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.

Advertisements

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.

Arrival. Part IV

I sifted through the pile of debris in the trunk that was our baggage and I managed to produce a good set of clothes for my boy, our one man tent, the stroller and all other provisions for the adventure at hand. Casting sideways looks at our soon to be Shuttle watching contemporaries, I could see the same ballet being undertaken at hundreds of cars around us. Careful unpacking, sleepy children in strollers waiting as patently as they could or simply sleeping through the entire process and adults looking somewhere between excited and exhausted.

“Is it going to launch soon?” Short Stack was craning his head around at the quickly filling parking lot and taking the odd, weary glance skyward lest he miss the whole show that we had traveled so far to see.

“NO!” I laughed a little bit when I considered the next six and a half hours that we needed to get through before things started, then realized that “soon” was all relative and that I probably ought to elaborate if I was to avoid potentially crushing some heavily stoked hopes. “Well… yes.” I stopped unpacking for a second so we could face each other. “It’s going to launch today, but it’s going to be many hours until that time. The astronauts are probably still getting ready for their mission. The Shuttle too! They need to finish filling up the external fuel tank, check all the systems and make sure everything is safe and ready to go. It takes a lot of people a lot of time and hard work to make a Shuttle launch happen.”

“Why?”

It’s amazing how a four year old can reduce the world to one question.

“Why, what?”

“Why does it take so many people so long?”

This was one of those parenting moments where what you want to say is, “Because” and let it go at that. Being right in the middle of our preparations for the night, the last thing I wanted was to have my attention divided and allow for the line at the door to grow ever longer in our absence or worse, give my brain the slight hiccup it requires that would allow it to forget some crucial part of our cargo such as the tent, the tickets or my name and address. Sadly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t seem to take much. I’ve also learned, however that pat answers do not work with my son and that he WILL call you on them.

“Well… Because the Space Shuttle is a very complicated piece of equipment. There are thousands and thousands of little parts that have to work exactly right just when they are supposed to and they all need to work together. People called engineers check every single last part of the Shuttle, its boosters, the launch tower and everything to make sure it’s all in perfect order.”

Without a pause, he asked the question I had just unwittingly opened my self up to.

“What happens if it doesn’t all work just right?”

That was a question I didn’t really want to get too close to, first because it could mean that we came all the way to Florida only to have the mission canceled but secondly, because it brought up a darker issue.

What I said was, “Then they delay the launch, fix the problem and try again later.” But what I thought was, “Challenger…” and the unexpected eruption of that memory right in the middle of all this fun and excitement caught me as off guard as being hit by a car in the middle of the dessert. In my mind, all I could see right then was grill and headlights.

Tonight, we had come to watch OV-104 “Discovery” lift off and from this time forward, to my son, it was likely to always remain “his” Shuttle. It would be the one that he saw fly with his own eyes. It would mean the most to him for the rest of his life. He’d have that connection. Long, long ago, I was a young boy too wrapped in the awe of the Shuttle program and I had also picked my own Shuttle. The one that, for my own reasons, I had considered “mine” was Challenger. I swallowed hard as the memory of that long forgotten fact flooded back through unseen doorways, unbidden.

Prior to the Challenger disaster of 1986, NASA had had a hugely successful run with their Shuttle fleet of two. Columbia had been the first, fully functional Space Shuttle or OV (Orbital Vehicle) and was designated OV-102, being constructed after OV-101 Enterprise, which had been outfitted only as a test bed aircraft without engines or heat shield and was intended to determine if this 230,000 pound glider could actually do what the engineers and designers had said it could. It was a radical departure in design and theory for the space agency and chocked full of unknowns and previously untried ideas.

Like any technological breakthrough, it was crammed with “firsts”, and as we all know, firsts are risky things. It was the first reusable space vehicle. It was the first to be flown with a real crew for its maiden voyage. It was the first to be covered in the now famous heat resistant tiles. It had a giant robot arm and that monstrously cavernous cargo bay. It was the first time that astronauts looked directly ahead at where they are going when the countdown reached zero. Engineers love the idea of firsts but when it comes time to try them out, they get understandably jumpy. America’s rocket scientists had just spent better than the last twenty years perfecting the art of balancing human beings on the tips of progressively larger and larger rockets and bring those humans back in one piece, and to be fair, they had gotten very, very good at it. For NASA, now to adopt the Shuttle program was the equivalent of taking the playbook, throwing it away and tossing the lot of them back into uncharted waters. Lots of people even within the Space Program were highly skeptical that this was a good path to take.

