Away We Go… Part I

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

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

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

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

Now, I had everything!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was nice!

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

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

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

“Smearable? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. It’s not locked.”

“Good. Have a great flight!”

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

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

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

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

Please?

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

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

The Vomit Comet.

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

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

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

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

Still sound fun?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Okay.”

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

Nothing personal. Just not exciting.

At least, not in his book.

That moment was coming fast.

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A House Guest in France, Part II

The first thing that I saw that was out of the ordinary at the train station was all the kids selling little bunches of Lily of the valley. Action Girl absolutely adores Lilly of the valley and within seconds, had bought her self a little clutch to happily sniff at as we started our journey. We hopped onto our train and were off to Paris.

Here is where I’m going to ruin your image of a couple roughing it across Europe on nothing but frame packs and baguettes. As I have said before, that is the the way I have done my European travels on many occasions and I have fond memories of those times. The important words here are “have done”, as in, “Been there, _have_done_ that”. I’m older now and though I think I’m still capable of roughing it with the best of them if I must, when left the choice between a family run hotel with fluffy, clean beds and a nice restaurant in the lobby or the local sweat and beer filled youth hostel… well… it’s not a hard choice. This extends to train travel as well. One of the bummers of getting older is that after a certain age you can no longer purchase a student EuRail Pass. This is a double edged sword though. Since we were now forced to pony up some real big money for adult, non-student passes, they can come as first class tickets! As we looked at the faces pressed to the glass in the stuffed-to-the-gills second class cars, any feelings of nostalgia quickly melted away with our complimentary drinks and adjustable foot rests.

We zipped along the fairly short trip to Paris and checked out tickets for the next leg of the journey. It was going to be a long haul from Paris to Lyon and we had splurged. The next train for us was the TGV.

FIRST CLASS, TGV.

Ahhhh! It looked like we would make the train change with time to spare at the Paris station and all would be good. Wrong.

After we arrived in the City Of Light, we stated looking for our train. After some fruitless searching we decided with some trepidation to ask at a window. Our hesitancy stemmed from two things. First, neither of us spoke French, though Action Girl can understand a bit of it. Second, we were in Paris; home to “the rudest people on the planet”, as innumerable ill-informed people will tell you. We steeled our selves for incomprehension, shocking incredulity at not being French or a possible croissant attack from the man behind the glass. Did he speak English? Yes, he did! Can you tell us about our train? The man looked at out tickets and grimaced and then shot us a pained smile. “This train is not at this station, I’m afraid. You need to go to the South Paris train station. I recommend that you take the Metro just out side the door. If you hurry, you should make it, but it will be close.”

We thanked him for his kindness and bolted for the Metro. With bags bouncing along behind us we melted into the Parisian crowd on their various errands. We had a still felt hopeful and we were making good time. Then the train slowed… stopped, and started going BACKWARDS. The conductor came on the P.A. and spoke at some length and the message made a visibly bad impact on everyone in the car. Action Girl and I exchanged panicked looks as we tried to figure out what the heck was going on. After a few whispered guesses, the smartly dressed woman standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder with her manicured finger and said, “Ze conductor ‘as said zat due to street protests, ze next station ees closed. We are going beck to ze last station. Where are you trying to go?”

We thanked our Parisian savior and told her about the train station. As soon as the doors opened to the train car, she practically dragged us over to a Metro map and explained in minute detail the route we needed to take, adding that we should hurry. “Eet will take much longar Zan dis train would ‘ave” Again we thanked her and bolted down a tunnel, following her directions.

She was right. It did take much longer and our hearts were pounding from a combination of running with our oversized packs for long distances and the anticipation of missing our fully-paid for, 1st class TGV seats. We ran a maze of underground Metro corridors, half expecting to find a huge hunk of cheese at the end rather than a train station. By the time we emerged like moles into the filtered light of the South Paris train station we were exhausted, sweaty messes. I loped up to the nearest information booth and disturbed the middle aged woman inside, happily reading her magazine. I could tell by her reaction to me that I mist have looked like a zombie attack victim. All that was missing from her was an oh so French “Mon Deu!”

I gathered what little breath I could muster, asked about our train and showed her our tickets. As it turned out, the fact that she spoke no english didn’t hinder transmitting the message to us. We had missed our train and she felt badly for us. We were crest fallen, exhausted and trapped in Paris with street protest raging through the city center. Great. I reached out for my useless tickets and encountered a metronome like wagging finger. On an unseen computer she immediately began typing. After a minute, and the unmistakable grinding of a dot matrix printer, she handed us shiny new tickets and pointed to a TGV train sitting by its self some distance off. We thanked her in our pathetic French and headed toward it. Another smiling Parisian, just doing her job, but with a sympathetic smile and efficiency.

Mon Deu! It’s enough to make you sing The Marseillaise

Next installment tomorrow…

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