A Bedtime Story for a Five Year Old Space Nut

This evening, my little boy, Short Stack asked me for something different after we had read our books and switched out the light. He’s the master of all bedtime delay tactics and so, over the years, I’ve grown pretty much invulnerable to his attempts to stay up an hour past lights out. It’s been a struggle which can best be summed up as irresistible force meets immovable father. On some evenings, it can make for some serious opera. Tonight though, he hit below the belt.

“Dad, will you tell me a story before you go?”

“Oh… Um… A real one or one I make up?” He doesn’t ask me for spoken stories much. Just reading from books, really.

“One you make up. Tell me a story about anything you want to. Just make it all up.” That request has never happened before. Not even once.

I crumbled.

I thought a moment as I sat on the rug by his bed in the darkness of his happy little room. “Okay. Here it goes…”

Once there was a little boy, who wanted nothing more in the world than to go to space.
He loved the idea of riding a rocket and floating along above the earth.

One day, he decided to do something about it.

He called NASA.

“Hello.” He said. “I am a little boy who loves rockets. I want to go to outer space. Can I ride there on one of your rockets?”

“We think that’s a great goal for your future!” said the man from NASA. “But you’re too young to ride on one of our rockets just yet. First you need to grow up and work very hard and study to become an astronaut. Then, you could ride on our rockets.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone.

He had another plan. He called Russia.

“Hello” said the little boy. “Is this the Russian Space Agency?”

“Da.” said the voice on the other end of the phone, which means, “Yes” in Russian.

“I love rockets and space,” said the boy. “And though I might be young, I would like very much to ride on one of your Soyuz rockets to get there. May I fly to space with you?”

“Ah…” said the hesitant voice. “Nyet.” which means “No” in Russian. “First, you must be older and study vith all your might. Den, eef you haf vorked hard enough, you might become a cosmonaut and ride into space on a Soyuz rocket.”

But the little boy didn’t want to wait until he had grown up. Every day that passed seemed to him a day he could have been in space, so he thanked the man and hung up the phone again

He had another plan. He went to the basement.

In the basement, he started to rummage and search. He found metal and screws. He found wood and paint. Piles of pipes, knobs, valves, wires and lights. He dusted off tanks and straps, nuts, bolts and glass, and started to build. He wasn’t old, that was true, but he did know how to work hard and smart and after some time, he stood back to look at his work.

Any astronaut from NASA or cosmonaut from Russia would have been far too big to fit inside, but that was okay, because it hadn’t been built for them. It was made just to fit one small boy.

Upstairs he went to pack himself up a sandwich, some peanuts and a juice box or two, and brought them all back to his space ship. He opened the bulked doors, pointed his ship at the sky and then carefully climbed in.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 “ignition sequence start” 5, 4, 3, 2…

He never got to 1. He was too busy yelling, “Wooooooooo HOOOOOOOO!”

Up into the sky he raced! Clouds flashed past like blurs and the power of the tiny rocket pushed him deep into his seat. The roar was thunderous and the whole ship shook as he flashed along toward the edge of the sky. And then… silence. Outside the window turned black except for the bright and brilliant stars. Below him, the earth slowly turned.

He was in space!

The boy took out his lunch and ate it carefully. He took extra care not to make crumbs with his sandwich and though his peanuts tended to float everywhere, he ate most of them too, even the one that got stuck for a moment in his left ear. The juice boxes he slurped dry so as not to let any droplets of apple juice float free. As he enjoyed his meal, he gazed out at the most amazing view few ever get to see, and he smiled broadly at the joy of it all.

After eating, even with his amazing view, he was starting to feel sleepy. What he really wanted, he realized, was a nap. His problem was that his spaceship was too small to stretch out in. What he needed, was some room. He began to look around. Out in the far off distance, just above the horizon, he saw something. At first, he thought it was a satellite, but it looked too big. As it got closer, it grew bigger, and bigger, and BIGGER! It was huge! “That,” thought the boy “would be the perfect place!”

As carefully as he could, the little boy nudged his ship up to the Space Station. Ever so gently, he brought it up to an airlock door and with perfect precision, docked. He pumped air into the airlock, turned the handle and opened the door. Inside the space station, cosmonauts and astronauts looked up with amazement as the little boy floated in and said, “Hello! I always wanted to go to space, but everyone told me that I had to grow up first and work very hard. Well… I know how to work hard and study. I just didn’t really want to wait. So here I am. Could I stay a while and perhaps stretch out to have a rest?”

