Saturday, August 29, 2009

I just came back from watching the shuttle Discovery liftoff and am just as amazed as I was the first time I saw a launch in person. This is one of the few advantages of living in Florida. I live 90 miles south of Kennedy Space Center and have only missed two launches in the 14 years I've been here. Night launches are a special experience themselves.

This time I decided to head right down to the ocean side beach to watch the launch. I was pleasantly surprised to find a good sized crowd had gathered by ten minuets before liftoff.

Well, I was happy with most of those present. Here we were, on a beautiful Atlantic beat close to midnight with the moon streaming its way through a thin veil of clouds left over from a stormy day with open pockets of clear sky sparkling with stars. There were idiots with flashlights! What kind of moron takes a midnight stroll on the beach with a goddamn flashlight?! Slack-jawed tourists without an ounce of romanticism in their blood; that's who! There was one little pre-teen toe head who came close to getting his flashlight embedded somewhere very uncomfortable if he hadn't stopped his lighthouse impression; continually spinning in a circle which brough his AA beacon aimed right into my eyes every 15 seconds.

I ignored the gathering rabble and stepped closer to the water's edge. With the warm wind blowing, the roar of the waves and the smell of the ocean my thoughts went to Ted Kennedy. Somehow, it seemed the right place to be today to watch the launch. I had been thinking over the past few days how much I wanted to be back home. To be able to pay my respects at the Kennedy Library. Even more, the thoughts of the road not taken and how other choices in my life would have put me at the funeral in DC.

The ocean always makes me homesick. When I was growing up I felt as if the ocean was mine. From my bedroom window I could see the water. The seawall at Oakland Beach was my refuge. Whenever I needed a place to go to clear my head or to sort through my thoughts, I went to the water. Beach sand frozen solid in February or soft and warm in August I would go anytime. I closed my eyes and, for a moment, I could imagine myself standing on the rock jutting into Buttonwoods Cove.

And then that little bastard started playing lighthouse again!

Liftoff was closing in and I was inspired to share the moment with someone. I called my friend Bismo and caught him as he was just racing in his door to turn on his TV. He out his phone on speaker and cranked the volume on his TV so he had as close a feeling to being there as he could all the way from New England. I could hear the commentator count off the seconds and announce, "We have ignition!" But I really didn't need him to know that.

At the very edge of the horizon it looked as if the sun were coming up. The clouds just over the cape began to glow as they reflected the light from the shuttle engines. It got brighter and brighter until the golden streak of the shuttle itself began to rise. Like a bright torch being carried across the sky the bright glow streamed up and to the east.

Still brilliantly strong and clearly visible for longer than I've seen any launch. The longer I could see it, the more adrenalin I could feel entering my blood stream and my breath shortened. On the other end of the phone the coverage on Bismo's TV ended so I continued play by play for him. The glow against the clouds continued until the shuttle left the atmosphere. As if I were watching a close up image, I could see the boosters fall away as the shuttle continued further away. Then the shuttle became a bright star in the night sky.

And then it was gone.

The tourists left. The snot nosed living lighthouse returned to his dad's vacation condo. The roar of the waves returned and the beach was mine again.

The only way this experience could have been better would have been to actually be on board the shuttle itself. I stayed on the beach a while longer talking with Bismo. Not to bad a way to spend an evening.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I remember the first moment I ever met Red Barrows. It was also the first time I met their family dog, Franco. I'm not sure which one scared me more.

Harry Barrows was a friend of mine in high school. We both belonged to the chorus and eventually came the time for me to visit his house for the first time. We walked through the door and I immediately heard a bellowing bark of his dog Franco and the sound of it made me freeze in my tracks. I sounded like a cross between an angry bison and a very hungry bear.

And then I saw him.

Franco was a German Shepard but he looked as if he had some hidden Great Dane or horse DNA. And then one or two sniffs and a scratch behind the ears and he was my best friend. Every time I entered the Barrows home I was welcomed by Franco like one of the family.

Red was just like that.

As I made my first introductions to Franco and learned he wouldn't chew my head off I heard Red bark from his corner in the living room. Hunkered down in his chair in the corner he looked like a well dressed Gollum in a flannel shirt with his craggy face with pointed chin and beady eyes glaring in my direction.

And then I heard him.

"Close the goddamn door before the dog gets out!"

But, just like Franco, once we got to know each other he always welcomed me like a member of the family. In many ways he filled some fatherly position in my life after my father died. I had grown closer to Harry but I probably called on Red for assistance when my car broke down as often as I called Harry and he was always there for me. He always helped me but I can also see him shaking his head at me at the same time in that fatherly, "I love you but you're an idiot" kind of way. Every time I looked deep in those beady eyes I saw love and respect.

Last week Red passed away. Just a few years ago I stood with him and Harry in a cold November wind at Ma Barrow's grave. Just like then my financial situation kept me away from a funeral. Harry always says its nothing I have to worry about and I know that all the years of friendship make up for not being at some silly service. I also know that I will make it to that cemetery again and pay my respects to Red. But it will never be the same; it is as if I missed my own parent's funeral. I will, however, always have my memories of Red.

My favorite story is one about Red and my father. They were both police officers in neighboring jurisdictions. There was a city park which, to get to, you had to go through part of the neighboring town. They would meet together and patrol the park. This was in the days of the land cruiser car made of steel which weighed as much as a tank. One evening, Red and my dad found one of these tanks parked off the road. A convertible with its top down and various pieces of clothing draped over the fenders and trunk. The occupants were hunkered down deep in the back seat deeply involved with each other.

Red and my dad crept up on the car, one on either side coming up on the rear fenders. In silence, they removed the clothing from the car. One of them kneeled down and took out his large steel cased flashlights and pulled them back ready to swing. The other returned to the patrol car with his hand at the ready on the switch for the lights and siren

On the count of three they let loose; banging loudly on the fender as the siren wailed and emergency lights flashed. Red would howl telling the story, "The two heads popped up looking like they just had the shit scared out of them! They jumped around, half naked looking for their clothes! I never saw two people get dressed so quick in my life!"

I will miss Red. I don't believe in heaven but I do like the romantic image of Red and my dad laughing together again like they did that night.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009