Summer Motivation

There are a few things that I feel everyone should do at least once to help gain perspective in life. You should work a retail job to better understand what it’s like to stand on the other side of a cash register. Everyone should have to try and run some sort of business to better know the kind of insane workload that entails. People should have to teach an unruly mob of children for at least a year strait to experience not just how rewarding it is, but also how the effort to hold it all together comes directly out of your hide and incidentally, why when teachers come home and grab a beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, it is most definitely for medicinal purposes. Experiencing these things informs you on how to act and react when you encounter the harried individuals who deal with these things on a daily basis. It teaches you empathy and to not stand on their frayed nerves through either obstinance or simple cluelessness.

Mowing a cemetery is one you might want to try some day as well and that is exactly what my wife, Action Girl, and I were doing just yesterday in a vain effort to get through the absurd list of “must do’s” before the time in our island hourglass runs out and the adventure begins. It’s high summer here on the coast of Maine and for us, that means it’s bugout time.

The beautiful islands, sandy beaches, dune grass and quaint villages of where we live acts as a siren song for tourists and they flock here in numbers that boggle the mind and at times, boil the blood. Mostly, they are a good natured lot with smiles, questions and appreciation of everything they encounter here in Maine, just truly happy to be experiencing “They Way Life Should Be”, as our state’s official motto puts it, and they come to experience in droves.

This is where it gets grating.

The produce and dairy sections in our little island market look as though it was attacked by vultures, the once full racks now striped to their metallic bones. If we decide to venture to the mainland for supplies, the time it will take to drive to and get through the big supermarket will be quadruple what it is in the off season due to the slow moving packs of holiday makers looking for lobster rolls, potato chips and sun block. Parking throughout the city is filled up with SUV’s sporting foreign license plates and those giant black hamburger things on their rooves, holding the extra debris of vacation that couldn’t be crammed into the driving compartment. There are people everywhere. EVERYWHERE! And really… I don’t blame them.

Hot Weather

The coast of Maine is wonderful.

Honest!

You should visit some time!

…Just let me get my bag packed, first.

As much as I understand why they come, there are some unavoidable issues that are part of the deal when you live in a place desirable for others to experience. It’s not really the depravations of milk and bread at the local market that makes it aggravating but rather, having to wade through the expanse of humanity on vacation on a daily basis while you, who are NOT on vacation, attempt to get on with your life without having your patience worn down to a painful little nub.

Okay! Okay! Maybe the “not on vacation” thing is slightly disingenuous coming from me. The truth of the matter is that both my wife and I are teachers, and that means that come summer we are in fact out of school, just like our children. This however doesn’t mean that we are kicking back, drinking rosé and eating cheese by noon each day. Summer is when our other jobs kick in and though they may be less intense than our normal school-time gig, they most definitely still count as work. Action Girl, never one to sit still for more than about three minutes, captains a ferry boat transporting clumps of eager vacationers to and from their long dormant island, summer cottages. On her days off, she can be found cleaning houses or teaching boat handling to land lubbers or if the time allows, perhaps doing some fine painting… or possibly fixing the plumbing. Meanwhile, I slide into my other rolls such as working at making our house actually habitable and weather tight using a maximum of noisy power tools and too much lumber. If I’m not making sawdust, I’m carving headstones. If I’m not carving headstones, then I’m desperately trying to make order in our little island house as our children follow in my wake, slowly destroying what was freshly accomplished. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end and by the time you reach the other, it’s time to circle back to the beginning again.

See? Action Girl and I don’t get into the rosé and cheese until at least six or seven, just like normal folk. So how do we deal with the added weight of dealing with those “from away” as we attempt to enjoy summer? We flee. We become the enemy. We become… Tourists!

And that brings us back to the cemetery.

With the grass trimmed back nice and neat to the ancient stones, we can now cross its care off our list of responsibilities before we leave. Mow a cemetery some time and like any other job, you’ll be stunned at how much more work it is than you thought it would be, just like most things in life. We do a lot, and now, it’s almost time for us to go so that we can enjoy some perspective in our life as well. We know what it’s like here, and how nice it is, even with the extra work, but you know what we don’t know? What it’s like to be Dutch.

