DIY LEGO Rocket Garden


(Updated June 22 with Ares I-X.)
(Updated July 4 with scale converter and STS mod.)
(Updated July 7 with Sputnik R-7 and more STS info.)
(Updated July 15 with Vostok and Voskhod.)
(Updated July 28 with Soyuz and Long March 2F.)

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It started with the Saturn V, combined with a love of Skylab.

Like many people, I bought the original LEGO Saturn V kit. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I happened to see that there were instructions online to convert it into a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. And, obviously, I need to have a LEGO Skylab Saturn V. So I bought a second LEGO Saturn V set. And that was going to be the end of it.

But then I built my two Saturn Vs. And because I replaced the top part of the second Saturn V with the Skylab mod, I had a Saturn V third-stage-and-Apollo stack left over. And the site where I got the instructions for modifying the Saturn V to Skylab configuration also had instructions on how to build a first stage for that S-IVB-and-Apollo stack to make a Saturn IB. So I did. And by that point, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end of it.

And that’s how I ended up with a LEGO rocket garden, all built to the same 1:110 scale as the LEGO Saturn V.

When I’ve posted pictures of my LEGO rocket garden, I frequently get questions about how I built it, so I thought I’d put together a “guide” based on my experiences. So here’s pretty much all I know about building a LEGO rocket garden.

Basically, all you need are pieces and instructions. (If you’re cleverer than I, you can do it without instructions, of course; but I’m writing for this for folks who, like me, aren’t cleverer than me.)

I buy my pieces at Bricklink. There are other places you can buy them, including Brickowl. Different people use different sites, so while I prefer Bricklink, you may prefer something else. Bricklink is a portal to individual vendors; it’s not so much a store as a storefront for sellers. When you make a purchase, you’ll frequently be placing multiple orders split between different stores that have different parts you need. Particularly with the bigger builds, the parts can get pricy over time, so I’ll spread my piece purchases out. Bricklink lets you set up multiple want lists, so I’ll have want lists set up for multiple projects at once. When I buy pieces I need for the thing I’m working on, I’ll add a few bucks extra for a future project, so it doesn’t hit all at once.

I haven’t done this yet personally, but someone more experienced than I read this post and pointed out you can also buy pieces directly from LEGO. Their shop doesn’t have the variety you can find on Bricklink, but it can be good if you need a large quantities of specific pieces.

Here’s where I found the instructions for the different builds, along with any hints I have from building them:

V2 – The instructions for this one are here. The site they’re on is a Google Drive with instructions for an incredibly wide collection of space vehicles. I was late finding it, so haven’t used it much. I thought I was going to be clever and make mine narrower because I didn’t like the way it narrows, but it looked bad. In the process, though, I replaced the nose with a simple 2x2x3 cone, and I do like that mode. You’ll need to add, I think three more 3024 pieces to go between the 4733 and the cone.

(Quick update, since I mentioned the Google Drive here. Another experienced builder, reading this, pointed me toward this Gitlab site with a very comprehensive collection of designs, which I had not seen before but will be revisiting. Update update: The creator of bricksin.space rightfully reminded me it’s a good resource. I have downloaded his books, but haven’t had a chance to use them yet.)

Juno – The instructions for this one are here. LEGO Ideas is a good, but inconsistent place to find instructions. The site’s primary purpose is for designers to post their ideas for people to vote on them so that they might become official sets. A few, but far from all, designers will share the instructions for their builds. The site will do nothing to help you find them, and in fact hides old ideas after they’ve expired. The designer, Eiffleman, includes decal or wrap designs here; I prefer to stick to just bricks. Also included here are the instructions for versions of the next three builds I did. I didn’t do the Juno until I’d done the other three, so I used instructions from elsewhere. (As a result, my Juno and Redstone fins don’t match, even though they’re the same in real life.)

Mercury Redstone – Instructions are here. In fact, it’s from a source where I got the designs for a good chunk of the collection. I mentioned Bricklink as a place to buy bricks; it also has a “Studio” section where you can find or share designs. A benefit to finding designs in the Gallery at Bricklink is that it’s very simple from there to create Wanted Lists for the parts and order them. There’s a designer in the gallery named legorockets who is based in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and whose collection of designs includes my Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Gemini Titan and Falcon 9. This (or the Eiffleman version mentioned above) is a good one to start with; it and the Juno are probably the easiest and cheapest, and of the two the Mercury Redstone is arguably more iconic.

