A Tree-mendous Birthday

My third son was gifted a session at Go Ape for his 11th birthday.  My oldest son had done Go Ape back in Britain for his tenth birthday but this was a first experience for the other boys.  The three older boys were eligible to do the full course under the supervision of Mr Pict and their grandfather.  My youngest son, being too wee for the full course, had a ticket to spend an hour on a junior course which my mother-in-law and I could supervise from ground level.

It was just as well I could supervise from the ground as I don’t think I could have managed even the junior course without my fear of heights causing me to go into a panic.  The staff at Go Ape were fantastic.  They were competent, of course, but they were also great with their encouragement and praise and creating challenge.  My youngest son – who is completely fearless – got the hang of the course pretty quickly so they encouraged him to try and beat his own personal record, then to do one of the routes backwards, and to try different types of jump on the zipline.  He had a whale of a time and absolutely loved it.

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Once our time was up with the junior course, we headed into the woods to track down the others and see how they were getting on.  We had seen them getting fitted into their harnesses and being trained and at that time they were all smiles and excitement.  We wondered if, almost two hours in, they were flagging or finding it was getting too challenging.  We met up with them just as they were doing the fourth stretch of the course.  They were definitely feeling challenged but were still enjoying the experience.  It made me queasy seeing how high up they were.  Shortly after we met up with them, they had a choice to make as to whether to take a difficult route over to a platform or an extreme route.  My oldest son wanted to do the extreme route which meant his father had to take a deep breath and accompany him.  They had to move between a series of short scramble nets which were dangling in the canopy of the trees.  It was pretty terrifying to watch even from ground level.  Meanwhile, our birthday boy was having an attack of nerves as he found the combination of height, wobbly platforms, and wind to be overwhelming.  It took him a while to collect himself but, with some advice and encouragement from a member of staff on the ground, he took a first step and then another and then in no time he was across to the next platform.  That experience, however, meant that once he was back on the ground, he decided he was staying there.  He was done.  So were his 12 year old brother and grandfather.  My oldest son decided he wanted to complete the course in its entirety, however, which meant one final set of challenges.  Since he had to be accompanied by an adult, that meant his father had to complete it too.  This included what my husband declared was the scariest part of the course: a just-too-long drop off of a platform to swing across onto a net.  Once they ziplined back across the lake, they too were done.

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Every member of Team Pict had challenged themselves and felt a sense of accomplishment.  Just maybe even my mother-in-law and I get to include ourselves in that since we overcame our anxiety enough to spectate and offer encouragement.  Everyone was hungry after hours spent in low temperatures in the woods, especially those who had been burning calories swinging here and there, so it was time to eat.  The birthday boy wanted to have pizza for dinner so we headed to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and had some delicious food.  Once we were home, he had his special birthday dessert, a platter of cannolis, one of his favourite things.

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Exploring History on the Delaware Coast

Having visited the Air Mobility Command Museum as our first stop, we moved further down the Delaware coast to another military history site.  This was Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen.  When we decided that we would be travelling along the Delaware coast, I thought it would be great to visit Cape Henlopen to see the lighthouse.  I have a bit of a thing for lighthouses which I have steadfastly prevented from evolving into a proper obsession (because I have enough of those).  Thankfully I thought to google it because the Cape Henlopen lighthouse fell into the sea in the 1920s.  Oops.  Bit late for that one then.  It reminded me of the time we thought to seek out the Coney Island elephant.  So no lighthouses for me but another dollop of military history instead.

Fort Miles dates from the Second World War and was built to defend America’s eastern coast against a potential German invasion.  We started exploring the site at an observation tower.  These observation towers were used to triangulate the position of any vessel that came into view and looked suspect.  Mr Pict and the boys climbed a spiral staircase inside the tower and popped out on top.  I decided to not put myself through the acrophobia to take in the views given it was mostly flat and uninteresting.  No regrets.  After a period of tree climbing, we wandered towards the shore.

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Our walk brought us past empty buildings that were once in use as barracks.  These buildings, which once housed over 2000 military personnel, had no doors so we could wander into them and have a nose around.  The low afternoon sun created interesting shadows inside many of them.  Mr Pict and the kids liked sitting on the 8 inch guns that were in the vicinity of these buildings.  We also saw a 16 inch gun which was apparently fired just the once in order to test it.  The gun we saw was not original to Fort Miles and had instead been removed from the USS Missouri.  The gun appears in famous photos of the signing of the Japanese surrender which happened on board the battleship.

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We stopped for a late lunch / early dinner in Rehoboth Beach and chose to eat in Arena’s Deli.  We had read good reviews of it and liked that it had a casual atmosphere plus the menu seemed like it would have something for everyone.  We all opted for comfort food and not so healthy options but it was our only meal of the day so we gave ourselves a pass.  Any excuse.  The food was all delicious and very well cooked and satisfied our hungry bellies for the final leg of the day’s travel.  The sun was setting as we headed towards Ocean City so we pulled over at a beach to watch the sun sink below the horizon line.  The sunset was gorgeous but what most thrilled the boys was finding horseshoe crabs on the shore line.

