Sunday, December 09, 2012


A Rocket City Thanksgiving

One of Unk’s favorite sayings is “change is always for the worse,” but even he will admit that’s not always the case. If you are a faithful reader of The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, you know it’s been a long standing tradition for me and Miss Dorothy to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans’ French Quarter. We are empty nesters and get to do whatever we want on most holidays. But we decided NOLA was out this year.

Why? After so many New Orleans Thanksgivings we’d kinda got in a rut, doing the same, exact same, things year after year. Check in, trot around The Quarter for a while, Supper at Sammy’s on Bourbon Street, a stop at Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz, etc., etc. All of those are fun things, but we were ready for something different this Thanksgiving, we reckoned. Not only was there now a certain sameness to our trips, Unk was weary of making the drive west to New Orleans, since he’s been commuting over there fairly regularly to see to the LPDs at Avondale Shipyard.

One night over supper we were discussing this very thing and Unk blurted, “How about Huntsville? I know we went to the Space and Rocket Center this past April, but there are always new movies in the IMAX, and I bet there’s a new traveling exhibit, too.” Miss D. did a little research on the Internet and was soon sold on the idea. Not only were there fresh movies, the current traveling exhibit at the Center was “MathAlive!” Dorothy allowed as how the combo of space and math just had to be a winner.

Ironically, Unk wound up in New Orleans anyway, spending the first three days of Thanksgiving week there working on LPD 25. By the time I was back in Possum Swamp Wednesday afternoon, I was most assuredly not in the mood to drive back over to Louisiana again. I love the city, but enough is sometimes too much, as you’ve heard me say before.

Anyhoo, packed up early but not too early Thanksgiving a.m. and headed north on I-65 to Huntsville, a.k.a. “Rocket City.” Traffic was light on the holiday’s morn, and the boring drive up to Montgomery wasn’t too bad.  At the end of that stretch we made our traditional stop at the Stuckey’s just outside the city.

It was a little too late for my beloved fried chicken biscuit or breakfast of any kind, so Unk and Miss D. settled for chili cheese dogs, which were disgustingly delicious. We did note “our” Stuckey’s appears to have fallen on ever harder times. It’s looked depressed for at least the last five years or so, and even though they were doing a brisk business on this Thanksgiving afternoon, there was an air of gloom and doom.

Stuckey’s is a little more “normal” these days, with the gee-gaws on sale more like what you’d find in any Stuckey’s than the very strange hyper-religious knick-knacks that dominated for a while.  Nevertheless, it’s obvious all is not well. Restrooms were nasty and, hard as it is to believe, there were no Goo-Goo Clusters, Stuckey’s signature candy. When we paid for our selections, a little junk food for the motel room, the cashier didn’t have any bags to put our stuff in. If this continues, I expect them to be gone soon, and our Montgomery stop will have to become Priester’s Pecans or Bates’ House of Turkey. No Stuckey’s? Dagnab it!

Anyways, the second half of the trip, from Montgomery to Huntsville, felt a lot quicker than the first half, as it usually does. In just a little while, it seemed, we were waving bye-bye to Vulcan’s statue and closing in on Rocket City. We’ve been to Huntsville often enough that I suppose we could have found our way without help, but Unk’s Tom-Tom GPS got us to the motel with a little less fuss. The GPS did do a good job getting us where we wanted to go, but the whole time we were in Huntsville “Samantha” displayed an odd penchant for telling us to make U-turns. Modern technology, I reckon. Go figure.

After a not-too-bad but hardly stellar experience at the La Quinta last time, we were determined to find a better motel near the Space Center. That “better” was the Best Western just off University Drive, one of Rocket City’s main drags. It was new and looked decidedly upscale compared to the poor La-Q. Plus, it was located just behind one of Unk’s favorite Mexican restaurants in the whole world, Rosie’s Mexican Cantina, which would be within easy walking distance. When we unpacked in our room, it was obvious we’d made the right choice:  spacious, clean, and new with a great big flat-screen television set.

The chili dogs had been good, but we wanted something a little more substantial to serve as our Thanksgiving repast. So, we hopped into the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, at 4 p.m. and went in search of a restaurant, any restaurant, that might be open on a Thanksgiving evening. 

We could see Rosie’s was locked up tighter than a drum. So was the Logan’s steakhouse next door. We were just about to give up and settle for the pea-picking IHOP when we noticed there were cars outside the Buffalo Wild Wings at Madison Square Mall. Buffalo Wild Wings for Thanksgiving? Why not? Had to be better than IHOP, which holds a distant third place in Unk’s breakfast joint pantheon well behind Waffle House and Huddle House.

B-Dubs was a good choice. The staff was friendly and soon had Unk set up with a giant brewski and D. with a big glass of wine. Miss Dorothy did cause considerable confusion among the young staff with her request for Pinot Grigio, but they eventually figured out what the heck that was. Unk had the boneless wings (wild sauce), and Dorothy had a flatbread sort of pizza that was really good—she let me have a bite or two. All in all, we had a super suppertime. It was perhaps our most memorable if most humble Thanksgiving dinner in a long time.

K9EID on Ham Nation...
Back in our room after spending quite some time at the wings joint, where we watched the Redskins rub the Cowboys’ noses in it, Unk was fairly tuckered. Did need an hour or three of TV to relax by, though. Lot of holiday stuff and the windups of football games, but nothing that caught my eye. So…fired up the laptop and had a look at the latest episode of Ham Nation. If you are an amateur radio operator and have not seen Bob Heil’s and Gordon “Gordo” West’s excellent little TV show, I insist you take a look at it. 

Eventually, Unk dropped off into dreamland, and despite having consumed an almost unseemly number of fiery chicken wings and Kolorado Kool Aids, he slept soundly and knew nothing more till the next morning. After a surprisingly lavish motel breakfast, me and Miss D. headed for The U.S. Space and Rocket Center at about 9 in the a.m.

Walking past the grave of brave space-monkey Miss Baker, Dorothy and I had a good look at the pretty old SR-71 who is living out her golden years parked in front of the Center where she is visible from the Interstate. It’s mostly space at the Space and Rocket Center, but there are some wonderful aviation artifacts, too (they run an “Aviation Challenge” camp in addition to Space Camp). Got a nice picture of Miss Dorothy posed with Miss Blackbird, and we headed in.

We ignored the enormous gift shop for the moment—you are darn tootin’ we’d buy space stuff, but we save that for last—and headed for the ticket counter where Dorothy took care of our admission and movie tickets. While Space Junk was playing in the IMAX, we opted for something a little different this time, Air Racers, which would be in the 3D theatre in The Davidson Center for Space Exploration (the rocket hall). While D. was getting us set up for that, Unk, as always, spent a little time communing with and contemplating the huge bust of Dr. Wernher Von Braun, one of the truly great men of the Twentieth Century. He was a human and flawed like all of us, but he had one thing that’s rare today:  a clear vision of the future.

In the museum, we noted that at least some of the Von Braun exhibits from the Center’s celebration of his centennial last spring were still on display, and that was a good thing. Unk particularly enjoyed the images of the great man’s space wheel. I’ve been fascinated by this still-futuristic space station since I was a tiny little grasshopper. The first time I saw a picture of it, I thought it was a flying saucer like the ones that were currently annoying the denizens of 1950s drive-in movie theaters and lovers’ lanes. I learned the even more intriguing truth of what it was when Man in Space ran on the old Disneyland TV show. Actually, I probably saw a rerun of it, since on its original air date, March 1955, even old Unk would have been too young to grok space stations.

The hit of the trip, though, especially for Miss D., was the traveling exhibit, Raytheon’s “Math Alive.” While it was aimed at the young set, the interactive exhibits were enjoyable for and being enjoyed by their parents and by us. What I particularly liked was a rather elaborate station that allowed us to stack images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and explained the mathematics behind the noise reduction that ensued. Now, benighted Unk has at least an idea how Deep Sky Stacker and Nebulosity really work.

Wandering on, we took a stroll through the army’s permanent exhibit (Redstone Arsenal is, of course, a U.S. Army facility), which deals with the future battlefield and with missile defense concepts. While nothing much had changed here, it is so jam-packed with stuff that I always notice something new and cool.

Which brought us to the vaunted Rocket Park. I have somewhat mixed emotions about the Center’s back 40, which is filled with historic missiles and spacecraft; everything from Jupiter Cs and Atlases to an honest-to-god Saturn IVB. Miss Dorothy and I love strolling along, the missiles looming above us like a forest of great trees, but I can’t help but feel that at least some of them deserve better. Out here, exposed to the heat and rain of Alabama summers and relatively cold northern Alabama winters, these wonderful old machines age quickly. The Center’s Saturn V, which is now proudly on display in the Davidson Center, was in the park for the longest time, and her stay there probably at least doubled the amount of restoration required.

Ah, well. We enjoyed ourselves despite the slightly chilly, gray day. Faves? For me they are always the venerable Atlas F ICBM, the mockup of a never flown nor built original Lunar Rover that was more like a laboratory on wheels than a go-kart, and the wonderful Army air defense missiles. I am glad these have been preserved for now—they are true historic treasures. Included is the exoatmospheric interceptor from the old Safeguard ABM system, Spartan, which will catch the eye of those of y’all old enough to remember the Army’s forward-looking but ill-fated anti-missile-missile system.

Of particular note at the moment is the Skylab hardware at the far end of the park. In part, it is obviously a mock-up—there is a faux Apollo CM “docked” with the station. But the larger part of the thing appears to be real, as in an engineering development model at least. The Center is collecting money in a campaign to restore America’s first space station, and good on ‘em. Skylab deserves to be spiffed up and moved to a good home indoors. Stingy old Unk actually contributed a few dollars to the effort.

One thing has not changed in the Davidson Center: the massive Saturn V looms above you as a mighty presence from the moment you enter. This is the star of The U.S. Space and Rocket Center as far as I’m concerned, but in keeping with the new spirit of advance and enthusiasm I sense here, there is plenty of other stuff on the floor of this huge hall, and it get changed out purty frequently. New this time was a swing arm from the Saturn’s Launch Umbilical Tower, and a full size model of the new Orion capsule.

Most of my attention this time was devoted to looking at and photographing the beautiful Lunar Module at the far end of the hall. I paid close attention, since I am about to begin a new LM model kit. I still like the one I did several years ago—I liked it well enough to enter it in a recent model show/competition—but I believe I can do better now. I was not ashamed to enter my LM, but it was just not quite good enough to win any awards. NEXT YEAR!

When Unk had finished photographing the ungainly Lunar spider, it was getting on to lunch time, and we decided to head back to the Center’s restaurant while we still had time for a leisurely bite before the movie. I was somewhat amused to see the fast food chow hall has changed its name once again. Now it is The Mars Grill. Last time it was The Rocket City Grill. Before that it was The Lunch Pad. What next? “Galileo’s Greasy Spoon”? Honestly, the food is surprisingly good. Better than Stuckey’s, that’s for dern sure. The meal I ordered, “The Red Planet,” consisted of an amazingly tasty barbeque pork sandwich, slaw, and fries.

Thus fortified, it was back over to the rocket hall for our movie. When Dorothy picked the film after at look at the Center’s website, she had said she just knew we would like it. I wasn’t so sure:  an airplane movie at the Space Center (conveniently forgetting we saw one of the Harry Potter films in the IMAX one year)? Turned out your old Uncle was—for once—wrong, wrong, wrong. This short movie tells the amazing story of the Reno National Championship Air Races and the beautiful old WWII war birds that compete in them. My only complaint? I wish they’d shown Air Racers in the IMAX Theater instead of the smaller Davidson 3D Theatre.

And that, muchachos, was that. Fun is fun, but done is done. Except for BUYING STUFF, that is. On our way out we naturally stopped off in the gift shop for quite a while. Our purchasing was fairly modest this time, since we’d gone hog-wild last spring. Couple of toys for the grandkids, a key-ring and a NASA calendar for Unk. The wonderful Miss Dorothy got me the perfect coffee cup, which made up for me not getting one last time—seems as “R-o-d” is not a popular enough name to go on personalized cups. Dorothy found one this time that was mucho bettero than e’en a Rod mug would have been.

Before we head for the 4Runner, I maybe ought to mention The Space and Rocket Center is holding far more special events than they used to. Yes, they still have Space Camp and Aviation Challenge for both little folk and adults, but there is more than that going on. While we were there they were preparing for their annual Christmas Celebration with Santa in Space. And this week they will be hosting the Apollo 17 Fortieth Anniversary Celebration. In addition to other cool things, attendees will get to have dinner with Apollo 17 scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmidt. Wish I could be there.

The denouement of our wonderful Thanksgiving adventure was that we hopped in Miss Van Pelt and motored back to the motel for an hour or three of rest before supper. That supper was indeed a splendid one at Rosie’s. Since we could walk from the motel to the restaurant—less than 100 meters away—Unk felt free to embrace as many draft Dos Equis beers as he wanted. Those merely complemented the enormous spread of fajitas that hit the table just a few minutes after we ordered. Even Unk could not finish it all, though he did manage to make at least a noticeable dent in the beef fajitas, Mexican rice, huge mounds of sour cream and guacamole, beans, and uber fresh lettuce and tomato.

Back in the motel, Unk paid for all that spicy food (onto which he’d slathered huge dollops of the deadly El Yucatano hot sauce), so I sat up for quite a while surfing the and Cloudy Nights bulletin boards and the cable TV. In his condition, buoyed by all that grub and beer, it almost seemed possible to Unk that the silly hunters of Finding Bigfoot might see something stranger than a passing possum. Naturally they didn’t, and I eventually drifted off into dreams of mighty space wheels spinning in star-spangled night.

Want to see lots more pix of Unk and Miss D's trip? I've posted an album on Facebook. Not a Friend of Unk? Just ask; I have, like George Takei, never turned down a Friend Request.

Just as I was finishing the blog, I received word that Sir Patrick Moore had died. I will have some more to say later, but for now I will just say that I am in mourning. If not for Patrick, I would not have found my way into astronomy. He was an inspiration to me from the day I picked up one of his books in my elementary school's library, and though I was never able to meet him in person, I consider him my mentor. We are all mortal and Patrick was very old and I knew he'd be taken from us someday. But I never wanted that "someday" to become "today."

Next Time: Unk's Messier Album 4…

Nicely put Rod.
Nicely put Rod.
Dang, that food looks good! Sounds like a great trip.

Very sad to hear about Sir Patrick, few people can have made such a contribution to astronomy as he has done, truly a giant. May he rest in peace.
Seems like you had a wonderful time, Uncle Rod!

The museum’s apparent role as a PR center for the military-industrial complex may look alarming. Raytheon-sponsored math show?? Battlefield of the future?? But on a more sober reflection, the problem for peace is not that the public knows _too much_ about math and missile defense technology. Space exploration naturally rubs shoulders with more questionable applications, same as in other technology fields, I “grok” that.

Learned of Sir Patrick’s departure from your blog. A passing of an era. Liked his non-astronomical views or not, Sir Patrick was a straight shooter. Astronomy-wise, now we have only the books, the videos, and the Caldwell list. Sad.

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