Hot Air: A Southern Sojourn

Barreling down the interstate at 80 mph for a total of 30-plus hours within a five-day period can make a human think a lot of things, some of which are compelling and others…, well, the mind can go through some bizarre acrobatics.

First, a couple of random observations:

  1. The Loved One and I took a quick trip to Florida by car last week. We made it all the way through, a thousand miles, on the way there; we were way too exhausted to drive much more than six hours at a stretch on the return trip. So we pulled off the Interstate and crashed at a Fairfield Inn just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, as the sun set Wednesday. We were starving, too, and there happened to be a Cracker Barrel across the street. Too tired to hunt down any other food options, we elected to go to that mecca of senescence. The thing is, I’m at an age now when I feel extremely uncomfortable eating in a Cracker Barrel. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have bothered me; I could rationalize that my being there was a lark, an anthropological expedition just to see how the old fossils ate. Now, dammit, I am that old fossil, right in Cracker Barrel’s target demographic. Ugh! The fish was great, though. Came with broccoli which, at this age, I need more than ever — and if I have to explain why, you’re just not my age yet.
  2. Visited my cardiologist last week and got a little insight into how much doctoring — especially specialty doctoring — can simply engulf a human, making her/him almost oblivious to everyday life. He remarked on the skunk pin I have attached to the strap of my bag. I told him I’d got it at Hopscotch; it’s the logo, sorta, of the place. Anyway, he said, “Oh, I love Hopscotch! I’ve been there. It’s amazing what they do with their lattes!” He went on to describe in great detail the leaves and other decorations baristas create with their pours. The thing is, he said this as if some Hopscotch Einstein had just invented latte art the day before yesterday. He had no idea baristas have been drawing designs in foamy drinks since the days when…, well, baristas were obliged by law to be surly and contemptuous. And I thought, wow, this poor guy doesn’t get out much, does he. Lucky for me, I suppose.

We visited TLO’s sister who lives in what’s called the Space Coast, the collection of towns surrounding Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. As an added bonus, we were rewarded with the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, loaded with 24 satellites including Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson‘s Lightsail 2, an experimental solar-powered spacecraft, the descendants of which may one day travel to other star systems.

It’s been a dream of mine since I was six years old to witness the launch of a rocket at Cape Canaveral. And, yeah, my dream was realized. More on that later.

No, Not That One!

If you’ve ever considered motoring down to Florida keep this in mind: the state of Georgia is the largest single landmass on Earth. Cartographers have found it is larger than the combined surface areas of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Had the wagon-bound pioneers rumbled the length of the state from north to south rather than meandering through to the Old West, they’d still be en route. The ancient Polynesian daredevils who boarded floating rafts for the journey from their South Pacific islands to present day South America were, in comparison, taking brief afternoon joyrides.

The first time we took the car route from Bloomington to central Fla. some years ago, it felt as though we’d been trapped inside the Prius cabin for seasons rather than hours by the time we hit the Georgia border. A bit more than hundred miles more and we were entering metro Atlanta. Phew, I said. We’re almost there.

Uh uh. Nope. Nowhere even close to being there. There was still a long ways away. The way I’d figured it, Georgia’s next door to Florida and Atlanta’s well south of the state’s northern border so, jeez, it’ll prob. be an hour or two and we’ll be, um, there. How wrong I was! See, the reality is Atlanta’s almost precisely halfway between our Indiana home and the Space Coast.

Of course I was thinking with my exhausted driver’s brain, the one that tells me I’ve had my hands glued to the steering wheel since birth so, in all fairness, the end-of-trip relief ought to be forthcoming. Rand McNally, on the other hand, a more objective observer than my exhausted driver’s brain, insisted that the state of Georgia, the biggest in the union east of the Mississippi River, is extremely lo-o-o-ong, N through S. And Interstate 75, the fastest route through the length of it, cuts a diagonal from the outskirts of Chattanooga down to south of Valdosta. It takes, easily, six to eight hours to get through the state depending on how many times you have to pee (three or four), eat (maybe just once if you time it right), and get lost when you’re forced to turn off the Interstate due to torrential downpours and spectacular thunder and lightning storms (twice, this trip).

