RIP, B.B. King: “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”


B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

“Did you ever hear a church bell tone?
Then you know old B is dead and gone…”

B.B. King has stopped touring.

I haven’t looked, but I’m sure there are folks today posting variations of the obvious “The King is dead” or, of course, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But it’s just not true. As I’m typing, I’m listening to B.B. King. And I will for decades to come. As prolific as he was, I’ll even probably still keep discovering new music, new performances.

B.B. King, the King of the Blues, lives on.

A good man died last night.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call him Riley in person. To people talking to the performer, he was B.B. or Mr. King or Dr. King. He bristled at the latter one; while he was touched by his honorary doctorates, “Dr. King” was the Reverend Martin Luther King, and B.B. felt unworthy to be called by that name.

To friends, when he wasn’t B.B., he was, more casually B. And that’s who the world lost last night.

I didn’t know him — he certainly wouldn’t have known me — but we had mutual friends, and I had the privilege that I had more direct experience with B than with B.B. King.

I went, once, to see him in a true and proper concert, here in Huntsville at the Von Braun Center five years ago. It was a bucket list item, and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

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But most of my experiences were when B came home. He was born in Berclair, Mississippi and died at his house in Las Vegas, but Indianola, Mississippi is where B.B. King considered to be home.

Home being a relative concept. B.B. spent far and away most of his time on the road; I honestly thought he would die there. He nearly did, and probably would have if he could have. He bought some property in Indianola many years ago and long talked about building a house there, but never did. I’d hoped the building of the B.B. King Museum might make it more appealing, it was pleasant to imagine him sitting in a big chair at the museum talking to visiting children. I think he could have been happy, but it’s not who he was.

But for a couple of days each year, who he was was the man who grew up in Indianola, picking cotton and playing gospel on a street corner and hanging out with his friends. His visits home involved long visits with good friends and often food that the well-known diabetic really didn’t need to be eating but that it wouldn’t be home without.

Over the years I lived and worked in Indianola, my job with The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper gave me glimpses of this side of B.B. – one of the friendliest, most good-natured men you’ll ever meet, loyal to his friends and humble and accessible to strangers. It wasn’t hard to imagine, if he ever could build that house, passing him in the vegetable aisle of the Sunflower Food Store like anybody else in town. He was so real, so genuine, so friendly. He enjoyed being B.B. King, but he never let it go to his head.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

And then at the heart of it all there was the annual homecoming concert. Every other night, he performed for other people. On that one night, he performed for himself. He indulged himself, he had fun, he did what he wanted. He didn’t make a dime that night, and anything that was charged for tickets went to local parks and later to the museum. He didn’t make anything, so he was beholden to no one. He played a few songs, he let his band riff, he held a dance contest for kids. People who came to see the King of the Blues sometimes left disappointed, but that’s not what it was about. It was about B.B. coming home.

I saw him there many times over the years. When I moved to Alabama, it became harder to make it back, but on rare occasions I did. Last year, they announced that it would be the final time B.B. would play the homecoming festival. It seemed an odd decision, since he was still touring. The concerts recently maybe hadn’t been as good as they’d once been, but he was still performing and people still wanted to see him. Why decide then that it would be his last? I read something just this week about the festival being held at the end of this month, for the first time without B.B. And then, this morning, that he was gone. Whoever made the decision last year, it appears they were right. Or maybe a road that didn’t go through Indianola was a road nearing its end. Either way, B.B. King died 10 days before the Indianola Homecoming Festival was to be held for the first time without him.

I’m so very glad I went last year. I’m glad I got to see him again. I’m glad Rebecca got to see him in person. I’m glad I got to stand by my former editor and my friend Jim Abbott for the historic moment that B.B. King left the stage in his hometown for the last time. And I’m glad I saw that performance. He was old — so very old — but he gave all he had, and that night, he was all he’d ever been. It was worthy of the King of the Blues. No dance contest, just B.B. King doing well what he made his name doing. It was an amazing concert, far better than the one I saw in Huntsville.