So we’re off to see the Netherlands in the height of Summer and we won’t be back for a good long while, the time made available to us being the one huge bonus of being full time school teachers. It’s beautiful here in New England and to leave our home empty while we’re away would be nothing short of criminal and so the best part is, our place won’t be wasted while we are gone. All our work: the carpentry, the gardens, the view and the expert plumbing will be enjoyed by a lovely Dutch family with whom we are exchanging homes. We will take their place just outside of Amsterdam and they will ensconce themselves on the rocky coast of Maine, each of us joining the tourist throng. I have no doubt that it’s going to be great and hopefully, with both families well accustomed to what it’s like to be neck deep in foreigners, we can adjust to being the best tourists possible. After all, living is about experiencing new things and I can’t think of a better gift to give ourselves, our kids and in this case, another whole family than the chance to gain the perspective of what it’s like to experience a whole new place full of beauty and good food. They won’t have to mow the cemetery, but they get to water our gardens, feed our cat and enjoy our corner of the world while we do the same at their place and I know that we will both do our utmost to be the best tourists possible. Just like all the others.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em…

Spies in Boston

We walk hand in hand through the tight streets. The magic in the North End seems to rise from the granite slab sidewalks, our foot falls releasing it all as we ever so slowly grind down the grooves carved into their surface so long ago.

She is wearing a skirt, which seldom happens away up north on our island home. Shhh. She is blending in with the fabric of the city.

Passing for Urban.

We walk briskly, with purpose. Not ogling the old brick facades like so many, but stealing glimpses from the corner of the eye, remembering details to discuss later over the privacy of our dinner table.

We are not tourists with fanny packs and cameras on straps. Not obvious with outsized hats and backpacks bulging with swag. We pass like spies, changing our manner, moving like locals and step around the knots of lost sight seers ‘till we reach our goal:

“Two cannoli, please.

Gratzi.”

Go At Throttle Up.

On the 25th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster.

From my book, Rise Of The Rocket Boy.

…My head craned back and boy balanced on my shoulders, I staggered a bit under the weight, both physical and emotional. Not even noticing that I was slowly stepping backwards like an ant in awe of monolith, eventually causing me to collide with another Shuttle watcher also focused on events not on this planet. My shouted apology to be heard over the still impressive roar of the engines seemed to snap Short Stack out of his contemplation.

“Daddy?” The only reason I heard his voice was its close proximity to my ear.

“Yah, Bud? What is it?” I was ready for rocket questions. Any question! Deeply in my element and watching this awe inspiring spectacle, I wanted nothing more than some great technical query from my little, budding rocket scientist. Rocket fueled adrenaline coursing through my veins, I felt I could handle anything.

“Is…” He hesitated. “Is that it?”

…What?

In my pocket, my phone was still beeping like mad with announcements of messages coming in from those who knew where we were. Half a country away, my wife had gotten up far earlier than is comfortable so that she could watch along on the computer. So, according to the incoming texts, had my parents and our friend Coley.

My Parents, 6:24: “Wow! So glad you’re seeing this!”
Coley, 6:24: “Pretty Cool, what a lucky kid!!!”
My Wife, 6:24: “Yippee!”

After all that we had worked through to get here, his question had been, “Is that it?” Thinking on the youth of my audience, I hoped beyond hope that he had simply phrased the question in an easily misunderstood way rather than a more blasé meaning.

“What, ah…. What do you mean, Short Stack?” I cranked my head to get my ear closer to his four year old voice.

“Is that the Space Shuttle up there?

The crowd was still bathed in the light of five burning engines pushing seven people into low earth orbit and the roar was pervasive, rattling around the inside of my brain like an unending thunderclap. Even though it would have been hard to mistake the Shuttle for just about anything else, after a second’s reflection, I could see the problem. Or rather, I couldn’t see it. None of us could, for that matter. It was still before dawn and the sky was painted pitch black with the exception of the incandescent shine rising through the air. The Shuttle it self was invisible. Trying to squint to see it riding atop the flame was like trying to read the writing on the top of a lit 100 watt light bulb. You just couldn’t do it. Not without risking some serious retinal damage, anyway. Short Stack wasn’t let down, he was confused. Something that happens so rarely, that I missed the cues all together. I brightened immediately.

“Oh! YAH! Tha..”

“DISOVERY,” Launch control was being relayed on the public address system. “YOU ARE GO FOR THROTTLE UP!”

My eyes snapped back up to the Shuttle, unblinking. Those words were like a bucket of ice water.

