Battleship Sleepover

A couple of weekends ago, my two youngest children got to experience sleeping on board the USS New Jersey.  It wasn’t that I had tired of their antics and decided to ship them out to learn some military discipline; it was an event with their Scout troop.  I did not actually go with them.  I happily and wholeheartedly volunteered to stay home with the older two boys.  In the past, I have spent the night in a historic prison and an abandoned farming township but this time I felt that Mr Pict should have the sleepover experience.  This was not just because I wanted to stay home cosy in my jammies but also because I would have been the only mother on the trip and – quite frankly – because I did not fancy trying to sleep in a situation where I felt uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

The USS New Jersey is a battleship with a long and interesting history – well, interesting if you like military history which I don’t but which Mr Pict does (another reason why he was just the parent for the job).  It was launched in 1942 and not completely decommissioned until the early 1990s so it saw action in World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.  I really cannot accurately relate any of its detailed history, however, as I was not on the tour and – though I did listen to my husband’s report – I did not absorb and retain the information.  That’s what Wikipedia is for.

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The USS New Jersey became a museum ship in 2001 and is permanently docked in Camden, New Jersey.  It can be visited during the day by members of the public but getting to stay overnight was only possible because of the kids being Scouts.  Soon after they arrived, the troop was taken on a guided tour by knowledgeable volunteers.  They got to see a wide variety of spaces on board the ship and learn about the different eras of its history.  Our youngest son even got to sit in the Captain’s chair, a position he apparently rather enjoyed.  After the tour, the group dined in the mess area.  My kids are cheese snobs so were not impressed by the box mac’n’cheese on offer but having to eat food you don’t necessarily love probably added to the whole naval experience.  They were lucky they didn’t get hard tack.  Their bunks for the night were the exact same bunks the navy personnel would have slept on when the battleship was active.  The photos of the kids slotted into the narrow beds made me feel queasy so I was very glad that we had made the choice to have Mr Pict act as chaperone.

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After breakfast the next morning, they got to have a daylight wander around the ship, look at the Philadelphia skyline from the vantage point of the deck, and then it was time to head home.  As lukewarm as I a about military history, I think it’s a pretty cool thing for them to be able to say that the slept overnight on a battleship.

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Of Sharks and Super Bowls

We Picts had a very busy weekend: on Saturday we went to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, and yesterday we watched the Super Bowl – a first for the kids and I.

It was a very breezy and very chilly journey across the Delaware into New Jersey – with ice forming on the river – so we were all very glad to get through the doors of the Aquarium and into the galleries.  It has been a while since most of us visited an aquarium (Deep Sea World in North Queensferry, Fife, back in April 2012) but our 9 year old visited the Adventure Aquarium last year on a school trip and had been eager for the rest of us to see it.  I cannot say that it represented good value for money because, quite frankly, what aquarium ever is?  Along with zoos, they are always startlingly expensive for family days out.  That is one of the reasons why our visits to them are so few and far between.  However, this was a really very good aquarium and we really enjoyed our time there.

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We started off our trip with the stingray pool.  We were allowed to stick our hands into the water and feel the rays as they swam past, their wings flapping in and out of the surface.  The kids were absolutely delighted and loved experiencing the texture of the rays, enjoyed their splashing, found their smile-like expressions charming.  The little rays sped around the tank and had to be touched and petted as they darted past but the large rays – including one patterned like a leopard – were slower and were, as a result, more interactive when they approached the children.

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We had pre-booked a slot in the 4D cinema so that was where we headed next.  Normally we would not add on anything extra on top of such an expensive day out but our second grader is learning about dinosaurs at school at present so we splurged on some tickets to see a show about prehistoric sea creatures.  It was a particularly high quality 4D show.  There were puffs of air and splashes of water to co-ordinate with the film, of course, but what really made it so impressive was the rendering of the visuals and the educational content.  It followed the story of a trio of primitive dolphins – mother, daughter and son – based on the fossil record and showed their interaction with their environment and other creatures in their ecosystem.  The 3D elements were really well handled too which made it entertaining as well as absorbing.