It was different.

Many of then feared it.

Kids loved it.

I know I did!

It was our ROCKET PLANE and it fascinated and thrilled us.

Now, as I stood at the handles of our red umbrella stroller, my own little astronaut in training sitting happily in its canvas seat, that long faded enthusiasm was coming back to life. As color rushed back into old dreams, I was re-experiencing the excitement, but with the knowledge of some of the costs that were paid along the way, I felt the sadness too. Short Stack knew nothing of these costs and my stomach knotted up a bit as I tried to figure out when he should find out. This was, after all, his dream vacation and he is only four. Who am I to bring up such a hard and unmoving fact?

The answer is simple enough. I’m his father. And so, I feel that it does indeed fall to me… But not just now. Though I have sworn to myself never to tell him an untruth, that does not mean that I am obligated to speak it all. Especially right now.

“Are we ready to go NOW, Dad?”

I hooked into that impatient enthusiasm and tilted the stroller back on its rear wheels and smiled down at his upside down face. “Alright Buddy! I think we’ve got everything.” I locked the car and joined the happy hoards as we rolled toward the gate, the crowd funneling to a pinch point as the doors to the main entrance opened wide. Following a refreshingly short wait in a quickly moving line, I fumbled for our ticket and had the chance to hand them over to the less than enthusiastic woman at the turn stile.

“Tickets…” A robot like hand from a tired looking woman was extended toward me and, in true “like me” fashion, I managed to drop both of them at my feet. Apologizing, I stooped to retrieve them only to find on my return to the vertical that she hadn’t moved an inch and was still staring blankly ahead, hand still extended. She could have been a mannequin.

“Sorry! Here they are.” I handed them over.

“Go through here,” She motioned mechanically to a stile-less opening intended for wheelchairs and stroller pushing parents “and wait at the metal detectors.”

We’re going to see the SPACE SHUTTLE!”

The announcement had, naturally, come from my son and to my surprise, our security robot looked down, donned a weak but sincere smiled and no doubt for the six-hundredth time that evening replied, “Well, you’re in the right place for it. Have fun.” And with that bit of encouragement, we headed on to checkpoint two and three.

Arrival, Part III

The tricky bit about going to some place like the Kennedy Space Center, is that they rarely if ever have a street number. Heck, if they’re big enough, they often are on their own special street purpose built just for them and these places pretty much universally are without signage. It would be like saying, “What’s the Pentagon’s address?” I’m willing to guess that if you wrote, “The Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia” on an envelope and put it in the mail, not only would your letter there with no issues but you’d also get your very own little file with your own name on it in the very same building. It’s huge. Far larger than any puny little street sign or set of brass plated number that they might put out front. The thinking goes that if you can’t seem to take notice of the massive complex to your left, than a small green sign on a post isn’t going to help you either, and this I believe, it true. The trouble comes when you inject a computer into the equation. They want specifics.

If the Space Center has a driveway address, then I couldn’t find it.

What I had settled for was punching in “Titusville, Florida” into the screen and then selecting the button marked, “City Center.” My hope was that with NASA being kind of a big deal with the locals that once there, I could revert to my eyes and brain method of navigation, hopefully without a hilarious-in–retrospect sort of outcome. My worry now was just where in Titusville was the city center versus the place we needed to be. I continued to watch the GPS and follow its direction, but I began to talk back it with the same strange hope that inhabits the minds of sports fans as they watch the game on their TV. Maybe, if I tried hard enough, I could get it to listen to my concerns.

“Turn left onto Route 95 North”

“Really? Are you sure about that? The road sign says that I should keep going strait.”

“Exit right in one hundred yards.”

“I don’t know Erma. (I had named the female voice in the little black box Erma since I felt that I needed something to call her) I think you might be wrong on this one.”

“Exit in fifty yards.”

“I don’t know…”

“Turn now onto Route 95.”

One last thought of independence went flitting through my head like a moth as the exit opened wide to my right, leading to its own dark and unknown path. It was decision time. Who’s smarter: Erma or me?

