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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Flight Time… Part II

I have a certain phobia about kids and airplanes, which originates from a long flight I was on to Europe many, many years back. We were aboard a 747 and if you’ve never been on one, let me tall you, those things are truly massive. They are so big inside as to almost seem unreal. They have not one, but two isles which divide the seats into three rows. On the window sides, there are three seats. In the middle, they are five across. On this particular flight, I was in the most windowless seat possible: dead center. It was a very full flight and there was no hope of me finding a less hemmed in spot to spend my many hours over the Atlantic, and resigned to this fact, I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be too bad. That’s when the clueless dad traveling alone with his young daughter showed up.

The little girl was perhaps two or so and the father was talking to her as they took their places in the seats directly in front of mine. I was mostly engrossed in my own preparations for the flight and so, wasn’t paying that much attention to what he was saying until a horrifying sentence cut though my thoughts like an errant Exacto through a fingertip.

“You’re a big girl now, right? You don’t need diapers now, do you? Right?”

Heywhatsaywhatdidyousay?!?!?

What really scared the beegeebees out of me was the way he said the last, “Right?” There was a serious lack of conviction when he spoke that word. In truth, it sounded more like pleading than reassurance.

This did not bode well.

It was dinnertime when the inhabitants of the surrounding seats found out that, no, in fact she was not a big girl and that, yes, in fact she did need diapers. The odor of tinkle started to waft though out the area and we did our best to pretend that we didn’t notice the small army of flight attendants armed with roll after roll of paper towel as they tried to clean up the mess and deal with a semi-apoplectic father who was obviously way outside of his comfort zone.

Things were going as well as could be expected and I was doing my damnedest to block out all the action and associated Lysol and other odors that went along with this flying superfund site. That’s about the time the little girl, who was utterly unphased by the entire episode, decided to pitch in and lend a hand with the cleanup efforts. This consisted of grabbing a big handful of wet paper towels and… dumping them over her seatback.

“All gone!”

The wadded up towels landed with an audible plop directly onto my meal, of which I had taken not single bite. If the plane had been in a dive and pulling over eight G’s, I seriously doubt that I could have crushed my body any deeper into the upholstery in my effort to maximize my distance from the offending sight on my tray table.

The entire episode was, as you can see, seared into my memory and the image of the soiled seat cushion being removed, to be stored who knows where, is still vivid in my mind.

I did not want to be the doofus father. Not ever.

Though Short Stack is easily twice the age of this little girl from my past, he’s still a munchkin, and when a four year old tells you that they have to pee, you have possibly fifty to sixty seconds to get them to a lavatory. Possibly much, much less.

My head whipped up to look at the seat belt sign which was still illuminated with its smug little circle with a line though it. We were still climbing and who knows when it was going to go off. I looked back at the bathroom door and the flight attendant who was sitting opposite it.

CRAP!

I waved.

She didn’t see me.

I waved again with more animation and either managed to catch her eye or at least be too obvious to ignore.

With a less than enthusiastic demeanor, she unbuckled her belt, stood up and strolled the few feet to my seat. She looked like she had been doing this job for a long, long time and she was looking pretty burned out.

“My son needs to use the bathroom. Right now.”

I was doing my best to impart the urgency of the situation by attempting to make my eyebrows disappear into my hairline and do a grimace/smile. I would either look like I meant it… or deranged. Either one, I felt, would work. What ever the case, what she said next was spoken with the weariness of a veteran of the service industry whom has seen this sort of thing go very badly before. Possibly to her. Possibly more than once.

“The seat belt sign is still on, so I can’t tell you that it’s okay for you to get up… The bathroom,” she pointed to the rear of the plane, “is right over there.”

And with that, she returned to her seat and buckled back in. If that wasn’t an invitation to break a rule, then I really don’t know what one is.

Having received my tacit clearance to get my kid to the rest room rather than soak a seat cushion, I immediately tucked Short Stack under my arm and made a run for it. After a fitful moment of trying to get us both in the miniature broom closet, the door latched and everything taken care of, crisis was happily averted, we returned to our seats just in time for the captain to come on the PA and let us all know that though we still wouldn’t be allowed to smoke on the flight, we could now get up and move around the cabin.

It’s all in the timing.

The rest of the flight went far better. With the green light from the cockpit, I happily let Short Stack free from the restraints and gave him my most stern, “I’m not kidding now” look when I explained that he was in no way allowed to put his feet on the seat in front of him. When the flight attendants came through with drinks and snacks, he actually laughed out loud with pleasure at the notion. He was in great spirits and so was I. It was going to take us about three hours to get to Orlando and it would be right through the heart of what at home, is nap time. Here, now, with a good night’s sleep under his belt, a grand adventure begun and free orange juice and pretzels being delivered to him at thirty-five thousand feet, there was no chance that he was going to be nodding off.

Zero.

The good news was he was having a ball and on his best behavior. Short Stack is a great kid (if I do say so myself) and I rarely shrink from any opportunity to take him somewhere or do something with him. Normally though, there’s an added variable. One that makes things… unpredictable;

His little sister, Lulu Belle.

She too, is a dream to take off gallivanting and we’ve had some really fun times together as well. Both kids are a lot of fun, follow direction well and tend to be well mannered… until they’re together. That mixture can be explosive.

The difference of how you interact one with a child versus corralling two or more is night and day. One on one, you are sharing an experience. You are listening and they are telling you things. They ask you questions and you give informed answers. You can almost see the knowledge moving from you to them. Then they point out something that you totally missed and you see how amazing they are. It’s a wonderful experience. When it’s two of them together, your role switches directly to referee. Your number one job is no longer to listen, but to keep one of them from smearing a peanut butter and honey sandwich in the other’s hair and failing that, to get the one with the honey dripping into their eyes cleaned up while sending the other to the time out chair and making sure they stay there. Being an only child myself, this is all unfamiliar ground to me and I admit, I’ve found the work more than a little challenging. Being solo with just one, either one, feels like a walk in the park now.

Looking down at Short Stack, quietly playing with his Shuttle and other toys, I missed my daughter, but simultaneously was reveling in the notion that for the next four days, it was just us guys. Just we two.

As we closed in on the end of our flight, I craned my head over my son’s and looked out the window… and there it was. Sticking out into the sea, just off the Florida coast was the unmistakable barrier island that is the home to the U.S. Space Program. It was Cape Canaveral. No doubt.

“Look Buddy! Look! Somewhere down there is the Space Shuttle! It’s right below us!”

I jabbed the window repeatedly with my index finger and he, snapped out what ever he was imagining at the moment, pressed his nose flat in the hopes of seeing the unseeable.

“Is it taking off?!?!” There was some real worry there.

“No, no! Not yet! That doesn’t happen until tomorrow… well… today… but much later.” Again, I remembered that we were arriving just in time for the launch. There would be very little downtime and sleep was going to be illusive. We’d be down there, right there, later tonight.

There was a lot to do before then and not that much time to do it in.

As we came in for a landing, Short Stack dutifully started draining his sippy cup again in the effort to deal with his popping ears. When that was emptied, he resumed his venus flytrap pose. The touchdown on the runway was nice and smooth and as soon as I deemed it safe, unbuckled him so he could again see out the window.

“Is that really Florida?”

“Yup, it sure is.” Palm trees scooted past as we taxied to the gate.

“Really? All that? That’s all Florida?”

I’m not entirely sure what he was expecting, but I assured him that it was indeed Florida and that, yes, I was sure.

“Oh.” He thought for a moment and then resumed scanning out the window. “But where are all the rockets?”

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