The crew on the space station was so impressed with what the little boy had done, that they happily let him in and gave him a sleeping bag to nap in. They tucked him in, Velcroed him to a wall, just like they did, and left him to dream as he floated in happiness.

After waking up a few hours later, he eagerly joined the crew doing experiments around the station. He chatted with them all and looked out the windows and reveled in the joy of being in space. Finally, after sharing their dinner, he realized that he really should be getting back home. By now, his parents would be getting worried. And so, his new friends helped him back to his ship, re-supplied him with juice boxes and snacks, closed the airlock door and bid him a safe return home.

Aiming his ship back toward his house, the boy streaked across the sky like a shooting star. Hotter and hotter his ship grew as it fell through the atmosphere and the wind roared past the windows with the sound of a jet engine. Finally, when the moment was right, POP! Out came the parachute and lower and slower he went until softly and with a slight bounce, he landed… right in the old elm tree in his very own front yard. It took him some time to climb down safely.

When the boy opened the front door to his house, there stood his parents, arms crossed and brows furrowed.

“Where have you BEEN? We’ve been looking for you everywhere! We were so worried!”

“I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. I’ve been to space and it took longer than I expected. I even visited the Space station!” His parents didn’t look pleased.

“You shouldn’t tell stories, you know. We need to know we can trust you. Don’t make things up like that, please. Just tell us the truth.”

So, without a word, the boy took them each by the hand and led them out the door and simply pointed to the top of the tree. There, cradled in the upper branches, sat the spaceship, too small for a grown-up, but just right for a little boy who loved space and knew how to work hard. And they knew in that second, that he had told the truth.

“How was that?” I could see, even in the grey dim light, that he was smiling right up to his ears.

“That was great, Dad.”

“Good night, Buddy. I love you.”

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Being There, Part II

In our little blue hued bubble, my consciousness surfaced and submerged like the bow of a submarine in heavy seas. Below, all was quiet, calm and where I seemed to belong. Above though, no matter what the noise and harshness, was where the action undeniably was. It was the reason we were here and only with caution did I let my mind wander just under the waves. One eye partially opening, I’d check on my boy, then the clock on my cell phone, then drift back off for a few precious minutes. Only perhaps sixty feet away, stood the bandstand and with the guest astronaut, framed by steamer trunk sized speakers on poles carrying, at three-zillion decibels, his explanations of what exactly was happening at that moment. Again, I am stunned at what one can sleep through when your tank is truly empty.

The gigantic part of my brain that loves and lives for minutia dearly wanted me to perk up and listen to his every word our resident expert had to say. He was an actual Shuttle astronaut after all, a commander even, and I’m sure what he was saying was fascinating stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I tuned out the earth shaking voice and snoozed off for another fifteen minute dive into the abyss and recharged as much as I could.

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

Eyes snapping open, I grabbed by cell phone and looked at the time.

6:00 AM

Liftoff was scheduled for 6:22. Plenty of time to get Short Stack up and functional, I hoped. Unzipping the tent flap, I peered out into a still dark sky. Dawn wasn’t due until after launch time and things looked much as they did when we crawled in less than three hours ago. Except one thing: The energy.

Everywhere I looked, people whom had previously seemed to exist only as lumps under wet blankets or decorative, if not over sized picnic table centerpieces, had come to life and were milling about now. Things had definitely started to move. The hum of it was in the air and the level of chatter had risen audibly. Great things were afoot and we all knew it.

The excitement was building.

“As you might already know,” Our astronaut M.C. was still going strong with his monologue and somehow had managed to speak nearly continuously since two in the morning. “ …the Shuttle Discovery is on its way to the International Space Station to deliver supplies and a new module as well. Well, it’s such a beautiful night tonight that if we’re lucky, we MIGHT just get a look at it a few minutes before liftoff. It will be rising just over the rockets in the Rocket Garden and be heading almost directly overhead and then in the direction of the launch pad.”

At my elbow, in all his angelic cuteness, Short Stack snored on. Seeing the Shuttle was a fantastic opportunity but to be able to see the ISS too? That was the proverbial cherry on the cake. I didn’t want him to miss that. It was time to do the unthinkable and wake my sleeping child.

“Hey, Buddy. Time to get up.”

As gently as I could I began to rouse him. Though notoriously hard to get to go to sleep in the evenings… every evening in fact, getting him up is another thing entirely. The kid starts as cold as any fully fledged teen could ever dream. It’s going to be impossible when he has had another ten years or so to perfect his armor of unconsciousness.

