Rocketland

After I completed the sweep of our seating area to insure that we left behind no beloved toys or articles of clothing, I moved to let Short Stack out first. Partly, this was so I could keep my eyes on him but mostly so I could act like a human dam to block the human tsunami behind us from crunching him flat or at least absent mindedly cudgeling him with a carry on the size of a phone booth. When you’re only about three feet tall, most of the world takes little notice of you and when you toss into the mix an almost pathological need that some people have to bolt for the exits, even before the plane reaches the gate sometimes, you have a formula for a lightly wounded but loudly crying kid. As we passed the now open cockpit doors and waving attendants, I couldn’t help but crane my neck a tad for that brief second long look at all the switches, screens and knobs. As a kid, I loved getting a chance to see airplane cockpits and I was sometimes even rewarded for my nosiness with a full tour from a member of the flight crew. My own son however, barely gave it a glance.

It wasn’t a rocket.

Just out side the airplane door was our red stroller that had been gate checked in Maine and with only minor protest, I managed to convince him that riding was far more amenable to walking… at least for me. On foot, a four year old’s path can be hard to predict and even harder to dictate and when you then consider that their legs are only about a foot and a half long, you can forget about getting anywhere quickly. As we scooted out of the arrival gate, I tried to get my bearings. First things first, we needed our bag. Short Stack has an amazing ability to ask me something, start telling me something or simply start sneezing at the precise moment that I need desperately to hear something else. He can be quiet for ten minutes but the second the guy on the radio starts in with tomorrow’s weather or someone starts to leave a message on the answering machine, something clicks in his head and he immediately starts chatting away with purpose and volume. If you try and crane your head to the speaker or cup your ear to attempt and listen, he talks louder. We’ve talked about this I don’t know how many times, but it’s a lesson that has yet to stick and he had just done it to me when the baggage claim carousel number had been given to us on the plane. It was time to employ my secret weapon.

Zen Navigation.

The name, so far as I know, was invented by the wonderful Douglas Adams of Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame and though I cannot take credit for the title, it is a practice that I had been employing for much of my life. I just didn’t know what it was called. The idea is truly elegant in its simplicity. When you are lost, simply look for someone who appears to know where they are going… and follow them. You might not wind up where you expected, but you might just wind up where you should be. I tell you, it’s amazing how often this works. Plus, you get to chat with the follow-ee if you get spotted.

I’ve been to Orlando Airport many times before, but it had been a while. In my previous life as a business owner, I had come through this airport over and over again to do the tradeshows that always seemed to be located in this neck of the woods. Before that, I had come on various vacations. Because if this, I knew that there was a train involved somewhere but it had been long enough that I couldn’t remember exactly where. I needed someone to follow. To my joy, she found me before I actually spotted her.

“So are you guys going to… you know… (Disney)? He must be pretty excited!”

The last word was spoken in a hushed, almost inaudible whisper from behind the back of a hand. The whisperer and now my unknowing tour guide was a smiling young woman who I recognized immediately from the plane.

I smiled back. “Nope. We’re actually going to go see the Space Shuttle take off. It’s what he loves more than anything.” I gestured down to the stroller with my head since it was the only part of me that wasn’t involved with pushing something or clinging to bags. How was I going to manage our suitcase? Hmmm. “And yes, he’s excited! We both are. I think what we’ll hopefully see will far outweigh Disney.”

“Oh, wow! That’s fantastic! You’re right. That’s way better. You guys are going to have a great time! When does it take off?”

Happily, things were working out just as I had hoped. I let our new friend take the lead by a step and a half and she lead the way. All I had to do was keep the small talk going and I’d have a guide and possibly some help dealing with doors or escalators. Within a few minutes, she took us right to the little train that ferried people to the correct terminal. Short Stack, who had been fairly passive thus far as he sat in his stroller, now started to perk up. Trains seemingly are a universal point of interest to kids. It’s like a common language of fascination to anyone under the age of six. Some hold onto it for life.

“Can I get up?!?” He said this as he practically hovered over his seat with interest.

“Sure. Just hop up here.” I pointed to a seat right in the front window. The trains are automated, so no driver is needed which means that there is an unfettered view down the track. The doors closed and as we quietly pulled out of the arrivals terminal, he had his forehead pressed tight to the glass. I could tell that he was disappointed with the short duration of the ride. It only took about a minute and a half to get where we were going.

Following our scout and feeling a bit like a fish in a school, I traveled along with the other members of our flight until reaching the baggage claim carousel. Short Sack marveled at the procession of bags as they bumped and squeaked past us and was happy to point out our own suitcase as it eventually appeared. Now, all we needed was the car.

As predicted, pushing the stroller, toting the carry-ons AND pulling the suitcase proved to be a serious challenge. All I really needed to do to round it out and set this experience to “expert” mode was a dog on a leash. Fortunately, I’m not a dog person.

After a Keystone Kopps-esque walk to the car rental desks that left my shins bruised and my hands cramping, I got the chance to see Murphy’s Law in action. We passed desk after desk, manned by bored and listless attendants without a customer to be seen. When we made it to the rental company I had booked with, the line snaked back and forth many rows deep. It was packed.

Crap.

Short Stack was being as good as a tired kid his age could be and amused himself for a while with talk of rockets soon to be seen.

“So, are you going to go see the Shuttle launch?” The question had come from a jovial looking British man just ahead of us by one bend in the serpentine line. He must have overheard Short Stack and I discussing the fun to come.

“Yah. It’s our fist time. How about you?”

“Oh, I hope to. Do you need tickets?”

Someone else in another part of the line answered for me. “Yes and no. It depends what you are looking for. You can see it great from US Route 1 but if you want to see it from NASA, you’ll need tickets.”

I added, “You might want to check on the Kennedy Space Center’s FaceBook page though. There may be some extras to be had.”

“But make sure you arrive on time.” This bit of information came from yet another part of the line. Were we ALL here for the same reason? Within a minute or two, I would guess that a quarter of the people there had broken into rocket talk. One space question had been asked, but there seemed to be no control rods in this conversation as I listened to the chain reaction take place all around us. It was like all that potential had been just bottled up and waiting for someone to release it. With only four Shuttle flights left, it seemed to be on everybody’s mind.

My own part of the conversation switched to a guy who did have tickets and was thinking about ignoring the required arrival time and simply showing up about an hour before launch. After I explained that the doors would be shut and locked by then and that the lines there were likely to put the one we were in now to shame, he elected to change his mind and even thanked me for the insight. I felt like I had saved someone’s vacation and was justifiably proud of my self.

“Daddy, I have to pee.”

Those words brought me crashing back down.

We had been in a long and slow moving line for easily fifteen minutes now and more people had been piling in behind us. I was burdened with luggage, a stroller and the realization that leaving now would put me off schedule with the meager amount of time we had before we needed to head to the launch.

“Just a few more minutes, buddy. Can you hold it?” I gave a hopeful smile and tried not to think of that dad on the plane from so many years ago.

“Yah. Okay.” He sounded confident. Go, boy go!… Or rather, don’t!

Please?!

The line moved ahead in spurts and then would stall out again from time to time. I watched a couple up at one of the desks who had been talking with an attendant for well over what you would think it would take to rent a car and started wondering what on earth they could be having an issue with. I started to dislike them for no better reason than the fact that by simply accepting the terms of rental and moving on, it would get us that much closer to a men’s room.

Soon, we were at the head of the line and Short Stack’s eyes were starting to bulge.

“Allllllmost there. Are you alright?” I knew for a fact that if he hadn’t been in the stroller just then he would have been doing a mean tinkle dance.

“Yah… But I really have to go.”

I was starting to sweat.

“I can help whomever is next” What sweet music to my ears!

As the attendant behind the rental counter went through her well rehearsed lines at a measured pace, I kept looking down at my little boy who was looking pretty anxious by now.

“Daaaaaad! I really have to pee!”

I looked back at the attendant. “Um, I’ve got to get him to the men’s room or I’m going to have a big problem. Is there any way we can we just cut right to the chase here?” Much to my surprise, rather than being irked at my request to hurry things along, it seemed to somehow snap her out of her corporate coma and release the human trapped inside the uniform. She must be a parent. A mom would understand this. She smiled, took a breath and kicked things into high gear. Blazing though the jargon and boilerplate, she managed to stuff everything she was supposed to tell the customer into a hyper-condensed, machinegun fast volley. Each time Short Stack made another comment about his maximum holding capacity, she would chuckle and pick the pace up that much faster. I think she viewed it as a race. Who would win?!?

As we approached the last stage of the transaction, I was hit with an unexpected issue: the cost. The final figure had come in at twice what I was quoted online and this made me pause. I’m sure I could have gotten at least an explanation or better yet, a lower price if I had pressed, but to do so now would risk my son’s britches as well as made me look like a total jerk after getting this nice woman to do her job in about a quarter of the time I’m sure it normally takes her. I thought about all this for about two seconds… and then swiped my card.

If you’re wondering how badly I wanted to avoid embarrassment for my son and the cleanup involved, the answer is two hundred and twenty dollars.

With a fast thank you and directions to the bathroom, we zoomed away in just the nick of time.

Phew.

A few minutes later, I was belting Short Stack into our new car and getting ready to hit the road. Just before I climbed in my self, I spotted a nickel on the ground. You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Find a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck.” Well, I looked down, saw the shiny nickel and thought, “Hey, that’s five days worth of luck there! I’ll take it!”

We were finally in Florida and our first hotel was just around the corner. We’d get to float in the pool before dinner and then crash for a very few hours before heading out on the most vital part of our journey. In just a few hours, we’d be at the Kennedy Space Center. He’d finally get his rockets!

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A House Guest in France, Part V

So now we were at the end of the train portion of the trip and it was time to take to the highways, at least for a while. We went to the car rental lot and walked in. It was mid-day and as you can expect, the place was deserted. I think the most civilized aspect of French life is their fanatical attachment to the lunch. To make a gross generalization, I think the French as a body would sooner drink Turning Leaf than give up one minute of their lunch… well, I was going to say hour, but it’s often far more like two. This is something that I think all countries could learn a lot from. A leisurely lunch meal in the States is about as common as they are nutritious.

We left and enjoyed a coffee at the local cafe and waited until we spotted the workers returning to their desks and followed. We had selected a compact car, with the hopes of getting a Smart Car, but to no avail. The car that they had waiting for us was a Skoda which we immediately fell in love with. We did the obligatory walk around with the agent and then, finding the car to be practically new, went in to fill out the paper work. When the agent brought up the subject of insurance, I had definite opinions. “Yes. Specifically, I want the coverage that will allow me to return the car to you in a variety of small boxes and walk away.” He blinked at me. I smiled. He gave that universal Gallic shrug that says “if you insist” and signed me up.

Some would say that I was tossing away money with this move since my own insurance will cover this, but here’s my thinking. If I’m in an accident in France. I speak no French., the paperwork that would have to be filled out with my insurance company, the French authorities and the rental company would be epic and to be honest, I’m on vacation. I don’t want risk my serenity by noticing a fresh “ding” left on a door after parking next to a jerk in some parking lot somewhere. I’ll do some overtime when I get home to cover the added expense. It’s worth it to me.

After we claimed out ride, Action Girl needed to place a phone call. She phoned up our unseen host and started scribbling directions down. I happily played with the stereo, zipping through various French pop stations in a fruitless effort to find Edith Piaf. Action Girl skipped back to the car and hopped into our trusty Skoda. Directions in hand, we headed off into a new and exciting road system full of locals who knew where they were going…. and at least one car with two clueless tourists in it.

Action Girl is a great navigator and this arrangement (me driving and she, telling me where to go) works wonderfully. All I need to do is trust in her ability to get us pointed the right way and all she needs to do is trust in my ability to shift from the far left lane, through the four lanes on the right to make the exit that just popped up 50 meters up the road , … At 120 kph. We are both very adept at our jobs. She channels the spirit of a WWII bombardier and I channel the spirit of Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench. WHEEEE!

I was doing fine until I snuck a look at her notes. They were covered in what looked like spirals with arrows coming out of them.

“What the heck are all those?”
“Roundabouts”
How many of them are there!?”
“Um… At least nine or so.”
“Good Lord”

Looking at the crude map drawn by my wife, it looked imposing.

As it turned out, the roundabouts were more of a well marked and courteous affairs than a “Place de la Concorde” mess. The humorist Dave Berry referred to it as “Place de la cars coming at you from all directions”. As time and kilometers whizzed by, I felt more and more comfortable with driving through France. We never did find Edith Piaf though. One turn took us us off the highway, then the next into a small town, then the next to a smaller town, then scrubby and lonely roads, twisting along the hips of hills and mountains. Here and there, we would enter and immediately pass through a small village and Action Girl would be vindicated in her directions as she checked off the names of these places on her map.

Finally, we passed through the miniscule village of Gras. Hardly any one lives there now and the sheep far out number the inhabitants. What was once a road turned in to little more than a goat track and the crazy switchbacks that led up the steep hill made you prey that there was no one coming down. I have driven on some heart stopping roads in my time and let me tell you, this path made the Road to Hana look like a four lane highway in Kansas. On at least one occasion, I actually got out of the car to check around a corner before proceeding.

After the climb to the top, there was a turn off that led to a huge rambling farm house. Action Girl hopped out and started walking up like she always came here. I was more cautious. What if it’s the wrong place? Visions of suspicious French peasants with old shotguns came unbidden to mind. Then, out of an ancient doorway stepped a man who smiled, waved and beckoned us in.

Introductions were made and an offer of dinner was happily accepted. Our host was a man of about 70, easily smiled and was very gracious. Action Girl and our host chatted up a storm as they reconnected and I did my best to be as polite as possible. We gave him his gift which made him laugh and then set the table. I was famished. He went to the kitchen and very proudly set down a board holding a grey, rubbery substance in the approximate shape of a small loaf of bread. He cut a thick slice which made a wet “Thwack” sound as it fell over. He set it on a plate and gave the plate to me.

“It’s calf’s brain in gelatin. Quite a delicacy! Mustard?”
Dear Lord. “Oh yes, please. Mustard would be great!” I preyed that it was very, VERY strong mustard.

One last entry to come. Wine, cheese, bread and no brains, please.

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