Spies in Boston

We walk hand in hand through the tight streets. The magic in the North End seems to rise from the granite slab sidewalks, our foot falls releasing it all as we ever so slowly grind down the grooves carved into their surface so long ago.

She is wearing a skirt, which seldom happens away up north on our island home. Shhh. She is blending in with the fabric of the city.

Passing for Urban.

We walk briskly, with purpose. Not ogling the old brick facades like so many, but stealing glimpses from the corner of the eye, remembering details to discuss later over the privacy of our dinner table.

We are not tourists with fanny packs and cameras on straps. Not obvious with outsized hats and backpacks bulging with swag. We pass like spies, changing our manner, moving like locals and step around the knots of lost sight seers ‘till we reach our goal:

“Two cannoli, please.

Gratzi.”

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Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

Sleeping Sickness and Potato Chips

It never ceases to amaze me that how in situations like this, the food choices available to you and the food choices that your mother would want you to pick seem to be pretty much diametrically opposed. It’s the bag of Cheezits that you find and consume, even though you’ve been at the bars and have defiantly had two or three more than you should have. It’s the fast food burger that you gobble down in three bites as you run for that meeting you’re late for and then pay dearly for with ominous belly gurgles for the next hour and a half. It’s food that, even under the best conditions, makes you feel like a huge, oil dipped slug not long after consuming and brings to mind vows of forswearing that sort of diet ever again. Once ingested, it will make you regret ever having ventured out that day at all. This was what we were looking at now, and though the quality looked better then grease burgers and Cheezits. It still had, “Bad Idea” written all over it.

The dining tent had been set up smack dab in between the field of Shuttle watchers, nestled into the damp grass like sleeping geese with blankets and the manicured paths and flowers that surrounded the collection of retired rockets of yore, and though my brain knew better, the smell from the warming trays was dangerously enticing. Whoever the caterers for the Kennedy Space Center are, they know how to lay out a spread. Meats and other sweet smelling dishes burbled over blue, lit Sterno canisters and sugary desserts looked back at us from hopeful piles. Soda, lemonades, potato chips and more stood by just at arms reach, all daring you to ingest them at two in the morning. You… who has barely slept at all in the last twenty-four hours. You, who are physically at the edge of your stamina and you, who has only recently been exposed to the germ rich, recirculated airplane air breathed by one hundred and fifty other individuals. We won’t even discuss that pepperoni pizza you ate last night…

…Or your not-eighteen-year-old-anymore stomach lining.

The place must have been hopping for a while at this point because the “just opened crush” that always seems to occur in the first hour of operations had dispersed, leaving the tent happily quiet except for a few hungry souls making their gastronomic decisions, for better or for ill.

I needed something safe. Something to warn my guts that there was more on the way later on and that they should muster the troops, but not anything that could turn things in an undesirable direction. Something mom would approve of.

Fruit! My savior!

Stuffed in a corner between the steak sandwich fillings and a mound of cream cheese danishes was a modest pile of apples, oranges and bananas. Thank God!

The trick was not only to feed my son and myself, but also to get Short Stack far away enough from the playground so that he might escape its gravitational pull. Though he had been sure that he needed rescuing only a few moments ago, the prospect of leaving the joyful, chaotic embrace of the Space Jungle Gym started to give him doubts and now he was rethinking the notion.

“Maybe…” He started to slowly scuttle sideways back toward the Fun Vortex like a crab. “I’ll just play for a little while longer…”

“Ah, no. We just got out of there, Buddy. Remember? Lets go do something else for a bit. We can come back again, I promise. What we need is something to eat.”

“But, DAAAAAD!”

I glanced at the food and immediately started to reassess my plan. Though I was hungry and no doubt, he was too, we would still be in full view of the object of his desire and the battle would only get harder. It was time for some safe nourishment and redirection.

If I have learned anything as a father, it’s that distraction is your friend.

“Hey, we still haven’t gotten to the gift shop! Lets grab a couple of these,” I pointed to the bananas “and go see what they have! I bet they have some really, REALLY amazing stuff!

