Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

Rocketland

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

It wasn’t a rocket.

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

Zen Navigation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crap.

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

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

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

“Oh, I hope to. Do you need tickets?”

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

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

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

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

“Daddy, I have to pee.”

Those words brought me crashing back down.

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

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

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

Please?!

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

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

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

“Yah… But I really have to go.”

I was starting to sweat.

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

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

“Daaaaaad! I really have to pee!”

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

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

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

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

Phew.

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

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

Flight Time… Part II

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

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

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

Heywhatsaywhatdidyousay?!?!?

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

This did not bode well.

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

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

“All gone!”

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

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

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

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

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

CRAP!

I waved.

She didn’t see me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all in the timing.

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

Zero.

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

His little sister, Lulu Belle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that really Florida?”

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

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

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

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

Flight Time… Part I

Keeping a kid focused enough to maintain positive forward motion is a tricky thing to do. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “herding cats” before and that might be a fairly good description except that I find the cats more predictable. Over the years I’ve discovered that the best way, often the only way, to get a kid or two to move in the desired direction is to give them a job. Thus empowered, they will stay on task, oh…. for at least thirty to forty-five seconds. That’s double what you can normally get!

“Okay Buddy, here’s what you need to do. All the seats are numbered and we need to find the ones that belong to us. Can you help me do that?”

With a resounding, “Yah!” and his mission thus given, he was off, down the isle to find seats 23A and B.

Again, I have some good stuff to say here about our carrier for this flight. JetBlue does something that I was deeply grateful to find out. Others may do it too, but I don’t know about them so I’ll just sing JetBlue’s praises.

They let you pick your seats when you book on-line with the aid of a little airplane diagram.

Even though I’ve done a good deal of flying in the past, I’m always a tad bummed when I find out that I’ll be sitting over the wing for the duration. The only thing worse is when you find yourself in the last row with the seat bolted permanently in the uptight dinner guest position. If you’re really lucky, it comes with the fuselage mounted engines just on the other side of the thin aluminum wall. I’ve actually had to turn on the subtitles for a movie I was watching because of this. The headphones simply didn’t go up high enough for me to hear the dialogue.

With this flight though, I had none of that to worry about. We were positioned perfectly, half way back from the trailing edge of the wing with Short Stack, naturally, in the window seat. Th view should be wonderful and I had even put us on the right hand side so that he might just catch a glimpse of the Space Center when we were nearing our destination.

As he kneeled there, face smunched against the Plexiglas, I was taken with how small he still was and, just for a moment, felt like I was being somewhat unfair to be dragging him off on this crazy excursion. The next twenty hours or so were going to be rough. Little sleep, lots of walking, crowds. What was I doing? Then… I saw Rick getting into his seat a few rows up. He spotted me too as he was folding himself in, stopped, smiled warmly and winked as he gave me a big thumbs up. That was all the validation I needed. The last shreds of doubt washed away in the shared enthusiasm and I set about getting the two of us ready for take off.

Short Stack and I had been over and over what he could expect for the flight. The unknown is scary after all, and the last thing I wanted was my four year old freaking out and trying to be worn as a hat while the plane climbed out. The crying kid on a plane is always a horror show and I wanted to be sure it wasn’t mine who was melting down. He’s not a scaredy-cat, but he really doesn’t like it when the unexpected occurs. He wants to know about it all, BEFORE! We had covered the seat belt, the sound of the luggage being loaded, the whine of the engines, how the seat in front of you can move a bit, even the “Ka-THUNK” of the wheels coming up that so often makes more than a few adult passengers’ knuckles go white when they hear it. He was all set and he was excited, right up until I belted him in.

“Daddy. I don’t think they make these seats for little boys.”

Much to my sadness, I saw that he was right. They don’t.

After all my hype of how cool flying was going to be, I looked down at my son and saw his problem. The very top of his little red head was almost exactly level with the bottom of his window. He had a perfect view of the wall, but nothing else. If he looked up and out, all there was to see was sky. Bummer.

Time to bend a few rules again, I see.

“Hang on a second, Buddy. I’ll see what I can do for you there.”

