Sunday, August 04, 2013


Uncle Rod’s Big Vacation

Unk and Friend...
Unk is a 1960s tourist at heart. So is Miss Dorothy. We fondly remember the wonderful family vacations of our childhoods, and, yes, I ain’t afraid to say it, we try to recreate them in spirit if not substance. No, you can’t relive that long lost July at Weeki Wachee Springs, but you can still enjoy a great big summer vacation in the classic American mold. Which is just what we did a couple of weeks back.

Last summer, Dorothy spent a week visiting daughter Beth in Washington DC. I wasn’t part of that. I thought it would be nice to let them have a whole lot of mother-daughter time uninterrupted by my foolishness, and I was hell-bent on heading Down Chiefland Way to put the final touches on The Herschel Project anyway. This summer? I’d already had my Chiefland run in July, and Miss D. suggested I might want to accompany her to DC to see Beth and husband Rob’s new home and to play tourist.

Should I? Well, if I sat home it would be a lonely week with not much to do. The skies were forecast to be unrelievedly cloudy, and I believed that forecast. This has been one of the wettest summers we have had in a long, long time. I can’t remember getting this few hours on the observing field since summer 1994. What would I do if I stayed home? Probably spend a week watching Battlestar Galactica DVDs with the cats and playing Halo. If I went with D., not only would I get to see Beth and Rob, I’d get to do all the touristy stuff I’d missed despite having been to DC five or six times.

All my past visits had been on business; the company I worked for on my first engineering gig was headquartered in Georgetown. Not that those trips weren't productive. One time, I was in a little French restaurant when the tipsy Senator ("Another double Pernod, please!") seated at the table next to me with his “secretary” caught his napkin on fire in his table's candle. I put it out with a glass of Perrier, and the Honorable Gentlemen was spared the nosy reporters who would have been attracted by fire trucks.

While I may have saved the government from yet another scandal, I never got to do the fun stuff like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian—and especially the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. That in mind, I asked Miss D. if we could visit “Air and Space.” Dorothy was somewhat appalled to learn I’d never done the BIG space museum, and she responded that not only could we and would we, we’d do both the downtown museum and the one out at the airport in Virginia.

As the day of our departure approached, I was getting more and more excited, despite me not being that fond of air travel—at least as practiced in the 21st century. Dorothy and I had at least found a way to make that a little less unpleasant and save some money in the bargain.

Possum Swamp being Possum Swamp, there are no direct flights to anywhere. There is always a stopover, usually Atlanta. That turns almost any journey into a long and complicated and stressful affair.  Pensacola, Florida, however, is only about an hour away, and thanks, I suppose, to the presence of two big military bases has better airline service. You can get a direct flight from P’cola to DC and—get this—it is substantially cheaper than the stopover flight out of The Swamp. Yes, you have to drive to Pensacola, but that’s a lot better than being subjected to the Hartsfield madness in Atlanta.

The first challenge in getting somewhere these days is making it through the auto-da-fé of airline security. No, there is no logic to it, but what you gonna do? Call your Congressman? Good luck with that. What bothers me most about the TSA is its amazing lack of consistency. In Pensacola, I had to remove my belt, but I could hold my wallet in my hands when I went through their scanner. On the way home, the opposite:  belts OK, no wallets. Sigh. Luckily, there were only a few folks at the security checkpoint in Pensacola on a Monday afternoon, and it wasn’t long before me and D. were sitting at the gate with a copy of Wired and a couple of candy bars, waiting to board our U.S Air flight.

Despite my complaints about U.S. Airways in the past (“The legitimate heir of Aeroflot”), the flight wasn’t that bad. The plane was on the small side, but so are almost all those flying from the Gulf Coast. I was amused at a new rule they've come up with to induce passengers to check bags (and pay for the privilege). Not only does your carry-on have to be a certain size, it can’t have wheels. As you know, almost all bags of any size  have wheels these days. Brilliant bunch of money-grubbers, I'd say.