The triangle of grass delineating the end of the exit ramp came rushing on at highway speed.

“Gah! Alright! Fine!”

A heavier than normal deceleration and swerve quickly followed.

“Who are you talking to Daddy?”

“Ummm. The GPS.”

Then a pause from the back seat. “Can it hear you?”

I shifted a little in my seat.

“Eh, no. Not actually.”

“Then why…”

“Hey Buddy! Look… um… There are some…” I groped for a distraction worthy point of interest in our dark surroundings. Anything to save face for being caught acting like a nimrod by arguing with an inanimate object. “That sign says that we’re almost there!”

And to make matters even better, it was the truth.

As I gazed at the signs telling me that I was indeed approaching the Space Coast, my confidence in Erma renewed and I once again realized that betting against myself was almost always the safe money. In this case I was happy to be wrong. After pulling off the highway and into the more populated areas, signs came with more and more frequency and eventually I was able to thank Erma for all her help before yanking the plug and unceremoniously stuffing her under the driver’s seat. To my right, behind some trees and an embankment, massive shapes suddenly loomed up against the darkness, pointing rigidly as if to indicate there intended destination. They were rockets. Real rockets.

“Hey Short Stack. Look over there. What do you think those are?”

Spotting things that I point out as we drive along is not his strong suit and I looked in the rearview mirror to see if he was awake enough to take direction.

“What? Were? Where are you point…” Silence. Then. “ROCKETS! Those are ROCKETS!” Any of the remaining brain fuzz affecting his performance was burned out of his cranial clockwork with the fire of a freshly lit J-2 hydrogen engine. I heard the seat belts strain against his body as he strained forward in his chair.

“DADDY! Those are ROCKETS! Right THERE! Can we go see them?!?!”

“You bet, Buddy!” The blast wave of pure joy and excitement that erupted from the back seat ripped through the fatigue that had started to pull me down and there was no way I could not join in with my son. I laughed out loud, sharing in the experience of a passion that was to be imminently fulfilled. That jolt was more than sufficient to have us back up at full power and ready for anything.

Pulling into the drive that lead to the vast parking lots, I reached down and jammed the special parking placard that had come with our tickets for the launch. We were waved into our directed parking area and I looked around to get my bearings. I’d need to find this car again in about six or seven hours but things would look substantially different by then. I gazed up at the massive lot identification pole marked that we were only a few rows away from.

As I scanned across the giant plateau of paved and neatly lined parking lots, I spotted another pole not too far away emblazoned with a Number five and the name Wally Schirra below. Number three, in the distance, was too far away to read, but I bet I knew what it was. Each lot, it seemed, was named for one of the original Mercury astronauts and emboldened with knowledge of these men via a recent viewing of the movie, The Right Stuff, I was tempted to point this out to Short Stack.

But he was four and it was midnight. Once again I felt a bit like the bad parent for dragging my very little boy out at such a ridiculous hour. The fact that he was still dressed in his jammies and had remained barefoot didn’t help ease my mind either. Then I spotted the car next to us and the young couple who had just arrived seconds after we had. They were here to enjoy the launch and so were both their small children, one of whom couldn’t have been possibly more than two. It was then that I realized we were in good company and it was time to get ready.

Arrival, Part II

As the robotic female voice clipped efficient driving instructions from the little moving map suctioned to the dashboard, I fumbled with the radio in the hopes of possibly finding a bit of classical that might lull my boy back to sleep. Just because I had to be bright tailed and bushy eyed for the foreseeable future didn’t mean that he couldn’t take advantage of the car trip and get a little more rest. This however, was my point of view and though Short Stack might be able to understand the opportunity, bringing it to his attention served little purpose. There was a good reason for that.