Quickly, I stared to rummage around for anything that might give him a boost. Since we were heading for tropical weather, I didn’t have much but I did manage to fold up my flannel shirt and his rain coat and cram them under his butt so he could just barely peek up and out when he stretched his neck to its full extension. I badly wanted to put him on my lap, but I thought that might not go over well with the flight attendants. He could see now. Barely.

Once we were all packed in, seated and ready to go, the plane pulled out and started to taxi to the runway. Finally, the excitement started to show on Short Stack’s face as he cast his gaze rapidly around the plane and relied on me to give him the play by play of what was happening out our window.

“Are we taking off yet?” His head swiveled like a crazed lawn sprinkler.

“Nope. We’re just getting to the runway.” This is where I got to shine with my airplane nerdiness. What my son is to rockets, I was to airplanes and I followed that passion all the way to my pilot’s certificate. The flying I do is strictly for fun and the planes are a heck of a lot smaller than the one we were in, but the principle’s the same and I knew what was happening in the cockpit and the tower and I gave him my best running commentary as we bumped along the taxiway.

“Ok, we’re probably going to hold short here for just a few seconds while the tower checks things out for us and then, when it’s our turn, we’ll pull on to the runway.” Eyes wide open and brain humming, he took it all in with rapt attention. Just like I promised, a few seconds later, we turned on to the runway, lined up and listened to the engines throttling up.

“Here we go!”

In what I hoped was a reassuring gesture, I put my hand on his knee and was rewarded with his own small hand pressed into its back. The roar of the engines blocked out any comments that he might have made but he was obviously loving this. It wasn’t a rocket, but at least he was in the air! Then… he looked at me with some concern and touched his ears. It was the cabin pressure changing and he had no idea what to do about that.

Whoops!

When I was a kid, I lived in a valley. It was a good sized valley and because of this, when you left our little city to go anywhere, you changed altitude quickly and steeply. Because of this, your ears popped. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know what to do when the pressure started to build up and you needed to let it out. You just yawn, swallow hard or chew some gum or something. It was simple. My own son lives in very different geography. Our house is at sea level, or just slightly above. There are no nearby mountains, deep valleys or winding, climbing roads that snake up the backs of ridge lines. He’s a flatlander and lives his life at about thirty feet above the sea, unless he’s actually standing on the beach… Then it’s less.

No one likes to wait too long when it comes to popping ears so I looked for a quick fix and my eyes fell on his sippy cup. It’s an ingenious little spill proof device with an integral straw. It works very well, but you really have to suck on that thing to make it work. I had just topped it up and now handed it off to my ever more worried looking son.

“Here! Suck on the straw. That will help.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he started slurping away and only stopped once to let me know that it was working. The plane climbed. Short Stack drank. We kept climbing. He kept drinking. And then… he was out, but the plane wasn’t. The poor kid had just slurped up a ton of water and was casting about in more than a slight panic.

“Here. Just do this. You need to yawn.”

Helpfully, I did some exaggerated yawns for him which he dutifully started to mimic… sort of. Rather than opening and closing his jaw like a guppy, he decided that it was best to just leave it hanging open. He did this for a long, long time which I found somewhere between humorous and unsettling.

“Ok, Buddy. You should be fine now. You can close your mouth.” He was having none of it. Not until he was sure. Until then, he was doing his best to look like a jet intake. I decided to let the humorous side of me win out over the unsettled one and let him continue his long, silent, solo.

“Ah haa-ha hoo hee.”

I replied with a stifled smirk as I looked at his tonsils. “What’s that, Bub?”

“Ah haa-ha hoo heeee!” He looked earnest in his statement, but Lord only knows what it was. Between the engine noise and the lack of any enunciation on his part, it was impossible to understand him.

“You’re going to need to close your mouth and talk normally, Short Stack. I can’t understand you at all.”

“I have to go PEE! Right now!

RED ALERT!

And Away We Go… Part III

As I sat back in the waiting room chair, I noticed someone else obviously enjoying the play filled happiness so openly expressed by my boy. A few seats over, a man a little older than myself sat amongst scattered carry-ons and smiled as Short Stack posed Neil with his little flag, just next to the triumphantly returned Shuttle. I knew that smile. It was the unmistakable look of a father remembering.

