Being There

“Um. Yah. It is beautiful. Great for watching the launch.” He looked down at Short Stack as my son careened around in another crazy ellipse. He watched and smiled again in that warm way which always makes a parent proud to see shone on their progeny. “Is this his first launch?”

“First for both of us. It’s a sort of dream come true for him. How about you?” I munched away on our greasy snack while my son managed to stop running just long enough to devour the contents of my potato chip bag while I tried to pay polite attention to our conversation.

“Yah. Same here. I’ve never seen a launch before and well… this one was planned for a long time now.”

It seemed a strange sort of statement. Of course it had been planned for a long time. Even if he was referring only to himself rather than the actual mission, I knew what a hassle it was to get tickets. I tried to figure out a non-questioning sort of response but one that might lead the conversation onward. The way he had worded it made it sound like he might be here with someone else and as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a single person here alone. Everyone seemed to be either with a group or significant other.

“Oh really? Are you here by your self?”

“Yes…” I could see in his face that there was more to this and that now, he was trying to decide how much he wanted to get into it. My intention was never to pry. My question had been pure chat fodder and now I wondered what I had stumbled into.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that was happening at the space center that evening. We were all there for the same reason. We all had the same love of space and the Shuttle and we all knew it. If you were there, then everyone knew that you were passionate enough about your interest to pay a lot of money and jump through a lot of hoops to get where we all were now. We all had a commonality and somehow, that made this place feel safe. It made people feel more open and, as demonstrated by the public sleepers everywhere you looked, there was a real sense of trust that moved though the grounds that night. We were also all strangers. There was no baggage here. Just kinship.

Making his mind up, he unfurrowed his brow a bit and looked up at the starry sky.

“I’m supposed to be here with my girlfriend, actually. We had this trip planned for a long time now and we were really excited for this moment. She was an airplane pilot and two months ago she… well… her plane crashed and… she died. I decided that she would have wanted me to still go, so, here I am. I’m sort of here for both of us, I guess.”

He looked back down and into my eyes and smiled again weakly.

“Oh… I’m very… sorry for your loss” was all I could pull up. As a rule, I am singularly horrible at handling these sorts of situations. In an emergency, if there’s injury and mayhem, I can do that. I’m your man. But in a situation of emotional damage, I completely derail. It’s like my brain’s transmission simply drops out and leaves me stammering utterly ineffectual placations.

“Thanks. Sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have…”

“No! Not at all!” I groped for words that wouldn’t sound patronizing or hollow. “ I think it’s really… good that you’ve come. It must be a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine…” I trailed off in hopes of thinking of a supportive statement. “I think you’ve done the right thing.”

We both looked away at the nearby bandstand and sat in attentive silence as the announcer talked to the half unconscious people in the wet grass about what was happening at the launch site and how much more had to be done before the green light was given.

“Well,” he slowly pulled himself up and collected a few belongings. “I hope you and your son enjoy the launch. It’ll be something that he can remember for the rest of his life. It’ll be a precious memory for both of you, I’m sure.”

I looked up and tried to look as positive as I could and begged my brain no to say something stupid. “I hope you enjoy the launch too. It should be a fantastic show.” And with a friendly wave, he moved off into the Rocket Garden, alone. I imagine that he had a lot of thinking to do and I did not envy him those hours and solitude.

With the end of this sobering encounter and our food finally eaten, my reserve tank was starting to hit rock bottom. My skin felt tingly and my mind was as fuzzy as my teeth. Short Stack too seemed to be, if not lethargic, then at least not his usual blur of motion. I pulled out my phone to check the time.

3:17 AM.

Let’s see… That makes it roughly seven hours past bedtime for my little boy. He had held up amazingly well but was still, in my estimation, too young to pull his first all-nighter. We needed sleep, even if only a little bit.

“Ok, Bud. Let’s go see if we can get some rest back at the tent.”

As we walked hand in hand through the mostly slumbering crowd and thick grass, I was sure of at least one thing: The tent had been totally worth it.

Everywhere we looked, the people sitting in chairs or hiding under blankets were covered with a wet dew brought on by Florida humidity and dropping nighttime temperatures. They were not merely damp, but cold as well. Carrying my little boy to the tent opening, I first popped off his soaking sneakers and then fed him into the nylon opening. Doing my best to leave my own footwear within grabbing distance, I crawled in after him, working hard not to push on the tent walls and cause the highly likely collapse brought on by my lack of tent pegs. Mercifully, our trusty stroller, which I had tied off to, held up its end of the bargain and tent. I found a comfortable position to lie in while Short Stack retrieved his toy Space Shuttle and started his own launch sequence on the ThermaRest pad that covered the floor. Outside on the grandstand, the announcer introduced the guest speaker for today’s launch, a past Shuttle astronaut whose name I failed to catch even with the aid of a small wall of amplifiers turned up to ear splitting volume. Briefly, very briefly, I wondered how we would possibly be able to rest at all.

We were fed and dry. My son was safe next to me and couldn’t wander off on his own. With the last of my depleted cognitive ability, I managed to set the alarm on my phone and pull a light blanket over us both.

I must have been asleep in seconds.

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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