He paused, mid scuttle. “Oh. Hmmmm.” You could almost see the visions of space toys drifting through his head as he gave this its due consideration.

“Okay.” He straightened up and took my hand. “Let’s go, Dad!” and with our new target acquired, we happily grabbed two of the bright yellow fruit, paid for them on the way out and strolled back across the tiny pedestrian bridge leading back to the shopping area, munching all the way. We had passed though here before when we arrived but I had been pushing him in the stroller and he had been only about one third awake. He was in high gear now and Short Stack wanted to see what wonderful sights there were to see…. and buy. The crowd was a very different one than I had observed a few hours earlier and it was comical in its unorthodox presentation. Here, two very different things were happening, and happening in abundance.

Shopping… and sleeping.

Everywhere you looked, there were space geeks in nirvana, living their dream. Joyful to be physically standing where their hearts live all the time and cramming the massive gift shops and attractions with their bodies and credit cards. For them, like my own son, the excitement was all consuming. Others, like discarded boosters, had run out their fuel, plummeted back to earth and lay where they fell. Even as the hoots and hollers of those still going strong filled the air, I was spotting more and more people whom had given up for the night and were seeking some form of rest, and they were doing it everywhere and anywhere without a hint of shame.

What looked to be a self respecting businessman, asleep on a bench. A fit young man in his twenties, curled up on a tabletop in the fetal position, his arm tucked under his head and his jacket used as a blanket. A whole family, Dad, Mom and two kids, out cold in the grass, all nestled together like a small heard of deer beaded down for the night. It was as if a wave of tsetse flies and gone through the place and half the people had been knocked down with sleeping sickness. Individuals whom you never would expect to crash so publicly seemed to have said, “Aw Hell, this will do” and pulled up any patch of grass or unused, cleanish horizontal area and were sawing off zzzz’s with abandon. The only criteria seemed to be that it was out of the way of foot traffic. The most entertaining display of this we spotted was in an actual display window. As we walked up to the gift shop front doors, my son pointed out what surely wasn’t intended to be there when the employees put out the items that were for sale tonight.

“Look at that, Dad!” He had stopped short and I followed his gaze to what had made him pause in bemusement just a meter or two from the shop door. There, in the front window, nestled beneath the halogen lights and shirt displays was a girl, no more than thirteen or so. Her backpack doubling as pillow, she had found her spot to spend a few hours tonight. All I can guess is that she must have spotted the plush, unwalked on carpeting normally reserved for Space Swag display and thought, “Aw Hell, this will do.” She was out cold and oblivious to the smirks of adults and amazed eyes of young children. There was defiantly a group wide lowering of personal barriers and embarrassment thresholds going on here. The need for sleep will eventually do that to people and though I know this, I had never witnessed it before outside the confines of an airport departure gate before.

The interesting thing, I realized, was that even as I watched adults and teenagers give up the fight and practically fall over where they stood, it was the little kids, the ones whom we force to take naps and go to bed at a decent hour, the ones whom we insist need to get their sleep, THEY were almost universally going strong. As I cast my gaze around at the people stretched out flat here and there, I became more and more sure. Not a little kid asleep to be seen anywhere. They were all up and running.

Mostly, I noted, toward the area where the playground was located.

It was time to do some quick poking about and get back to the food tent followed, hopefully, by some rest. My brain was starting to feel fuzzy and even if Short Stack looked as chipper as a chipmunk, I knew what his batteries wouldn’t, in fact, last forever. I also knew that I was going to need to crash in an hour or so even if he didn’t feel like it and when that time came, I wanted it to be on my terms rather than having his dad unexpectedly keel over into the azaleas and start snoring.

We started to poke around for souvenirs to commemorate our trip together and even though it was past two in the morning, the shop was still surprisingly active. Amazingly active, actually. Enough so that I felt more than a little crowed as we checked out what the Space Center had to offer in the way of posters, toys, patches and shirts. I lost sight of Short Stack more than once as people bustled through the racks looking for their own keepsakes and I started to feel uneasy at the idea of trying to keep track of my son and simultaneously make a wise purchasing decision. It was simply too much for my mushy brain to cope with at this point.