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After that, we checked into our hotel in Ocean City, the boys went swimming in the large hotel pool, and we headed to our beds to rest ahead of the next day’s adventures.

Air Mobility Command Museum

We decided to use the time over Thanksgiving break for a spontaneous family trip.  We found a cheap as chips hotel room in Ocean City, Maryland – because really not many people are clamoring to hang out at the coast in late November – which determined our trajectory.  We, therefore, spent the Friday following Thanksgiving moseying down the Delaware Coast.

Our first stop of the trip was at the Air Mobility Command Museum in Dover, Delaware.  Located next to Dover Air Force Base, it proved to be a vast showroom (split between a hangar and an airfield) of military aircraft.  Now, I am not someone who is into military history or militaria and nor am I interested in vehicles so this blog post is not going to be replete with technical information.  I honestly don’t think I can recall what the majority of the aircraft were even called even though I asked Mr Pict to refresh my memory yesterday.  This will, therefore, be a more impressionistic account of the time we spent there.  I will state, however, that despite my lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject, I thought the Museum itself was really excellent.  The variety of military aircraft was impressive, of course, but there was also ample information accompanying each exhibit, there was space to move around each plane, helicopter and glider, and they were not so reverential that they prevented visitors accessing all the planes.  This latter point was somewhat critical for the success of our visit since my kids tend to baulk at visiting plane and train museums that take a “look but don’t touch” attitude.  And I have not mentioned that access to the Museum is entirely free.  We gave a donation but there was no pressure to do so.

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We started in the hangar and I was able to hook the boys’ interest right away.  There was a glider on display, one side of which had been removed to reveal that it contained some sort of military road vehicle as its cargo.  The kids found this sort of aircraft autopsy interesting.  We also learned that these gliders became rather sought after following the Second World War not because of the gliders themselves but because of the crates they were shipped in.  People would build houses from the disassembled crates.

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War II plane.  They knew about ball turret gunners and their perilous placement on war planes but seeing one up close actually drove home the vulnerability of the poor gunner.  They were even able to peer inside and see how terribly cramped the space was.  A separate replica demonstrated, through use of a dummy, how the gunner would have been positioned inside the ball turret, tucked up like a fetus in a mechanical womb.  It made me vividly recollect Randall Jarrell’s poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and I felt very squeamish just thinking about the intense claustrophobia let alone the imminent danger.

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We saw simulators and training aircraft, mid-air refuelling vehicles, fighter jets, and helicopters – including a Huey which even I could identify – and a machine for making dog tags, which was somehow both fascinating and poignant.  The boys especially enjoyed the airfield exhibits, however, because they had space to roam and even run.  Best of all, however, was the fact that several of the aircraft were open to visitors meaning they could actually clamber aboard and experience the interior of the planes.  Having seen the troop seating with all the webbing on the interior walls in movies and documentaries, it was interesting to be able to experience something of its discomfort for ourselves.  It was also interesting to see how cargo would be stacked up inside planes and to learn about the incredible capacity of some planes, including one that could fit several fully assembled Hueys.  A tour guide demonstrated how strips in the floor could be flipped so that regular passenger seating could be clipped into place.  The boys also got to clamber around inside a Hercules (see: I know the name of that one) and sit in the cockpit.

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Military museums always have to go a long way to win me over because, as stated above, I really have pretty much no interest in the subject of military history.  As I possess only very general knowledge of military transport, I admit to having had low expectations of this one.  But win me over it did.  It was accessible, provided information that worked as an “idiot’s guide” for the uninformed (me), spacious enough that we never remotely felt harassed or harried by the presence of others, offered variety, and allowed the kids to actually engage with what they were looking at.  It was a really good museum and was a great start to our trip.

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Mother’s Day Weekend at Hagley Museum

It was Mother’s Day weekend this past weekend in the US – UK Mother’s Day having happened in March – and it was a busy time in the Pict household.

On Saturday, Mr Pict and the three older Pictlings headed into the city to go to the Wizard World Comic Con.  They had a whale of a time.  They went to talks with the actor Michael Rooker and Stephen Amell – my 9 year old is a massive fan of ‘Arrow’ – and James and Oliver Phelps who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies.  They enjoyed all of the talks but found  the last one to be the most engaging and entertaining.  They also went to a talk and demonstration given by the creative geniuses at Weta.  Mr Pict and the kids are huge fans of the Lord of the Rings movies so they were in awe of seeing some of the costumes and armour demonstrated and learning a bit more about the processes involved.  They also visited various stalls and technology demonstrations, played some old school arcade games and took in all the sights and scenes of the visitors in their costumes.  Mr Pict geeked out when he got his photo taken with a chap who was dressed in a completely authentic looking Predator costume.

