Lost to the Playground, Part II

It’s a funny thing about growing up. When we’re kids, we look forward to the birthday-mile stones when special access is granted to us and we revel in our newly acquired abilities; being allowed to use the stove or trusted to walk to a friends house all by your self; things like that. Because we are so focused on looking forward, we almost never notice what we leave behind until confronted with it. It’s especially poignant when you’re obviously too old for some shenanigans and are confronted with looks of startled bewilderment from those who are not. For me, this was one of those moments.

The playground / jungle gym / rocket park had been built with kids in mind, and not overly big kids either. Once inside, anyone over four foot six would be forced to scoot along with a hunch lest they graze their forehead on the rubberized ceiling or brain themselves, (though softly) on the padded, low doorways leading off the main thoroughfares and snaked along to other levels.

It wasn’t hard to come to the notion, “This must be what life must look like to an ant.”

Running through all this were the squealing, squeaking children, whom had been lost to the worried parents out side… plus me, and it was obvious from the startled looks I received that I was most definitely an unexpected guest. I was out of my territory, and they knew it. This was their place.

In the end, it only took perhaps three minutes of crawling and shouting before I found him.

“Hey, Short Stack!” His little red haired head whipped around, an enormous smile comically plastered across it. He immediately started pointing with both hands at a circular opening on the wall to his side.

“Dad! Come try this slide! It goes forever!”

I was already feeling rather out of my element simply by intruding on this space and though I was sincerely touched by his enthusiastic efforts to share in the fun with his Dear Old Dad, I wasn’t sure if joining in on the play equipment wasn’t kind of pushing it too far. That, and the thought that, though I am still a fairly trim individual, this place was most definitely not constructed with grow men in mind. At least I sort of hope not. Instead, I begged off.

“Ehhh… Tell you what! I’ll go to the bottom and you come down it! I’ll be there waiting for you!” I flashed my best reassuring smile.

“Okay! Go, Dad! Go!” And with the go-ahead of my boy, I dashed off back through the rubberized maze and out the same door I had entered. A few seconds later, he popped out a different hole at the base of the playground, two stories lower than where I had just seen him. He was in Heaven.

Now that I knew where he was and he knew that I was within reach, I relaxed a little more, even daring to put my shoes back on and grabbing a seat at one of the benches that ringed the scene. From my new vantage point, the people watching was simply fantastic. New batches of kids would come screaming in from the surrounding area like a swarm of crazed bees, followed briskly by heavily encumbered parents and grandparents. The kids would disappear into the throng while the adults would circle and search upwards until, eventually, one would crack, whip off their shoes and tunnel in after them. This cycle repeated its self about once every ten minutes. It made for some pretty good theater, actually and I eased into a more laid back pose now that I better understood the cycle and I started to look at the other adults who stood awkwardly on the periphery as possible chatting fodder.

I have never been accused of being reserved or bashful and much to my wife’s perennial dismay and embarrassment I happily engage perfect strangers in conversation based solely on the fact that we both are carbon based life forms. When we are out as a couple and I try this, I’ll normally get a hand squeeze or a roughly subtle-ish kick to the foot or leg to let me know that I’m entering potential spousal embarrassment territory. Tonight however, I was on my own and I’m not afraid to admit that I was somewhat reveling in the fact that I knew I could talk to strangers with abandon and that it would be a kick-free affair. At least I hoped so. I fired my opening salvo at the nice looking couple standing like all the other adults at the edges of the playground.

“Hi! How are you this evening?”

They looked to be in their sixties or so, trim and very friendly and happily for me, they turned out to be as nice as they looked. They were also not averse to talking with random people whom might have been looking for some grown-up conversation.

Yay!

They introduced themselves as Tom and Annette and as it turned out, they we residents of Florida, having retired here some years ago, as seems to be the law. They too were here with a child, their young grandson, whom they wanted to have the chance to see the Space Shuttle launch before it was all over for good. After the initial, “Where are you from?” and “How long are you here for?” sort of inquiries, we started doing what everyone else here was doing: talking rockets. And Tom, a retired engineer, had a lot to say on this topic.

“I just don’t understand why we’re stopping the Shuttle program at this point only to go back to conventional rockets. It makes no sense to me. It doesn’t seem like Constellation is a fair trade at all, but more like a step backwards” On these points I actually agreed. The last days of the Shuttle were in sight now and the notion that all this would be ending very, very soon made just about everyone here uncomfortable and they’d tell you that eagerly if you asked them. It became obvious that this would be a real ending of an era as a technological progress arc goes.