“Hey, Short Stack.” He had gone back to look at the sleeping window girl again for the fourth or fifth time and at my call, came trotting back to me with a look of entertaining puzzlement about his slumbering discovery. “It’s just too crowded in here right now. Let’s go back, get some dinner and then head to our tent. We’ll come back in the morning when it’s not so crazy in here.”

“Ok, Dad.”

He must be getting tired. That was too easy.

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.

Away We Go… Part I

The night before our own personal launch, I scurried around trying to find all the last little bits and pieces that we might want on our trip. I knew that I had all the essential gear packed up, so now I was down to the silly stuff. This is the moment where my dear and lovely wife and I often split ways when it comes to packing. The way it goes, I grab something, usually on a whim, that I think would be fun or humorous to bring along. Next, I get spotted by her as I try unsuccessfully to sneak it into a bag without being noticed.

“Why are you bringing that? We won’t need it. It just adds weight.” This is often accompanied by a look that conveys exactly what she thinks of my decision making abilities. Excuses are rarely given by me since, as the male half of this relationship, it’s rarely worth making a case. I take whatever it is out, let her leave the room, entertain thoughts of putting it back and then think better of it. The kicker is that she’s almost always right about this. I don’t like to admit that last part.

This time though, I was sneaky. Well, sneakier than usual anyway.

In a flash of juvenile inspiration, I quietly slipped into the room of my slumbering little boy, grabbed what I wanted and stuffed it into my shirt pocket. Once I was back down stairs, I packed it quickly away into the confines of my own carry-on. I was not spotted. Phew!

Now, I had everything!

Our flight was for eleven-thirty in the morning and, air travel being what it is today, I was determined to be early. Very, very early, if at all possible. I don’t trust that anything will work smoothly when it comes to airports. When it does, it seems to be a notable event. When we stepped out of the car and gathered our bags, we had three hours. Good for problem solving in the event of difficulties. Not so good if you’re a bored four year old. Well, at least we could take our time checking in. With a last minute pep talk to my son about how important it was to stay close to me, we headed to check in.

Let’s be honest here. You expect flying to be hideous these days. You expect humorless and possibly clueless TSA agents to make your life hell by questioning if your electric toothbrush is an incendiary device. You know that the airlines will charge you a zillion hidden fees you never thought they’d have the audacity to hit you with. You know that since you can no longer bring any drinks and many foods through security that the vendors at the gates will hose you for every penny you have for that yoghurt and bottle of spring water. This was my expectation as well, and that’s why I was so surprised with the two women manning the check-in desk.

“Welcome to JetBlue! Are you guys going off on an adventure?” Either this was said with a genuine smile and perky attitude or she was angling for an Oscar nomination. Either way, it was mighty disarming.

“Uh, yah. We are actually. We’re going to Florida.” This is when the other ticket agent, currently not burdened with any other customers, chimed in.

“Is this your first flight?” The question seemed a bit odd until I realized that it was not intended for me, but the little red headed boy clinging to my leg. A few nods were all she got in return of her question. I smiled at her and spoke for my son who was busy pretending that he was shy.

“Yah, it’s his first time in a jet. We’re going to go watch a Shuttle launch. Just the two of us.”

“Oh, a father and son trip? That’s great! Do you think he’d like a snack for the trip?”

We did, in fact, have several cartloads of snacks with us, but never being one to pass on a free item, I said that it would be much appreciated. As one of the women continued to check us in, the other went out back and returned with a package of animal crackers for Short Stack.

That was nice!

“Now, do you have any liquids or jells in your carry on?” This was the part I wasn’t sure about. I used to fly quite a bit, but it had been a while now. The last flight I had taken, Action Girl and I had packed a full picnic lunch for ourselves and walked right through security with it, no trouble at all.

“Well, I do have two juice boxes for my son. Is that all right?” Grimaces are never a good sign.

“Nope. You can’t do that, I’m afraid. That and anything smearable.”

“Smearable? What do you mean?”