When I’m on an airplane I can’t focus enough to read sumpin like The Remembrance of Things Past, but I gotta have something. This time it was one of the Halo novelizations, Eric Nylund’s interesting, exciting, and quite well written Halo: The Fall of Reach. By the time we landed in DC I felt like I’d only stood a short watch on Pillar of Autumn's bridge. If you can’t tell, it’s been a Halo summer ‘round the old manse.

On the ground in DC, all was well; we found baggage claim without trouble since both Dorothy and I have been at Reagan National, née Washington National, a lot over the years. Beth was waiting for us there, and it wasn’t long before Rob was picking us up in their Subaru and we were heading for their home in Columbia Heights. While we didn't want to put Beth and Rob out for a week, we were very happy to accept their kind invite to spend our first night with them. I’d get to see their new home, and tired as we were it would be nice not to have to deal with a big downtown hotel the first evening.

Beth and Rob’s condo, a wonderful combination of old and new, is in a neighborhood that’s the same. It is tending toward “gentrified,” but is still diverse in its people and businesses, with taco stands hard up against trendy eateries. Knowing Dorothy and I would be weary, Rob got takeout from the nearby Thai place, and just an hour or two afterward Unk, full of cashew chicken, was snoozing rather heavily.

Tuesday morning, if not too early Tuesday morning, we were up and ready for a big day at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. What was super cool was that Beth, a PhD student, was available to shepherd us around all the live-long day. I know she made the Metro system, DC’s subway, much, much easier for us to navigate than it would have been without her.

What’s the best word to sum up the huge Air and Space Museum downtown? “Overwhelming.” There is just so much there. The other space places I’ve been to—Huntsville and even the Kennedy Space Center—pale in comparison. I mean, campers, the second you walk in you are confronted with the Apollo 11 Command Module, Gemini IV, and freaking Friendship 7. There is everything from a Corona (“Discoverer”) satellite, to a life-sized Hubble Space Telescope and everything in between. We looked and looked and looked. Just when we were beginning to suffer from sensory overload, it was, thankfully, time for the show in the Albert Einstein Planetarium.

If I can find one thing to complain about, if there was one thing at Air and Space I thought was below par, it was the planetarium show, Journey to the Stars. Oh, it was professionally done and pretty and was narrated by one of my favorite stars, Whoopi Goldberg, but it really wasn’t a planetarium show, it was more like an IMAX film, like dozens of similar ones I’ve seen, “WE ARE GOING TO TRAVEL INTO THE IMMENSITY OF SPACE!”

Einstein Planetarium's Zeiss projector...
I also thought that while the modern digital projection gear, a Zeiss Infinity System, was glitzy and all, in some ways it didn't work as well as an old-fashioned planetarium dumbbell. I noted the stars at weren't very sharp or small. This isn't a criticism of the Smithsonian; most all planetarium shows are just the same now:  canned digitally projected “movies.” At least the planetarium’s old Zeiss projector was still there so I could admire it. It wasn’t clear to me whether they still use it or not. It was not used in Journey to the Stars.

When the show was over, Unk was feeling a bit peckish, and the three of us decided to give the facility’s large cafeteria a try. It was a combined McDonald’s, Boston Market, and some fast food pizza outfit I wasn’t familiar with. I was afeared of getting something too complicated at this enormous assembly line operation, so I settled for good, old Chicken McNuggets (curse McDonalds for discontinuing their Chicken Selects). They were sort of edible, but had obviously sat under the heat lamp for quite some time. Dorothy and Beth made out better with their burgers.

What else did we see that afternoon? We pretty much saw it all, but one thing stands out, the museum’s excellent astronomy exhibit. I didn't expect much when I walked into the darkened hall:  "Galileo exhibit, check, something about HST, check." But that was just the preliminaries. What should I come upon but a huge exhibit devoted to my hero, Sir William Herschel, a life-sized recreation of my Main Man observing with his famous “20-foot” telescope. At first I was a little disappointed: "Where the hell is Caroline?" Then I noticed her sitting at an open window on the upper right, recording notes and positions as Brother swept the heavens. It got even better. Also present was one of the primary mirrors from the 20-foot, an 18-incher.