Mercury Atlas – I believe these are the instructions I used for this one. All all note here is the importance of paying attention to version numbers. legorockets has at least four versions of the Mercury Redstone, and they’re all still on the site. At least once I realized I’d ordered pieces using a different design version than the instructions I was using.

Gemini Titan – I think this is the version of the instructions I used for this one. Side note here: Remember at the beginning where I said all you need to create your own rocket garden is pieces and instructions, and you don’t actually need the instructions if you’re creative. Well, technically, you don’t actually need the pieces, either. There’s a branch of the hobby where, rather than building physical models, you just design them virtually, using LEGO Digital Designer or Studio. Designing virtually lets you figure out what you need before you start ordering parts, and creating a digital rocket garden has two advantages over a physical one – it’s a whole lot cheaper, and you can do things virtually you can’t do in real life. A model that would collapse under its own weight in real life works beautifully virtually. And, in the case of this Gemini Titan, you can use a piece that doesn’t exist in real life – a white barrel piece, shown at the base of the Gemini capsule. This same piece, or lack thereof, also shows up in my shuttle model at the base of the boosters. Some people will paint the pieces to the color they need; I find limiting yourself to the limits of LEGO is part of the charm of the hobby.

Saturn V – I built the official LEGO kit. Unfortunately, it’s discontinued now. You can still find them for sale on places like eBay, but be prepared to spend a lot more than the original cost. (It looks like some folks have reverse-engineered the set so you can order the parts and build it yourself; this may be one.)

Skylab Saturn V – I found the instructions here (design by Eiffleman, who did the Juno above) to modify the official LEGO Saturn V kit to the Skylab configuration. Unfortunately, that requires an official LEGO Saturn V kit, and, as noted above, it’s discontinued. If you don’t want to buy one second-hand, I noticed in working on this that legorockets has a Bricklink Gallery design for the full-up Skylab Saturn V, engines to shroud. It looks like you can probably source the parts cheaper than buying a secondhand Saturn V.

Saturn IB – I found the instructions here. As mentioned above, this was a mod using the pieces leftover from the Saturn V kit when I built the Skylab Saturn V, so it has the same issue with needing the discontinued set. If you want to build it from scratch, here are instructions from legorockets. I’ll throw in another side note here – Most of the bigger rockets have a lot of internal structure that you don’t see. Generally, when you get the part lists, they’ll have a color assigned to the pieces for that structure. If the pieces isn’t going to be visible, Bricklink will let you change the color to “(Not Applicable)” so that you can order the piece in the cheapest color, rather than paying extra to match a color that doesn’t matter. Many designers make this easy by picking an obviously weird color, like blue cylinders on a rocket that’s all black and white.

Space Shuttle – Since I originally posted this, KingsKnight has created an improved version; the instructions for which are on sale at Rebrickable for $15. You can probably still find the old instructions for free, but I endorse buying the new ones both because KingsKnight has put a lot of time into this design and its worth the money, and because I’m pretty sure the new design can save you more than $15 in parts versus the old one.)

I found the instructions here for this design by KingsKnight. I used a part list from Bricklink Gallery to create an easy Wanted List. You can also find the instructions on the Google Drive mentioned in the V2 section, but I figured this would be a good time to mention the Bricks In Space group on Facebook, which is a great resource for general information. There’s also an r/legorockets subreddit on Reddit.  Since I built built my Saturns using official kits, this was the biggest project for which I had to source all the pieces. I started buying parts several projects ahead, and broke it into chunks – I did the Orbiter first, and then got serious about the boosters and then got serious about the ET. As designed, it’s a phenomenally expensive build because of some rare dark orange parts for the external tank. Some people buy other colors and paint them; some go with a “close enough” orange. I went with white, the way the tank looked for the first two launches, which not only matches the way the tank looks on the cover of my shuttle history book, Bold They Rise, but saved me maybe a couple of hundred dollars. Bricklink’s Wanted List makes it easy to filter the parts for a particular color (i.e. dark orange) and then bulk change them to a different color (i.e. white)