With an exasperated look that I understood to be aimed at the regulations rather than the clueless traveler (me), she ran through some examples of the more ludicrous kind.

“No puddings or toothpastes. No hair gel or lotions. Bananas might or might not be allowed and it’s only happened once that I know of, but I did hear about a child not being able to bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s pretty…” She picked her words carefully and diplomatically. “…inconvenient sometimes.”

“Are you serious? A sandwich and a banana?” I must have looked horrified and/or pathetic, because both ladies jumped in to help.

“First, let’s pack up your juice boxes in your luggage. That way you can have them in Florida and not lose them here. I’ve got some plastic bags and we’ll triple them up so they won’t leak if they puncture.” As I unzipped my backpack to pull them out, she offered more assistance. “Next, since I can see you have a couple of bananas, I’d suggest that you carry them in your hand so as to make it obvious what they are and that you’re not trying to hide them. I’m betting that you’ll walk right through with no trouble today.”

As we repacked our suitcase, I made a comment as to how things have changed. That brought a rueful chuckle from both of them.

“Oh yah. They sure have. “ It was the animal cracker lady. “I used to be a flight attendant for years. It’s nothing like it used to be. We used to have a LOT more fun.”

I was dying to find out what kind of fun, since I was pretty sure, judging by the mirth in her eyes, that the stories were pretty good, but we were all set now and Short Stack was out of crackers and getting pretty bored with adult talk. It was time to go. The last thing she asked me was, “ Did you lock it?” which, in turn, made me chuckle.

“No. It’s not locked.”

“Good. Have a great flight!”

I remember a day when that question from check-in was looking for a totally different answer.

As we strolled to our gate, we encountered our first trial. The TSA check. This was something I had been wondering about. How was I going to work this? It’s a pain for adults to do solo, let alone with a munchkin who was new to this. In the next five minutes I managed to heartstoppingly lose my tickets, momentarily, into a pocket I didn’t think I had placed them, forget my very smearable, possibly explosive bananas and freshly validated tickets on the TSA officer’s desk, misplace my computer in the wrong little grey tub and then almost let Short Stack feed himself through the x-ray scanner in pursuit of his back pack, while I fumbled with my own belongings.

Not an auspicious start. I needed to get on my game. We were still in Maine and I could feel things starting to slip out of control.

As I retrieved my child from the edge of the conveyor belt and then sheepishly accepted my lost boarding passes and fruit from the smirking TSA agent, I decided I needed to focus. If I was already having this many problems, this early in the game, it was time to really knuckle down and pay attention. No more screwups!

Please?

To get to our gate, I plopped him into the lightweight stroller I had decided to bring. I could make far better time that way and I knew where he was. It was not, however, all that interesting for him. We were in a huge, new place and here he was getting whisked along with no chance to run around like a maniac and talk to people. I did my best to pique his interest as we passed various little, “Look what we make here in Maine!” displays. As we came to each one, we talked about what they had inside; jewelry, maple products, LL Bean. All the stuff you’d expect from our state. The last one however, caught me off guard.

In a little glass cube was the green flight suit of military cut. The accompanying pictures showed the wearer and others similarly attired floating in mid-air and grinning like kids on a playground. The picture was taken several thousand feet high as the occupants bounced around, weightless, in the empty passenger area of a Macdonald-Douglas C-9 Skytrain II, or as it’s more popularly known:

The Vomit Comet.

Nicknames are usually based on some kind of fact and the Vomit Comet has a long and, ahem, colorful history. Its origin harkens back to the Mercury Program when NASA needed a way to train astronauts how to work in micro gravity. Here, in the confines of our little blue-green planet, there are only two ways to go about this. The first is to float the astronaut, suit and all, in a huge tank of water. Once they have been perfectly weighted down to achieve neutral buoyancy, they could potter around and pretend to fix satellites.

NASA does in fact do just this and it’s good training, but as anyone who has gone scuba diving can tell you, it has its limitations. It works great for learning to use the space suits, but what about inside the Shuttle, Space Station or any other place where you’d just be in your normal clothes? How do you prepare your self for that? That’s where the big padded airplane came in.