My wife, if not a night person, is at least and evening lover and she can easily stay up until eleven or so with little effort. I, on the other hand, am a certified, dyed in the feathers, night owl and have been since… well, I was Short Stack’s age. If allowed to keep to my own schedule, I will happily stay up until some time around two AM or so and then somehow, after a few hours sleep, manage to crawl back out from under the covers at a still respectable eight o’clock.. I might try to shoehorn in a ten or fifteen minute power nap in there someplace to avoid nodding off unintentionally at an inopportune moment… such as when I’m running machinery at high RPM, but on the whole, I’m happiest to work on projects when it’s dark out and tend to get the lion’s share of my stuff done when most of my contemporaries are either asleep or watching Letterman through three quarters closed eyes. This would all be fine if the world let you keep the schedule that your body and brain was inclined to, but sadly, it rarely does. There are pre-set times when certain things must be done and that means that I first must convince my late night son to just lay down and TRY and fall asleep and then a few hours later, do the whole thing over again on my self. I just try not to put us as much of a fuss and I can easier tell if I’m lying about actually having to go pee again.

My son has completely inherited this nocturnal gene of mine and now I’m forced to choose between being the stern parent enforcer who demands that he go to bed since it’s already two hours past bedtime or simply cave in and let him stay up and continue to play quietly since I know that, truthfully, he really isn’t tired in the slightest.

I know this.

I’m not either.

Now, as we rocketed down the Florida Interstate system with a sigh of relief and a heady sense of mission, I happily put the lit up sprawl of Entertainmentville behind us. I eventually gave up on scanning the unfamiliar radio frequencies since it appeared to be an split between country music and tent revival style preaching, neither of which is my particular cup of tea. Instead, to keep my mind occupied, I started watching the clock, averaging my best, “pretty unlikely to be pulled over” speed and tried to work out our arrival time. If things went as they should, we would be pulling in just at the appointed moment. This naturally got me nervous. With any possible time buffer we could have had, taken up with actual sleeping, it was exactly the sort of thing that Murphy’s law loves to have for a delightful little snack.

“Dad?”

“Yah, buddy? What do you need?”

I was living in fear of another unscheduled pee break since pulling over on a Florida highway at night boasted not only vicious mosquitoes and chiggers but the ever present possibility of the random seven foot long alligator looking for a little something extra to go with his road kill platter.

“What are… um… What…” Words were still coming slowly and quietly, but I could sense that he was coming around to the coherent world., even if it was only at a minimum power setting. “What are they doing with the Space Shuttle now? Is it ready to launch?”

“Yah. It’s just about ready to go.” I scratched around in my head, trying to remember what I had read and seen about the preflight routine for a Shuttle launch and did my best with what I had. If he was going to be awake for the trip, as it now seemed to be, at least I’d have a chatting companion, even if the conversation was bound to be one subject deep only. “Well, I’d guess that the astronauts are awake and getting ready for the launch too. They’re having breakfast, getting dressed in their orange launch suits and will be soon be getting driven to the Shuttle and made ready for lift off in just a little while.” In truth, I didn’t know what the schedule was, but it seemed like a good guess.

He mulled this for a few minutes as we bumped along at the regular intervals of each pad of concrete.

“What are they having for breakfast?” This is exactly the kind of question my kid would think of and I liked the fact that he was curious about both what was going in to the Shuttle’s and astronaut’s respective fuel tanks.

“Hmmm… I don’t know. What ever they want I guess”

I wasn’t sure, but I sort of hoped that if you were a professional astronaut and about to ride a controlled explosion all the way into low earth orbit on a multi-multi billion dollar rocket, that the least NASA could do was splurge and get these incredibly brave folks what ever they fancied to start their day. It seems like the least that we could do.

Much of the rest of the ride went by quietly and from time to time I’d look back in the rear view mirror to see if my boy had finally nodded off during a long silent spell.

He hadn’t.

No surprise there.

The roads were black and sparsely dotted with the red tail lights of fellow travelers. In the quiet of the car, a nagging doubt had started to coalesce on the inside back of my skull and as its grip got firmer and firmer on my brain stem, I began to pay more attention to the road signs that blasted by in the glare of my rented headlights. I had started to doubt my digital navigator.

GPS’s are amazing tools I’ll grant you that I loved to fiddle with them when a friend happened to have one. I thought they were kind of neat, in roughly the same way I thought salad spinners were neat. They did a job, but they still seemed sort of silly to actually own. When it came to driving, I tended to be a luddite. I liked maps. I liked road signs. I liked not having to use batteries or plugs when I wanted to find out where I was. I love technology but really, I like to be able to do things my self. This trip though, had gotten me to choke back my caveman-like attitude and embrace change. When I had factored in my young traveling companion, our tight time schedule and driving unknown roads for unknown distances to unknown exit ramps, I realized that the safe money was on having a navigator to assist me, electronic or not. So, it was with hat and hand that I had visited my neighbors whom I knew were the owners of just such a magical device. I had knocked on the door and, after they had finished spinning dry the freshly washed spinach leaves that would be part of their dinner, happily entrusted me with their GPS. I had thanked them, packed it in our luggage and once we had arrived, used it happily. What I hadn’t done, naturally, was read the manual.