“Roger.” The voice of Shuttle commander came through, calm and even. “Go at throttle up.”

In a flash, I was thirteen again.

In 1986, I was not watching the launch of the Shuttle Challenger.

Most of us, in fact, weren’t. In all but a very few special cases, the Shuttle launch that cold January day was viewable only by taped delay. The stories of kids sitting crossed legged on floors of classrooms and gymnasiums, eyes wide in confusion at STS-51-L ripping itself apart for all to see in that clear Florida sky, have become a thing of invention and legend. We talk about it as if we had all seen it happen as it happened, but the truth is, unless there was a communications van with a satellite dish on it parked out front, such as at a certain High School in Concord, New Hampshire, what we saw was after the fact. A taped delay.

This does not make it any less chilling to those who somehow remember the exact second when we heard the news, though.

In my junior high school, students who had a free period could volunteer to run errands for the main office if they desired, and thinking it more fun than sitting in study hall, dutifully being silent and working on that pesky math homework, it was something I did often. As I sat on the small bench near the door I heard the news from the school secretary, whom had heard it from an administrator, whom had in tern, heard it via a radio in his office. I’m not actually even sure if I had heard it directly or simply overhead when she informed someone else. What I do know is that just a few moments later, my science teacher, Mr. Waltkins walked through the door on some errand and I, for whatever reason, stopped him.

“Mr. Waltkins, did you hear the news?”

Looking back, I realize now that Mr. Watkins is almost an American clone of Alan Rickman. He had the same somewhat severe look on his face at all times, was rare to smile and possessed a cutting wit as well as an explosive temper. Regardless of this and somewhat mystifyingly, I had a good rapport with him. Now a days, the comparison to Severus Snape of Harry Potter fame is a no-brainer. Back then, in our pre-HP world, he was simply feared by much of the student body and generally given a wide berth by them. He was all no-nonsense, but then again, I didn’t get into much nonsense and genuinely found his science classes to be fascinating and interestingly educational. We tended to get along quite well.

At my unsolicited remark, he stopped short and looked down at me with a furrowed brow.

“What news?” The remark was delivered as from an army officer not inclined to guessing games. I immediately wondered if this had been a good idea, but there was no backing out now. There was nowhere to go.

“The Space Shuttle just exploded.”

As his body stiffened, I realized that I was on perilous ground. I was indeed short on details having just heard the news myself and then, third or forth hand. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m willing to bet that I squirmed a bit.

Mr. Watkins looked stone faced, his wide opening eyes betraying the only sign of alarm.

“What… What did you say? Is this a joke?”

“No. I just heard that Challenger exploded on liftoff.” I bit my lip. “They were talking about it in the office.”

There was a pause as the information digested. I was not the kind of kid who made stuff like this up, nor was I the sort who tread on such a sensitive topic lightly. In short, I was trust worthy and Mr. Waltkins new it. It was at the heart of why we got along well in the first place, I’m sure.

“I’ve got to go!”

And with that, he turned on his heels and raced out the door in search of hard news on the developing tragedy. I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to ignore the icky feeling that was quickly developing in the pit of my stomach. Prior to telling someone, it hadn’t seemed real. It was just news. The sort of stuff which swirls around the head of every kid for much of their young lives but never really connects. You knew it was important, you knew you should be concerned, but it never really resonated. There simply wasn’t the historical perspective needed to make a mark on your life. This time, it was different and I started to understand that more as the seconds ticked by and I had the quiet time to think hard about what I had just said.

My mother was a teacher. Back when NASA had been looking for a teacher to enter the Space Program, my Father and I had joking told her that she should apply. To be honest, we had only been half-joking. We new it wasn’t her cup of tea, but we also knew that she was very eligible for the position. She was, almost exactly, who they were looking for. How amazing would it have been to have an astronaut for a Mom?

As it turned out, a teacher almost exactly the same age as my own Mother, and only an hour away was picked instead. They taught the same subject even, and I remember when Christa McAuliffe was named that I felt just a bit that an opportunity in my family had been missed. Two other kids in New Hampshire had gotten to say that their Mom was an astronaut. Now, 73 seconds after liftoff, she was gone forever.

It might have been my Mom. That was all I could think of. I remember that very, very clearly.

Later that night, we, along with much of the nation, watched the news over and over again, hearing those last words from Shuttle commander Dick Scobee:

“Roger. Go at throttle up.”

There was nothing but fire and smoke a half second later.

Up in my room, I had a partly finished model of the Space Shuttle. It would be put back into its box and forgotten.

_______

It would be a long time before I paid attention again to the Space Program. NASA took a nearly three year break to sort out what had happened to Challenger and make the required changes. By the time the Shuttle, Discovery had lifted off on September of 1988, my attentions and affections had drifted to other things. Space became sort of a footnote in my life and my model was never completed.

Now, things were different. With the incandescent love of all things rockety by my young son, that old bed of coals in my own heart had been givin life anew. Though this trip we were on was undoubtedly all about him, I too had been catapulted back into the world of raw excitement over space and what we were doing to get there. Still watching the glow from the boosters and three main engines, I waited and held my breath.

“Go at throttle up.”

The roar continued. Discovery, the first Shuttle to fly after the loss of the STS-51-L crew, was racing into the pre-dawn sky, faster than the speed of sound. As I looked down, I could see the lit up memorial to those lost in the pursuit of space, not more than a short walk away.

Short Stacks chirpy voice broke in. “Dad, is it gone?”

“Gone? No, it’s not gone. It’s just heading for space now.” I smiled. “Watch carefully and you can see the solid rocket boosters disengage. They’ll look like faint lights moving away from the Shuttle.”

Almost on cue, the SRB’s detached and soon, Discovery its self was gone from sight. As dawn lit up horizon, the voices of Mission Control and the Shuttle’s commander continued to boom over the grounds until finally, almost nine minutes since launch, the Shuttle was where it needed to be. In orbit around the planet Earth.

Tiny Pieces of Childhood

I stood in the childhood driveway of my best friend’s house and simply marveled at what was before me. This is how a pirate must feel after digging up a lifetime accumulation of treasure, long left in its chest and now excavated in preparation of a well deserved retirement. I don’t know for sure, but it felt like my eyes might actually be twinkling. It was that kind of a moment.

“Wow” was the best I could pull off.

The Doctor smiled on and basked in the glow of a happy friend.

“Enjoy!”

The happy moment I now lived had begun decades ago, but its fruition had only been set into motion two years before…

It had been a beautiful summer day as Action Girl and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire, Short Stack snoozing heavily behind us, strapped into his car seat. The trees were deep green and broad leafed and overhung the rural roads with muscular ancient branches, turning our drive into an undulating and twisting tunnel, dappled with the light of the sun. Being native to this part of the country, my wife and I have an abiding love of it and miss it quite a bit. It’s the type of place where we feel instantly connected with the land. I love where we live now, but being “back home” makes me nostalgic and drunk with memories.

Lost in my own private thoughts, Action Girl jolted me back to the moment at hand by reminding me that I was under the gun, so to speak, and totally unprepared. We were almost to the place where my all-but-blood brother would soon be married. The Doctor and I have been best friends since the third grade and this being his wedding, I was the best man, and as such, I was going to have to speak publicly about him at length during the reception.

Naturally, I had done nothing in preparation for this moment.

That’s how I roll.

Since it seems to be a spouse’s job to try and save their significant other from making a total bumbling ass out of themselves, she decided to see if she could help me overt a verbal train wreck that was looking all the more likely as the miles ticked off and we got closer to our destination.

“Okay.” Action Girl pulled out an old scrap of paper and pen from the car console. ”Give me some facts about your friendship”

As I ticked off various points, thoughts and entertaining moments from our long friendship together, Action Girl scribbled them down in the form of a bullet list. I’m pretty good at talking off the top of my head and rather than reading from a scrip, a good list like the one being compiled would be just what was needed. Most of the items I recounted barely got a response from her, until one in particular made her stop writing and look up at me.

“Really? Wow! That’s the one. Talk about that, for sure.”

We pulled into the parking lot and roused a sleeping Short Stack from the comfort of his seat and strapping him to my wife’s back, headed down the beautiful carriage road that lead to the idyllic, garden setting of the wedding.

The choice of venue was beautiful, as was the bride and the ceremony as well. Things went off mostly as planned and I got to spend a wonderfully surprising amount of time with The Doctor just prior to and after the nuptials. It was a perfect day.

We sat back to enjoy our after “I Do” meal and after a fashion, staff appeared dutifully filling our empty champagne glasses, Action Girl gave me a gentle prod.
“Now’s probably good.” A smile and then, I’m fairly sure, a silent prayer that I wouldn’t make an ass out of my self.

Show time!

I’m not a bashful or reserved person when it comes to the public, which can surprise some people since I’m not normally interested in being in the thick of what ever is going on. I’m a periphery sort of guy and prefer to watch than direct. When I get to talk, however, it can be hard to get me to shut up again and go back to listening. My dear wife has pointed this out roughly fifty-two thousand four hundred and sixty five times. With a reassuring gulp of beer, I stood up to address the crowd of friends and family.

I don’t recall a lot of the specifics that I spoke about, drink in hand and mind wandering. I can recall the smiles and various heads bobbing in agreement as I described my extra-familial little brother and I took that to be a good sign that I was neither boring nor off track. I forged ahead.

“I could tell you that The Doctor and I have been close and constant friends for years, but that’s really a cliché that we’ve all heard before at occasions such as this. What I want is to give you an idea of just how deep our loyalty to each other goes.” I scanned the crowd of wedding guests and took in a vista of scientists, engineers and other proud nerds. They would understand.

“I’ll just say this: We pooled our Legos.

Gasps and murmurs bubbled up from the guest tables. Perfect! I had read my crowd correctly.

Legos, for those of you who somehow do not know, are those little, multi-colored, interlocking bricks that have become the ultimate prized item for any geeky child and the ultimate bane of their parent’s. Filling the categories of being tiny, easily lost, both painful and likely to be stepped on and, oh yes, unimaginably expensive, amassing a good Lego collection can take a lot of convincing on a kid’s part. In the end however, they are totally worth the work.

When The Doctor and I first began our friendship, we were only half way through grade school and our own individual caches of plastic mini-bricks were modest, but adequate. As I look back, now as an adult, I marvel at how much of their discretionary income my parent’s spent to feed their son’s Lego habit. Legos have always been pricy and for the money spent, you didn’t get a lot in the way of pieces. It’s a testament of their devotion to a happy child that I had what I did. They didn’t have a lot of money, but I did have a nice little bucket of Legos to play with.

Then, The Doctor started to come over to play.

The two of us spent innumerable hours on our hands and knees, driving our creations across floors in both his house and mine. So, many, in fact, that I can, to this day, clearly remember the pattern and texture of all the rugs throughout each of our homes. Whole days may have passed when neither of us were more than a foot and a half off the ground. T was what we did. Eventually, as the years passed and our friendship came to be an obvious rock of permanence in our lives, we dared to do something that only people who were close as brothers would ever consider.

Through years worth of birthdays and Christmases, each of our collections was something to be proud of. They were impressive in terms of both diversity and scale. Together though, it would be something of childhood legend: A resource that would enable a Lego builder to construct just about anything. Possibly two of anything!

And so, we did it.

One day, into the hopper they all went and from this mountain of plastic, we extracted the materials for one wondrous project after another… for years. Just about every weekend, we built together and creating a cornucopia of beweaponed space ship fleets and mighty fortresses to do battle with. Then we’d break them down and start again. It was wonderful.

As time moved along, Legos, like so many focuses of childhood, moved to the back burner and then off the stove completely. Eventually, our huge collection of plastic bricks was packed away and forgotten all together. We had moved on.

Then, the day of my friend’s wedding came. After I had wrapped up my soliloquy with the necessary champagne toast to the bride and groom, the cake had been cut and eaten and things calmed down to chatting and strolling, I couldn’t help by find The Doctor and ask.

“Hey, what ever happened to all those Legos?”

He grimaced a bit as he thought about where they could have gone.

“Eesh. I think they went to my cousin. You can ask her if you want. She should be at table four. I doubt she has them any more though.”

It was worth a shot. I looked over at my little boy playing in the grass with an adoring wedding guest and guessed that someday, he too might get the Lego Fever. When I found the cousin, the outlook got worse.

“Oh, wow. My mom never hangs on to anything like that and I haven’t seen those Legos in ages. I’ll ask though, if you want?”

Over the years I have learned that in situations like this, you say, “Yes” to questions like this. You’ll regret it later for sure if you don’t and I wasn’t going to regret not trying this time around. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but hey, why not?

Two years later on a visit back to my hometown, I was reaping the benefit of my inquiries.

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to hang on to at least some?”

The Doctor just smiled back and shook his head. There they all were. A huge box, filled to overflowing was in my arms and I honestly wondered how I was going to get it in the car. I’d find a way though!

The pile has now been passed on and happily, is in the very capable hands of one Short Stack and is appreciated just as much by him as it was by us. It has in fact, become part of my life again as well. After Lulu Belle is put to bed, teeth have been brushed and jimmies put on, it’s time to break out the Lego box.

I’ve built him a new one just for this purpose and it is the size of his mattress and just barely clears the bed frame. Inside are thousands of little pieces of memories of a happy childhood from long ago as well as the fuel for one being woven today. Just about every night, the two of us play and build and as I lay on my side on his bedroom floor, I can just about see the world through the eyes I once did. The Doctor might not be here to build and play with me anymore, but Short Stack makes a great playmate. I hope that he thinks his dad does too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some space ships that I need to get back to constructing. You see, we have a launch schedule to keep…

Liftoff!

When one pitches a campsite, the first thing you don’t think is, “I’ll set up right here next to the porta-potties!” What you want is a not too far, but not to near sort of geography s as to avoid all the joy of being potentially down wind but also within sprinting distance when needed. This instance definitely called for some serious sprinting.

Looking at the throng of tightly packed space junkies anticipating imminent rocket fueled bliss, I realized that there was only one way this was going to happen fast enough if we were to see the launch ourselves and not merely hear it through the thin plastic walls of a pubic toilet. Throwing on our shoes and grabbing my son under my arm, I bolted through the crowd, weaving between the darkened shapes and preying that I wouldn’t slip on the grass. The entire way there, I tried very hard to ride the edge of being encouraging to my son about being quick with his business and explaining in bare terms how bad it would be to miss the Shuttle because he was not focusing. Sort of a carrot AND stick approach. Thankfully, with only a few minutes to go, there was at least no line to contend with! A very few minutes later, we were back at our outpost and waiting like the rest for the rocket science to noisily begin.

The night before, I had received a bit of photographic advice from my playground chatting companion, Tom.

“When the moment comes, don’t take pictures of the shuttle taking off.”

“Really?” The idea seemed sort of… killjoyish.

“Nah. Resist! Any pictures that you take will look just like any pictures that anyone here will take. Plus, it’s hard to keep in frame, especially at night and you’ll spend that great moment looking through your viewfinder rather than looking at the liftoff. Shoot a movie instead and rather than point it at the launch the whole time, point it at your son and you. I’ve seen a lot of these launches since we moved to Florida and I’ll tell you, for me, the best part is the look on everyone’s face. That’s where you see the magic.”

That was some pretty solid reasoning.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try it.”

And so, with things at Launch Control progressing as it should; with the astronauts strapped in and ready for the moment and with uncounted thousands watching and waiting, I set my little camera to movie mode, held it out at arms length and pressed play. It was show time!

Panning the camera around the dark sky, I looked for things that would stand out and would be recognizable before the event. It was hard enough to see with the naked eye and my less than top of the like, point and shoot digital camera was having some serious issues finding anything that it could focus on. Turning clockwise where I stood, I passed over the well lit rocket garden, its inhabitants standing like proud sentinels to the history they beheld. Turning further the horizon went again to blackness and then eventually, to a well lit and very large structure off a little way in the distance. It was something that we hadn’t gone to visit yet and in all honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, at least on this trip: The Space Mirror Memorial. The monument to those who have fallen on their way to the stars.

Right there, in the middle of all the excitement, a cold, damp wave passed through me and I remembered with a void in my stomach, what could go wrong. Now, here I was with Short Stack, ready to watch and hope that he didn’t get to witness anything like the footage that I, first as a child and then later as an adult, had seen over and over again.

Challenger.

Columbia.

There have been many more lost in the pursuit of space than just those fourteen souls, but at the moment, they were on my mind and I consciously worked at pushing the thought away, focusing instead on the moment, our moment, of happiness.

I panned back to the stage and the giant screen with the video feed.

As the thump of circling government helicopters reverberated through the air, the loudspeaker boomed. “The final test of the flight control surfaces is being conducted.” On the screen, massive rudders swung back and forth to check movement followed by the engine cones themselves swiveling on their gimbals. It was all looking good.