The idea is that twenty people go for a ride on a specially fitted jet. This jet takes them up to a sufficiently high altitude in a surprisingly steep climb, levels out… and then the floor drops away beneath their feet. As the pilot puts the aircraft into its dive, he balances things out very carefully. Too steep and everyone will be plastered to the ceiling. Too shallow and they’ll feel light, but still remain on the floor. At the perfect spot in between, everyone seems to float. I say, “seems” because what’s really happening is that they are falling at the same rate as the jet. You can’t eliminate gravity here on earth, so all you can do is fall in a room that is also falling. The result is the illusion of weightlessness. This sensation lasts for about twenty-five seconds. Then, the plane pulls back up into its climb in the effort to regain some of that lost altitude. Once gained, it’s back down and floating time. This goes on for two to three hours. As you can expect, it can do funny things to your stomach.

The breakdown for the passengers is something like, a third are fine, another third feels ill and the last third gets ill. Actually, they term it “violently” ill.

Still sound fun?

The real twist in the panties is that no matter how hideous a time you might be having, this ride does not end early for your pathetic sake. You just have to ride it out. The logic goes that it’s better to find out here on Earth that you aren’t cut out for space travel rather than getting into orbit and filling every available barf bag on the Space Station. Remember, the you can’t open a window up there. It’s all recirculated. Breath deep, now.

I pointed this out to Short Stack and showed him the pictures of the non-puking, happy looking riders obviously having a great time and doing their best to make a good publicity photo.

“Are those people astronauts? Are they in space?”

“They’re learning to be astronauts, but no, they aren’t in space. That’s a special jet they are riding in.” I knew what the next question would be was.

“Will we do that?” Short Stack didn’t appear too worried or impressed for that matter. He was asking merely for information. He loves information.

“Ah, no. We will be sitting in seats. Not floating around.”

“Oh. Okay.”

At first I was wondering if he was disappointed, but then I realized that his lack of enthusiasm wasn’t disappointment, it was disinterest. The jet ride was his first and as such, was notable and possibly even looked forward to, but it wasn’t a rocket, and if it wasn’t a rocket, it merited only a passing “Oh. Okay.”

Nothing personal. Just not exciting.

At least, not in his book.

That moment was coming fast.

Whatalya have, Hon?

There’s a newly reopened landmark in my city and I’ve been watching with some excitement if not out right glee for it to officially welcome the public in through its doors. Only one kind of establishment could get me this pumped up. It has to be a food related. Specifically, it needs to be a greasy spoon. Preferably, it should be a diner. It is!

When Action Girl and I moved to our adopted hometown in Maine, we did so with little working knowledge of the city. We knew generally how to get around and where the city anchor stores were but the back roads, cut throughs and eating establishments were mostly unknown to us. This was fine. We were, after all, broker than broke so the prospect of going out to an upscale eatery was practically laughable. Diners, on the other hand, were not only with in our price range but had the added bonus of being one of my favorite places to find “nourishment”. Food designed to give a thick, protective lining to heart and arteries. Now all I needed to do was find one.

The only fly in the soup was that at the time, Action Girl was a vegetarian. This didn’t rule out diner eating, but it mostly forced it to be a breakfast only option. Lunch menus at such placed tend toward the carnivore aesthetic, rather then tasty quiches and portabella burgers. For those meat free years, I had to pretty much let go of the notion of eating at such places.

This wasn’t always the case. When my wife and I had first met, she was still an omnivore. She was never a big fan of meats in general, but she tolerated it and eating out at these types of establishments was not that big a deal. Being younger and possessing a stomach lining made from space shuttle heat shields and Kevlar, we happily stopped at diners wherever we found them and partook of their greasy bounty.

There’s just something about a proper, old diner. To qualify in my book, it needs to be the real McCoy. A long and narrow restaurant that found its way to its current home by being driven there. Once in place, the wheels were removed and substituted with cement block and a decorative skirt added to hide the now useless axles. Inside is a long counter with backless stools that spin easily. On the opposite side are the booths, capable of seating two full grown adults or four midgets. The countertops are Formica, the surfaces behinds the counter, stainless steel and the floor, made up of a mosaic of itty-bitty tile. To finish the picture and for extra points, add a rotating display rack of pies and a waitress who will call you, ”Hon” or “Sweetie”. Put these all together and you have a slice of heaven.

