Kennedy Space Center

Would you like to know how to completely undermine the benefits of a relaxing Caribbean cruise and transform quality family time into snarling conflict?  Then do read on.

By mid-morning we had disembarked in Miami and bid farewell to my in-laws (who were travelling on to Mexico to visit family).  We had a whole two days of driving ahead of us with an overnight stay in Savannah.  With a bit of time to play with on the first day of travel, we had the option of either exploring Savannah (which I have not visited since 1998) or stopping off somewhere in Florida.  As you will no doubt guess, I was rooting for Savannah.  However, acknowledging it was going to be dark and everyone tired by the time we got there, I let Mr Pict have his choice: the Kennedy Space Center.

Mr Pict loves outer space stuff – he was an avid amatueur astronomer for a while – but it doesn’t do much for me.  Physics and engineering generally don’t do much for me.  However, I drag him around art galleries and cemeteries so it’s all about give and take.  Convincing the kids that we should support Dad in having his day was a whole other thing though.  Maybe it was a week of over-indulgence and burning the candle at both ends or of too much freedom.  Maybe they were all just crabbit and at peak t(w)een griping.  Whatever the cause of their resistance, they just were not having it.  With the exception of the youngest, they made it clear they were begrudging every single minute of the time spent there.  We have made this mistake before, pushing for just one more activity or experience on a vacation and then regretting it.  We should have known better.

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Having a sense of which way the wind was blowing, I advised Mr Pict to prioritise what things he really wanted to see.  We, therefore, decided to start with the tour of actual NASA buildings and lined up for the bus.  When I was last at the Space Center, almost exactly 20 years earlier, it essentially comprised just this tour, an IMAX theatre and some rockets.  Now the Visitor Complex is so vast that the tour seems almost tacked on as a sideshow.  The queue for the bus was constantly moving but it took ages for us to get to the head of the line.  The bus tour took us past the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the scale of which can only really be appreciated by seeing it in real life, but what I was most excited about was seeing a large alligator in the road’s meridian.  We were deposited within a building that contained a launch command centre complete with a reenactment of the Apollo 8 launch.  There was then a large exhibition hall containing various vehicles, including a lunar rover, a Saturn V rocket, some kind of landing module, and spacesuits.

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Upon returning the visitor complex, Mr Pict decided that we should next go into the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit.  Our oldest son utilised the fact he was still feeling unwell to opt out so we found him a shady waiting area while they rest of us went in.  The line was extremely long and very tedious.  We were standing in line for 45 minutes just to enter a room where we had to stand and watch an audio-visual presentation before being herded into another room in which we had to stand and walk.  This room at least contained an actual Atlantis Shuttle.  We then discovered that the line for the Atlantis experience was going to be another 40 minutes with the experience itself lasting half an hour.  Honestly, I was done standing and queuing but I also did not want to leave my oldest son alone any longer – plus I get queasy in simulators – so I declared I was just going to head for the exit.  That was the cue for the other three boys to declare they were over it too.  Even Mr Pict had to admit that the thought of joining yet another queue just for this one ruddy experience was a despairing one.  He quit too.

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Back in the sunshine, we had a look around and every exhibition area was in the same situation with crazily long lines and ridiculous wait times.  The kids were very moody by this point.  Making our next move wa s like handling a basket of cobras.  Additionally, we knew we still had a few hours in the car before reaching Savannah and rest ahead of us.  It was time to quit while we were less behind.  The Space Center feels like it has expanded to be a Disney or Universal style attraction but without the mechanics to handle the crowd dynamics or to at least keep people entertained and motivated while they stand in lengthy lines.  It was a bum note to end on after our cruise vacation.  Emotional eating is not healthy but sometimes good food is the cure.  Therefore, we found a barbecue joint in Titusville for our dinner pit stop.  Happily some delicious food helped raise everyone’s spirits.

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Meeting the Ancestors in Prison

The second and final leg of my birthday trip involved a cemetery.  This will come as no surprise to those who have known me a long time or who have been following this blog for a while.  I love cemeteries of any kind, from poky wee family plots to provincial church graveyards to massive municipal burial grounds.  I am also a family history nerd and this trip combined both of these passions.

Mr Pict is a dual US/UK national (well, we all are now but he has been one from birth) and he has branches of his family that go all the way back to early colonial times, including Mayflower passengers, and a branch that goes back to 16th Century Switzerland.  This latter family, the Stricklers, were Mennonites who were forced to flee Switzerland because of their religious beliefs (Mr Pict’s 10x Great-Grandfather is known as “Conrad the Persecuted”) and they eventually found their way to Pennsylvania in the early 18th Century.  Back in August, I had used a family trip to Buffalo as an excuse to drag the extended family around three cemeteries to “meet” direct line Strickler ancestors.  This time, however, we were seeking to meet ancestors from two generations even further back, including the first Strickler – another Conrad – to emigrate to America.

The weird thing about this cemetery – which is named the Strickler-Miller Cemetery – is that it stands in the grounds of the York County Prison.  It is outside the walls and the barbed wire but is nevertheless plonked so adjacent to the prison facility that we were always in sight of guard towers in what presumably is an exercise yard.  The prison stands on land that my husband’s ancestors once owned and farmed in centuries past so it makes sense that the burial plot is where it is but nevertheless it was a very peculiar feeling to be pootling around a cemetery in the shadow of a prison.

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While we had experienced so much success in locating graves in Buffalo, we were much less successful in our explorations in this cemetery – despite it being vastly smaller than those cemeteries.  The issue was the age of the graves we were looking for.  My husband’s 6x Great-Grandfather died in 1771.  I was looking for a small and worn field stone and saw a couple that might be right but could also be entirely wrong.  We did, however, find several collateral ancestors and finally – after much viewing of the eroded transcription from different angles – we found the grave of Mr Pict’s 5x Great-Grandfather, Johannes Strickler, who died in 1795.  We were in pursuit of his wife Elizabeth’s grave when we were thwarted in an unexpected way.

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We were methodically wandering up and down the rows of wonky grave markers when a corrections officer drove down the road from the prison to the cemetery, rolled down his window, and ordered us to leave.  We tried to explain why we were in the cemetery but he was having absolutely none of it.  I could have either argued the toss or asked if we could speak to the governor to ask permission, as nothing I had read indicated that we were not allowed to be there.  However, I was not about to argue with an armed man in any circumstances.  Furthermore, the kids were complaining of being cold (the wind chill had picked up), one had accidentally whacked another in the face with his sleeve, and I had twisted my ankle by falling down a grass covered groundhog hole.  It was time to accept defeat and depart of our own accord before we were escorted back to the main road.

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It, therefore, was not a wholly successful cemetery trip but the kids were happy to have the prison guard anecdote to share with their classmates on Monday morning.  It’s a risky business being a nerd sometimes.

 

 

Canandaigua Lake

We recently spent a few days in upstate New York visiting with extended family of Mr Pict’s while his parents were also in the country.  The couple with whom we were staying own a boat so – on our first full day there – we were treated to a trip out on Canandaigua Lake.  Canandaigua is one of New York’s eleven finger lakes.  I learned it was 16 miles long and 1 mile wide (hence the “finger”) and was about 130 feet deep on average – but sinking to 276 feet at its deepest point.  Humphrey Bogart used to vacation at Canandaigua so it’s an upscale kind of place.  We saw plenty of incredible properties lining the shore as we headed out on the boat, some of which had their own funicular systems for getting down the steep hillside to the water’s edge.

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Our kids had never been on a powerboat before so this was a first time experience for them.  They were unsure of the motion of the boat, especially when it slammed into and crested the wakes of other marine vehicles.  They were especially not enjoying the motion when Mr Pict was given a turn at driving the boat.  What they absolutely loved, however, was getting to tube.  A large inflatable was launched into the water and pulled behind the boat with the Pictlings (and sometimes their dad) clinging on.  There were zero complaints about the motion then.  They were grinning and laughing the whole time as they were flung around on the tube.  At first they were tentative and asked that the speed be kept to a minimum but soon they were using their hand signals to request higher speeds.  Our youngest, who had been the most reticent to clamber on to the tube, didn’t even bat an eyelid when he and his father were pitched off the tube and into the lake.

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After a few hours out on the lake, we pulled into one of the marinas and enjoyed an evening meal at one of the bars there.  We felt like we were really getting to experience a little sliver of life as part of the boating set.  I think our kids might be wanting a boat now.

Longwood Gardens

It was our 22nd Wedding Anniversary last week and  – as our children happened to be gallivanting with their grandparent for a few days – we could celebrate the occasion as a couple.  Unfortunately, I was still recovering from my oral surgery – a complication having caused me two weeks of excruciating and ceaseless neuralgic pain – which slightly put the damper on things and certainly reduced my ability to enjoy a meal out on the actual day.  However, eight days into my recovery, I felt well enough to venture out for the evening.  We opted for a visit to Longwood Gardens, having never been before and knowing that our children might not have the required patience for a visit to formal gardens.

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Longwood Gardens developed from a site that had been farmed and turned into an arboretum in the 18th Century.  When, at the dawn of the 20th Century, the trees of the arboretum were at risk from being chopped down for lumber, the super-wealthy businessman Pierre du Pont stepped in to save the trees by purchasing the entire property.  The site then developed into the formal gardens that exist today.  It is spread across over a thousand acres so there is a massive amount to see – too much for us as it turned out.

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I am not much of a gardener at all and my knowledge of flowers, plants and trees is pretty limited.  However, I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of plants and I certainly like garden features, such as fountains and sculptures.  I, therefore, thoroughly enjoyed wandering along the pathways at Longwood and seeing what vistas and colours opened up before me.  Visiting in the evening not only meant we were spared the worst of the day’s baking heat and gross humidity but were also bathed in a golden light as the sun started to slip lower.

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We stopped to watch the fountains in action as music played.  It was all very pleasing and relaxing.  We had visited the pump room and were amazed by all the power involved in working the fountains but, as we watched water shoot up into the sky and dance and spray from so many fountains at once, we understood why that power was required.

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Apparently Longwood’s main conservatory is one of the world’s largest greenhouses.  I would certainly estimate it to be the largest I have ever visited.  It was arranged into a series of spaces that each focused on a theme.  Although we had no kids with us, Mr Pict and I wandered around the children’s indoor garden and found it to be charming.  Younger visitors seemed to be delighted by all of the wonderful details and fun little nooks and crannies.  We explored the main conservatory – including the ballroom and organ – and also enjoyed the other conservatories and the lily pond, complete with giant lily pads, between them.  I loved the gallery of orchids and Mr Pict loved all the banana plants.  The whole place was supremely polished and thoughtful in its detailing.  It was a feast for the eyes and the nose.

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We realised too late that we should have saved the conservatories for last since they had interior lighting while the exterior gardens had, during our time indoors, been plunged into darkness.  We still had a good wander in the dark.  There was actually something pretty magical about being at the Italian gardens and seeing all the fireflies glowing as they flew up from the grass and into the air.  We also saw bats swooping down to chomp on the insects that were hovering above the ponds.  Some areas, however, were just too dark to permit any exploration so we had to abandon those.  However, an advantage of having found ourselves in Longwood Gardens in the pitch darkness was that we could watch the performance of water, lighting, and music back at the main fountains.  The theme of the show happened to be “movies” which was completely perfect for Mr Pict and me since we are such movie nerds.  The whole show was amazingly accomplished and very impressive.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, my pain meds had completely worn off about halfway through the show and I was so close to passing out from the pain that I had to sit on the gravel behind rows of standing spectators so missed the last quarter of the event.

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Mr Pict and I both agreed that we would love to return to Longwood Gardens some time, maybe another summer trip to take in the things we missed, maybe during one of their festivals, maybe in a different season to see it in a different context.  We might even take the kids some time.

Hopewell Furnace

Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend.  He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace.  Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.

As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance.  We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”.  We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.

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As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate.  We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins.  Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created.  We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job.  We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day.  I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear.  We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken.  There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items.  We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel.  Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.

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We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open.  They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile.  My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses.  Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.

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After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house.  The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life.  I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs.  After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight.  They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.

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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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Virginia Air and Space Center

On our final day in Virginia, we decided to go to the Air and Space Center.  We were staying not too far from Langley so it seemed appropriate that we should go and see one of the things the area was famous for.  As a family, we have visited many types of science museums and many types of transportation museums.  Some of these have been fantastic and some very much less so.  This one proved to fall into the latter category.  It was a waste of money and time.

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The museum had some interesting exhibits, such as the Apollo 12 command module, but the whole place just fell flat.  It was all very tired and uninspired and very overpriced.  It was probably cutting edge a couple of decades ago but it just wasn’t up to scratch for 2018.  Too many of the interactive areas were not working at all and those that were had problems with appropriate pitching.  What I mean by that is that the interactive aspect of the exhibit was appropriate for engaging a child but the content was far too esoteric and dry to capture or hold their interest. The worst offender was a room dedicated to a fictional Mars mission.  The graphics were dull and the voice acting was horribly flat.  The room was also hot, stuffy, and claustrophobic.  I stopped listening or looking after a couple of minutes because I thought I was at risk of passing out.

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My older kids really did not enjoy the experience with the exception of an excellent Imax movie about hurricanes.  My youngest son enjoyed dressing up in a space suit and playing in the children’s play area but otherwise he did not engage much either.  It was interesting that this was ostensibly a museum with much greater focus on young visitors yet it failed to engage them whereas the Air Mobility Command Museum in Delaware was less child-oriented but really held their interest.

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Ultimately, the highlight of the day turned out to be a delicious lunch around the corner and a small store across the street from the Air and Space Center.  The shop sold British food so the boys were in their element with tingling tastebuds and nostalgia. Most of the items were too expensive for us but we allowed the boys to pick a small treat each.  They had a hard time choosing but had fun making their selection.

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