I am still part caveman, after all.

Arrival

The Alarm going off at eleven PM felt incredibly rude and distinctly impossible and I flailed at its unfamiliar controls as I tried to get my brain wrapped around where we were and what was next.

We had been in bed for possibly three and a half hours and though Short Stack had been out cold for the majority of that, it had taken me a little while to mentally wind down and then a little longer to find peace with the bundle of knees and elbows that curled up against me in the strange bed. Little kids are notorious in their lack of bed sharing etiquette and my son, as it turns out, is no different. The mental image of sleeping with your child in your arms is just about guaranteed to turn the heart of any parent immediately into sentimental goo, but the reality of the experience is that, even in sleep, your average child possesses ten thousand times the energy of an espresso fueled chipmunk and it will need to be released in wild explosions of sleep gymnastics throughout the entire time.

They will sleep. You shall not.

Oddly enough, the next night, the same sleep deprived and lightly bruised parent will almost immediately sign up for the exact same punishment once they look down at the beautiful form of their own child curled up and alone in bed. Apparently, it’s not just our hearts that our kids can turn into goo. Our brains are fair game as well. The effect is something like Stockholm Syndrome and we willingly crawl right in, ready for another night’s micro-beating.

I fumbled about in the half light looking for pants, shirt and shoes, and eventually had myself dressed and fuzzily awake enough to consider the next step. We needed to get to the car. What I SHOULD have done was to get the car mostly packed up the night before so that, naturally, had not happened. I had realized this when the moment had arrived but it had been the exact moment that Short Stack was finally getting sleepy and we were on the downhill run to bedtime. Normally, I would have left him with my wife at that point and scooted off with the larger bags and been back to the room in five minutes. With a little kiddo in tow however, and no back up, I was tied to spot. Since he was too tired to go with me and there was no chance of me leaving him alone, even for the sprint to the vehicle, I found myself unable to “run out” and do anything. It was a slightly frustrating realization but one that would be a part of every moment of this trip. While we were here, I wasn’t letting Rocket Boy out of my sight, even for a moment. This is when I remembered the stroller.

It had seemed goofy to lug it in with us when we checked in and I had almost left it at the car. Actually, I had almost left it at home all together. My reasoning had been that Short Stack is a pretty good walker and we would be doing something that he loved. I had little fear that once we were surrounded by the objects of his adoration, he would, as my Grandfather liked to put it, turn into a Cream Puff.

Being labeled “Cream Puff” had been an epithet of my childhood to be avoided and it was the one he liked to use when you, as a young child, would wimp out on a long walk and ask to be put on his shoulders. As a kid, I had taken many a long stroll with him at the beach and to this day, I can remember the exchanges that took place after I started to whine about tired legs.

“Your not going to turn into a cream puff on me, are you?”

“No.” Plod, plod, plod. “Grumble grumble grumble”

“What’s that?”

“I’m just getting tired.”

“Cream Puff?”

“NO!”

…and I’d trudge on down the beach with renewed determination my little chin leading the way, at least for a little while longer. Some would see this as being too tough on a little kid, and I do remember complaining to my folks when I’d come home, more often than not sitting on his shoulders anyway, but I did get pretty darn good at keeping up for more of the walk than I expected. Looking back as an adult, I have a sneaking suspicion that his encouragement had more to do with saving his back and neck muscles than building any character and stamina on my part, but the effect was much the same. I’ve tried the same treatment on Short Stack but he tends to fight back with logic.

“My legs are shorter than yours, though.”

To which I’ve replied, “Yes but you weigh less.”

This argument worked well until at one point he realized that, yes, that was true, “But my feet are smaller”

This kid is way too good at logic arguments.

“Are you being a Cream Puff?”

“No. Just carry me”

Ah, the best of both worlds. And I go on with my Cream Puff on my shoulders. Who needs to go to a gym to work out? My gym finds me!

