Arrival, Part III

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

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

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

“Turn left onto Route 95 North”

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

“Exit right in one hundred yards.”

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

“Exit in fifty yards.”

“I don’t know…”

“Turn now onto Route 95.”

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

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

“Gah! Alright! Fine!”

A heavier than normal deceleration and swerve quickly followed.

“Who are you talking to Daddy?”

“Ummm. The GPS.”

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

I shifted a little in my seat.

“Eh, no. Not actually.”

“Then why…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arrival, Part II

As the robotic female voice clipped efficient driving instructions from the little moving map suctioned to the dashboard, I fumbled with the radio in the hopes of possibly finding a bit of classical that might lull my boy back to sleep. Just because I had to be bright tailed and bushy eyed for the foreseeable future didn’t mean that he couldn’t take advantage of the car trip and get a little more rest. This however, was my point of view and though Short Stack might be able to understand the opportunity, bringing it to his attention served little purpose. There was a good reason for that.

My wife, if not a night person, is at least and evening lover and she can easily stay up until eleven or so with little effort. I, on the other hand, am a certified, dyed in the feathers, night owl and have been since… well, I was Short Stack’s age. If allowed to keep to my own schedule, I will happily stay up until some time around two AM or so and then somehow, after a few hours sleep, manage to crawl back out from under the covers at a still respectable eight o’clock.. I might try to shoehorn in a ten or fifteen minute power nap in there someplace to avoid nodding off unintentionally at an inopportune moment… such as when I’m running machinery at high RPM, but on the whole, I’m happiest to work on projects when it’s dark out and tend to get the lion’s share of my stuff done when most of my contemporaries are either asleep or watching Letterman through three quarters closed eyes. This would all be fine if the world let you keep the schedule that your body and brain was inclined to, but sadly, it rarely does. There are pre-set times when certain things must be done and that means that I first must convince my late night son to just lay down and TRY and fall asleep and then a few hours later, do the whole thing over again on my self. I just try not to put us as much of a fuss and I can easier tell if I’m lying about actually having to go pee again.

My son has completely inherited this nocturnal gene of mine and now I’m forced to choose between being the stern parent enforcer who demands that he go to bed since it’s already two hours past bedtime or simply cave in and let him stay up and continue to play quietly since I know that, truthfully, he really isn’t tired in the slightest.

I know this.

I’m not either.

Now, as we rocketed down the Florida Interstate system with a sigh of relief and a heady sense of mission, I happily put the lit up sprawl of Entertainmentville behind us. I eventually gave up on scanning the unfamiliar radio frequencies since it appeared to be an split between country music and tent revival style preaching, neither of which is my particular cup of tea. Instead, to keep my mind occupied, I started watching the clock, averaging my best, “pretty unlikely to be pulled over” speed and tried to work out our arrival time. If things went as they should, we would be pulling in just at the appointed moment. This naturally got me nervous. With any possible time buffer we could have had, taken up with actual sleeping, it was exactly the sort of thing that Murphy’s law loves to have for a delightful little snack.

“Dad?”

“Yah, buddy? What do you need?”

I was living in fear of another unscheduled pee break since pulling over on a Florida highway at night boasted not only vicious mosquitoes and chiggers but the ever present possibility of the random seven foot long alligator looking for a little something extra to go with his road kill platter.

“What are… um… What…” Words were still coming slowly and quietly, but I could sense that he was coming around to the coherent world., even if it was only at a minimum power setting. “What are they doing with the Space Shuttle now? Is it ready to launch?”

“Yah. It’s just about ready to go.” I scratched around in my head, trying to remember what I had read and seen about the preflight routine for a Shuttle launch and did my best with what I had. If he was going to be awake for the trip, as it now seemed to be, at least I’d have a chatting companion, even if the conversation was bound to be one subject deep only. “Well, I’d guess that the astronauts are awake and getting ready for the launch too. They’re having breakfast, getting dressed in their orange launch suits and will be soon be getting driven to the Shuttle and made ready for lift off in just a little while.” In truth, I didn’t know what the schedule was, but it seemed like a good guess.

He mulled this for a few minutes as we bumped along at the regular intervals of each pad of concrete.

“What are they having for breakfast?” This is exactly the kind of question my kid would think of and I liked the fact that he was curious about both what was going in to the Shuttle’s and astronaut’s respective fuel tanks.

“Hmmm… I don’t know. What ever they want I guess”

I wasn’t sure, but I sort of hoped that if you were a professional astronaut and about to ride a controlled explosion all the way into low earth orbit on a multi-multi billion dollar rocket, that the least NASA could do was splurge and get these incredibly brave folks what ever they fancied to start their day. It seems like the least that we could do.

Much of the rest of the ride went by quietly and from time to time I’d look back in the rear view mirror to see if my boy had finally nodded off during a long silent spell.

He hadn’t.

No surprise there.

The roads were black and sparsely dotted with the red tail lights of fellow travelers. In the quiet of the car, a nagging doubt had started to coalesce on the inside back of my skull and as its grip got firmer and firmer on my brain stem, I began to pay more attention to the road signs that blasted by in the glare of my rented headlights. I had started to doubt my digital navigator.

GPS’s are amazing tools I’ll grant you that I loved to fiddle with them when a friend happened to have one. I thought they were kind of neat, in roughly the same way I thought salad spinners were neat. They did a job, but they still seemed sort of silly to actually own. When it came to driving, I tended to be a luddite. I liked maps. I liked road signs. I liked not having to use batteries or plugs when I wanted to find out where I was. I love technology but really, I like to be able to do things my self. This trip though, had gotten me to choke back my caveman-like attitude and embrace change. When I had factored in my young traveling companion, our tight time schedule and driving unknown roads for unknown distances to unknown exit ramps, I realized that the safe money was on having a navigator to assist me, electronic or not. So, it was with hat and hand that I had visited my neighbors whom I knew were the owners of just such a magical device. I had knocked on the door and, after they had finished spinning dry the freshly washed spinach leaves that would be part of their dinner, happily entrusted me with their GPS. I had thanked them, packed it in our luggage and once we had arrived, used it happily. What I hadn’t done, naturally, was read the manual.

I am still part caveman, after all.

Arrival

The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”

“NO!”

…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

Pool Time, Part II

As I bobbed around in the pool with my grinning, water wing wearing bundle of energy, I resolved to see what could be done about a cold adult beverage at dinnertime and continued to listen with great delight to the peals of genuine laughter that Short Stack was making as we frolicked in the water. We kept this up for quite some time until finally, pruny, happy but exhausted, I had to call it quits on our time in the water. Naturally, it took some time and convincing to get my son on the same page as well. He’s a master of the delay tactic and being in the pool and slippery just made him that much harder to corral. We needed food and a rest now. We’d both sleep well tonight.

Padding back to the room, I let Short Stack run ahead and just enjoyed watching his little bouncy form as he trotted down the long, straight hall toward the elevators. He was still going strong and could have gone on playing for an hour more, easily, but time was starting to run short now. The realization that it was important not to squander the few hours that we had set aside for sleeping kept me focused. The simple act of moving with purpose again, waking up my sluggish brain and getting me back in mission mode. At the room we quickly showered up, dried off and dug through the suitcase to see what we could wear. I had packed for myself and knew what I wanted. My wife had packed for our son though, so it was a little work to see what I had available for my resident bed bouncer.

He hurtled over the two foot gap from one bed to another and then back again, enjoying the freedom of movement while I used the time to find what I needed in our luggage.

Bounce, bounce, bounce! “I’m hungry!”

“I’m working on it, Buddy.” I rooted around in an effort to find pants.

