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!

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Tickets, Part IV

As things turned out, timing was actually going to be on my side for once. That particular Thursday morning we would all be visiting my in-laws in central Maine. Because of my wife’s somewhat unusual choice of profession as ferry captain, it means that her workweek is anything but the Monday through Friday, nine to five routine which most folks live in. Much of the time she works second shift type hours and weekends fall… well… wherever they can. We’ve done Tuesdays and Fridays; we’ve had Mondays and Wednesdays. You name the combination and she’s had it. All, that is, except for Saturday and Sunday. That’s something that just never ever happens in her line of work except for the very most senior of the senior captains, which se is not. Not yet, anyway. With her current schedule however, our weekend, for the moment anyway, was Wednesday-Thursday. That, and because I’m a full time stay at home Dad, my weekends are… frankly, never. BUT! I don’t have an office to go to. That is, unless you count the kitchen.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and after the various pleasantries about the drive, how we’ve been and what should we feed the kids, I explained the situation to my wife’s folks. Tomorrow morning we were going to need the computer. All of the computers, actually.

Being a huge tech geek and former I.T. director, I admit that I like computers. That’s not quite right. I LOVE computers. I like them powerful and portable and I had made darned sure that my wife and I had our laptops with us and ready to go when the time was nigh. To make things even better, my in-laws had just recently switched from the slow-as-tar-in-January connection that they had to a super fast cable connection full of wonderful high speed broadband goodness. Now, it was time to stop rowing and start hoping.

After reading and then rereading the rules of the game on the Kennedy Space Center website, I explained it to my wife.

“Okay, here’s how it works. At eight forty-five the site will open a page that will let us in to a virtual waiting room. Once the virtual waiting room fills up, they will close it off to new arrivals, so we have to be very, very fast on that.”

“And then we can buy tickets?” Action Girl looked a little groggy as she hovered over her steaming mug of coffee, but she was doing her best to look attentive.

“No. Not quite” This was where things got interesting. “That gives us the chance that we might get picked at random while in the waiting room to be allowed to buy tickets, providing that someone else hasn’t hovered them all up already.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Agreed. But that’s the way they play. And it’s not over yet. IF, we get into the waiting room and then IF one of us gets picked then we will be given exactly two minutes to fill out the information to order the tickets. If we go over the two minute mark, we get bumped back into the waiting room, but by then it will probably be too late to get picked again.”

Blank, semi-caffeinated eyes looked back at me. One eyebrow arched and was followed by a very flat, “What?”

“Yah, so we need to be ready.”

“I’m gonna need more coffee.” And with full mugs in hand, we sat down and got prepared.

I set the two laptops up on the dining room table and once they were set at the right page on the Kennedy Center’s website, I then attended to my in-law’s machine. Everything was ready and we all had our jobs. Mine was the laptops. My wife’s was the other desktop computer. My in-law’s was to keep the kids entertained and prevent them from trying to climb into our laps and demand to watch (in my daughter’s case) kid shows such as Miffy, Kipper or Maisy Mouse, or (in my son’s case) videos of rockets or the Space Shuttle. This had an added difficulty factor being that the page we had to wait at was covered with a rocket and space motif. Once Short Stack spotted that, the pleading began instantly.

“Later, I swear. Right now we need to do something important.”

“But Daddy, can’t we just watch one video? Puh-LEEZE?

The easy thing to do would have been to simply explain why I couldn’t. I could just tell him that we were all trying to get tickets for him to go and see these things in person and just how awesome that would be. He is three, and the idea of putting off a little enjoyment now for a lot later on is a difficult concept for him to grasp, but I had met with some success there before. The very real problem was possible failure. Very possible, actually. I had no idea what our chances were to get launch tickets and the idea of getting him all cranked up to see something that would blow his mind that much… and then not making it out of their hideous little virtual waiting room… well, I just didn’t think I could deal with that sort of guilt. I know it wouldn’t be my fault, but still, the look of a deeply disappointed child, YOUR deeply disappointed child is just too withering for me to want to get anywhere near.

I’d rather eat bugs.

So, with my in-law’s best attempts to get him distracted, Action Girl and I sat, drank more coffee and waited.

8:36

*Slurp*

8:41

*Slurp, slurp*

8:44

“Get ready…” I didn’t take my eyes off the clock on my laptop. The clock that is set via the Internet, so you just KNOW it’s right.

8:45 “NOW!”

Three clicks and all three computers navigate away from their page and into the waiting room. “Okay, so we’re in. Now we wait.”

Here, I give my wife some serious credit. While we had been waiting, it was her idea to copy down all our information, credit card numbers, addresses, names, etc, on another document on the computer. Then, if one of us got in, we could simply cut and paste it all into the appropriate fields without worry of error. That, and it would be faster.

Brilliant!

It was all set to go and just as I had hoped, BING, I was in.

The computer that got he magic pass happened to be my own and with a whoop, I quickly focused on filling out everything perfectly. Easy! And as I typed, I realized that it was going to be even easier than I thought! The information that is so commonly needed on forms like this is cached in your computer’s browser memory and the auto-filling took over as I zipped though. Names and phone numbers appeared without me having to do a thing! The only thing that made me pause was when I had to decide on the type of ticket.

Causeway or Space Center?

Causeway was a better view.

Space Center had stuff to look at.

What to do?

I looked at my son who was at that moment playing with his wooden Space Shuttle, making a low pass about three millimeters over his nose as he added rocket noises for effect. He worships rockets. He loves them. He needed to be surrounded by them when the moment came. That, and like I said, they had bathrooms.

Space Center, it was.

I clicked the appropriate button and hit “Complete”

I reached the end with time to spare. I smiled… then went bug eyed.

Instead of being shown the “You’re all set, you lucky boy” page, I was looking at my form again with a message stating that there were, “some errors.”

WHAT?! WHERE?!?

As I looked down the list of information, I realized that I had been sabotaged by my very own machine. Auto-fill had been less than perfect, but that didn’t stop it from trying! Here and there, I started to see where, in an effort of helpfulness, my computer had put down things that didn’t make sense. Phone numbers that were in wrong fields, Addresses that were either incomplete or overly so. I had to do some quick triage.

A few seconds of work and… “Complete.”

“There are some errors that we…”

AAAAAGH!

I scanned though the form again looking for the offending fields and tried and mostly failed to stop swearing in the presence of my children. I felt like I was an involuntary contestant on some evil game show. I do not know who programmed this site or decided on its rules, but I can safely say that if they were present at that moment, I would have elbowed them in the groin. “Accidentally,” of course.

“Third time’s the charm?” I clicked “complete” again and mumbled through clenched teeth. “Come on you bastard. Take it!”

“Congratulations! You are reserved for two tickets at the viewing area at the Kennedy Space Center for STS-131 on March 13th.

(Note to readers: We didn’t’ miss nor see the launch already. It was rescheduled for April 5th. More on that later)

I’m not certain, but it sounded to me like I let out at least three lungs worth of held breath as I rocked back in my seat and smiled. We were in. We had the tickets. Nothing would stop us now.

“Hey,” My wife said excitedly. “I just got picked from the waiting room! Do you need any more tickets? Are you sure you’re all set?”

It was an odd moment and a possibility that I hadn’t really considered. Did I need any more tickets? I had heard about tickets being resold on eBay for over a grand each and the reality of that notion hung there in the room like low fruit. “No. I’m all set. We’ve got what we need.”

Let someone else get the tickets. Perhaps there was another father and son who were dying to go. Perhaps they were still languishing in the waiting room thumbing through dog eared virtual copies of Field and Stream and LIFE Magazine. To take there dreams away would be totally unfair. Hopefully, they’d get called up next.

With that, we shut down the computers, stood up, stretched and topped up mugs with more coffee. We did it.

“Dad, NOW can we watch some rocket videos?” His Shuttle was gripped in his hand as he looked up at me.

“Yah, I think we can now. What one do you want to see?”

With that, I sat back down, reopened the laptop and let him scurry into my lap as I punched in the URL for YouTube and searched for the NASA channel.

“Let’s watch that one!” and a little finger shot out to direct me to the chosen clip.

“Sure Buddy.” I was one happy dad, and now so was he. All we needed to do now was get there.

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