Balloons, gliders, airplanes, jets, space capsules on rockets, Space Shuttles… then, capsules and rockets again. I was afraid that he was spot on in his assessment. It just felt wrong.

Constellation was the new baby for NASA and was mandated during the George W. Bush administration. The idea had been for the U.S. to go back to the moon and see first hand what had been happening there since we last visited in 1972. It had been a long, long time since Jean Cernan had stepped back into the Lunar Lander and blasted his way back to Earth along with the other Apollo 17 crew and it had punctuated the end of not only the Apollo Program but also the cessation of mankind reaching beyond our own little blue-green planet save by robotic proxy. It was the last time any person had seen the whole of the Earth with the naked eye. No one else has been far enough away to do that since. How’s that for a thought? That we had abandoned the moon after all that effort is something that had always rather irked me, but, much to my surprise, when our return was finally announced what bugged me even more was the way we were planning to go back: The exact same way we went the first time.

Well, pretty much, anyway. We were going to use the “astronauts packed in cans and put on the tips of rockets” method. Big, pointy rockets.

Not to talk down all rockets, though!

The iconic Saturn V that had carried our Apollo astronauts to an alien world was a technological marvel of its day. It had been built of hundreds of thousands of individual machines and sub-systems systems that all had to work together without the aid of the powerful computers which we are now accustomed to. No microprocessors hidden on circuit boards buried deep in the depths of its belly. No redundant failsafe systems automatically poised to take over in the event of error. It was mechanical, not digital and it did, if not the impossible, than the very, very improbable. It was then and remains to this day, one of the most deeply amazing pieces of hardware mankind has ever built and still capable of making any engineer or technology wonk speechless in its presence. It was beyond cutting edge for 1969. The problem is, it’s not 1969 anymore and I was having a hard time swallowing the concept that after the radical leap in design brought about by the Shuttle Program, we were headed right back to rockets.

To give credit where credit is due, Constellation has some impressive technological advances over its predecessor. It would use two rockets, named Ares I and Ares V, instead of the single mighty, massive Saturn V of the 60’s and 70’s moon program. Both of those new and very different looking machines would incorporate solid fuel booster technology just like that used on the space shuttle. The Ares I, a slender and fragile looking affair would be used to put the capsule and crew into orbit, while the Ares V, many times larger, would deliver the ALTAIR, the newly updated lunar lander “bug” which would actually bring people back to the surface of our one natural satellite. The two would link up in Earth Orbit and make the journey together. Looking at this new delivery system, you could see the Shuttle’s fingerprints all over it. The Ares I is strangely bulky at the top third, making it look dangerously top heavy. The reason becomes clear if you take a moment to look at the segments, though. The wider, stubby, upper stage rocket is perched on a near duplicate of the Shuttle’s iconic, white, solid rocket booster.

The Ares V is even more startling in its appearance since it pretty much comes across like the Space Shuttle’s external tank and boosters all ready for launch, but with a nose job and without that beautiful orbiter attached. It almost looks as if they simply forgot to put the Shuttle on and then decided to just go with it and launch as-is. It’s longer, modified to accommodate engines at the base of that big, orange tank and a payload bay up top and it’s been given its own class and name but any child can see what they’ve done, and that’s what didn’t sit well with Tom, Annette and most of the rest of the people I talked with. It was as if they had looked around at what was left in the LEGO box after a fit of industrious building and playing and then, finding it mostly empty, had said, “Hey, I bet we can still make another rocket out of this!”

I know that’s unfair. It took a lot of people a long, long time to make it work. It was hard and difficult work, I’m sure and I can imagine the gargantuan cost savings by adopting previously tested and ready to manufacture aspects of the design… but it lacked innovation. It lacked style.

It lacked… “Wow!”

In truth, it’s was still a pointy rocket with astronauts packed into a sardine can and balanced on the tip, just like we had done in ’62. But to make it that much harder to swallow, it was also constructed with the disassembled parts of an icon we loved. To Shuttle lovers, of whom I was surrounded by, it was sort of a knife twist and Tom, Annette and I expounded on this with emotion and what technological expertise we could muster. It was a lively conversation which absorbed us entirely.

“Excuse me, is he yours?” A nice looking woman’s interruption broke me out of our discussion and back into the present.

“Ah, oh! Yes! Thanks!” Short Stack, just visible at the very top of the structure was kneeling down and sobbing. There goes my Dad of the Year award. It was time to mount a rescue. Once I managed to wriggle my way back in and finally to the upper levels of the hive, I discovered that the injury was more to his pride than anything else and the little kid whom he had konked heads with had long since moved on to play in other parts of the Thunder Dome. What the real issue was had more to due with lack of rest and proper food than any actual pain, but when you’re four, you’re in a strange place with strange people and you sustain a good head-butt, what you really want is….

“DAAAAAAAAAAAADDY!”

At least he still thought I was Dad of the Year even if I was mentally beating my self up for getting my eye off the ball again.

What he really wanted was for me to carry him out, but since that would have required him to cling to my belly like a possum, instead we talked our way down out of the crying before journeying our way down and out of the play area.

“Let’s get something to eat, Bud. Then we can get some rest in our tent.” This idea seemed to meet with some approval and soon we were at the food tent, looking over the choices for our dining pleasure. Now to find one of the four things that were on my son’s “edible” list…

Advertisements

Lost to the Playground

Not everyone likes all museums, and that’s a simple fact of life.

To a disinterested party, museums are a long walk filled with items they could literally not care less about if they tried, each tidbit labeled with an accompanying plaque covered in small type explaining in detail exactly why this individual would rather be in a coffee shop somewhere drinking warm beverages and eating stale pastries. Personally, I love museums, or at least, the vast majority of them. I just love history. I can’t help it. It’s a rare building filled with old relics that I can’t get into, though they do exist. I recall a certain textile museum in Switzerland which I happily managed to sidestep, leaving my wife to indulge in a previously unknown and unsuspected love of cloth, while I was set free to wander the streets and search for… well, coffee, probably. After meeting up again later, she told me about how fascinating is all was while I pointed out the place around the corner where the coffee was. We had both had a good time, it seems. This, I can’t help but feel, is a good lesson to take to heart. No one likes to be dragged along through building after building to see things that make little to no sense to them. In a lot of ways, this trip was going to be a real challenge for both my son and me. I like historical minutia… and he’s four.

Short Stack, though deeply into space, rockets and big shiny objects in general, is still a young pup and no matter how interested, this meant two things: First, he has very little in the way of historical perspective when it comes to what he’s looking at, and therefore limited appreciation. Secondly, like most people his age, he has the attention span of a sparrow.

These two factors would bring him again and again into conflict with his own burning need to know stuff, especially rocket stuff, and as we had walked around the Garden to gaze in amazement at the towering displays there, I could watch this inner battle play its self out over and over again. He had wanted this for a long time, had been dreaming about it for months, but now confronted with it, in all it’s looming massiveness, he was having a hard time standing still long enough for me to answer his questions. He can’t have been alone in this, because the Kennedy Space Center people had installed the ultimate item for kids like mine to relate to, dead center in the middle of all the hubbub.

Though my own son as well as his father had been looking forward to this trip and were now enjoying the fruits of their labors and travels, I can easily imagine some random and unfortunate child, utterly ambivalent on the subject of rocketry, science, history or worse, all three, being dragged along by a parent or grandparent who is completely enraptured by the entire NASA experience and blissfully oblivious to the toxic level of boredom that is building in their offspring’s circulatory system. As the star-eyed adult in charge drags them from museum after museum of space flight, the whining would start, then the pleading followed shortly after by bouts of faked kidney stones in the last ditch efforts to trade this experience for one judged to be more interesting such as an afternoon spent at Brevard County Urgent Care. Then, near to the activities and historical displays that are scattered around the Center’s outdoor attractions like so many giant toys, it would appear on the horizon to that child, like an oasis in the Sahara.

The playground.

Playgrounds are like rare earth magnets for munchkins and this one truly took the cake. It was so far above and beyond anything seen or played on before, that it could only have been made for NASA. Kids around the world have no doubt spent many hours thinking about, drawing and describing what THEY would build if it were up to them to create the ultimate playground. This one looked as if they had actually let the kids do it up for real.

Note: Photo's brightness adjusted like CRAZY so you can actually see what's going on.

Rockets stood like spires at the corners of its frame looming at least twenty feet tall, and each hollowed out with landings, ladders, windows and escape hatches. Between them stretched a labyrinth of corridors, slides, bridges, ladders and secret passages, the whole thing encased in a rubbery, bouncy mesh which made the whole thing tremble with the sympathetic vibration of the play being dished out by the dozens and dozens of bug-eyed kids marveling at the shear amazingness of the entire contraption. I’m willing to bet that if you gave your average three to five year old the choice of going to Disney World or spending the day within the confines of this sculpture of fun, then The Mouse would be in serious trouble.

It’s that good.

To cap it all, literally, the entire thing is covered by a massive, mushroom-like permanent tent that sits low over the structure and keeps possessions and parents alike shaded from sun and rain. For night launches like ours, it is lit by floodlights. There is, however, one major setback for parents, grandparents or other munchkin escorts.

Visibility.

Here’s a little science lesson for you… Wait until night, turn out the lights in your home and then go outside with a flashlight. Walk to an open window with a screen and now try and see into the house with your light.

Ok. You’re not going to do that. I understand.

Here’s the crib sheet. You can’t easily see in the house. What happens is that the beam of light mostly illuminates the screen and not the stuff in the house. In short, it doesn’t work well at all. You get a great view of the screen but as for what’s happening inside, you have little idea of.

There, now you don’t have to worry about having the cops called on you by your neighborhood watch. You’re welcome.

This is exactly what happened with the playground.

As kids by the hoard-load ditched their shoes at the thoughtfully provided cubbies and flew into its inviting ground floor entrances, they disappeared within its confines looking for all the world like a swarm of mad, yelling bees returning to their hive. On the outskirts of this bedlam, parents slowly circled the periphery, often clutching their lost children’s shoes and squinting inscrutably at the impemnitrable mesh in the vain hope of spotting a familiar hat or coat. It made me smirk to myself at first but as I continued to peer at the melee, hoping that by the power of will alone I would somehow develop latent x-ray vision, I began to understand the varying degrees of worry worn on the upturned faces of most of the adults. The chance of seeing Jimmy, Suzie, Carl, Sharon or any one child whom might be your responsibility to keep safe and sound, was infinitecimally small. It was like trying to keep track of one superball out of hundreds as they bounced around in a cement mixer.

…While wearing sunglasses.

…At night.

I cupped my hands on either side of my mouth in the effort not to blast those standing nearby and possibly direct my voice up and into the Maze Of Fun.

“SHORT STACK!”

I cocked my head to listen.

…General squeals of glee, fear, and adolescent adrenaline.

“HEY, SHORT STACK!”

More of the same.

“Crap!”

Popping off my shoes and stuffing my dignity in the left one and my hat in the right, I ducked my head at the chest-high door jam and shimmied in. He had to be here somewhere. It was time to go find him.

Rocket Garden, Part II

The amazing thing about situations like the one the two of us found our selves in, being with a large crown of like minded individuals intent on a common goal and all sharing a common interest, is that the air practically crackles with joy and exuberance. Everyone is happy as a clam to be there and just feels lucky to have had the chance to attend, and in fact, they were. Each and every person who I was now looking at busily milling about and reading the various informative plaques and laughing as their picture was taken, arms locked over their neighbor’s shoulders, grins plastered a half mile wide on their faces, all of them had been vying for their own golden ticket in that computerized virtual waiting room, hoping against hope that they would be picked next so that they could race through the reservation process and get to be here right now. We were all thrilled at the prospect of spending the entire night in the out of doors, feeding the Florida mosquitoes and gazing in awe at the constructions of, now forty or more years obsolete.

“Dad! Look at them!” Short Stack was riveted to the spot as he watched two young boys leap gleefully into a mock up of the two man Gemini capsule.

….This was seriously noteworthy for him. Long before we had even gotten anywhere near the airport in Maine, he had asked me about the possibility of getting to climb into a real capsule. At the time, I was seriously dubious about this possibility and said so.

“Boy, Buddy. I don’t think that they let people just hop into the old space capsules.”

“Why?”

Always with the ‘why’.

“Well, because they are really important. They’re something very special to a lot of people and they want to make sure that nothing happens to them.”