When he realized that I was watching him watch Short Stack, he smiled a little uneasily and looked for something safe to say. “He’s got quite an imagination, hasn’t he?”

First comments with strangers are always a little tense. You never know how people are going to react these days, especially if they are alone with their young children. As a society, it’s been drilled relentlessly into our heads that everyone is a potential killer, kidnapper, or investment banker and you simply should never open your self up to potential danger. It is perhaps a safer way to live life, but it’s also, in my estimation, a far less fulfilling one as well. I think that as we seem to be stuck in this “watch your back” society, we have also become hungry for the chance to connect with our fellow planet walkers. Generally, I’ve found that if I make it clear that I’m approachable, things nearly always end up with me getting a new friend, even if only for the length of the conversation.

In short, I’ve never learned not to talk to strangers.

“Oooh, yah.” I shifted so I could chat more comfortably. “If it involves rockets, he’s a happy boy. If it doesn’t, well… he’ll make it into one. Just watch.” Short Stack obliged by busily turning his hands into a makeshift lunar lander and lifting off from the Sea of Tranquility with Neil balled up in his little fist.

Seeing that I wasn’t about to give him the “Who the hell are you?!” look or ignore him entirely, he straightened up as well and smiled broadly. “Looks like he’s got some serious focus there. It’s great to see a kid so into what ever makes him happy. My son was like that too. Now he’s at the Air Force Academy and loving it. It’s where he always wanted to be.”

The thing is, I love moments like this. I had no idea who this man was before right now, but I was about to find out. I’m a pretty good judge of character and posses a well tuned “gut” which I have learned to listen to very, very carefully and it rarely leads me wrong. This guy was dressed in a clean t-shirt, sweat shirt and shorts and if that was a bit overexposed for Maine in April, it could be easily forgiven since everyone in the waiting area was, after all going to the same tropical location. If he looked out of place here in New England, it was I who would look silly in Florida dressed in long pants and flannel. I also noted that he was guarding a sizable mound of luggage so he wasn’t traveling alone. Since I hadn’t seen his companion yet, I guessed that she was off looking through the duty free shops and that he was no doubt getting bored.

Bored is good. It makes people chatty.

His name was Rick, and he and his wife lived right here in Portland. For a day job, he drove for a national delivery company and on his off hours, taught children’s gymnastics. They, as it turned out, were going to Florida to watch their daughter compete in the National Cheerleading Competition. I found this out in all of five minutes of friendly chatting. He was just the sort of person I was hoping I’d run into.

For me, adult conversation has become a pretty rare commodity. As a stay at home dad, most of the topics that I get to cover each day are either space or bunny related. As Short Stack is fond of pointing out, “Lulu Belle is sorta’ into bunnies, but I like rockets.”

I do get to talk with my wife when she gets home, naturally, but if it’s before eight o’clock, it tends to be filled with a lot of interruptions from various short, household individuals. Topics are brought up but never concluded due to diapers that need changing, toys that need fixing or simply children who want you to focus on them rather than… anything else, actually. After eight, we are both so tired that forming coherent sentences and complete thoughts can be pretty hit or miss. Mostly, all we want to do is plug in and watch a movie together before our eyes cross and we shuffle off to bed.

I love to chat with new folks and although being my children’s primary care giver has been a far more rewarding experience than I ever expected it to be, I do miss meeting people and simply talking like an adult. When Rick’s wife showed up, she immediately took a shine to Short Stack and within a few minutes, my boy was telling her all about rockets, Space Shuttles, Neil and what we were going to see when we finally got to Florida.

For Short Stack, Florida had become a sort of mythical land, visited only by near magical means. It’s too far away to see and too far away to drive to (so far as I’m concerned) and although we had shown it to him on a map, geography and scale are hard to grasp when your primary modes of transportation are a tricycle and size six sneakers. To him, it’s simply a distant unknown land like Atlantis of Camelot. For most kids this Shangri La is synonymous with Disney World but Short Stack doesn’t have a clue about that. Far from having the Disney Channel, our home has been without television for long before he was ever born and I see no reason to change that now. Why would I want to risk overwriting his love of all things space with a seven foot mouse? What he wanted was to go to the Space Center and I’ll take that over “The Happiest Place On Earth” any day.