There are other stories I could tell, like getting to give him t-shirts on a couple of occasions, or Lucille getting lost in the Mississippi Delta, but I’ll tell instead my favorite story of B.B. King, the story that, more than any other, captured why — beyond being a good man and a great musician — B.B. King matters.

I said the homecoming performances were for him. He had fun. I mentioned the dance contests. They were ostensibly for the kids, but I think they were, even more, for B.B.

There was a section at each homecoming in front of the stage reserved for children. B.B. would play songs for a while, but at some point, he’d start the dance contest. He’d call kids up on stage, the band would play, the kids would dance. B.B. would walk across the stage, hold his hand over each kid, the audience would clap. The kid that got the most applause was the winner. Depending on the year, B.B. would hand out cash.

This could go on for a while. The audience would get bored, some people would leave, but the kids, and, most importantly, B.B. were having fun.

It was important to B.B. to get a diverse group of kids on stage – boys and girls, different races. If it was getting too heavy loaded one way or another, he’d ask for what was needed to balance it out. This was important.

And, let me point out, is not the way things always were in Indianola, Mississippi. In days past, Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, the white-collar, as it were, version of the Klan. It was important to B.B. that today’s Indianola look different than the one he grew up in.

So one night I’m at the homecoming festival, and after the dance contest had stretched on for a while, I decide to walk back home. Indianola’s a small city; home is just over a mile away, and you can hear the festival clearly the whole walk.

I’m walking home, through Indianola, Mississippi, the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, and I hear a seventy-something-year-old black man call out across town, “I need another little white girl.”

There was a day when that would not have been OK.

B.B. was not a crusader or an activist. He was a man who believed things should be better, and made it inevitable. B.B. King was a force for integration because he made people want to open doors for him. He mattered. He matters.

The world is the less without him in it, but it’s better for him having been here, and always will be.

“It’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you
Please see that my grave is kept clean.”

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Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview


Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.

“The Safest Way to Travel”


Picture Rebecca took flying over the Alps on Monday.

Picture Rebecca took flying over the Alps on Monday.

They shut down Tower Bridge earlier this week after finding unexploded ordinance in the area. Almost exactly a week ago, I was right by Tower Bridge, although, to be fair, on the other side from this. Kinda weird. (And, also to be fair, where I work, finding unexploded ordinance is just something that happens every so often.)

In a similar vein, and much more sobering, is that three days ago, we were admiring the beauty of the Alps as we flew over them. We landed in Huntsville a few hours before Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in those mountains.

The process of flying requires being reminded of the danger of doing so. You take off your belt and your shoes and take your laptop out and present your bottled fluids as testament to the fact that you can being killed doing what you’re about to do. You do it because you convince yourself that it won’t be you.

And, to be sure, to quote Superman, “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.” Odds are, you’re right; it won’t be you. I fly a fair bit, and I do so without reservation. Sure, there’s danger. There’s danger driving to Target.

But it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s a REASON it won’t be you, why your flight is safer than the ones that make the news. From everything I’ve read so far about 9525, there’s no reason it was them. No reason it wasn’t us.

We put down unexpectedly at Dulles between Boston and Atlanta because we had a medical emergency on our flight. There but for the grace of God. It was inconvenient, but you can’t weigh that against the reason we were doing it. The situation was handled competently, calmly and professionally.

I was patted down at multiple airports on our honeymoon, and, afterwards, I always said thank you. The closest thing there is to “a reason” is that every time you fly, there are folks who work hard to make sure you also land.

To them, thank you.

To Love And To Cherish


“In the end I want to be standing
At the beginning with you…”

Rebecca on a turntable

The very first picture I ever took of Rebecca. In my mind, she wore that hat constantly in those early days, but she assures me that she had really only just bought it right before I took that picture.

David and Becky by a turntable

Revisiting the spot of that picture during our engagement photo shoot with Caleb McPherson

Rebecca,

Today I marry my best friend. My adventuremate, my partner, my complement, my help, my home. Today is a good day.