He had looked shocked. “ I wouldn’t break it! I’d be REALLY careful!” And to be fair, I honestly believed him on this point and I had told him so. I think he’d rather brush his teeth with a Brillo Pad than damage something that had to do with space.

“The problem is, that not everyone is as careful as they should be. And even then, accidents do happen. So, I think we’re just going to get the chance to see some capsules, but not get into them.”

It made sense to me. When was the last time they let you try on the Queen’s crown jewels or sit in the Spirit of St. Louis? And yet I, in my dopy literal way, hadn’t even considered the possibility of capsule mockups for the kids. Even the big kids! I was wrong and there was little chance that I would be allowed to forget that any time in the near future. Short Stack ran for the display as if fired from an enthusiasm gun, stopping just at the base of the stairs to wait for his turn and then scooted up to the opening. Though the capsule was designed for two, my happy little astronaut was solo.

“Dad?” He was incredulously studying the control panel which was nothing more than a giant sticker vaguely resembling what might pass as space capsule controls.

“Yah, I know.” I was anticipating his line of questioning at the lack of authenticity he had sadly discovered. I was trying to work out how to lessen the let down.

“Oh! I bet it’s so people don’t break things. Right?” He seemed to quickly brighten with his logical explanation and was visibly proud at what he considered a mystery that he had solved all by himself. You could practically see the lightbulb switch on over his head.

I smiled and told him that he had it figured out, “Exactly!”

His spirits buoyed, we continued on through the grounds to see what else awaited us. The crowd was still filing in through the entry gates and would be for the next several hours. Right now, the groups of Shuttle watchers were pretty thin on the ground. It felt like a private party and to some degree, it was.

The paths that wound around the grounds like open water through a swamp brought Short Stack face to face with items after item of his adoration. Pulling him away, even for a moment, was going to be difficult. Even though we still had something in the order of five hours to wait before any action on the launch pad began, I was getting worried about finding a good spot to watch from and every minute more and more people were flowing in.

“Woah! Look at THAT!” For once, it wasn’t a rocket that had caught his attention. It was something far more universal for kids his age. Off in the not too far distance, plumes of water blasted out of the ground at regular intervals, lit from unseen sourced in lurid greens, blues and reds and it immediately mesmerized him.

“A fountain?!? What’s that doing here?”

We’ve seen fountains before, naturally, though most are not run-throughable like the one he was standing transfixed before just now. No pool of water surrounded it nor was there any impediment at all. Just the bare expanse unfenced of concrete with hidden, subcutaneous nozzles blasting skyward and beckoning him with an open invitation to soak himself extensively and dramatically in a half second of unsupervised glee. It was this moment that my Dad Radar started to chirp madly. Not because of the water hazard, but rather due to the subtle but definite change on the wiggling that my son was doing. Like most four year olds, he is constantly in motion, even when sleeping. I’m convinced that children his age are made up of roughly seventy to seventy-five percent raw, nuclear core-with-the-rods-pulled energy. The trick is not in containing this power, but rather understanding and harnessing it. To do that, you have to be able to read it like a rafter reads the ripples on a river. With enough practice, you get to be a master at telling the, “I have ants in my pants and need to play” wiggle from the, “I have thirteen seconds before I have to explosively pee” wiggle.

As I looked down at my son gazing into the multitude of squirting, gurgling, rushing jets of joyful water launching into the air and then spatter back to the ground in big wet droplets the size of quarters, I understood that I had little time left indeed, before his own personal dam broke and I’d have to spring into full blown damage control mode.

“Hey! Let’s go find a bathroom, Pal!”

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. “Yah! Let’s go do that!”

When a four year old admits that they have to go pee, it means that the countdown is easily into the single digits. Time to run!

I briefly entertained the notion of watering one of our countries national space monuments, or at least the flowers that had been planted around them but… no, I quickly decided that it probably wasn’t a great lesson to impart to my son unless I wanted to look forward to having progeny who would later be picked up and booked on a public urination offence. That, and I was pretty sure we’d get caught this time too. For expediency’s sake, I pressed our weighted down stroller into service once again, tossed him into it and flew through the crowds toward the first building I could find that advertised relief for all. I was starting to understand more and more about what exactly my duties were going to consist of on this adventure and Chief Bathroom Scout and Enforcer seemed likely to rank high on the list. Minutes later, refreshed and happy, we were back outside in the late night air, heading for the launch viewing lawn. By now, it was pushing one thirty in the morning and things were starting to fill up. We needed to set up camp before all the good spots were taken.