As our departure time got closer, I realized that I had a problem. In my care was my little boy who had been slurping away dutifully on a sippy cup full of water for the last hour and a half and it was just about time to strap him into a seat from which he would not be allowed to get up for a good twenty minutes. The safe money was in finding a bathroom now. The issue was that in addition to the boy, I was also dragging around a stroller, his backpack, my own ridiculously heavy backpack with my laptop in it AND my Man Purse™.

A brief word about the Man Purse™…

…I love this thing. Normally, I would scoff at taking an extra bag just to carry a few extra items. After all, I do have normal sized pockets, unlike ninety-nine percent of women’s pants. Seriously, what’s the use of having a pocket that’s an inch and a half deep? I don’t know why that put them on women’s jeans at all. Because my pockets are filled with all the things that most ladies would have in their hand bag, like my wallet, cell phone, money clip, used tissues, four pounds of change and three pounds of lint, I need a removable, backup pocket for child care related items. Actually, it has become a must for me. With two munchkins who are always seemingly in need of a snack, a drink, a change of pants, a new diaper, a rocket or a toy bunny, I’ve found it indispensable and have fully embraced the concept. Actually, I feel a little naked with out it. Selection however, was tricky.

A courier bag is really too big for what I wanted and most other commercial shoulder bags, let’s be frank here, look way to girly for me.

In their defense, I think they are supposed to appeal to girls, so that’s fair, but unhelpful for the Dad-On-Duty who wants to retain the façade of Mr. Toughguy. I needed something suitably manly AND useful. What I found was a genuine, WWII British surplus gas mask bag and it. is… AWESOME!

The pouch for the gas canister neatly holds drink for the kids, the main area is capacious enough for changing supplies and toys and there’s even an extra pouch for paper items… like plane tickets. Made from super heavy canvas with steel fasteners and brass grommets, this thing is near indestructible as well. The non-adjustable strap needs no adjusting and hangs right where your hand falls naturally, perfect for dealing with a gas attack from either German infantry or a stinky two year old. In all its glorious olive drab camouflage, it completely fulfills the manly requirement and if someone decides to make fun of me for it, I can always hit them with it. A satchel full of wet diapers can pack a whollop!

So… the bathroom. The bathrooms were in sight of where we were sitting, so it wouldn’t exactly be a trek to get there but I didn’t relish the idea of dragging all my stuff through the tiny doorway and setting it down on the questionable damp men’s room floor. Overhead, the safety announcement ran through the P.A. system on an endless loop.

“Please keep your luggage with you at all times and report any suspicious or unattended bags immediately.”

I looked at Rick and his wife and made a quick judgment call that they probably didn’t work for international terrorists. I mean, between the delivery job and the gymnastics, when could he possibly fit in attending the meetings? It was time to be a rule breaker.

“Hey, Rick. Could you do me a big favor?” I tried my best to look earnest and non-terroristy. “Could you watch our stuff so I can get Short Stack here to the bathroom before we board?”

“Yah, no problem. I’m not going anywhere.”

There’s something funny about all these rules we have at airports now. We know that someone put them in place for a reason, but it seems like, the more that are piled on us, the less likely we are to take them seriously. It’s certainly not uniquely an American trait, but it seems to be endemic to us. We’re an unruly lot and the fact that my waiting area friend was so happy to flout a regulation in the effort of helping out a stranger gives me some hope for this country. One should never take rules as being unbendable, I believe.

After returning, I thanked him and we chatted some more until it was boarding time.

“WE ARE NOW BOARDING ROWS ZURGLE-BURGLE THROUGH FLURZZBE FOR FLIGHT 234, DIRECT TO ORLANDO. PLEASE HAVE YOUR PASSES READY.”

“What did they say?” There was no hope of me figuring out what they just said.

“Eh, who knows?” Rick and his wife were already gathering up their stuff. “I always just get in line.” He added with a wry smile. “It’s just easier that way.”

I smiled back and Short Stack and I joined the throng funneling in though the doorway down to the ramp. As we walked along, I looked down at my son, trotting along happily before me, rocket backpack bouncing with each enthusiastic hop.