“T Minus three minutes, fifteen seconds remaining…”

Short Stack, now lifted to my shoulders and enjoying the best viewing I could personally provide, was uncharacteristically quiet. He may be a lot of things, but the quiet type, he is not. Naturally, I couldn’t see him but I guessed that after all we had been through and with all that was now happening, he might be a tad out of touch with what was about to transpire. To him, I surmised, it might look as though the stage in front of us was the show, and what a horrifying let down THAT would be! I decided to do some explaining while I could.

“The Shuttle is going to take off right over there, Buddy. Right over those trees!”

Silence. His grip on my ears told me that he wasn’t asleep, but probably just overwhelmed.

“But…” He was coming up to speed now, “the Space Shuttle is right over there.” I followed the point of a small pudgy finger to the giant TV that stood next to the stage. He could see the Shuttle there. Where I had indicated was simply a black row of trees. I could understand the confusion.

“That’s a picture. The real Shuttle is over that way.” I pointed again.

“T Minus two minutes, twenty seconds and counting…”

We all watched the video feed avidly, not daring to blink or hope that the countdown would actually get to zero. I could feel my heart actually beating faster and the chatter that had filled the field just a few minutes ago quickly ebbed as if turned down on some unseen stereo. It was just the audio link from Launch Control now and the interjections of quick explanations from our astronaut on stage.

“Ninety seconds away from the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery.”

BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE! BEE-BEE-BOO-BEE-BEE-BEE!

My pocket was talking to me. Well, actually, my cell phone.

Do I look? Do I not?
Look?
Don’t? Gah!

It was still pre-dawn. It had to be family. Giving in to curiosity I balanced Short Stack on my shoulders and with my camera-free hand, fumbled out my phone and looked at the waiting text message.

It was my wife.

“Watching too!!!”

I smiled, popped it back in my pocket and looked back to the action.

“T minus one minute, and counting. We are now transferring to orbiter internal power. Discovery is now running on its three onboard fuel cells. T minus thirty-eight seconds and counting. Coming up on a go for auto-sequence start.”

At this point, standing in the face of hundreds of tons and billions of dollars of high technology, I suddenly regressed to a primitive belief… and crossed my fingers. I doubted it would help, but if nothing else, it wouldn’t hurt.

Launch Control: Go for auto-sequence start.

Up front, our astronaut in the spot light was visibly getting excited, obviously reliving his own experience and living it again, vicariously through those seven in their orange flight suits who were strapped in for the ride of their lives. “T minus twenty seconds! GET READY!” Thundering through the sound system, you could actually hear the grin on his face. A handful of seconds later: “We have a go for main engine start!” Sparks lit up the screen and briefly illuminated the heads of those standing with us showing to good effect that the astronaut on stage was not alone at having a smile plastered over his face.

Remembering my possibly bewildered child perched high on my back, I tried to help fill him in, but words started to fail me. As the emotion of the moment started to take control, my own childhood, still living deep inside me, began to reemerge. I was a kid too. I was looking at the Shuttle, about to take off! As I stood there, then, I felt as though I my age could have been measured in the single digits again and I was taken by surprise as I actually began to tear up. “There is goes!” Was all I could muster.

“Main Engine Ignition!”

and a rumbling roar.

3…

2…

1…

LIFTOFF!

“Lift off of Discovery, blazing a trail into…” Ignoring the rest, I swung us around to where a sunrise sized fireball had started to light the horizon. As the source came into view and the thunder began to endlessly roll, I totally lost it.

I yelled, “AND THERE SHE GOES!” at the top of my lungs.

With nothing else to intelligibly add, I simply broke into wild laughter in the pure exuberance of the moment. It was an expression of the purest joy and exhilaration.

I was someplace else.

Six or seven seconds later when the concussive thud of the engines blasted over us, I began to laugh all over again. It was like being submerged by a rolling wave of sound and I, and everyone else there, bared our teeth into the storm and reveled in it.

Being There, Part II

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

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

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

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

6:00 AM

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

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

The excitement was building.

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

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

“Hey, Buddy. Time to get up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A problem.

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

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

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

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

The radio had gone spookily quiet.

What would they say?!

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

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

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

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

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

I actually crossed my fingers.

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

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

“THERE IT IS! RIGHT THERE!”

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

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

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

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

“I have to pee real bad.”

Oh…. you have GOT to be kidding me!

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.

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