“The pool was great! Can we go again after dinner?” Bounce, bounce, bounce. We already had covered this ground before and to his slight dismay, the answer was still ‘no.’ He must have figured that it was worth a try.

After what seemed far too long, I found what I needed in the neat piles of clothing. Cramming the extras back into the approximate locations I had found them in, I motioned my son over. When that failed to get his attention over the bouncing, I called to him nicely. When that failed, I decided to tackle him to the bed and with much hooting and giggling, I started buttoning him into this evening’s attire.

“Perfect!” I said through my own grinning smile. ”Nothing says, ‘I’m on vacation’ quite like Hawaiian shirts and camo shorts! Now hold still you little jumping bean!!”

Wrestling him as he squealed with glee, I managed to stuff the wriggling, laughing mass of four year old into his clothes and eventually got him ready. The hotel was supposed to have a restaurant downstairs and I intended to stay on premises if at all possible. With my energies starting to run low and Short Stack’s due to ebb any moment now, I wanted to make this as simple and painless as possible. The two of us wandered around the ground floor for a bit, looking for our goal and listening for the clink of plates and silverware. After a few minutes, I gave up and asked the front desk about dinner. It was the same nice lady who had checked us in an hour and a half ago.

“Oh, well we don’t have a dining room per se, but we do have the bar. It’s right here!” With a sweep of her hand, she motioned around the corner of the check-in desk where, indeed, it had been fitted out with bar stools. Talk about your all in one service! “Here are some menus” And with that, she handed them to me and then left us to look them over while she checked in another couple just a few feet away.

For the set up, the menu was surprisingly complete and held exactly what you’d expect for bar fare. Though I was at first a tad taken aback at this setup, I quickly realized that this would be just fine for our needs. I helped Short Stack up to his very own stool and once he discovered that it spun, immediately put it through its paces. We looked perfect for the part we were playing, loud shirts draped over our pale frames and we both were happy with the way things were turning out. Short Stack was mostly happy with spinning his stool as he revolved around and around, slowed only by my hand in the concern that he might get dizzy and fall off. Glancing through the menu, I decided on two personal sized pepperoni pizzas to go, figuring that though they were probably of the microwaved variety, it gave me the best shot of getting some sort of dinner into my spectacularly hard to feed son. That decided, I then looked intently at the beer list. It had been a long day and a hard push and it was almost over.

Pretty much every evening when I’m home, I celebrate the close the day with a good, cool beer and it’s become almost a ritual for me. I don’t drink much, and having been cursed with the most amazing ability to extract the most fierce hangovers from the smallest quantities of alcohol, I rarely have more than just the one, but I’d be lying if I said that the notion of continuing my tradition this evening hadn’t been in the forefront of my mind for quite some time now.

I looked at the beer list and scanned the names.

Hmmmm.

Then I started thinking about later tonight.

In less than an hour, I was going to lie down next to my young son who may or may not actually close his eyes and nod off. In reality, even if we both did manage to, it would be more nap than real sleep. I’d be getting us up an hour before midnight, repacking the car, then driving for an hour or better on unfamiliar roads and THEN would have to get us in through the gate and set up at the Kennedy Space Center. I’d need to be on my game and what I needed, regardless of what I WANTED, was something that was non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated. I needed to be good.

Booooo!

I looked away from the tempting list of frosty delight and back up at the concierge/front desk manager/waitress/bar tender whom had returned, smiling, to take our order.

“Two, small pepperoni pizzas and… how about two orange juices. Large please.”

With an inaudible sigh that rattled around in my head for a second or two, lamenting the lack of my evening drink, I placed the menu down as my son decided to abandon his stool for the comfort of my lap. Like every establishment in Florida I’ve ever been in, the air conditioning had been cranked to polar temperatures and our jaunty shirts and tropical shorts didn’t offer us much protection from the incongruous chill. I’ve always found this remarkable when I encounter it, but it always seems to be the case. One doesn’t really think of needing to pack a sweater when traveling to the tropics but I often feel like I need one when I venture inside. I never remember this until it’s too late and I’m covered in goose bumps. Now Short Stack was discovering this too. I hugged his warm body to mine and we chatted quietly as we waited for the food to appear.