The grass was thick, course and wet by now, heavy with the evening dampness that had settled on plant and slow moving person alike and once again I was relieved that my wife had insisted on some warm weather clothes in addition to the Hawaiian shirts and shorts that I had selected. Short Stack seemed to utterly miss the point of trying to stay on the paths and within seconds his feet were soaked. He didn’t seem to mind.

All around us, people had set chairs, coolers, blankets or simply sat on the grass, their patch claimed by the dispersal of their backpack’s contents. My gaze zipped around until I saw what I had hoped I would.

Tents!

On the slight hill that marked the boundary of the viewing area sat two, large dome tents. Each was easily big enough for three or four people and what it meant was that our little low profile, one man job was going to be a-okay. If the NASA police hadn’t said “no” to them, then there was no way that they could say boo about our set up. Happily, I found what I guessed would be a nice place to make camp and pulled it out of its stuff sack, ready to assemble.

When, a few weeks ago, I had tested this thing out in the front yard, I had been concerned about one aspect of its design. In the same way some animals have retained odd and now outdated bits of their evolutionary past, this tent actually required the use of guy wires to hold its shape. My worry had been that I, personally had been a victim of nighttime guy wire trips and the idea of essentially setting up a booby trap in the middle of several hundred people, all of whom would be looking up, seemed like a scary proposition. When it came time to actually use the tent now, I found that I had inadvertently solved this problem by cunningly forgetting the tent pegs back in the car.

Peeeeerfect. Okay. Time to improvise.

“Is that how it goes together, Dad?”

I don’t know if it was the fact that the tent hung down alarmingly in the middle like the sway in an ageing horse’s back that had caused Short Stack to doubt my abilities or perhaps it was that I had secured the far end to our stroller, the only object I could find to use as an anchor. It wasn’t elegant, actually, it looked pretty poor, I had to admit, but it was standing in its own sort of way. I doubt it would have earned me a merit badge, but providing someone didn’t trip over it, the wind didn’t pick up and the mosquitoes weren’t overly persistent and/or fat, I looked like it just might do the trick for our one night under the stars. With our home secured, I happily unburdened myself of extraneous equipment and popped it into the tent.

“That’s it, Short Stack. Our tent is all ready for us later on.”

“But dad, there’s one thing we didn’t check.”

I perked up. He’s a sharp cookie and I try to pay attention when he points out items of interest. More often than not, he’s usually right.

“What did I forget, Buddy?”

A big smile broke across his face.

“I think I should test it out and make sure it’s okay on the inside too!”

So, in the spirit of teamwork, thoroughness and letting my kid be a kid, I stripped off his sodden footwear and tossed him in.

“How does it fit? Do you think it will do the trick?” I squatted in front of the entrance and tried to see into the dark nylon cave. A freckled, smiling face beamed back at me from out of the semi-darkened cave.

“It’s awesome!”

Sensing that there was a real possibility of loosing a lot of time to zipping around in this little synthetic cocoon, I lured him back out with the one thing I knew would work for sure.

“Hey, I think I see a playground!”

“WHERE?!?”

He popped his head out like a prairie dog looking over the plains.

“Right over there. Just behind the food tents. See?”

The allure of a playground, better than that, a NEW and unknown playground rivals the pull of the largest super massive black holes when it comes to children and this one, as we could now see, was one not to be missed. Covered by a dome like canopy, we could just make out the shapes of ladders, slides, stairs and rockets. A rocket themed playground. That sure wasn’t here when I last visited. My parent’s would never have gotten me out of it again.

“Can we go play on it?!” Now?

“Yah, but let me.. Ack! Hang on! You need your… Woah! Almost… One more… Ouch!” Somehow, I had managed to get his shoes back on him as he pretty much ran for the attraction. I only stopped briefly to zip the tent shut and lock it with a mini-padlock I keep on my bag. A silly step perhaps, but it made things feel a bit more secure. When I turned around, he was nowhere to be seen. My heart stopped. At least I knew where to look, and I ran toward the play area, alive with kids clambering over its structure like ants.

My heart beating faster than comfortable now, I scanned the venue. How to find my own little ant?