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After the obligatory pretzel break, we wandered into the hippo area.  I have never seen hippos in an aquarium before so that was entirely new and it was interesting to see how they responded to a more aquatic environment having mainly seen them in primarily land based enclosures in zoos.  How they behaved was to laze around in the water.  One was entirely submerged, just raising its nostrils out of the water for long enough to take a breath, and the other was floating just on the surface.  We could view them from above the surface level and also descend some steps so that we could see into the tank below the water level.  Doing so enabled us to see all the fish who were nibbling at the hippos, giving them a clean up.  I wish they had been a bit more active – secretly I had hoped for a synchronised swimming routine – but it was completely cool to see them.

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Next up were jellyfish.  I have a thing for jellyfish as I find them very aesthetically pleasing and also very hypnotic to watch.  I actually draw jellyfish quite often because I find them so appealing.  Of course, I have never been stung by one.  That might change my view.  I could have stood watching the jellies in their tanks for ages but Mr Pict and the kids had moved on long before me and I had to catch up with them.  There were also tanks containing nautilises (nautilii?) and these armoured beasties that looked like giant slaters (woodlice) which were cool.  There was also an octopus who had his tentacles and their suckers pressed up against the glass so we could see how they rippled and moved.  His body was wrapped around a lidded jar.  Knowing that octopii are smart and enjoy problem-solving activities, I expect he had been given the jar to open as a stimulating exercise.  I should have a pet octopus so that he can provide assistance any time I cannot get a jar open.

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The major feature of the aquarium is a massive shark tank.  It is absolutely teeming with sharks of several varieties.  Mr Pict was initially huffing about hammerheads having been used in the advertising but not being in evidence but then an adult and a juvenile hammerhead glided past and he was proven wrong.  I think he wanted to adopt the baby one.  There were also fish and two large turtles in the tank.  There was a short tunnel that led through the tank and allowed us to see sharks swimming over the top of us but better than that were just the huge glass walls where we could stand, transfixed, watching all of the sharks swimming around.  Whereas other aquariums we have been to had several small windows for spectators to peek through, the scale of the tank windows meant that not only could dozens of people view at the same time but that we could study the same shark moving for longer rather than just catching a glimpse of it as it drifted past a smaller aperture.  It was definitely the best shark tank I have seen.

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Another area contained tanks filled with varieties of turtles and other reptiles.  The animals were all very active and we enjoyed seeing them moving around and interacting with each other.  There were also two massive alligators, one of whom was underwater and one standing on a platform out of the water.  The underwater one was right up against the glass so the kids could get up really close to it and study the detail of its skin, claws, eyes and teeth which was a pretty cool opportunity, especially so soon after seeing some alligators in the wild.  We also saw some really big lobsters, different varieties from the ones we normally see in tanks in supermarkets and restaurants.  From conversations my kids have had with the fishmongers in stores, they knew that these lobsters had to be pretty advanced in age.  There was also a tank containing seahorses.  I defy anyone to not love seahorses.  They are so peculiar, so delicate, so pretty and so adorable that it is impossible not to find them compelling and magical.  We watched transfixed as their little translucent fins vibrated to propel them from one piece of seaweed to the other, as their spiral tails grabbed and wound around the weeds as anchors and as they dangled, sometimes upside down, in the water.  Completely gorgeous.

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Another touchy-feely tank provided the boys with the opportunity to interact with small sharks (dogfish) and horseshoe crabs.  The boys got a bit irritated that the sharks were determined to loiter in the middle of the tank.  They tried to think about what might tempt the sharks to come towards the side of the tank, inspire them to quit malingering, but I am sure those sharks are used to every trick in the book.  They did not budge.  So the kids had to content themselves with touching the horseshoe crabs who, unlike their shark chums, seemed to enjoy scuttling around the circumference of the tank.  They are fascinating creatures.  Living fossils.  Their carapace is like a shield and then underneath they are full of bits and pieces.  It is like lifting the cover off of a sleek electronic device and seeing all of the messy components underneath.  They are local to the Mid Atlantic shore so I would love to encounter them in the wild some time.