Update: At the suggestion of KingsKnight, I made a slight mod to my orbiter, replacing the front end of the wings with the distinctive black appearance of Columbia, making it more true to the STS-1 or -2 white external tank. (It’s a pretty simple change, and much more simple if you make it was your building instead of after you’re finished.)
Update Update: I recently came across a post where someone gave instructions for modding KingsKnight’s build to the exact appearance of any orbiter for *any shuttle launch.*

Falcon 9 – Instructions found here. Another one by legorockets. Side note here: Relying on other people’s instructions and parts lists, and letting Bricklink’s automated system find sellers for you, it’s easy to sink money into things you don’t care about. Case in point: My rocket garden centers around the history of human spaceflight, so I wanted to build the Crew Dragon configuration of Falcon 9. This design includes that, so I went with it. When I was buying the parts, I noticed that one order had a small number of parts and a big price tag. Upon inspecting it, I found it was because one of the fairing configurations used a rare, expensive part. I have no interest in building a fairing for the rocket, so I removed the part from my order, and saved about $18. My Atlas V had flames for the Starliner that were like $4 each. I’m displaying it as a full-up stack, so you’d never see the flames. Gone. This was the first build where I really noticed that; if I’d paid more attention, I could have saved even more. There were other fairing parts I could have struck, and this design has legs that are interchangeable for either a launch pad or drone ship configuration; I only needed the former. (I recently had met the designer online behind this version that has folding legs, but no Dragon, if you’d prefer to go that way.)

Atlas V – Instructions are here. This is the only one so far that I’ve paid for instructions for; it was the only one I could find that was proper Saturn V scale and included Starliner. They were on Rebrickable, where people can sell designs. I paid just over two bucks for the instructions, and it was totally worth it. I’ll take free instructions where they’re offered, of course, but people put real time and effort into coming up with these, and I don’t begrudge them at all making some money off that. A bit of jargon – Bricklink has a Gallery; Rebrickable has “MOCs.” MOCs? My Own Creations, as opposed to official LEGO designs. (Back when I was a kid, making your own creations was what you did with LEGOs, before they started becoming more like model kits. That said, I’m not really building my own creations now, so I can’t say anything.) A MOC is just a custom design; it’s still a MOC even if it’s someone else’s creation that you’re just building. More jargon – you’ll occasionally see AFOL. If you do, it’s Adult Fan of LEGO. Now you know.

Ares I-X – Design files are on the Google Drive site here, and on Facebook Bricks in Space. The design for the Ares I is by Sebastian Schoen, aka Moppe Stone. While the Studio files were available, instructions weren’t included, so I contacted the creator through the Bricks in Space FB group. I modified it to Ares I-X since I attended that launch and work with some team members; the mod mainly involved replacing orange pieces with white like with the Shuttle; but it also meant I could simplify things a little at the bottom of the upper stage.

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Sputnik, Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz – Instructions are here. LEGO Ideas designer tech_niek submitted a Soyuz design for consideration to become a real set (which wasn’t chosen), and as a bonus included versions for an entire fleet of Soviet vehicles using the same approach – the launchers for Sputnik, Vostok and Voskhod, in addition to Soyuz. (The post also has instructions to mod them to the whitish appearance at launch caused by ice collecting on the rocket.) The upside is, it’s a great all-in-one approach to the highlights of Soviet launcher history, (Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hear the siren call of building N1 and Buran someday, designs for both of which exist.) The downside is, it’s a design optimized for being created as an official set, versus sourcing parts on your own, particularly if you’re doing the entire fleet. The Sputnik R-7 uses six of this part; the others use even more. Currently, no Bricklink seller in the US has more than five in stock, which means shipping is going to drive the price up; and the Soyuz uses an orange version that is even more rare. (The design also leaves a gap between the boosters and the core that is very visible at some angles, FWIW.)

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Long March 2F – Instructions are here. Like the Ares I-X, this one is by Sebastian Schön. If I recall correctly, if you use the .io file for ordering from Bricklink, you’ll need to reduce the part counts in half – his instructions show the elements assembled and in separate close-ups, so the file includes parts for both versions. This is a good intermediate build, since the .io file doesn’t include step-by-step instructions, but it’s relatively easy to figure out, particularly if you’ve built a few rockets before this.