Today, we go back to the Depot. Back to the beginning, back to where we met. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of weddings there, and it was hard not to think “what if…” and gradually “someday…” and finally “soon…” I saw a lot of really neat things done at weddings there, and occasionally thought about whether I’d like them in mine. I like our wedding. I like that it’s “us.” I like that it’s us.

I remember when I first saw you there. I was an overwhelmed new tour guide on my first day of museuming. (Well, professional museuming.) You were, in my mind, one of several of the veteran seasoned tour guides I’d be working with. I didn’t know until much later how new you were yourself. You seemed so competent and confident. And you seemed so nice. You made me feel welcome, more than any of the others. I appreciated it.

It was fun getting to know you in those early weeks. You inspired me and challenged me. You made me push myself as a tour guide. You impressed me. And we talked some, and I got to know you not just as a tour guide, but as a person. You impressed me again.

And then there was a first date. And a second. (Or a first-and-a-half and a first-and-three-quarters and a second?) And then many more to follow.

Between meeting at the Depot and returning to the Depot today, it’s been a long journey. With museums and ducks and rockets and cheese and airplanes and ghosts and hardtack and music and histories.

A lot of that journey has been good. To put it mildly. And I’ve loved having you as my companion, sharing in those things. I’ve grown accustomed to your face. I like having you be there. I like you being the person I tell my stories to. I like you being the person I share my stories with. One day when I realized I truly couldn’t imagine you not being the person beside me, I realized I should probably do something about that.

Some of the journey was less good. And those parts made me realize how truly lucky I am. You have loved me in a way I’ve never been loved. You have taught me how to love better. You loved me selflessly, and, again, inspired and challenged me.

I am lucky. So very lucky. If I’m blessed to have you there to share my stories, I’m just as blessed that I get to share yours. I admire your excitement, your passion, your incredible incredible sense of pure wonder. To stand by you is to see the world and be reminded how beautiful it is. I love to see you smile, to bounce, to sing, to dance, to experience and radiate the underappreciated awe of creation.

I admire your heart. I admire the way you treat me. You make me proud to be associated with you. You, again, make me better. People like me better as part of us. I’m very OK with that.

I love that we can adventure together, that rockets and history and Huntsville and so many other things are not a thing one of us shares with the other, but are who WE are as a couple. I love what a strong and tangible “us” there is. That in so many of our undertakings, we are better together than both of us apart.

And if someone is going to be always by my side, it certainly doesn’t hurt that I find her incredibly beautiful.

I love our friends. Our love story is not just ours; it’s an ensemble. A story told with an amazing and beautiful cast of supporting characters, without whom we wouldn’t be us. I’m grateful for them, and love them.

I could go on forever. You would probably prefer I stop and go put on some fancy clothes. And so I will.

See you soon, beloved.

Soon, and forever.

David

“NASA Doesn’t Hire Bored Astronauts”


QM-1 booster firing

At the Orbital ATK test facility, the booster for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was fired for a two minute test on March 11. The test is one of two that will qualify the booster for flight before SLS begins carrying NASA’s Orion spacecraft and other potential payloads to deep space destinations. Image Credit: NASA

If today’s QM-1 test of the Space Launch System’s solid rocket booster had been delayed a little less, or a little more, I very likely would have been at Promontory, Utah, today.

As it is, I’m in town preparing for a wedding, which has a booster firing — even a firing of THE WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL BOOSTER — beat hands down, and so I watched the test from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where I got to talk to Space Camp kids trainees about the rocket that one of them may someday ride on their way to Mars. Which, really, is a pretty cool way to watch it.

So, yeah, I had to wipe my eyes after the test before talking to the kids again. This job is exciting on a daily basis, but then there are those days where something huge happens, and you just sort of look around and say, “hey, we’re DOING this!”

The Orion launch in December was one of those. How long has NASA been working on Orion, and then one day I’m in Florida, and Orion is IN SPACE. And it’s mind-boggling. QM-1 has been imminent since I started at NASA (see my earlier blog post about that) but today it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. One step closer to a real, finished rocket. One step closer to launch. One step closer to Mars. This is happening. We’re doing this. It’s amazing.

It’s an incredible thing to watch. I’m blessed to be a part of it.

And, yeah, to share it with Space Camp trainees and other museum visitors? Such a thrill. I love watching stuff like this with my coworkers because it’s amazing that I’m actually a small part of the team that’s making this happen, but it was a different, unique and special experience to watch this one with these kids. In a very real way, they’re the ones we’re doing this for. We’ll be flying it long before they get out of school, but the really fun stuff, the walking on Mars? They’re just about the right age to be ready when NASA is. We’re building the future, and the future is theirs.

David Hitt peaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

Speaking to Space Camp trainees before the QM-1 test firing.

And such great questions from these kids. I was lucky to have SLS engineer (and former boosters engineer) Brent Gaddes with me to take the technical stuff they were throwing at us.  How can you apply ground test data to system decide to operate in low-pressure environments? (Good engineering and good modeling.) Why don’t you do subscale testing of something so big? (We do; the big stuff just makes for better television.) Why do you test so far in advance? (Because you don’t always know what’s going to come out of a test.)

My favorite: “What do I need to get a degree in to be as awesome as y’all?” Brent was able to give the right answer, talking about his engineering path to being a NASA engineer.

And here’s journalism-major David, pointing out that I’m the case study for the fact you don’t have to do it that way, but adding that, if this is what you want to do, you probably should. If your passions take you in a different direction, don’t automatically assume, like I did, that means there’s no place for you in NASA. But if you want to be a part of making something like QM-1 happen, figure out what part it would excite you to play in that, and pursue it with everything you’ve got.

Brent and I come from different backgrounds, but the thing we have in common is that we were both excited to get to come to work today. Astronauts will say that’s the best advice for joining their ranks — do something you love.

As I told the kids, “Follow your passion. NASA doesn’t need bored astronauts.”

Sunrise, Sunset


So one morning almost three months ago, Rebecca and I are standing on Cocoa Beach. It’s her first time ever visiting an ocean, and I’ve arranged it that the first time she sees the Atlantic, she’s watching the sun rise over the horizon. It is, all in all, a neat experience.

Flash-forward to two weeks ago. I’m on a business trip to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s my fourth trip to California in less than a year, and so I decide that this time I’m going to finally get around to doing something I’ve put off on previous trips — I’m going to watch the sun set on the Pacific. And so I do.

I’m currently helping one of the Space Launch System executives work on an upcoming TEDx talk, using the transcontinental railroad as analogy for the future of human space exploration, playing with themes like public-private partnerships and the fact that, historically, there are almost no new transportation capabilities that do not improve everyday life.

I thought about that as I was standing on the beach in Los Angeles. I, a fairly normal person, had watched the sunrise over one ocean and set over the other two months apart. Just 150 years ago, before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, that was impossible in the United States. Today, if you really wanted to, you could see them both in the same day. On the International Space Station, you see sixteen sunrises and sunsets a day.

We live in a time of miracles and wonders. It’s good to be reminded to wonder at it.

Standing on Mars, Virtually


Three virtual figures on a Mars-scape

NASA’s OnSight tool, which it developed with Microsoft creates a simulation of Mars’ surfaces scientists can use in their research. Image: NASA/JPL

I read this story about NASA’s new HoloLens collaboration with Microsoft to create a virtual Mars environment in the news a while back, and thought it sounded pretty cool.

Last week, I got to put the headset on myself at JPL, and can confirm that it is, indeed, very cool. One of my NASA Headquarters team members and I got to walk “together” on virtual Mars, standing by Curiosity and surveying the Martian landscape. Another team member who was there (physically but not virtually) laughed at me for the fact that I was, in real life, walking around the rover, which wasn’t, technically, there, but the experience was so immersive that I just didn’t think about the fact that I could walk through it.

It was kind of surreal that I was getting to experience it just days after first reading about it, but this could very well be a technology that we’ll all be using before too long. Amazing.

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