“Come on, Short Stack. It’s Shuttle time.”

His eyes pop open like blinds on a window… only to then sink fluidly back down to fully closed.

“Hey… Let’s get up. There’s something special going on here! Hup! Hup! Hup!”

A few tries more and some wounded looks from my son at the indignity of being woken up six or seven times in the span of a couple of minutes and we eventually found ourselves out side in the cool night air once again. The astro-announcer continued on with a decoding of the radio feed that was piped in from launch control and the Shuttle crew. To the right of the stage a massive TV, easily bigger than a king sized bed sheet, had been switched on to give us all the view we so badly wished we could have but was obscured by trees and distance.

“We’re looking good here, folks! So far, we are ‘Go’ for launch!” Another string of codes and system checks cracked by, meaningless to me, but quickly explained away by our resident expert… and then…

A problem.

I didn’t quite catch what it was, but there was a problem.

Somewhere, buried deep inside some obscure part of the literal tons and tons of technology that makes up the Shuttle, one of the tens of thousands of bits of science and engineering failed.

“Hold on folks. There’s an issue here.”

My heart sank. This was EXACTLY what I was afraid of. We had come all this way. We had pushed so hard. It had all been just… PERFECT, and now, now I was going to have to explain to my sleepy little boy why he wasn’t going to get to see the launch. That exact thought seemed to be traveling through everyone’s mind and all around me. No one seemed to breath, let alone, spoke. This group of space fanatics whom surrounded us stood stock still in the wet grass, eyes riveted to the jumbo-tron video feed and ears cocked to listen to a message, any message, from Launch Control.

The radio had gone spookily quiet.

What would they say?!

“This could be a potential launch delay right here.” It was our astronaut breaking in to snap the spell we had collectively been enthralled by. “They need to decide if this will halt things tonight or if they can still fly with this issue.”

A low groan rolled across the field and he immediately tried to save the enthusiasm.

“It’s not a given, though! There are sub-systems that might be able to take up the slack here. What they’re doing right now in Launch is trying to decide what to do. We could still go forward if they think it’s safe.”

I was a good attempt, but I don’t think any of us dared to believe him.

Quietly at first, we could here some unintelligible talking whispering through the loud speakers again. Somewhere, someone had queued a microphone, but hadn’t spoken yet. Far way from that mic, thousands of lips were nervously chewed and fists clenched.

I actually crossed my fingers.

Then the big voice spoke. “ Systems will be rerouted to secondary. Launch will continue as scheduled.”

The woman giving the run down on the radio at Launch, who ever she was, must have heard our collective cheer! There was only one thing that could have been louder, and that was now officially on track to happen in just a few more minutes. The relief was punctuated almost immediately by the yell from the podium.

“THERE IT IS! RIGHT THERE!”

It was our astronaut again, and in unison, our heads snapped up to scan the sky. Somehow, even with all the light pollution from the surrounding floods and displays, you couldn’t have missed it. Above us in an inky and starless sky hung a fat half moon and toward it rushed a brilliant point of white. It was the Space Station. It was right there for us all to see and with an audible gasp from the group, it passed directly in front of that beautiful, perfect half moon.

It was a magical experience. Within a minute or so, it had passed right on by and disappeared over the horizon to be chased down by our Shuttle crew. That was where they were going. They’d just have to catch it first.

“Did you see that, Buddy? Did you see that speck? That’s the Space Station! The Space Shuttle will dock with in once it gets to space!” I was having difficulty now dividing my attention between my own geeky nature and my duties as a responsible parent. I wanted to make sure that he was getting this, but I was neck deep in my own revelry.
“Dad?”

“Yah, Bud. What is it?” I smiled at him with the thrill of the moment.

“I have to pee real bad.”

Oh…. you have GOT to be kidding me!

Houston, we have a problem…

There were some unforeseen issues with the date we were to leave. Initially, the launch was supposed to take place on March 18th at the height of the afternoon. It was going to be perfect for viewing with a young child. Then, like massive pieces of monstrously complex machinery are want to do, something went wrong on the orbiter. Nothing major. Nothing catastrophic, but just a big enough a problem to warrant rescheduling the “go” date for the beginning of the next month. No big deal, right?