He was going for a jet ride!

He was going to Florida!

He was going to see rockets!!!

I caught a lot of other folks smiling broadly at him as his obvious enthusiasm and sweet nature contagiously spread behind him like a wake. He was off on an adventure and pleased to be doing so. I had a deep and real urge to say, “That’s my boy!” to everyone I could.

Tickets, Part III

Our next door neighbors, Barry and Carole are a lot of fun. They’re a mostly retired couple who moved to the island about four years ago and bought the ancient farmhouse that sits on the opposite side of our backyard stonewall. There are lots of reasons why we like them, the most immediate of which that spring to mind being their good nature, a mutual interest in history, and the fantastic manhattans which appear one after the other almost magically from their bar. Man… the manhattans are just great. Another interest which we have in common is a love of flying.

So far as I can recall, I’ve always been entranced with the notion of flight and as a young child, my father would take me down to the local airport about once a year, charter a small, two or four seat airplane and a pilot and take me for a flight over the little valley where we lived. Things were a lot more relaxed back then when it came to air safety and regulation and I’d simply sit on my Dad’s lap for the duration of the flight. I got to see how everything worked, watch the gauges and if the pilot was feeling particularly friendly that day, even get to “fly” the plane a bit. This really only entailed me steering with the yolk, but I still found it a thrill. What kid wouldn’t?

With the hook firmly set, it was inevitable that some day I’d go and get my pilot’s certificate, which is exactly what I did. It was never something I wanted to do as a profession but rather enjoyed as an unbelievably fun way to unwind on a sunny weekend or after a stressful day at work. When my wife and I lived in Vermont, we were only a few minutes from a wonderful little airport and flew quite often. After I started my business, I didn’t have as much time to spend zipping around, boring holes in the sky for no particular reason. Once we relocated to our current runwayless island home, my flight time dropped off even further. When our son was born, that was pretty much the final blow to my time spent in a cockpit. The concept of free time and extra money are nothing more than the vague and fleeting memories of a life that might as well have been a thousand years ago. Did I actually get to do that? Was that me? Well, I do still have the certificate and it has my name on it, as does the black logbook that details every flight I’ve ever made. It rests dustily on the shelf in the hopes of someday being tossed into a flight kit and being toted into the air once again. It must have been me. I don’t know when it will happen again, but I can be patient.

Barry also liked to fly, though he, like me, no longer takes to the sky these days. He spent a lot of time in the air and now he’s happy to reflect on his experiences and leave it at that. I think it’s fair to say that he was far more into it than I was, however. His joy of flight propelled him from the humble seat of a tiny two seater, where all pilots seem to begin, and then followed it all the way up to becoming a director of the Federal Air Administration in Washington, DC. You don’t get much more enthusiastic about flying than that!

We have a great time on summer evenings, relaxing in his living room, chatting about flights we’ve made, the merits of various aircraft and how low the drinks are getting in our glasses. I knew that Barry had been out of the FAA for a long time now but he still does consulting work in the aerospace industry and has a lot of connections. With my new understanding that getting my tickets was going to require some serious effort, I thought talking to my fellow airplane friend was worth a try. Surely he must know someone at NASA? After explaining my situation to him, I asked if there was anything he thought he could do.

“Wow. That’s…ah, that’s a great thing you want to do with your boy. You know, I used to know the director at NASA very well.”

This sounded promising! I was hoping for a connection like that.

“The problem is that he’s been retired now for ages, just like I have. He’s not there anymore and I can’t think of a single person I know who works there still.“ I could tell that the situation pained him and I was instantly regretting having asked. Barry’s a great person and the only thing that would pain him more than not being able to help a friend is not being able to help a friend when at one time, he could have easily.

“No problem!” I tried to interrupt with out interrupting and save him from making any other apology for a situation completely not of his making. Now we were both feeling uncomfortable. Great. “I just thought I’d call and see and… um.. So, How’s Carole?” My attempt to change the subject must have been transparent as cellophane, but thankfully we managed to steer the conversation to other grounds and ending with only a parting “Sorry about that” from my friend.