Caroline is on the right in the little window...
There was more good stuff in the astronomy hall including one of the Hooker Reflector’s upper cage assemblies—the one that provided a Newtonian focus—an old-timey blink comparator, and more, but the Herschel exhibit was what floated my boat. It was maybe the most wonderful thing I saw that day, and if anything made the visit worthwhile, the Herschel stuff was it.

Before leaving, foot weary and tired though we were, D., Beth, and I made a run through the big museum gift shop. I came out with an Einstein t-shirt, a planisphere mug, and, best of all, a picture Beth took of me posed with the big Enterprise model used in the filming of the original Star Trek. It’s been in various Smithsonian museums and now has a good home in the Air and Space gift shop.

There were still miles to travel before Tuesday was done. Up next was checking into our hotel, the very nice J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue. We were extremely pleased with our room, which had a view of the Washington Monument. Yes, it is still being renovated and repaired following the earthquake, but is still impressive even covered in scaffolding.

After we’d got settled in our room and had recharged for a few hours, it was time to meet Beth and Rob in the lobby and go to supper. Founding Farmers on Pennsylvania Avenue, which they had chosen for us, is part of the farm-to-table movement and is very popular. Lucky we had reservations or we’d have been waiting a long, long time despite the fairly early hour. What did Unk get? Several of their house brews, natch, and the skirt steak and chicken enchilada. I was torn between that and the chicken and waffles, but was happy with my choice. The food at Founding Farmers is relatively simple in the New American mode, but is kicked up several notches because of its amazing freshness. I was a happy little camper, y’all.

Primary from the 20-foot...
On our walk back from the restaurant, we went by the White House. Like the Washington Monument, it’s something I have seen in pictures and on film so many times that seeing it in person was strange and didn't seem quite "real." No, y’all, THE MAN did not come out and invite Unk in for a beer. I reckon the Secret Service neglected to tell him I was there. Back at the hotel, ‘twas a little cable TV and a little Rebel Yell out of my flask—I never go anywhere without it—and then night-night time.

Next morning, we were up and downstairs to Starbucks (Which was in the lobby, yay!) to meet Miss Beth for another day traipsing the Air and Space museum. On Wednesday, that would be the other Air and Space, the one out in Chantilly, Virginia where Dulles airport is. Once again, we were so lucky to have Beth to lead us around. She picked us up in the Subaru and drove us out to the facility, which was something of a mystery to me. I knew they had some large aircraft there, but I wasn’t sure what else.

As with the downtown facility, you are kinda overwhelmed when you enter the museum, it is new and in the form of connected hangars and is huge. We stopped to get a map, but I knew what I wanted to see most and didn't think I’d have any trouble locating it. Sure enough, soon as we walked out into the main area I spotted a giant silver tail emblazoned with a circled “R.”

That iconic tail could only belong to one aircraft, Enola Gay (I believe Bockscar, the B-29 that bombed Nagasaki, has the arrow-circle insignia of the 509th Composite Group on her tail). I felt something almost akin to vertigo for a moment. This was the real deal, the aircraft that dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, not a picture or a replica. How does she look? This “Silverplate” B29 has been lovingly and beautifully restored. Like the Herschel exhibit downtown, Enola Gay made my visit worthwhile all by herself.

What else was there? There was plenty. An SR-71 Blackbird, countless vintage warplanes and commercial aircraft, and enough Soviet jets to start your own Warsaw pact. The downtown museum is more space-oriented, and the Virginia one more aircraft focused, but there were still plenty of amazing spacecraft in a hangar devoted just to them.

What’s in the space exhibit area? Oh, just Freedom 7, Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury capsule. Space Shuttle Discovery. A vintage Apollo boilerplate capsule, and lots, lots more. The most amazing thing I saw after Freedom 7? Probably a Gemini test capsule rigged for a parasail landing. Early on, there was a plan to land Gemini on land rather than at sea. Most of the concepts used landing skids, but this capsule had honest-to-god landing gear wheels. A huge parasail was suspended above, and I just stood speechless for a while. Most remarkable thing? That somebody thought this might work safely. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Guess what was available in the museum restaurant? More Mickey D’s. I was suspicious of the chicken nuggets after my hockey-puck experience the day before. Miss Beth said hers were OK, but I followed Miss Dorothy’s more healthy lead and got a chicken wrap. It would actually have been purty good if they hadn’t put cotton-picking cucumber in it—that is not my favorite vegetable, y’all.

The remainder of the afternoon, till even Unk had had enough, was spent viewing one exhibit after another where our reaction was invariably, “That can’t be real. Can it?” We did visit the gift shop, which was much smaller than the one downtown and crazy-crowded. I didn't see much that really rang my chimes, but I did pick up an interesting book on Cold War civil defense, an interest of mine, Eric Sweden’s Surviving the Bomb.

After our long and touristy day, Dorothy and I were all in. We had Beth stop at a CVS so we could stock up on junk food (Unk got a sixer of Kolorado Koolaid, too), and collapsed back at the hotel. Good thing we turned in early, since Thursday would be Monument Day, and would involve even more walking than the Air and Space Museums had.

In the morning, we stuck to the routine we’d established: coffee/pastries at Starbucks, meet Beth, off for a day of playing 1960s vacation. On this morning, that would be a walking tour of the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. It was warm, if not hot, and we had a lot of ground to cover. The monuments were a huge success, and not just because Dorothy and I bore up well despite the heat and the distances between them. I was more moved by the places we visited than I thought I would be—and how.

The World War II Memorial is fairly new, and is very well executed. You have an open area and fountains surrounded by monoliths for the states and territories. It was very much in the traditional mode, but seemed new and fresh, too.

MLK? The central monument and sculpture, the Stone of Hope, was beautiful. Or it would have been had it not been surrounded by ugly chain link fence. Work is about to begin to remove the quote on one side of the stone, “I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness.” That is a paraphrase of a quote from the Dream speech, and some parties objected to it for that reason. It will be obliterated and the Stone reworked to remove any sign of it. Me? I believe they should just leave well enough alone, but that is just me. The MLK memorial is located on the shores of the Tidal Basin, and you get another of those iconic views, looking across the water to the Jefferson Memorial.

Last stop on Monument Day was the Lincoln Memorial. In person, it is entirely different from its photos. The pictures don’t give you any sense of how utterly it dominates the landscape. While it is nearly 100-years-old now and is in a style, neoclassical, that was out of fashion even when it was new, it somehow manages to look modern, or at least timeless. As does the statue of Lincoln, which almost seems alive. At once, his face seems to reflect both hope and despair, and both good humor and bone-crushing weariness.
I was lucky to get to see Lincoln close-up. That night a vandal, apparently a crazy homeless woman, splashed green paint over the base of the statue, and it has been closed ever since as the park service has struggled to clean it.

The Stone of Hope...
If you are doing a vacation 1960s style, you can’t stop with just hours of monuments, not hardly. We did wimp out a little bit; rather than walking back downtown we caught a cab and instructed the driver to take us to the Hard Rock Café on E Street. I know, a city full of great restaurants and silly old Unk wants Hard Rock. Well, y’all, I just like ‘em. The Carolina pulled pork sandwich I got was outstanding, and the manager, seeing I had on my Dark of the Moon t-shirt, took me aside so we could swap anecdotes about Pink Floyd.

After lunch, we decided to try a nearby attraction, the International Spy Museum. Frankly, I didn't expect much. There was a big crowd of folks waiting to get in, but the building seemed too small to possibly have much. I was wrong and happy to be wrong. There were dozens of exhibits, many of them interactive, that covered everything from Civil War Espionage to the James Bond films. There was tons of stuff from the Cold War and I just loved it.

After Dorothy and I recovered somewhat back at the hotel, we were off to dinner with Beth and Rob at a little pizza place they’d picked. Unk likes pizza of any kind, though this was considerably different from his favorite, Mellow Mushroom. The pies were decidedly upscale. I got into the spirit of the thing and ordered one with a whole-wheat crust and toppings that included truffles and figs. Who says Unk is a backwoods hillbilly? Don’t answer that, y’all; that’s what we call a “rhetorical question.”

After our huge Thursday, you’d a-thought we’d be a wreck, but Miss D. and I managed to stay awake for a few hours, watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and an HBO movie Unk really dug, Crossfire Hurricane, a documentary about the greatest rock and roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones, natch.

Friday was the last day of our big vacation, but we went out with a bang. First up was a trip to a great little breakfast joint on DuPont Circle, Afterwords, which is attached to a pretty good bookstore, Kramer Books. Unk had last been there almost 25-years before, when he went to DC to take a course on the then-new GPS system from the University Consortium for Continuing Education. Afterwords and Kramer Books were just as I remembered them—I mean exactly—which is something that always makes old Unk happy.

From there it was on to the main Smithsonian Museum so Beth and Miss Dorothy could have a look at the display of First Ladies’ gowns (Unk headed for the trains section). What did I think of the Smithsonian? It really is just what it’s called, “the nation’s attic.” It is full of stuff from clothes to toys to locomotive engines (Dr. Sheldon Cooper would love the place). Alas, I didn't find what was there overly engaging, and one whole wing was closed for renovation. I did like the exhibit on Julia Child, which looked just like it did in one of Unk’s fave films, Julie and Julia.

After the Smithsonian, Beth and D. made tracks for Anthropologie for shopping. Unk, as you might expect, elected to stay in the room. I got a latte and a blueberry scone to serve as my supper, and basically collapsed.

After breakfast Saturday at a cool little joint Beth and Rob knew, “The Coupe,” it was time for goodbyes and our flight home. Like the trip up, it wasn’t so bad. Naturally, there was the usual foolishness: we sat on the ground for 45-minutes while the aircrew waited for some piece of paperwork that was constantly on its way to the plane. I didn't care; for once, I wasn’t stressing. In the past, I’d have been worried about getting delayed and not being able to go back to work on Monday. That is one thing your old Uncle doesn't have to worry about anymore, and that is a good thing, muchachos.

Want to see all the pictures from Unk's Big Vacation? They are as close as Rod’s Facebook page.

Testing the top-secret video camera:  I intended to give the camera I hinted about in the blog the other Sunday a good workout last week. Ha! Bugs, humidity, and a fogged reducer lens I couldn’t keep clear put a right quick stop to that. I do hope to give it a checkout one day soon, and hope I’ll be able to fill y’all in on it not too long after. Stay tuned to the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South.

Next Time:  Unk's Top Herschel Objects… 

Thanks for the tour! I was last at Air & Space in August 2001, so it was very enjoyable to read your report.
Thanks, Mike!
Hey Rod, great trip. Having been to DC many times for meetings at NAVSEA, I got to see most of what you saw. Highlight of one trip was a visit to The Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility located in Suitland, Maryland. On that visit the Enola Gay was being restored and I got to touch it and talk to the folks doing the restoration. I was moved knowing it's history. Dc is a great sight seeing city!
Frank R.
The German warbirds at Udvar-Hazy are interesting as well, as they are the only survivors of their type.
Hello from Canada, Rod!
I just finished a week long "marathon" reading all your past blog entries (yes, I really did!) You are a most entertaining writer. Not only that, I learned a lot about gear, objects to view and Rebel Yell. Keep up the blog.
PS: I have (2) of your books; also great!

Wow, Doug! You deserve some kind of an award! Or at least a long vacation! :-)

Thanks for your kind words!
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