Flightmares

When looking to book a flight for you and your four year old, I realize now there is really only one thing to consider. Simplicity.

I am no stranger to airports. I have seen them all over the world. I have eaten from their various sketchy vending machines; I have waited in smoke choked departure gates for hours on end. I have even, once, hallucinated at one due to nothing more than a toxic combination of sleep deprivation, lack of food and extensive physical exhaustion. That time was memorable.

Many years ago, my family and I were returning to the East Coast after a wonderful vacation in Hawaii. I love Hawaii and have visited many times in my life and hope to go again someday. The visits, however enjoyed, need to be spaced sufficiently far apart from each other for me to mostly forget the nightmare that it is just getting there and back. On this particular trip, we had departed the beautiful Pacific island paradise on an evening flight. Naturally, since it was our last day there, I had stayed up late the day before, risen early that morning and then played hard all that last day. Only when we were on our way back over the ocean did I realize how torturous this was going to be.

I don’t sleep on planes.

Ever.

This was all back before the days of TV’s in the seat backs, laptop computers and iPods. You brought a book, A Sony Walkman, maybe a pocket chess set, but that was about it. Since we were flying through the night, there was very limited entertainment being projected onto the one big, movie screen on the Berlin Wall between First Class and Cattle Class. Mostly, it was dark. Dark and boring. Eventually, we landed, made a plane switch at LAX, and that took us on toward our next connection in O’Hare.

Let me say this now. O’Hare, is awful. Or at least it was. I haven’t been there since and to be honest, I’m still scarred sufficiently to not even think about returning to see if they have ever managed to de-evil the place. It’s huge, sprawling, filled with moving sidewalks that go on for so long that you actually start to fear that you’ll never find your way back and for me, it was also dead. We were there around three AM.

When we had landed in Los Angles, my father, who is also notoriously bad at sleeping, had tried something new on the market to help him out. A neat little pill called Benadryl. Normally, it was used for allergies but because it was an antihistamine, it would also knock you flat. Back then, the notion of “non-drowsy” was unheard of and besides, sleep was what he wanted. Unfortunately for him, my dear Dad is also one of the most drug sensitive people I know. A half dose of anything usually does the trick for him, regardless of the malady. The full dose of Benadryl he gulped down somewhere over Colorado hit him like a freight train. When we landed, Mom and I had to practically drag him to our waiting area, zombie style. Once we had found our gate, he promptly laid down on the floor, face first and started drooling into the gum stained rug. He was unconscious in under ten seconds.

Once I was sure that Mom was all set with everything, my hunger beat out my tiredness and I went foraging for sustenance. We had about two hours to wait, plenty of time to find food.

Two things:

First: Believe it or not, the restaurants in airports do actually close. Really!
Second: You can expect them to be closed at four in the morning.

What this left me doing was pacing back and forth outside of a shuttered cafeteria style establishment where I could hear but not see noisy things happening that hopefully involved the making of breakfast and the opening of the establishment. By five, the metal curtain went up and by five-o-five, I was sitting down and eating pancakes and bacon.

As I chomped and slurped I noticed that my best friend, The Doctor, who was sitting across from me was simply looking on at the messy destruction that I was making of my plate, rather than getting some food for himself.

Around a mouthful of desperately needed, greasy sustenance I managed to ask him, “Do you want some?”

“No.” He replied with a headshake, “I’m all set” and he just smiled at me, seemingly enjoying watching me enjoy the meal.

“Are you sure? If you need some money, I’ve got enough for you too.” I was a little concerned. If I was starving, he must be too.

“No. Really. I’m fine.”

With a shrug and an “Ok” I dug back in and started to cut off another big slice from the hubcap sized pancake. Only then did I pause… and then look up sharply.

He wasn’t gone.
He had never been there at all.

The Doctor hadn’t been on this trip with us. It had all been in my mind, but man-o-man, I would have sworn up, down, left and right that he had been two feet away from me just a second before. The elderly couple in the booth across the isle were staring at me with a odd and somewhat uncomfortable expression, like you would to a street crazy preaching his beliefs, and I suddenly felt rather conspicuous and embarrassed. I managed to inhale much of the rest of my food in under three minutes and with one more spooked look back at the empty seat that had always been empty, I bolted back to my gate before any other weirdness decided to find me and start messing with my already addled brain.

Back in the departure lounge, Mom was still guarding the luggage while Dad sprawled out like a bearskin on a hunting lodge floor. I got home some time later that day and slept off my dementia.

The trip to Florida would naturally, be nothing so epic as that trip, but still the lesson was there. No Benadryl for Dad.

Um, I mean, no connecting flights. Not if you can help it.

There was also the fact that I would have no backup. It was just the two of us and when you are working without a net, you really don’t want to start stacking the deck against yourself.

Initially, this was hard for me to recognize. I am, after all, cheap. The obvious problem I had was that everyone knows that direct flights cost more and I was trying like hell to make this adventure happen for as little as possible. Money saved on transportation could, after all, be spent in gift shops! It was my friend Coley who tenderly and delicately talked some sense into me.

“What are you, NUTS?”

Coley’s never been one to mince words.

“Yah but, the one with the connector is cheaper.” I mean, come on, that’s irrefutable. He could understand that, right? He’s a Yankee!

“Not if you miss your flight. Not if you miss the launch because of delays. The whole point of going would be ruined! They could even loose your luggage.”

The missed or canceled connection was a good argument, but that last point was the most troubling. I was good at sprinting for connections and was pretty confidant that I could fly through a concourse while pushing a stroller at unlawful speeds. Lost luggage was something I had no power over though. Mostly, I wouldn’t care about the lost clothes and toothbrushes, but loosing the tent, our packages and packages of survival food and all the other goodies that I would have to spend a huge amount of time and cash on to make our stay enjoyable, suddenly started to make me rethink my convictions.

Still, the directs cost so much more…

“Did you try JetBlue? They fly directs from here to Orlando and usually have a really good price.”

“They do?” I was amazed. I didn’t think anything flew direct to anywhere from our little corner of Maine. A quick check reveled that not only was my friend right, but that the tickets purchased directly from the airline cost almost exactly what the layover flight on the other airlines would have. They even let you pick your seating! I don’t know how I missed this, but I had. That evening, the tickets were booked and our place on the plane selected. Right side for the trip down, left for the flight back. I figured that way Short Stack could watch the world go by from thirty-three thousand feet rather than a never ending vista of ocean. No carpet drooling or running for far away gates in foreign concourses for us.

Most importantly, no O’Hare.

We were ready.

Tomorrow, we leave for adventure.

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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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