still be able to pass a polygraph test. “I can’t seem to get a straight answer about that.” I used my very best professorial tone in an effort to add credibility to my words. “Some people said that it would be okay at the Causeway, but I can’t find anything about the Space Center, either way.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t looked super duper hard to find that information. Again, I wanted to be able to use the Idiot Defense if cornered later on.
“So, what’s your plan then?” This was a test, and I knew it. I’ve been around the block enough times to avoid this one.
My “plan” was the one that so many men had used before me. It’s been in use for millennia and it’s driven wives and girlfriends bonkers, probably since the beginning. I don’t know what they called it before the invention of American Football, but here and now, we have a name for it. It’s called punting. For any one unfamiliar with this term, I’ll make it brief. Punting is when you kick the holy hell out of the ball and prey that things go your way. It is the ultimate non-plan.
If it were just me who was going, that would be fine with her. She’s traveled with me quite a lot and is actually very good at shooting from the hip when it comes to fluid situations. The difference here was that it wasn’t just me. I would have our very best son with me (actually, our only one, so it’s sort of de facto, but true none the less) and his care was the most important thing. I needed something better to say than, “I dunno. I’ll make it up as I go.”
“Oh, I suppose we could sleep in the car. That would be warm and safe.” To be honest here, I seriously doubted that this would work. I was pretty sure that we’d have to leave our vehicle and would not be allowed back out unless we were willing to abandon our admittance to the grounds. Wisely and weasely, I omitted that part and let her mull it over. I’m not proud of that, but what was the point of panicking her at this point in the game? She could probably see right though me, but if she did, she didn’t let on.
“Alright. Just take care of our boy.” Whether or not she bought it, I don’t know. What I do know is that she helped me pack up our provisions until the suitcase bulged to comical proportions. The next day was the day before our flight and we had birthday and Easter to attend to. With the last few hours rolling by at amazing speed, I started to get that sinking feeling I always do before a trip.
What was I forgetting? Was I forgetting something? I don’t think I’m forgetting anything. Am I?