The Rocket Garden

Up until this point, Short Stack had been doing a stellar job holding it together. He had endured a long and confining trip to Orlando, a late and greasy dinner, a foolishly short night’s sleep and now a line and two more security checks before entry to Nirvana was permitted and by now, his edges were starting to fray.

“Let’s GOOOOO, dad!” His little body was rocking impatiently in the stroller. He had just about had it and I had a hard time blaming him. It was, after all, five hours past his bedtime. I quickly zipped up my bag after the last security guard had checked through things, ensuring that I hadn’t tried to smuggle in anything on the extensive, “No, no” list such as explosives or a broken digital camera (both listed) and I quickly zoomed us out of the crush of people getting ready for a long night’s wait.

“We’re in, Buddy!” I could hear a very tiny, exasperated sigh emanate from beneath the stroller’s canopy. I couldn’t see him under all the gear I had balanced on top of the unfolded sun cover, but I could easily picture the eye roll that stood in for an audible, “It’s about time!” At four, he didn’t understand the point in all the hooha that had to be taken care of in order to get where we were and to explain it now was really not a worthwhile endeavor. Normally, I don’t let any form of parental disrespect pass without a quick correction, but tonight, with the extenuating circumstances, I felt that I could let this one slide. To be honest, I was feeling pretty fried myself.

We wheeled around a corner, out a door and back into the cool night air, but this time, we were in. Shops, shows, café’s and displays surrounded us, all driving one message home.

Outer Space. REAL outer space!

A massive mockup of the new Orion Space capsule stood in the middle of the courtyard and the lit up front window of the gift shop, already filled with midnight shoppers beckoned to us, but I had a plan. Something that I wanted Short Stack to see. Something that would totally make up for the long trip and wait.

The Rocket Garden.

Some people plant flowers, some plant vegetables. The Kennedy Space Center, plants rockets.

Well, perhaps they don’t plant them, but they do display them and they do it with style.

Nearly a lifetime ago, my parents had taken me to this very place and though my memory is more than a little fuzzy on the details, I do remember being here. Back then, there was no Space Shuttle and the whole notion of going to space was one of only passing interest to me. The moon landings were long over and Skylab, though a technical marvel, was pretty uninteresting to your average kid. When America launched a rocket, it barely made the evening news anymore and of the Space Program’s history, I knew precious little. When, on a federally mandated family Disney trip, my parents took me to the Space Center I had walked out onto a grassy lawn behind some buildings and looked up at these very rockets. Back then, the display of these history shaping machines had seemed nearly an afterthought. Almost like they had needed a place to stick them and thought that the back yard would do for now. They were in no particular order and seemed to be randomly scattered across an otherwise unremarkable expanse of course green turf, a small plaque at the base of each giving the only indication that these were impressive engines of change and deserved note. At the time, I recall my highest priority being getting back into the air conditioned display building.

Fast forward thirty plus years and things have changed.

Shops and cinemas that hadn’t existed at all during my last visit lit our way with their glowing display windows. The excitement of arrival finally wearing off, my little boy had become perilously quiet and limp in his little wheeled seat. Exhaustion was taking over and soon, I was convinced, he would either fall asleep or melt down. Possibly both. I saw my objective ahead and piloting him over a small bridge, stopped just inside the open area that is the Kennedy Space Center’s rocket garden.

“Hey. Short Stack. What do you think of THAT?”

Silence. Oh man. Was he asleep? Did he even care at this point?

I heard the seat canvas creak as his body shifted in the effort to take in the view. Before us was not the grubby little grass patch of my youthful memory but a carefully sculpted display of plants, walkways, fountains, rocket engines and the massive sentinels of our country’s space program, standing like proud giants, all lit dramatically from below against a pitch black night sky.

The stroller seat creaked again. Short Stack emerged slowly and stood, his back to me and remained that way for one of those moments that could have been only seconds long but seemed to be forever. He raised a finger on an outstretched arm.

“That’s… That’s a Redstone Rocket! Look! It’s got a Mercury capsule on it! And that one!” His other arm swung out quickly making him look like a signpost to the stars. “That’s an Atlas! Look over there! That big one is… ahh, a Gemini Titan! Hey, I don’t know what that one is. What’s that one, Dad?” I had no idea and said so.

He stood there agog as he soaked it all in.

“Lets go see!” and with that, ran full tilt directly into the melee, pursued hotly by his empty stroller and father.

%d bloggers like this: