Washington DC: Day 2

Sleep. Normally I get about 5 hours a nice, maybe 5. It is my standard running number. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. On vacation, however, I can usually manage more. 7.

The goal for the day was simple. Find breakfast. Go to the National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Visit a grocery store for some food for the week.

Being the first non-travel day, we were slow to rise and get moving. So breakfast almost became lunch, until we found an IHOP. I got lunch anyway.

We arrived at the Udvar-Hazy Center and it was closed. Not really, but apparently Google Maps likes leading people to the entrance that is restricted to staff only on the weekends. So we had to call the museum to get better directions to the correct entrance.

The museum is amazing, wall to wall and floor to extremely high ceiling with flying machines. Planes and helicopters and balloons… and space.

I’ve seen in TV and movies, read in books, people who repress or for other reasons have a delayed reaction to things. In 1986, when I was 11 years old, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch. Perhaps because I was too young, or perhaps because I didn’t really understand death, or maybe because of the manner in which the news was unfolded to me, as a child I didn’t react to the news.

When it happened, our school was supposed to gather for assembly and watch it together, but for whatever reason they decided it was too much trouble or something, and we just had a normal day. The launch came during lunch and recess for my class. While we were on the playground, my teacher was with some of the other teachers who also had the same lunch and recess periods in the teachers’ lounge watching the launch. We returned from recess and Mr. Strykowsky sat at his desk, unusually quiet. The normally boisterous man who was always joking and laughing sat, his hands folded on the desk in front of him, staring blankly into the middle distance.

Kids, at least at that time, loved space. And with Christa McAuliffe on board, it was doubly so. You might dream of being an astronaut, but doing that is a long road with very few people making it. But Christa was a teacher who made an end run around the usual program. A back door into space. We were all excited about a regular person making it onto the shuttle.

One of the other kids asked how the launch went. “It blew up.” It was all he said. Because he was the type to joke around, I don’t think any of us really believed him. It didn’t become real until I got home and there was nothing else on television, the footage replayed on a near constant loop. But I was detached. I didn’t cry or even really feel it.

The Wife and I talked about photos while we ate at IHOP. We laughed as we came up with the idea of taking photos of very large things from far away while one of us was standing next to the object. Imagine a photo of “Jason at the Washington Monument” and it’s a photos of the full height monument, and at the bottom is a little spec with a red shirt – me.

There is a high walkway in the Udvar-Hazy, equivalent to a third floor. From this walkway you can look down the hall toward the Space Shuttle Discovery, its nose pointed right at you. The Wife waited up on this walkway while I headed down to stand next to the shuttle, to be the little red dot.

As I made my way down the hall, the shuttle loomed before me, growing in size as I approached. I passed people stopping to take photos, themselves large in the frame with the shuttle small in the background. I’m over a hundred feet away and my vision begins to blur. I rub my eyes and my hands come away wet. As I get closer, tears begin to roll. When I get to the shuttle it is undeniable, I am crying. And I can’t seem to stop.

I walk away from the shuttle and climb the stairs to meet up with The Wife. When I get to the top I’ve gotten control of myself and we finish touring the airplanes. When we return to the space wing, the feelings still well up, but they don’t explode out of me again.

We picked a good day to be here… well, picked is a strong work, lucked would be better. The United States Navy Band Commodores were giving a free concert in the hanger. It was lovely.

Then we went to Wal-Mart. Every vacation has to have its less than glorious moments.

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