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There was a final touch and feel tank on the top floor of the aquarium.  This one contained mainly invertebrates.  My 9 year old had been raving about sea apples since his school trip visit so his brothers loved finally being able to feel one for themselves.  It was more velvety than an anemone but still had that gelatinous quality to it.  The sea apple and the other sea cucumbers that formed part of the tank display were all very attractive, with bright colours and vivid patterns.  There were also shrimp and fish in the tank and our 7 year old was delighted when a fish swam onto his submerged hand and had a bit of an exploratory nibble at him.  In a separate tank, there was also a very large, powerful looking blue lobster that the kids could touch, as he had his claws banded, and another tank containing a type of lobster than just looks like a lobster tail.  Interesting evolutionary choice, to look like your cousin’s butt.  Must work though.  There was also a tank filled with scorpion fish.

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Our trip finished with amphibians.  We saw Surinam toads which are entirely weird specimens and not very bonnie.  They look as if they have been hit with a mallet and then, of course, there is the fact that the young toadlets burst out of the skin of their mother’s backs.  I have given birth in different ways, none of them genteel or relaxing, but I am glad I was spared the fate of the Surinam toad.  There were also tanks containing large frogs with bulging eyes, bright green tree frogs, tanks of brightly coloured poison dart frogs and a tank containing a bright red frog so tiny he could have fitted on a grain of rice.  Isn’t the diversity of nature just incredible?  And there were axolotl which I love partly because they are such complete weirdos and partly because I just love the word axolotl.

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While Saturday was all about going somewhere new, yesterday was all about trying something new.  The boys and I have never watched the Super Bowl so we decided to make an attempt on an American tradition.  I don’t like sport of any kind and – some Olympic events withstanding – never watch sport on the telly and it looks like our sons take after me in that regard rather than after my husband.  Nevertheless, we decided to suck it up for the sake of experiencing another slice of Americana.  For us it was all about the food.  I conducted some research among my American friends on Facebook and decided that traditional Super Bowl fare would include things like hot dogs, chips and dips and wings.  I actually made the hot dogs for lunch, except my 9 year old and I don’t eat hot dogs so we had off-theme vegetable samosas.  However, at some point during the first half of the game, our Super Bowl feast was ready to be devoured and it did indeed include chicken pieces tortilla chips and various dips.  Our telly is in the living room and I was nervous about letting the kids picnic in a carpeted room, especially given that they were drinking root beer as a treat, so warned and nagged them to be careful.  In the end, however, it was me who caused a cleaning commotion as I knocked over a bottle of beer.  Thus my kids were given the opportunity to evidence that they understood the word “irony”.

I was made to understood that part of the tradition was to watch the half-time show and commercials, that even people who stay away from the game emerge from other rooms to gather around the goggle box to watch the adverts.  I think maybe in my mind it had,  therefore, been built up to be a bigger attraction than it turned out to be.  I was underwhelmed.  I think also that I do not watch enough TV (and even when I do it tends to be streamed) so I am not familiar enough with the brands to “get” the gist of the advert or spot a recurring theme or understand an allusion.  I cannot even recall the majority of the adverts.  I know that there was an awkward Fiat advert involving a viagra pill which was witty but also challenging to explain to a gang of small children looking for an interpretation (“It’s a medicine that increases blood flow in parts of the body so it has made the car strong”.  Explanation thankfully accepted) and there was one from an insurance company I think that was all about childhood disease and death.  Bit of a buzzkill for a mob of small boys high on root beer and munching on chicken goujons.  None of us are Katy Perry fans, not at all, but I have to admit that the half time musical turn was watchable (maybe less listenable) for all its well-choreographed razzmatazz.

So that was the food and the entertainment.  As to the game …. well, it was a sports match involving kicking and throwing a ball about and trying to get more points than the other team.  I don’t understand the rules and nor did I care to engage enough to learn the rules.  My husband was able to explain to the kids that X was a good throw and Y was a bad tackle but it was all Greek to me.  Except even I could tell that it was a bad decision, in the closing minutes, for the Seahawks player to attempt a glory touchdown instead of passing off the ball.  And if even I can tell that then you can be assured it was a really terrible decision to make that play.  So I have watched a Super Bowl.  I can tick that tradition off my list now.  Done it.  I think that may have been not only my first Super Bowl but also my last.