Strike one.

Next I’d try something that was less potentially embarrassing, but far more of a long shot. I’d contact one of my Senators.

Now, to set the record straight here, I am not a government botherer by any measure. I don’t’ write letter after letter to Congressmen or even City Council members. I don’t watch C-Span or go to political rallies. I don’t, to be honest, hold elected officials in a lot of esteem. Mostly, government officials seem to be concerned with one thing and one thing only and that is to get them reelected as many times as humanly possible. There’s a very good reason hardly anyone in office likes the idea of term limits. This time though, I thought that it might, just MIGHT work in my favor. What all officials like is good public relations story and this was a pretty good one. What I needed to do was something I did a lot in my youth but almost never anymore. I needed to write a letter. By HAND.

Deep in the confines of the top drawer of a little used bureau sat my few remaining monogrammed letters that I must have purchased some time in during the first Clinton administration. Writing a hand letter was something that was so common not that long ago, but now, with the advent of good and cheap inkjet printers, not to mention email, the common household letter is a thing of the past. An anachronism. Despite this, in face, because of this, it is also the very best way to get your self noticed in our otherwise type written world. Knowing the condition of my horribly deteriorated penmanship skills, I decided to do this thing write… I mean right.

Sitting up straight in my chair at a cleared off kitchen table, I carefully wrote out my letter in the faintest pencil, all the time using an index card to keep the lines of text parallel and neat. Once accomplished and carefully checked for errors, only then did I pull out the pen and overwrote the pencil. When I was sure the ink was dry, an eraser took care of my earlier marks. It reads more or less as follows:

Dear Senator Collins,

My family and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and my three year old son is fascinated with space and rockets to the point of obsession. His birthday is in March and as a very special present, I want to take him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the Shuttle launch on the 18th. The problem is, that it’s nearly impossible to obtain tickets. They go on sale to the public at an unspecified date, at an unspecified time and sell out in less than an hour. The only advice I could get from the space center was to, “check back often.”

As you can guess, the likelihood of me calling in time to get tickets is practically zero. I would happily pay for tickets if there were some why I could be given a chance. I would like to ask you if there is anything you could do or suggest so I might get this chance to show my son a once in a lifetime view. This is something he would remember for the rest of his life as well as I.

Thank you for your time and attention as well as for whatever assistance you might be able to offer.

As I looked over my work, I grinned. Instantly, I was a sixth grader again, just about to hand in my hard work. I was proud! Then, in a moment of balloon like deflation, I realized that Miss Aubin would have sent this right back for me to do again with a terse remark scrawled at the top in her unforgiving red pen. In sixth grade, it would have had to be in cursive. No excuses.

Luckily, Miss Aubin wasn’t going to get a chance on grading this one and without remorse, I stuck it into the envelope, copied the address onto the front, affixed the postage, made sure that my return address was easy to decipher and carried it by hand to our little post office down by the ferry landing.

These moments are interesting things for me. I like to think that I’m not a naive fool, blundering through life with the misplaced belief that people are happy to solve my problems for me, but at times like this, I actually get this sensation that I’ve got a good shot at getting help. Somehow, as I walked back to my house, I was sure I’d hear something from the Senator, even if it was just a form letter. I’d get something.

Right?

As hopeful as I was, I’ve also learned not to bank on hope. Hope’s great. It makes you feel good and keeps morale up, to be sure, but I’m willing to bet that most people adrift in life rafts who’ve died of exposure had hope just welling up in their hearts. Personally, I vote for rowing. The problem was picking a direction. Then, as luck would have it, I got a sign from above. Well, the Internet, actually, but the effect’s much the same.

When I had been messing around on that hideous time vampire, Facebook, I had discovered that the Kennedy Space Center had a fan page. It’s where I had gotten the advice about where to see the launch from. Apparently, while I was there, I had clicked the “Become a Fan” button and put on their electronic mailing list. It was the only way I can explain the email that arrived in my in-box.

“STS-131 space shuttle launch viewing tickets at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex go on sale Thursday, February 11 at 9:00 a.m. ET.”

WHAT?!?

Facebook, if I ever spoke ill of you before, please forgive me.

More later….