Through all this, I have developed a packhorse mentality and will take just about any load on my back and trudge for miles. This was indeed my plan for Florida too. When his little feet gave out, I could simply plunk him on my shoulders and he’d be fine. I could do that for three days… I foolishly though. During the initial packing phase for our adventure, I had seen of the stroller as being an unnecessary torture instrument that I could leave behind. Strollers are not made for men, (or woman for that matter) of any height. Though I am only six foot tall and thus, well within the average for a male of mixed European heritage, strollers make me hunch painfully with the rear wheels so close that I inevitably wind up kicking them as I stride along. Couple that with the evil, free castoring front wheels that will inevitably go off on their own unexpected expeditions, often into the inevitable trash can or unnoticed door frame, and you can see why this can quickly degrade into a litany of mumbled swears. Right now though, it was a lifesaver and awkward as it was, I was grateful that my wife had convinced me to bring the thing along. Though I was pretty sure that I could have done without it during the day, there was one flaw I hadn’t considered. For Short Stack to stay on my shoulders, he needed to be awake.

With as delicate a touch as possible, I lifted my sleeping boy from his bed, set him down in the red canvas of the seat and wrapped him up in the travel blanket his mother had thoughtfully provided in her dutiful packing the night before. He stirred briefly and then was back to dreamland in seconds. Tossing a flannel shirt over the sun shade like a bullet proof mosquito net, I hoped to keep him sheltered from the blinding hall lights just out side our room’s door.

I glanced at the clock next to our still warm bed as I gathered up the last of our belongings.

“Crap. We’ve gotta go!”

Wheeling him out before me and pulling the suitcase along after turned out to be a challenge as usual and our room’s pneumatic door tried its best to chew on us as I shoved us though and out into the hall and escaped to the elevators. Catching wheels and snagging shoulder straps, we managed to make the lobby. With all the jostling, he was starting to come around.

“What are we doing, Daddy? Is it time to go?”

“Yup! But it’s a long drive. Just go back to sleep, buddy”

I was really hoping that the dark car ride would do the trick for him and that he’d get the sleep he should, but that it wouldn’t have that same effect on me. Realizing how groggy I still was, this became more of a concern than it had been before. It’s a simple thing to say, “I’ll just drive though the night” It’s another thing entirely to do it. What I needed was coffee.

The same multi-talented young woman was still working behind the front desk when I wheeled our ungainly caravan through the lobby and she smiled brightly as I appeared in all my encumbered glory, cloaked, half sleeping child pushed before me. “Don’t worry,” she said in a whisper and waived a dismissive hand. “I’ll check you out myself. Enjoy the launch! It should be a good one.”

“Thanks! Um…” I paused and whispered back. “Coffee?”

In the end, they had no coffee and the nearest all night dad refueling depot would take us a good bit off our intended course. With time weighing me down more than the bags, I decided to opt for the syrupy gloop that passes for bottled ice tea that was available from our helpful host. I didn’t have time to fill out a comment card and I regretted that. She had been great and deserved, if not a promotion, then at least an assistant or four. I also might have mentioned to the hotel chain their need for coffee in the lobby.

By now, the transfer from the bed to the stroller had woken my boy up a bit and the lights in the hall and lobby hadn’t helped, though I had done my best to muffle both. My brief search for caffeine hadn’t helped either and by the time I was clicking him into the car seat, he was rubbing his eyes and yawing. He was up and he knew where we were going. It was rocket time! As I made ready to pull out and leave, there was none of his usual chatting coming from the back seat as he grappled with his sleep drunk body and attempted to take control. He’d start a sentence with a groggy, “Um… Daddy. Um…” and get no further than possibly, “Did we… um.” And leave it at that. Mentally, he was struggling to the surface but trying to get the machinery of his little brain going was rough. It was still clogged with the cotton batting of deep sleep and though it became quickly evident to me that there was no chance of him nodding off again, I stayed quiet too in the hopes that he’d nod off again. I punched our destination into the GPS that I had oh-so very thankfully borrowed from a friend before we flew out and pulled the car onto the highway.

At NASA, an hour away, the countdown was running…

It was actually running!

Both they and we were on schedule.

%d bloggers like this: