Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kennedy Space Center, Part 1

My brother, despite his struggle with mental illness, has always had an intense curiosity about electronics and mechanical things. You could never enter his room barefoot, because the floor was always covered with a clutter of resistors, capacitors and vacuum tubes.

It’s hard to get him to talk about his interests these days. He takes antipsychotic medication that causes him to stare into space with his mouth open until you ask him a question. If the topic of the discussion interests him, he can often participate with energy and wit, but once the conversation lags, he’s off in another world again.

I decided to take him to Kennedy Space Center. He hadn’t expressed an interest in seeing it, but I figured that something there would stimulate him. On the drive over, we talked a little bit about the space program, and I was shocked when he named all of the rockets used by NASA from the Mercury launches through the Apollo program.

Kennedy Space Center has a visitor’s complex that is loaded with the unpleasant hallmarks of a theme park.



Mixed in with the tourist crap are some impressive displays, including these full-scale mockups of a space shuttle and its booster/fuel tank assembly.


The displays are very detailed. The underside of the shuttle is covered with thermal tiles, each of which is numbered. This is because they’re all slightly different sizes and shapes, to fit the contours of the spacecraft.



Buses run from the visitor’s complex, depositing guests at various stops along the way. The first stop was a large viewing tower, from which you could see the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building.


Not too far away was the shuttle launch pad.


Off in the distance was another launch pad that is no longer being used for shuttle launches. Rather, it’s being refitted for the Orion program. Note the double-lane gravel road curving towards the gantry. That’s the road used by the massive crawling Mobile Launch Platform that carries rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. NASA is currently replacing all of the gravel, because the incredible weight of the Mobile Launch Platform has pulverized the gravel into dust, which hampers its operation.


As we climbed the tower for viewing these massive objects, my brother spied an exhibit of a shuttle engine.


“Oh wow!” he exclaimed, as we walked towards it. He then began naming parts of the insanely complicated rig, as though he worked on them in his spare time. But he had a bigger thrill later that day, as I’ll explain in my next post.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A One-Hour Cushion

I arranged for my schizophrenic brother, who I call “Dustin” in this blog, to come visit Florida for a couple of weeks. It’s not as simple as buying him a ticket. Someone has to help him pack, to make sure he brings underwear and a toothbrush. The nurse at his group home has to bottle and label 2 weeks’ worth of medication. Someone has to escort him to the gate, or he’ll just wander around in the airport. And we have to make sure he’s on a direct flight.

Of course, I had to arrange to meet him at the gate in Orlando, because there was no way he’d be able to find his way to baggage claim.

I drove to the airport after work to meet his plane, allowing a cushion of one hour in case some unforeseen problem arose. Which of course is exactly what happened.

As I left the office, I realized I didn’t have enough cash in my pocket to pay for the tolls I’d encounter on the way to the airport. This meant a quick run to the bank, where I dug my wallet out of my pocket to get my ATM card. This detour was merely an annoyance, not a serious problem.

Once I got to the airport, I parked in the parking garage. The parking garage is across the street from the terminal, so I had to walk to an elevator, take the elevator down below street level, cross the street in an underground tunnel, and take an escalator up to the ticketing area. The moment I set foot in the ticketing area, I realized that I had left the piece of paper with his reservation number sitting on the seat of my car.

Because the Orlando airport was designed by arrogant engineers with Cal Tech degrees who fly on private jets and never use passenger terminals, you can’t take an escalator down to the parking garage access tunnel. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. Instead, you have to wait in a throng of sweaty tourists with screaming kids for an elevator. Sometimes you have to wait for 2 or 3 of them before you can force your way into one.

Eventually, I got to the car, grabbed the paper I needed and retraced my steps all the way back to the ticketing area. I waited in a long line of sweaty tourists with screaming kids until I was finally called to talk to a ticketing agent.

“I need a gate pass to meet a disabled passenger,” I told her. “I arranged for it ahead of time.” I then triumphantly presented the reservation confirmation.

“Certainly sir,” she smiled. “May I see your photo ID?”

There is a certain feeling that you get at moments of incredible stupidity. It starts in the pit of your stomach, and rushes upwards like vomit, but ends up feeling more like someone smacked you in the face with a 2x4. I realized that in my haste to keep on schedule, I hadn’t replaced my wallet in my pocket after stopping at the bank – I had left it on the console in my car.

I was now running terribly late, but I had to return to the throng of sweaty tourists, force my way onto an elevator, cross to the parking garage, get my wallet, and return to the ticketing area. Once there, I had to wait in line again for a ticketing agent. The ticketing agent asked for my photo ID, of course, so I took it out of my wallet and handed it to her. And she dropped it. I watched in slow motion as my driver’s license fell from her grasp, and disappeared behind the computer monitor into a slot cut into the top of the ticketing counter. She stammered, and said, “I’m so sorry! I have to call a supervisor to unlock the equipment doors. This might take some time.”

Out of time, I stepped up onto the baggage scale and peered down through the slot. I could see my driver’s license resting on top of the computer housing, just within reach. I squeezed my hand through the slot into the forbidden equipment area, grabbed my driver’s license, and slapped it into her hand. She typed on the keyboard for what seemed like an hour, and then handed me the gate pass, with the wrong flight information printed on it.

“This is wrong,” I told her. “It’s the wrong flight.”

“I know, “ she replied. “It’s just how the system works, we can’t change it.”

“But is this the right gate for the flight I’m meeting?” I asked.

She looked at me as though I had somehow lost my mind, and then, as though explaining to a child, she said, “No, none of that information is correct. It’s just how the system works. We can’t change it.”

Trying not to scream my frustration, I asked her, “Then how am I supposed to know which gate?”

The ticketing agent then turned to her computer and typed for another half hour. “Gate 92 sir, have a nice flight.” I guess she forgot that I wasn’t going anywhere.

Frantic about the delay, I had to wait in the absurd security line, and hobble on my ancient, arthritic knees to the gate, where I arrived to discover that the plane was arriving 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. I made it just in time.


Dustin and I drove to my house, I grabbed a cold beer, slumped into a chair, and asked him to bring me his medication. Five minutes later, he came back and said, “I think we have a problem.”

Dustin has several medical issues besides schizophrenia. He takes about 8 different prescription medications a day. If he doesn’t, he could die. Somehow, while fumbling for his carry-on luggage, the paper bag containing all of his carefully bottled and labeled prescription medications fell out, and was now either in the trash or on its way to Michigan.

Fortunately, the next day I was able to contact his doctors and they called in replacement prescriptions to a local pharmacy. He’s only been here for two days, and I’m exhausted already.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Big Charles and the Fish Fry

Our hotel was kind of isolated, so if we wanted to go out to eat, we had to take a cab or ride a shuttle bus provided by the hotel into the Port Lucaya district. On one of the rides, the bus driver told us about a weekly event near Freeport called the Fish Fry.

It seems that a Bahamian woman owned three restaurants on a parcel of beachfront land at Smith Point. However, only one of the restaurants - the most successful - is actually on the beach; the other two sit back from the beach. The owner died two months ago and left the three restaurants to her children, who are now fiercely competing with one another for business.

Most of the time, they cater to tour package deals, and are not open to the public. But on Wednesday, all are welcome. At about 6 p.m., people start to arrive, and before long, there are 30 or 40 people waiting in line at the beachfront restaurant. The restaurants are very basic – shacks, really.

Diners eat right on the beach.


The fish are dipped into Bahamian-seasoned batter and fried whole.


I had the Red Snapper.


As people finish eating, they either go to the bar and hang out, or walk down to the water’s edge to hang out. The big crater is where they have a bonfire later in the evening.


When we finished eating, we hung around for a little while. It soon became obvious that after about 9 p.m., it turns into a young people’s scene, when the throbbing music and sweaty bodies on the dance floor took over. So we grabbed a cab back to our hotel, and the cabbie pulled into a gas station to fill up.

After he filled the tank, the driver pointed out a group of men sitting on a bench outside the gas station. “You see that fat guy?” he asked. “That’s Big Charles. He’s a police officer. If there is one person responsible for keeping peace on this island, that’s him. Big Charles don’t play.”

He then proceeded to regale us with stories about Big Charles. He told us that once, when he was about 12 years old, Big Charles came to his school, walked right into the classroom during a lesson, and grabbed a kid by the shirt collar. “Boy,” he bellowed, “You got to stop thievin’!” Apparently the kid had broken into a house, and had been identified by a neighbor. Big Charles dragged the kid out of the classroom, and gave him a terrifying lecture, accompanied by numerous swats to the side of the head. Whether the kid stopped breaking into houses is unknown, but every other child in that classroom got the message: Big Charles don’t play.

“If Big Charles catches some bad guys, he always shoots one,” the cab driver said. He then told us the story of a high school kid named Lamont. Lamont was an athlete in high school - a runner, and represented Grand Bahama Island in numerous competitions. Everybody knew Lamont as a good kid, but he fell in with some bad company. Two of Lamont’s friends robbed a store while Lamont drove getaway. The getaway car broke down, and Big Charles found them. Big Charles cuffed the other two, turned to Lamont and said one word: “Run.” Lamont took off like a rocket, knowing full well what was coming. Big Charles shot him in the leg, and Lamont doesn’t run anymore.

“We don’t have a shooting range on Grand Bahama Island,” the cab driver explained. “So Big Charles practices on criminals.”

The Fish Fry doesn't end until 3 a.m. Uniformed police hang out to make sure there’s no trouble. But all they really need is Big Charles.


Monday, June 7, 2010


We made arrangements with a tour operator to pick us up at the hotel and take us out to a beach area called Deadman’s Reef. The ride out to the island was entertaining, because we were driven by a garrulous old guy who filled us in on the history of the country, read street signs to us, and stopped to point out a dead duck by the side of the road.

Deadman’s Reef is quite beautiful and unspoiled. It sits about 200 yards offshore, and the rocky coral sticks up out of the water, forming small islands.


The tour operator had set up a small deck with a shady pavilion, an equipment shop, and a snack bar. An 8-inch long local lizard called a “curly tailed lizard” scampered around, looking for handouts.


We swam out in shallow water, across a broad expanse of what is called “turtle grass.”


So naturally, we ran into this guy:


As the water became cooler and deeper, the turtle grass was replaced by sea fans.


On the far side of the coral islands, the water drops off to about 30-40 feet. It was spectacular, festooned with colorful corals and sponges. I don’t have any pictures of the deepwater stuff, but the rocks were covered with what looked like the remnants of a decadent 16th century dinner party at Versailles, complete with candelabras.


When we got into shallower water, we saw corals such as these:





Sea urchins (which are nocturnal) had wedged themselves into every nook and cranny, arranging their spines to discourage visits from Jehova’s Witnesses.


But the real attraction was the huge assortment of fish. Some plain, but most brilliantly colored:








We rested on the shady deck and talked to the tour operator, a guy named Barry. He’s a tall, fit man around 35-40 years old who graduated from the University of North Carolina. In addition to operating the tour, he’s also the reef Warden (in the US, this would be a conflict of interest, but apparently not in the Bahamas). He shows up at this beautiful spot every day, and he’s been doing it for 17 years. He says he’s ready to retire, but retire to where?


Sunday, June 6, 2010

You Can't Always Get What You Want

We took a taxi from the airport in Freeport, and I noticed that because of the history of the Bahamas as a British Crown Colony, traffic drives on the left. But they buy most of their vehicles from the US, so the steering gear is on the left, which is terrifying when you try to pass a truck on a 2-lane road. Strangely, public vehicles such as busses have the steering gear on the right.

We were pleased by the accommodations at our hotel, which is right on the beach. But things do tend to run on “island time,” so you can’t be in a big hurry.


At the check-in desk, they gave us this lock-and-key mechanism, which they told us was for the in-room safe. “Don’t lose that key,” the clerk told me, “Or we’ll have to charge you $100 to replace it.” When our vacation is over, I’m going to quit my job and become a Bahamian locksmith.


After our exhausting travel experience, all I wanted was a cold drink, so we headed over to the bar. To our delight, we arrived at Happy Hour: 2-for-1 on all mixed drinks. I there were four people behind the bar - a girl sitting by the register, a guy running around making drinks, and two other guys lounging around doing nothing. I asked one of them if he was a bartender, and he replied, "No mon, I wish I was." I saw a lot of this in the Bahamas. Lots of workers, but only one actually working.

I ordered Pina Coladas, and we sat by the pool in the late afternoon heat, sipping the frozen coconut slush. Unfortunately, I discovered something disturbing: they hardly put any alcohol in the 2-for-1 mixed drinks.


Disgustingly sober, we checked out the dinner menu at the hotel restaurant, and they told us it was “Pizza and Pasta” night, which we didn’t feel like eating. So we wandered down the beach and discovered this little barbecue shack, called “Chuck’s Pig Roast and Jerk Pit,” which also bore the mysterious words, “Greasy Pole Climbing.”


Chuck greeted us and we ordered conch fritters and barbecued lobster. Chuck shook his head and told us they were all out of conch and lobster. Disappointed, we ordered ribs and chicken. Chuck asked us if we wanted beer, and we perked up. We ate right on the beach, watching Bahamian kids frolic in the water, drinking frosty cold, alcohol-enriched beers.


That night, we were awakened by a furious storm. Lightning struck closely and frequently, accompanied by deafening cracks of thunder. The power went off for a couple of hours, while the rain came down in torrents. The next morning, we asked about it, and people seemed barely aware. “Oh yes, I noticed that it rained,” they would say. Or, “My mother told me there was a storm last night.” I guess if you live on an island in Hurricane Alley, you take such things in stride.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Usual Suspects

My wife and I thought it might be a good idea to enjoy a little relaxing getaway before I undergo painful knee surgery in July. So we traded our time-share condo for one in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, airfares to the Bahamas from Orlando are ridiculously high, considering that it’s only 85 miles from the coast of Florida. So my wife, being the frugal woman that she is, suggested we drive down to Fort Lauderdale (a four-hour drive) and fly from there, where the airfare was a lot cheaper.

While packing for the trip, we went through the usual nonsense. I pack for a vacation - my wife packs for an expedition. She sets up her suitcase 3 weeks in advance, and then packs and repacks it a half a dozen times. She’s a SCUBA diver, and she had to pack several pieces of bulky equipment. So strange items started showing up in my suitcase, as my wife ran out of room in hers: A floral-patterned bag; a wad of Maxi-pads; and of course, the groceries.

Our resort accommodations include a full kitchen, so my wife packed canned goods, pasta, a jar of coffee, and incredibly, a jar that she filled with sugar. “It’s for coffee,” she told me.

“It’s a tropical island,” I said. “They have sugar there.”

“Not in the room,” she responded. “We’ll have to go out and buy it.” Remember, she’s frugal.

Normally, when we fly out of Orlando, we suffer through a stressful 45-minute drive to the airport in heavy traffic, worrying whether or not we‘ll make our flight. The long drive to Fort Lauderdale only magnified that stress a hundredfold.

By the time we got to Fort Lauderdale and negotiated the tedious, confusing drive to long-term parking, we were running very late, and we were both nervous and worried. The lines were short at the airport security area, so we felt a glimmer of hope. However, hope doesn’t last very long when the security X-ray machine finds weapons in your luggage.

They stopped my wife, who had stupidly packed her dive knife in her carry-on bag. They offered her the option of mailing it back home (for an amount nearly equal to what she had paid for the knife), or they could simply confiscate it. While she was deciding what to do, a member of the security team suggested that she go back upstairs to the baggage check area and put the knife in her checked luggage. So they escorted her away while I went through X-ray, and the security team discovered the jar of sugar in my carry-on bag.

I had to wait for them to swab my bag and the jar with explosive-detecting wipes. “It’s sugar,” I told them. “Why don’t you just taste it?” The security team looked at each other and laughed. Now you know why I don’t work in airport security.

We made the flight, which was a 19-seat Beechcraft propeller-driven aircraft. The co-pilot actually came back into the cabin and moved a few of the passengers to balance the plane. My wife was quite nervous and uncomfortable. I found this amusing, since she willingly puts on an air tank and swims a hundred feet under the ocean with big, hungry sharks. At least she’ll have a knife to defend herself while I sit on the beach sipping a sweet cup of coffee.