Space Stations and Other Things

In addition to my 1:110-scale rocket garden, I’ve also built a couple of builds to accompany the official LEGO Space Station kit, which is roughly 1:220 scale, about half the Saturn V. I started with a 1:220 Skylab found in the Facebook Bricks in Space files; it was fascinating to see the two stations in scale with each other. The visiting vehicles that come with the Space Station kit are out of scale with the ISS, and people have designed replacements for those. The space shuttle, in particular, struck me as bad, so I used a design from those Files for a properly-scaled 1:220 Space Shuttle. Like the Long March 2F, I didn’t have step-by-step instructions; I had exterior pictures and a list of parts and had to figure out how it went together from there, but this one was more challenging than the Long March was. It took a while, but it was rewarding. (As an added bonus, it meant that I could create in LEGO the planned-but-never-flown Shuttle-Skylab rendezvous mission.)

I’ve done one true “MOC” – my own creation – the upper stage of NASA’s new SLS rocket deploying a CubeSat. It’s not as accurate to scale or as elegant, but I did it, and it was a good first step. If you’re interested in creating your own design to Saturn V or ISS (or any other scale), here’s a useful tool for converting real-world measurements to LEGO measurements.

I’ll update this as I add to the rocket garden (I’ve already started the next rocket). If you have any questions, leave a comment or find me on Twitter. Or, better yet, look up the Facebook or Reddit groups and join the conversation!

I hope this helps, and happy building!

Review: “The Master’s Mind” by Lance Hahn


There is a line, toward the end of Lance Hahn’s “The Master’s Mind,” that sums up the heart of the book in both its depth and simplicity: “Repent doesn’t only mean to turn away to be change one’s mind and start agreeing with God.”

For those who perceive Christianity as a religion fueled largely by “Thou Shalt Nots” – whether believer or otherwise – this book will be revelatory. Its focus, indeed, is not even on “Thou Shalts.” Rather, it is concerned much less with the things that a person refrain from doing or the things they must do than it is concerned with how a person should be thinking about the world, or, more accurately, about God.

There is today a modern resurgence of the philosophy of Stoicism, teaching that one’s world is influenced by nothing so much as by how one perceives it, and this book provides a Christian angle on that approach –– there is nothing that shapes one’s world so much as God, and one’s experience of that world is driven by how you understand Him. Life becomes simpler and more rewarding the more that understanding and appreciation is kept in place.

Hahn builds his case incrementally, beginning with establishing an understanding of the world around us – including the challenges therein – before culminating in a guide to finding rest in that chaos.

An accessible and engaging read, “The Master’s Mind” is a beneficial revelation or reminder to anyone seeking peace in an overwhelming world.

(Disclosure: I was provided a review copy of “The Master’s Mind” by Handlebar Marketing.)

“She Moves On” – Farewell, Carrie Fisher


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My iTunes this morning randomly played Paul Simon’s “She Moves On.” I made plans to go with my father to see “Rogue One.”
 
I saw the news about Carrie Fisher on Twitter.
 
The song is one of a handful of Simon’s colored by his brief marriage to Fisher, along with “Hearts and Bones” and “Graceland,” arguably among his best. I’d not realized her connection to “She Moves On” until I went looking to see what of his she’d inspired; when you can’t find words, Paul Simon is a good place to start.
 
And I wanted words better than the easy one. It’s easy to say “RIP Princess Leia,” and, sure, I’ll admit that for a child of the ’70s, that’s a big part of how I process the news. It irks me a little when people reduce a celebrity to their biggest or favorite role. It was Leonard Nimoy, not Spock, who died last year. Spock will outlive Nimoy, and, unlike Nimoy, leaves behind no family and friends to mourn him. But I’d be lying if I denied being sad that, in a way, Leia has died — her story remains unfinished, and, while I hope much the bigger story will continue, there is a best version of it that we’ll now never see.
 
My day starts with a song Carrie Fisher didn’t write, it ends with a movie she didn’t work on; and yet both spring from her indelible mark on the world. She touched my day without even doing anything.
 
It’s a little unfair but also undeniable that, despite being a talented and prolific storyteller, she’ll be remembered most for her part in someone else’s story, but it’s a story that she helped shape into one of the most iconic and resonant of the last century, a modern myth. For that, and for so much more, thank you, Carrie Fisher.
 