The diner in my hometown was always my favorite place to go and seating was at a premium. You had to be fast and early, At one point in my early working life, I had the double benefit of not only being located just next door to this diner, but also having a boss who liked to eat heavy, greasy breakfasts with company to chat with. I often didn’t get a lot of work done until after ten, but I did get to have second breakfast on company time, sanction by the individual who signed my paychecks. Not great for my cholesterol but it made the day easer to take.

When I visited my girlfriend, Action Girl in Vermont, we often haunted a diner that sat on the main drag on the way out of town. Though the original diner car had been all but obliterated through numerous expansions and renovations, it stayed true to its roots and more than a few tractor trailer rigs and other delivery trucks filled the parking lot. I specifically remember a waitress my mother’s age with peroxide blond hair piled high on her head calling me, “Hon”

I love these places.

When we moved to Maine, I heard about a diner that was hidden down in the rough end of town, and by “Rough”, I mean literally rough. On the back side of the city where the roads are still partially paved in heaved cobble stone through disregard and lack of caring rather than preserved as a kitschy tourist attraction or in the conservation of history, sat the diner. Surrounded by scrap yards and the municipal truck garage, the little blue diner fed the blue collar and black fingered inhabitants of this corner of an otherwise polished town. I wanted to go.

My wife however, though never one to shrink away from the rugged, hard working crowd, wondered aloud if this was a good idea. It was the look of the establishment rather than the clientele that put her off. The diner was obviously on hard times and she surmised that the condition of the kitchen must have been suffering right along with the façade and roof. She begged off and we simply never went back. A year later it was closed by the health department. Sometimes she has a good eye for the better decision.

Being a landmark since the 1930’s and having been constructed to be mobile from the start, city officials did something astonishing. They made a choice to save the structure from the wreckers, though it would have only needed to be dragged a few hundred yards to the car crusher down the street. Saved for the moment, it was put back on its wheels for the second time in its life and parked in a city lot next to the snow plows and earth moving equipment and wait for a knight in a stained apron to take it home.

One day, not long ago, a publishing executive living in New York read about this wonderful old diner and how it languished, unloved and unused. Being a native son of our fair city and remembering the diner from the days of his youth, he took a look at his life and career in the Big Apple, and decided, “Screw it”. Moving his family back to whence he came, he bought the diner and did what needed to be done.

It can’t have been cheep.

As luck would have it, new college housing was being put up in the vary area where the diner had sat for over seventy years. The scrap yards are disappearing and the roads repaved and widened. This portion of the city is really starting to come into its own. The diner’s benefactor moved right next door to the college apartments, made some improvements and enlargement and opened for business. With a building full of fresh faced college students not more than a few steps away, this beacon of all things fried will no doubt do well.

diner

The aesthetic of the rejuvenated diner is just right. The stainless steel is polished and shines nicely, the ice cream bins are loaded with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry and though on my visit, I didn’t find a waitress to call me “Hon”, hope springs eternal. Everything is just as should be. The food is basic, good, hot and filling. The booths, though small, are intimate and comfortable. I can’t wait to go back.

diner2

The best part? After thirteen years of vegetarian eating, three years ago, Action Girl had a change of taste. Meat was once again back on the menu. With that decision, our dining options have blossomed. You can guess where I hope that will take us.

If you want to find me around lunchtime, I’ll be at the counter with the cheeseburger and side of onion rings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A story for you all later. Right now, I’ve got turkey and stuffing to get into and a pumpkin pie lurking in the distance. If I can move after the feast and make it past the relatives, I’ll get something proper put down.

A happy Thanksgiving to you all who celebrate it! To others in far off lands… just know that in my book, today is the perfect day to eat far more home cooked food than is decent and reflect on the good things in life.

Cheers!
thanksgiving

-Turkish Prawn

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