By the time we arrived in Port St. John, Florida, The Loved One and I were helping each other make post-divorce plans and I was working out a scheme to ditch the car in the nearest alligator-infested waterhole, of which there are countless numbers just off to the side of any road.

Florida. It’s a weird, weird place. Of course, you know that already. You may even have visited websites dedicated to the loons that populate our holy land’s third most populous state. And the number of Florida oddballs, reprobates, and scary monsters has so grown of late that the humorous crime author Carl Hiaason, whose novels specialize in the bizarre humans who call the state home, has even stated recently he’ll pretty much have to quit creating his alternately laughable and petrifying characters because there are too many of them in real life now.

After dodging rainstorms of biblical proportions, we drove at night through Ocala and Lake City, a couple of typical Florida cities, in that they’re home to more — much more — than their share of sadists, con artists, dopes, conspirators, miracle purveyors, and slapstick plotters. The streets of the two rain-soaked towns somehow struck me as pregnant with evil. “This place,” I said aloud, “is alive with as yet uncommitted murder.”

The Loved One didn’t catch this mot because she was snoring.

America’s nuttiest state is definitely Florida. Scariest, too.

Don’t forget, President Gag lives there, too.

The Good Old Days

There’s a bunch of gas stations-slash-general stores placed strategically off I-75 in Georgia, the names of which are awfully…, shall we say, offensive. There are the Magnolia Plantation and the Plantation House for instance, the former outside Tifton and the latter, Arabi.

Both places are built to resemble antebellum plantation manors with gas pumps out front.

Plantations, of course, being where slaves were forced to live. In a sense it’d be like finding a gas station/store called Dachau Camp a few kilometers outside Munich, complete with an entrance gate emblazoned with the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei.

The Loved One and I wondered if many people of color stopped in to these Plantation places.

And, BTW, the town name Arabi is not, according to local lore, an antiquated insult. People who live there like to tell the world the name comes from the mangling of some early resident’s surname.

Tow Heads

Swear to god in heaven this is true: There is an International Towing & Recovery Museum. Yep, the homage to wreckers and greasers sits outside Chattanooga. It was started at the end of the last century by a group called — again, swear to god in heaven — the Friends of Towing.

The place is chock-full of sculptures like this one:

Notice the taillight of the submerged vehicle below the rescuee’s dangling feet?

The site’s Towing Timeline tells us, for instance, that in 1916 a fellow named Ernest Holmes built the first twin-boom wrecker in — you guessed it — Chattanooga. It adds that in 1977 the first magazine dedicated to the art, American Towman, was published. Lo and behold, I find that American Towman, “Towing’s Premier Magazine,” still exists. Perusing it, I learned that this year’s Tow Expo will take place in Dallas August 15-18 and “The World Largest Tow Show” happens December 4-8 at the Atlantic City (New Jersey) Convention Center. Mark your calendars.

The place has a Hall of Fame. The website features a button that’ll bring up a pdf of the Hall nomination form, so if you know any tow truck drivers whom you believe are tops in their field, get on it. There are now more than 300 inductees in the HoF.

There’s even a Wall of the Fallen at the museum, dedicated to the brave men and women of towing who’ve died in the line of duty.

The gift shop features such indispensable items as this toddler T-shirt…

… and this 1969 Ford F-100 Diecast Tow Truck ( 1/24th scale).

Who knew?

The Confederate State of Indiana

Funny thing is, for all the stereotype images we hold of the deep south, I noticed there were no more Trump 2020 bumper stickers or rebel flags on display throughout Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida than you’ll find during any Sunday drive within a radius of 20 miles around Bloomington, Indiana.

Does that say more about the deep south or Indiana?

The Space Geek In Us

Both The Loved One and I are suckers for NASA and rocket porn in general. TLO still gets teary-eyed every time she sees footage of Chief Flight Director Gene Krantz reminiscing about getting the Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth in 1970.