In the end, getting our dinner took way longer than anticipated, especially for two microwaved dinners and as my little traveling companion started to fall asleep in my lap, I was getting more and more ticked off at the wait. We should be sleeping by now! With the food’s arrival, I quickly paid for it, scooped up both dinner and my son and headed for the elevators. When, sitting on our miniature couch back in the room I opened the takeout style boxes, I was surprised to discover the reason. The pizzas had been hand made and baked in a pizza oven. They were delicious!

Concierge/Front Desk Manager/Waitress/Bar Tender/Pizza Chef!

That girl was good!

By the time we were fed and ready for bed, it was later than I’d hoped, but still, not too bad. We’d get a good, solid three and a half to four hours before we needed to be on the road. I pulled out traveling clothes for later, laid them out so that I could jump into them with a minimum of consciousness needed, repacked the rest and got things set so we could zip out the door as fast as possible. Short Stack was moving much slower now, the efforts of the day finally showing on him. As I tucked him into one of the massive queen sized beds, I looked down with a smile as he instinctively curled up into a tiny ball. He looked like such a peanut, dwarfed by a mountain of pillows and lost under unfamiliar sheets and blankets. He was yawning continuously but the questions never stopped.

“What will we see there?”

“When will we get there?”

“They won’t launch the Shuttle without us, will they?”

“Are the astronauts going to sleep now too?”

It was time for me to go to sleep as well and I glanced at the second, still made bed just a couple of feet away where I had expected to catch what rest I could. Then I looked back at my little boy. His voice came small and groggily from beneath the sea of bedding.

“Daddy, I’m cold”

With a glance and a last thought about having my own space tonight, I turned my back on it, gently pulled back the covers of his bed, crawled in and joined him. Still in a ball, he scrunched himself into my chest and rested his head on my arm.

“G’nite, Daddy.”

“Good night, buddy. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

In seconds, he was out cold. As I drifted off myself, I thought of the astronauts who were getting ready at that very moment. The thrill that they must be living and the excitement of knowing that soon, they would be in space. The ride of a lifetime! But as I listened to my son’s quiet breathing and my nose was tickled by his mop of hair, I realized that right then, I wouldn’t trade places with any of them. This was heaven and into it, I gently slipped away as well.

Time to sleep.

How Much to Get Drown and Shot?

As I walked up to the out door tiki bar, the unmistakable shape of my friend, Ioseph’s back greeted me. I had been looking for him specifically and, lucky me, he was not easy to miss. Flaming red hair, big in every direction and as per usual, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt. I quietly strode up, reached out both hands and wrung his neck.

“Why…” I started to enquire through clenched teeth. “did I have to drive seven hours to have a beer and play in the water?!?”

Ioseph, having quickly recovered from his momentary strangulation, simply stood up and turned around, me still dangling from him like a peeved remora.

“You look like you need a drink!” Ioseph thinks everyone needs a drink.

Letting go and wordlessly taking his spot at the bar, I allowed him to order me a large, cold beer on his tab, and sucked down half of it in one lift.

“Better?”

“Grumble mumble rumble…”

Where we were, was the “the middle of no where” Canada and the reason we were here was Mountain Man’s bachelor party. Of the four close high school friends, I was the first to marry and I kept a tight rein on the pre-wedding festivities. I admit, I can be a bit of a wet blanket at times and so thankfully, my friends were decent enough to keep things sane on my bequest. It’s not that I don’t enjoy having fun. It’s more that I know Ioseph.

And knowing is half the battle.