“When the road bends
And the song ends
She moves on”

Sort-Of Review: “Finn’s Story” by Jesse J. Holland


photo-on-9-14-16-at-8-04-amSo yesterday after work I left the office and immediately headed for Barnes & Noble to pick up the newest Star Wars book, just released that day.

To be sure, I like Star Wars and all, but generally speaking I haven’t been a “read the books” fan for many many years.
This book, Finn’s Story, though, is written by my friend and former editor Jesse J. Holland, so I made an exception.

Jesse’s the second person I know to have released an official Star Wars book in the last year, and it’s kind of surreal that he’s getting to contribute to the Star Wars canon. Jesse’s already an accomplished author and well deserved this opportunity, but for some reason the success of his first two books, The Invisibles: African American Slavery Inside the White House and Black Men Built the Capitol, falls into a mental category of “stuff of course Jesse could do” (alongside having an office in the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court building at various points), while telling an official Star Wars story is a different beast altogether. (Not because it’s better or more impressive, but because it seems more … untouchable, somehow.)

The book is a young-reader companion piece to last year’s Force Awakens movie, told, obviously, from the perspective of Finn, and the highest praise I can give the book is that, while reading it, I would forget why I was reading it; my mind alternating between this “Oh, OK, so that’s what was going on there” I’m-just-reading-a-Star-Wars-book-here mentality to occasional flashes of “Hey, wait, JESSE wrote this!”

Not bad, sir. Not bad at all.

The Starship and the Rocket: Star Trek, NASA & Me


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“Space… The Final Frontier…”

I am not where I am because of Star Trek.

You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.

For me, if anything, it was the opposite.

I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.

The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.

For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.

At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?

I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.

I never finished my Star Trek novel.

I have written two books about actual space.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.

It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.

Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.

I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.

Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.

But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.

NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.

To boldly go where no one has gone before.

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.

Apollo Moonlander Game


So back in the day, my coworker Tim Whitten created this moonlander game, using actual photos from the Apollo missions. It’s pretty cool, and to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t exist anywhere else now, so I thought I’d share it.

Apollo Moonlander Game

 

¡Vivir Con Miedo Es Como Vivir a Medias!


Another post from the Rocket City Bloggers Year-Long Blogging Challenge: “This week we get quasi-philosophical…what is your favorite quote?”

As I’ve no doubt mentioned ad nauseum here, I’m not a fan of favorites. To everything there is a season, right?

But if I had to pick a favorite movie, I’d go with “Strictly Ballroom.” It’s a small indie flick, but it’s the first film by Baz Luhrmann, who went on to do the Leo DiCaprio “Romeo and Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge” and the new “The Great Gatsby.” I first saw it when I was in college, reviewing movies for The Daily Mississippian, and immediately fell in love with it.

It remains a favorite, and I’ve inflicted it on countless people over the years. It’s been interesting to me how my thoughts on it have changed, however, in the almost 20 years since I first watched it. The artistic reasons I appreciate it remain evergreen — the timing, Luhrmann’s brilliant use of music, the color, etc. The story reasons … well, the older I get, the more the main characters just strike me as impetuous kids than heroes. But, most importantly, the movie still remains fun, and as long as it does, I’ll keep watching it.

But that wasn’t the question, was it? Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

So if I had to pick a favorite quote, which, again, I don’t want to have to do, I’ll go with one from my favorite movie.

“¡Vivir Con Miedo Es Como Vivir a Medias!”

Roughly, “A life lived in fear is like a life half lived.”

To be sure, part of my affection for it comes from the context: I like the movie, and I like the line in the movie. But, even so, it’s good stuff, you know? Not a bad thing to remember from time to time.

Possibly The Worst Book Tagline Ever?


Let me just note for the record, the tagline on the cover for Kevin O’Brien’s “Unspeakable reads “Words can’t describe what he does to his victims.”

Um …

Given that this book is nothing but words, that does mean the book can’t describe what happens in it?

“I wish I could tell you what happened next, but I can’t, so we’ll just have to skip ahead now.”

“And then, the killer did something. Let me just tell you, it was really bad. I can’t describe how bad, but, like, seriously, really bad.”

Who advertises that they’ve chosen to tell a story in a medium in which they’re incapable of telling it? Maybe next can we get an audiobook of mime?

OK, I’m done. Carry on.