Waiting For The Boys To Come Home.

When we found out there’d be a launch while we were in Fla., we were overjoyed.

SpaceX sent up its Falcon Heavy rocket at 2:30am Tuesday, by chance The Loved One’s birthday. We found a perfect spot to watch the lift-off at the eastern edge of the town of Port St. John, a straight shot across the Indian River. The spot is not known to the space tourists who travel to Florida for launches. They crowd Merritt Island and Port Canaveral, looking north toward the historic Launch Pad 39A. When Apollo 11 blasted off almost precisely 50 years ago, hundreds of thousands of folks crowded the Space Coast to witness history, and countless people actually staked out spots and camped weeks in advance.

We joined a couple of dozen people at the boat ramp in the public park just off US Hwy. 1. All were locals in the know save for a family of four from Norway, the father of which told me they just happened to be in the neighborhood and found out about the launch. And — swear to god — after revealing this, he added, “What a country!”

We could see the Falcon Heavy, bathed in floodlights, on the launch pad some 10 or 12 miles away. It looked like a bright white needle, no bigger than my pinky fingernail.

With a minute to go before ignition, dead silence fell over the group. All eyes focused directly east, across the Indian River. Even a rowdy group of 20-something beer drinkers near us looked on in mute awe. And then, a piercing flash emanated from a point where the horizon met the inky sky.


See that ghostly little rectangle to the left of the burn? That’s the 53-year-old Vehicle Assembly Building, erected specifically for piecing together the 363-feet-tall Apollo Saturn rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon. It was, at one time, the single largest building on Earth. Just to give you an idea of scale.

The ignition flash was silent. At that distance, the noise of the blast-off would take some time to reach us. That noise, BTW, can actually kill a human being should that poor soul be unfortunate enough to be too close to the launch. NASA (and the Russians) have devised a number of ways to baffle the sound, which can exceed 220 decibels.

Then the Falcon Heavy rose from its pad.

Nearly a minute later, a guy pointed at the water between us and the launch pad. He announced: “Here comes the sound wave!” Sure enough, as the wave radiating toward us finally arrived at our shore, a deep, almost frightening rumble commenced, sounding a bit like the eruption of a volcano. It continued for a minute or so as the rocket rose slowly heavenward. By now we all craned our necks and stared nearly straight up at the gradually disappearing dart of fire reaching the upper atmosphere. Even after so long a time, the rocket itself, generating some 5.5 million pounds of thrust, was only traveling at just above the speed of sound. The weight of the entire vehicle, rocket and payload, was better than 1550 tons, a hell of a lot of weight to hoist into orbit. Eventually, the rocket would reach a speed of up to 24,000 mph.

The missile pierced through some upper atmosphere cloud and haze ceilings, creating a pretty, multi-colored splotch in the night sky. It jettisoned its two lateral boosters which reignited their engines after a moment to slow their descent to Earth. Then the Falcon disappeared and the boosters went dark. None of us stirred because more of the show was to come.

About two minutes later, the boosters fired their engines again as they made their way to a point on the ground near the launch pad. They slowly descended, growing brighter by the second, a scene straight from a science fiction movie. Then, slowed to an apparent crawl, they touched down and our whole crowd cheered and then became quiet

Someone broke the silence, asking, “Where are the sonic booms?” Local TV stations and newspapers had been warning residents for a few days that the landing boosters would produce alarming sonic booms. Yet we heard nothing. Another person said, “Just wait.”

A minute later, without warning, two pairs of sonic booms — Ba-BOOM!, Ba-BOOM! — sounded. We could actually feel the pressure from them against our skin and in our hair.

With that, the show was over and we all seemed inordinately happy and tired. And no fireworks show tonight or tomorrow night can even begin to compare.

Like the guy said, What a country!

One thought on “Hot Air: A Southern Sojourn

  1. Mark Taylor says:

    LOVE YOUR ‘PENCIL’ REPORT, TODAY! **** out of 4. 🙂

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