Heh…

The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Oh, thank God I didn’t buy the airline tickets yet.” To say that things are a little strained in the airline industry these days is like mentioning that sticking a rosebush in your pants might be somewhat uncomfortable. With the hysteria that has infused every corner of the airline experience combined with the unadulterated fact that the vast majority of carriers are losing money hand over fist, despite the fact that they charge you for your luggage, your drinks, your food and even (I wish I were making this up) the pillows, then you can see why I suspected calling them up and begging for a date change on our tickets would meet with non-helpfulness on a wide and impressive scale. They might do it, but there would be a charge. My only question was if the penalty fee might be more than the price of the ticket. For this very reason, I had begged off on selecting our flight. That, and I’m cheap and hate forking over large sums of money for just about anything and tend to put it off until I can’t let it go any longer.

The second problem was that our departure date would now fall, not only on Easter Sunday, but also my daughter’s second birthday. Great.

In some ways, it’s hardly a big deal. Though my wife and I were raised Catholic, neither of us are practicing any more. To be fair, after eleven years of parochial school, I feel that I’ve practiced enough and am ready for prime time. As for the birthday, well, that stings a bit. The good news is that this is probably the last time I could ever get away with that. She is after all, very, very young and the concept of birthdays to her means only two things: “Pwesents” and “Cake!”

If it were up to Lulu Belle, every day would include pwesents and cake. For her, the fact that it falls on a particular day in the year means exactly, precisely, nothing. Therefore, we’d be having our festivities a day ahead. Problem solved! Plus, since the Easter Bunny doesn’t actually work for the Vatican, we figured that we could talk him into a Saturday delivery as well. All seemed to be working out just fine, even if it does sting a bit for me to miss her special day. I was already missing her and we hadn’t even left yet.

The last little entertainment that cropped up due to the date change was the launch time. Previously, it was going to take place in the sunny afternoon, and, as luck would have it, just before naptime! How perfect can you get? Too perfect, apparently.

When NASA, or anyone else for that matter, wants to launch a rocket, they don’t just pick the time arbitrarily. It needs to be very, very carefully worked out. The issue is that if you want to make a multi-million (or billion) dollar chunk of technology go up into orbit, any old orbit, then when you press the big, red launch button doesn’t really matter. (I’m assuming here that the “launch” button is red. If it isn’t, then it should be. That’s how I’d make them) There’s a lot of space out there and if the engine on the back of your rocket is big enough and you can get it to fly consistently up, then you’re pretty safe to hit it eventually.

It’s kind of hard to miss.

The trick is when you want it to go into just the right orbit. Like I said, space is really big and if you’re going to wind up in the correct bit of it to say, meet up with the International Space Station, then you’re going to need and plan things just right. The Earth, after all is moving and pretty damned fast at that. So is the ISS. It’s cooking along at 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kph) and though it might look pretty big in the NASA release photos, it’s barely a speck on the horizon. And then you have to find the right horizon. After all, those lucky few whom are riding it get to see a new sunrise ever ninety two minutes! See how tricky this gets? This is also a perfect example of why I’m not a NASA scientist. I’m much more in the Alan Shepard school of thought, who put it this way to Mission Control after waiting in his capsule for over four hours to blast off and become the first American in Space:

“Why don’t you just fix your little problem and light this candle!”

God love you, Alan.

That might have been how things rolled in the early days, but is sure as heck isn’t how things roll now.

So, with the change in the date of the launch, so comes a change in the time of day for the Shuttle to make its launch window. We were now looking at a 6:22 AM launch. “Not bad” you might think. “I’ve seen worse things than getting up just before dawn.”

Ah, yes, but you’re forgetting something. That’s when the launch actually happens. We have tickets for the viewing and they have a non-negotiable, “arrive by” time. Because this is a highly regulated venue and since we were going to be seeing the launch with roughly sixty zillion other lucky ticket holders, we had to be at the Space Center early. How early?

Midnight.

Wait. Let me say that again. MIDNIGHT!
With a FOUR YEAR OLD!

But wait, there’s more. The hotel we were staying at. Yah, that’s an hour away.

So, I’d be pulling my son, a few hours after arriving in Orlando, out of his soft and comfy bed and packing him into the car to drive, park and then wait for six hours. This would be tough on me but I was afraid that it was going to be brutal on him. What I needed to figure out was how to stuff an Ace up my sleeve.

My horror image was of the two of us, standing out in the dark field that’s used for viewing with several hours to go and him melting down because, well… he’s a little kid, tired and without a safe and comfortable place to try and get some sweet, sweet sleep. I needed to bring my own home base. With only a few days to go before launch, I started looking around on Amazon.com and found my solution.