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While they were geeking out, meanwhile, our youngest son and I were supposed to be going to a zoo and then out for dinner.  But the car battery was dead as a dodo and when I called roadside assistance I found that we had exceeded the number of free call outs we were apparently permitted.  Aggravating.  So we decided to make our own fun at home.  We went to the play park, walked through the woods, baked brownies, painted, watched a movie and baked brownies.

Mother’s Day itself began with a breakfast in bed of patisserie and fruit juice and then gifts and cards.  My kids being the geek children of geek parents, my gifts were all pretty geeky.  They had bought me a set of Walking Dead custom lego at Comic Con and a cuddly xenomorph from the Alien movies.  After being stuck at home the day before, I wanted to go on a day trip so we headed across the border to Delaware so that the boys could claim a new state.  Our rules for collecting a state are that two of three things have to be done: eat, pee or sleep.  I had managed to claim Delaware back in 1995 only by virtue of having consumed a milkshake and falling asleep in the car so really this was my first really proper visit to Delaware rather than just passing through.

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Our destination for the day was Hagley Museum which is on the shore of the Brandywine River.  It is the site of the original black powder works founded by Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours in 1802.  He chose the site because the river would enable him to harness the power generated by water wheels.  Du Pont is significant in this area’s industrial and economic history so it seemed appropriate to learn a bit more about the company.  Furthermore, my direct ancestor Joseph Scrine was a black powder manufacturer in London in the nineteenth century so I was keen to learn more about the process for that reason.

We began inside the museum, housed inside what had originally been a cotton mill.   We learned about the history of the company’s foundation.  Du Pont, realising that American gunpowder was inferior because of a substandard milling process, spotted an opportunity in the market.  We learned that he had selected the site because of the access to water for power but also the use of the river for transportation  of resources and ingredients, the abundance of willow trees to turn into charcoal as part of the process and nearby stone quarries for building the mills.  Another gallery in the museum housed a large hooked rug crafted by a member of the family depicting the history of the Du Pont family through visual symbolism.  My 8 year old had fun spotting the skunk, which was some sort of family in-joke.  The final floor of the museum told the story of Du Pont’s pioneering work in scientific discovery.  Essentially if you can name a polymer it was probably invented by the scientists at Du Pont: nylon, neoprene, teflon and lycra were just a handful of those featured in the exhibition.  For the kids, this was the most engaging bit of the museum as there were more hands on things for them to do.  They could climb inside a space suit, pretend to drive a nascar rally car, look through microscopes at slides comparing natural materials to the synthetic versions created by Du Pont and investigate various subjects on touch screen computers.

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We had been told that the family’s Georgian mansion, on the banks of the river a short distance further on from the powder works, was closed for renovation of its heating system.  We decided early on, therefore, not to trudge all the way to see the house and gardens as we could always return to focus on those another time.  Instead we decided to concentrate on the industrial buildings and take a gentle amble along the tree-lined river bank to see them.

Back home in Scotland, my boys had loved playing among ruined castles, tumble down chapels and standing stones so we thought they would enjoy exploring the ruined powder work buildings as we reached each in turn.  For the most part they did.  They particularly liked scrambling through small tunnels in the building’s foundations and guddling about on the banks of the river.  There was, however, a fair bit of griping and moaning.  It was another one of those days where the kids were tag-team whinging.  Rare was the moment when all four were happy as clams at the same time.  I, however, was determined to enjoy every moment of the trip and Mr Pict and I found the whole trip to be engaging because of the interesting history and also because it was a scenic and peaceful walk  – if we ignored the thrum of child moaning.

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Some of the buildings housed artifacts so we could see the milling equipment, line shafts, methods of sorting the powder into different sized pieces and even guddle around with a model water turbine.  A highlight of the trip was seeing a sixteen foot water wheel in action.

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We walked back on the other side of the canal so that the kids could just run around a bit more freely without us stopping to “educate” them at every stop.  They found a ruined powder store that they turned into a stage.  Our 9 year old noticed a circular pile of ramshackle bricks and immediately transformed himself into the Iron-Man Hulkbuster from the current Avengers sequel.  They also did the Karate Kid crane move, did shadow boxing and tried to run up the walls.  It was handy way to get everyone to burn off some energy and everyone’s mood was finally in synch and positive.  Then they found a fuzzy caterpillar, named it Special and starting pleading to be permitted to take it home with us.  Repeatedly told no, the happy vibes got grumpy again.  Sigh.

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Towards the end of our walk we passed the spot where a building had blown up in 1920 killing five workers.  We could see the remains of the obliterated buildings and the kids enjoyed exploring a piece of metal equipment that had been smashed to smithereens.  It was a useful reminder for the kids to see how dangerous the work at the powder mills could be and to comprehend the power of gunpowder generally.

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Despite kid grumblings, our trip to Hagley Museum was a great day out.  I would definitely recommend a visit and I am sure we will be back, especially given that we did not manage to see the house and gardens.

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