Ioseph, when given tabula rasa is prone to go… nuts. There is no way, NO WAY, that you will be able to predict what he will get in to in the name of a good time. He is in possession of one of the most dangerous mixes of personality traits that I know. He is: self deprecating, funny, highly intelligent, totally uninhibited in any way, can justify just about anything and is instantly forgivable for just about any of these actions. If the year were 1720, I have no doubt in my mind that he would be a pirate, a royal governor of some tropical island, or both. Probably both. Luckily for the world, he’s also a very nice guy. Just bananas.

The reason he had chosen Canada was because we had nixed the idea of Vegas.

Ioseph in Vegas… *shudder*

The drive here had been a long one and I had done it alone. My directions were essentially to go north until I hit Montreal and then hang a left. When I ran out of pavement, I was just about there. I was tired and my butt hurt and I needed another beer. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why we couldn’t go white water rafting in the States. I requested my beer and paid with an American twenty. The bar tender handed me a fresh pint and twenty-two dollars in change. Hmm. This might not be such a bad thing after all.

It was already dark out and I still needed to get my stuff out of the car. I joined my friends, Ioseph, The Doctor and Mountain Man and got the lay of the land. It was time to make camp.

This, to be sure, was my kind of camping. Any campsite that comes with an outdoor bar, indoor bathroom facilities and food made by someone else gets the thumbs up in my book. For people like Mountain Man and The Doctor, I’m sure it was eye rollingly cushy, and it was, but it was also exactly what I was up for after my marathon drive. After flopping out my sleeping bag in the tent, I was unconscious in a matter of moments. Maybe it was the beer, the drive or both, but I did know that I’d better get rested up. Tomorrow was one of Mountain Man’s last days as a bachelor and there were big plans. We were going to see if we could get sucked under a raging river, flung against massive, unseen, underwater rocks and not get killed!

Hey! It’s important to have goals!

Ran out of time today.More later…
-TP

Go Home Again

In the past few months, I’ve been traveling a lot. I’m not going that far geographically, only about three hours drive, but it most definitely is a world away.

The day before Christmas, I sold my business of the last ten years. This was, as you can imagine, a difficult choice to make and one that took a lot of introspection before the final, irrevocable decision was made. The trick, as with any business sale, was finding the buyer. As I put the word out that my company was for sale, I started to really discover what was going to be needed of me to make this happen. I was a manufacturer of a specialty home item and though it wasn’t rocket science, any prospective buyer who didn’t have a direct background in this process was going to need a lot of hand holding. This meant that I was going to be doing a lot of direct instruction and thus, away from home for an appreciable period of time. There was no escaping that reality.

The first individuals whom really looked interested were a very nice couple out in California. I spent several hours teleconferencing with them as they tried to make their decision to buy or not and though I was excited at the idea of selling, I also thought about how hard this was going to be. I would naturally have to go out there and show them the ins and outs of the business and that would take my time and their money. Then, I got a call from another company with some serious interest. They wanted to talk and… they were just one state away. Better than that, they were in my childhood hometown. As the California folks waffled and the economy got bleaker, I heard from them less and less and from the new folks “back home”, more and more. In the end, the new folks bought it.

In one day, most of the shop was packed up on a truck and moved lock, stock and barrel to its new home and plans were made for me to put on my instructor’s hat and follow along until they had everything in hand. Finding a place to stay three or so days at a time was no problem at all since my folks still live there and don’t mind seeing my face turn up on their door step or hogging up the bathroom first thing in the morning. I don’t get back to my parent’s home much and it’s rather a novelty to be there again.

One of the complications of this is my other loved ones. My dear Wife would be left in the house with two small children running on 100% pure high octane crazy, and though we both love them immeasurably, being “on duty” solo for days at a time can grind you down faster than an eraser in the hands of a third grader. In an effort to keep things as easy as they could be for Action Girl, I took Short Stack with me on several of these trips. Sitting in the passenger side back seat, Short Stack would watch the world go by one truck at a time with a “director’s cut” commentary going for the duration. In an effort to improve his view, I’d remove the headrest from the front passenger seat, thus giving him a much appreciated and unobstructed view of the road. He’s a great traveling companion and never complains about anything. He will point out every single piece of heavy equipment that you come across and ask you roughly a gazillion unanswerable questions though. You just have to deal with that. His favorite is to point to a random street as you drive along and say, “Why are we not on that road?”