Rush delivery?
“Oh, yes! Please!”

Two days later, my brand new, super cheap, one-man tent arrived.

In its traveling sleeve, it looks almost identical to one of those collapsible fabric and fiberglass pole traveling chairs that you see everywhere. My sincere hope was that if I could get it in, and if I could find a place to set it up and if I wasn’t discovered by a disapproving security-type individual, then perhaps I might be able to avoid my vision of parental doom.

That’s a lot of “if’s”.

Here’s hoping.
Hey? Was I the guy bashing hope just a while ago? I take it back.

I hope! I hope! I hope!

Quasi-happily, I did find out (yet again through Facebook) that tents were sometimes allowed on the Causeway, but no one seemed to know if that would fly at the actual Space Center. It would be, after all, on manicured grounds filled with spectators and exhibits. Kind of like going to an outdoor symphony and setting up camp amongst the other attendees, but in my case, the orchestra would be igniting with over seven million tons of thrust. The Boston Pops might be good, but they aren’t that good.

In some weird way, I actually didn’t want to probe this too deeply. After all, If I couldn’t find a quick “no” to my tent idea, I could possibly beg ignorance and not purer my self. I try very hard not to lie, but there’s not reason I should make a Herculean effort to actually hang my self, right? No harm, no foul! Right?

When the tent arrived the day before we left, I set it up in the front yard to test it out. The consensus? It was cheap. Very, very cheap. In fact, it used something that I thought had died out years ago with innovations to tent technology. guy wires. Two, big segmented poles were used to give it its basic form, but it used actual tent stakes and wires to hold it out to its full length. Still, it was serviceable, relatively smuggable and I thought it would do in a pinch, provided that some poor soul didn’t do an unanticipated forward somersault in the predawn dark. Possibly me. I packed it into the bottom of my suitcase and made ready to head for adventure with my boy.

“Do you really think they’ll let you set it up?” My wife looked at me with a face that managed to appear both sincere and incredulous all at once. I have no idea how she does this.

“Well, I think so.”

“You think so? But you don’t know?” Her eyebrow arched and the arms crossed. Uh-oh.

Must… not… fidget… uncomfortably! At times like this, I have found that the best course of action is to blame others. Not the moral high ground, perhaps, but it seems to work more than it doesn’t. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the first male to use this method of redirecting a womanly gaze of scorn. That, and with its use, I would still be able to pass a polygraph test. “I can’t seem to get a straight answer about that.” I used my very best professorial tone in an effort to add credibility to my words. “Some people said that it would be okay at the Causeway, but I can’t find anything about the Space Center, either way.” I didn’t mention that I hadn’t looked super duper hard to find that information. Again, I wanted to be able to use the Idiot Defense if cornered later on.

“So, what’s your plan then?” This was a test, and I knew it. I’ve been around the block enough times to avoid this one.

My “plan” was the one that so many men had used before me. It’s been in use for millennia and it’s driven wives and girlfriends bonkers, probably since the beginning. I don’t know what they called it before the invention of American Football, but here and now, we have a name for it. It’s called punting. For anyone unfamiliar with this term, I’ll make it brief. Punting is when you kick the holy hell out of the ball and pray that things go your way. It is the ultimate non-plan.

If it were just me who was going, that would be fine with her. She’s traveled with me quite a lot and is actually very good at shooting from the hip when it comes to fluid situations. The difference here was that it wasn’t just me. I would have our very best son with me (actually, our only one, so it’s sort of de facto, but true none the less) and his care was the most important thing. I needed something better to say than, “I dunno. I’ll make it up as I go.”

“Oh, I suppose we could sleep in the car. That would be warm and safe.” To be honest here, I seriously doubted that this would work. I was pretty sure that we’d have to leave our vehicle and would not be allowed back out unless we were willing to abandon our admittance to the grounds. Wisely and weasely, I omitted that part and let her mull it over. I’m not proud of that, but what was the point of panicking her at this point in the game? She could probably see right though me, but if she did, she didn’t let on.

“Alright. Just take care of our boy.” Whether or not she bought it, I don’t know. What I do know is that she helped me pack up our provisions until the suitcase bulged to comical proportions. The next day was the day before our flight and we had birthday and Easter to attend to. With the last few hours rolling by at amazing speed, I started to get that sinking feeling I always do before a trip.

What was I forgetting? Was I forgetting something? I don’t think I’m forgetting anything. Am I?

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