Once I got to our destination, my parent’s would watch Short Stack and I’d get to work. I really didn’t get much of a chance to look around town since I was there to instruct, not reminisce, but I was taken with how much things had changed. The changes, in fact, were almost all I could see. The new plazas, the missing fields, the giant bypasses and the new roundabouts. Where had my little hometown gone? My view of my past home, colored in fading Kodachrome, matched up badly against what I was looking at now and it made me a little sad, even if I knew very well that things inevitably change. My days were full of instruction and work but it was good to see the torch being passed as well. I was happy with my decision and the buyers were the right ones to carry it forward. When I’d get home it was to my old house, my parents and my son. Talk about things changing with time.

My last trip back to instruct was solo. Action Girl decided that though she loved her one on one time with Lulu Belle, she needed some verbal company while I was gone. It did take some of the pressure off for me, being on my own. Even if I didn’t get out to poke around town much, I did get to work late and finish up the lessons, thus insuring that I was done traveling for extended periods of time. I promised my self that I’d be back in the springtime, just to enjoy being there and perhaps go hiking with the family. Running out for lunch on the last day, I decided to take a back route I remembered from my childhood. The small roads wound through residential neighborhoods I hadn’t passed in a lifetime and as I crossed a small bridge, I had a flash of a face race through my mind.

She was a tall and thin with soft features and a warm smile. She was wearing a long skirt, simple blouse and a headscarf as was common in the nineteen-seventies. With her were two boys enjoying the remains of their ice cream cones and talking happily as they walked over this very bridge. I was one of those boys and the other was my friend Charlie. The kind woman was his Mom and I can just recall stopping to drop the soggy ends of our cones over the rail and then racing to the other side to see whose was first as the current swept them away. She had taken us out that day for a walk and other than that brief piece; I can’t recall any of the other day’s happenings. I was probably seven at the time and didn’t know that she wore the scarf for a reason other than fashion though I’m sure Charlie knew.

I remember him being absent from my life for a while not long after that sunny day. The cancer had moved quickly and as friends and classmates, we all tried to fathom what it would be like to loose your mom. The idea alone scared the hell out of us. We couldn’t imagine what he and his twin sister were going through. The only frame of reference I had was the TV show, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” starring a young Bill Bixby. In the show, Bill’s wife had died and left him and their six year old son alone. I remember it being a good watch, not funny, not sad, but poignant and a bit melancholy at times. It wasn’t hard to imagine the boy being played by my friend.

Charlie and I remained close for years and years and I don’t think even once brought up his mother to him. I don’t know what I would have said at any rate. Bringing up topics like that are hard enough as an adult. When you’re a kid, well… they seem better to leave alone, like a scary dream or dangerous looking animal. The odd thing that struck me as I drove along, away from the bridge and past Charlie’s old house, was the realization that I had remembered that moment with his Mom and the ice creams before. It occurred to me that it popped into my mind whenever I crossed that spot. It had just been so long since the last time I had been by here. I hardly remember her, but I knew her son very well, and I think she would be proud of him today indeed

I lost track of Charlie after high school and haven’t been able to find him since, though I confess, I haven’t looked terribly hard either. We were very good friends once and spent a lot of time playing in each other’s yards. His Father I recall being a little domineering and over protective, but with children of my own now and trying to imagine keeping a family safe and strong through the loss of your spouse, I can’t blame him at all. In retrospect, he was doing an amazing job.

As I drove back to work after picking up my lunch, I took a different route back. I still know all the back roads and remember riding my bike down the shaded, cracked and uneven cement sidewalks, so long ago. It feels strange now to be here again but nostalgic, all the same. It stirs memories that have long lain dormant. I hope I can get back this spring with the family so we can do some good poking around. If time permits, we might go for ice cream. If I can remember, I’ll smile to my self and silently thank Charlie’s Mom for her kindness so long ago. Wouldn’t it be good for all of us to be remembered like that some day?

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part IV

As we bedded down for the night, I had expected there to be mosquitoes. After all, we were in a place called the “Boundary Waters” and being filled with little bogs and swampy areas, it was also filled with those biting little menaces. It was what I mistakenly thought an unusually hot night and my sleeping bag was hot and sticky almost immediately. As I lay my head down, I heard the unmistakable whine of those little bloodsuckers. It’s been a belief of mine that if you wanted to drive someone not merely to distraction, but to out right insanity, all you needed was a recording of a mosquito on an endless loop, making sure that it sounded closer, then farther, then very close and then… nothing. The victim would be blithering in just a few days. This is what we were dealing with, times a thousand. The cabin seemed to be filled with the little bastards.

After my twenty-third time flailing at my face like a mad man, I retreated into the steamy confines of my mummy bag, pulled the drawstring tight and crammed my pillow in the tiny hole. From a pervious experience, (also with Mountain Man) I knew I would not suffocate. I’d just feel like I was.

Side story:

Years previously, I was sharing a cabin with Mountain Man, The Doctor, and Ioseph. It was late in the year and it got really, really cold that night. We had no fireplace so the only warmth came from what you keep hold of with your sleeping bag. At some point in the night, I must have done this same trick with the drawstring and a pillow to cut off the cold draft.

In the morning, my friends awoke and found my bag closed with my pillow partially sticking out of the head-hole. They watched the bag carefully in an effort to detect any breathing, but the thick down of the lining prevented them from spotting any movement. They could hear no respiration either.

Their line of thinking went like this… “If he’s alive, then we’re just going to wake him up and he might be grumpy. If he’s dead, then there isn’t anything we can do except call the authorities, in which case, we will miss breakfast. Therefore, we should go and eat breakfast and then see if our childhood friend is alive or dead. If he’s dead, he won’t care that he missed breakfast anyway and we’ll be fed and ready to deal with the corpse!”

You gotta love guys.

Back to Minnesota:

As I started my heat induced vision quest, Mountain Man decided to give himself to the mosquitoes. Pushing off his bag, he fell into fitful sleep as he provided fifteen thousand mosquitoes with buffet style dining. Neither of us looked good in the morning.

As we hunched over eggs and biscuits prepared my Mountain Man’s kind and ever upbeat father, we commented on the others appearance. I looked like I had been hit with a fire hose while he looked like a bad case of hives. The mosquitoes, apparently not satisfied with last night’s feast, were ready to tuck in to some breakfast of their own and were already merciless.

“Are the mosquitoes always this bad?” I asked.

Mountain Dad looked our way and enthusiastically nodded. “Oh yah! They’re brutal, aren’t they? We still have some windows to put in and a lot of cracks to seal, so there are probably as many inside as out”

I swatted madly while desperately shoveling the hot eggs into my mouth. These things were unrelenting! As soon as we had finished up and cleared the table, Mountain Man and I started back to the car to get our full packs. In the daylight, things naturally looked very different. The path was, just as he said, easy to follow and not very far at all. When we were just about there, he stopped and looked down at the ground.

“The last time I was here, ” he said, “we found the biggest bear scat right here in the middle of the trail”

“Bear scat?” My eyebrows were racing for my hairline.

“Oh yah. There are bears here for sure. Just keep an eye out and they shouldn’t be a problem.”

Since I didn’t posses laser vision, I wasn’t exactly sure what watching for a bear was going to do to help my life expectancy but still, I was a bit more mindful of the undergrowth as we reached the car and grabbed our gear. The very first thing I did was to put on my wide brimmed hat and pull over my mosquito net. I could see the little bastards immediately trying to get through, but at least my face was safe for the moment.

Mountain Man and his dad are great guys and really dedicated hikers. They are highly skilled, superbly outfitted and made of tougher stuff than the vast majority of men. They are, in short, hiking high priests. They are also used to taking only what is totally necessary and not one item more. I, to be blunt, am a marshmallow of comfort by comparison. I like to have everything I could possibly need in any situation and since I am also a bit of a human mule when it comes to lugging stuff, I happily pack for every possible occasion. What doesn’t fit in the pack goes on it. Because of this, the profile I cut as I wander through the woods is of an old fashioned tinker off to sell his wares. Mountain Man and Mountain Dad have another take on my mobile hardware store. They call me “Clampett”, after the TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” I don’t mind in the least.

clampett

I dropped my rattling pack on the floor and immediately got a chuckle from Mountain Dad.

“You forget anything?”

“Nope. I brought it all. Why? You need something”

“No! No! Just curious. How much do you suppose that thing weights?”

The jokes about my pot and pan festooned pack flew almost as heavily as the mosquitoes that day as we worked on the cabin. The heat and humidity was oppressive and the work was energetic, making you desperately want to shed your shirt. The bugs made that thought laughable, though. Instead, I found the only way to stay bite free was to put on my polar fleece shell, zip it up all the way, tuck the mosquito net into the collar, tuck the cuffs into my gloves and my pant legs into my boots. It was the sauna all over again but at least my blood was staying where it would do the most good. By the evening, we returned to the cabin to eat and talk.

“I’m going to go set up my tent out front while there’s still some light” I announced.

“Good idea” Mountain Man replied. “I’ll set up out back”

“You mean your not going to sleep in the cabin?” Mountain Dad looked shocked. “We built all this and you’re going to use your tents?”

“No offence, but my tent has one thing that the cabin doesn’t. Screens. I really need some sleep and this way I know I won’t wake up looking like a raisin.” I hoped he wasn’t hurt, but there was no way I was going to make a repeat of last night if I could help it.

“Well, you boys do as you will, but I’ll sleep in here.” He paused and then added, “Mind you, I do wish I had packed a mosquito net to throw over the cot though.”

I reached back to my open pack, sitting on the floor and pulled something green out. “You mean like this one?” I tossed it to Mountain Dad and smiled. “I’ll be in the tent, so I won’t need it.”

“Hey! Thanks!”

He beamed and unrolled the green netting to inspect it. It was made like a mesh box, just big enough to fit over a camp cot. Four little loops were attached to each corner to suspend it over the sleeper.

“Now all I need to do is find some string and some thumbtacks so I can put it up.”

With a little flourish, I reached back into the pack and produced both, tossing them into his lap. I smiled.

“Pays to camp with a Clampett, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so! What else you got in there?”

We enjoyed a convivial dinner and Mountain Man and I eventually went out to set up our respective camps. I thought of the bears again and hypothesized that they would be more interested in the cabin where all the cooking was taking place than my little nylon dome. I hoped so, anyway.

Back in the cabin, as we enjoyed the last of the conversation over the lantern light, I remembered to ask the uncle about the bears.

“Oh yah. There are a good number out here. That’s why I had the gun last night. I heard the crashing in the bushes before I heard your voices and thought you were a bad bear.”

“Bad bear? What makes a bear bad?”

“Oh,” he continued, “This region is a release area. This is where the state puts trapped bears back into the wild. You know. The ones who get up to no good in suburban areas.”

So that was it. We were camping with exiled bears. This was not quite what I had signed up for. Still, as I later lay in my tent listening to the night noises, the weariness of the previous lost night of sleep and the hard work done that day washed over me like a wave. If anyone came nosing around my tent flap, I didn’t hear it.

Above my nylon castle, mosquitoes cursed in tiny, furious voices.

-Possibly more to come. And it might have to do with guns!

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