The Time We Were In A French Classic Car Rally


Laon, France. We visited Laon about a week into the trip, on our first full day in France; Tim thought (correctly) that Rebecca would enjoy seeing the 900-year-old cathedral there. I’d be tempted to combine Laon with some of the later French excursions, save that it was the site of one of our favorite stories of the trip.

The cathedral was built on the top of a mountain (a Huntsville-“mountain”-size mountain, at least), visible from miles away, and was surrounded there by the old city of Laon. Today, Laon is much larger, and the modern city has grown down the mountain and into the valley. As we’re passing through the new town toward the old town, we notice that it’s filling up with classic cars. We, however, are there for loftier things than a car show, so we continue on our way.

We visited Laon on a Sunday morning, so there was actually a church service taking place in the cathedral when we arrived. We joined some visitors who snuck quietly into the back, the beauty of the architecture complemented by the music of the voices raised in worship. When the service ended, we explored more fully a beautiful building that was in many ways a smaller version of Westminster or Notre Dame but still used primarily as a community church.

When we sat down to lunch in an Italian restaurant in the old town, the people next to us overheard us speaking English and spoke to us. English themselves, they were there for the car show, and assumed from the Alvis’ accents that we were as well. “What kind of car do you have?” Tim’s response that he was driving a Peugeot 308 was met with polite disdain, and their interest in us was extinguished. Quite all right, really.

We explore a bit more, including an old Knights Templar church, before finally being ready to leave. Tim heads down the road that should be the way out, down a hill on a one-way-street and under a bridge only to find barricades at the end of the short tunnel.

The car show, it turns out, has turned into a car rally, and the streets are blocked off to let it pass. Tim goes to ask the police officer how long we’ll have to wait, and is told four hours. At this point, more cars have pulled in behind us.

So Tim talks to the other drivers, and we succeed in all backing up the hill until we can finally turn around, and we begin looking for another way out. We finally came to another barricade, and Tim asked this officer how exactly we were supposed to get out of town.

The officer moved the barricade and let us through. Into the parade. Classic cars in front of us, classic cars in front of us, crowds gathered around, and us in our Peugeot 308. Which, to be sure, was a fine car that served us well on our travels, but isn’t exactly classic, per se.

The streets were lined with people watching the rally — cheering for the cars as they passed, taking pictures. Until we went past, and the cheering stopped and the cameras went down.

Tim and I were in the front seat; Rebecca and Mags were the in the back, and decided that they should make the most of the situation, so they began waving back to the crowd with proper waves that would have made the queen envious.

And, sure enough, the people began cheering again, and one or two pictures were even taken of the novelty of the 308 in the classic car rally.

We finally reached a point where we could make our escape, and got out of Laon as quickly as we could.

Laon was a beautiful city. The cathedral was amazing. The pizza was not bad at all. The templar church was a nice bit of history. It was a special experience, early in our time in France, being immersed in the architecture and language.

But we’ll always remember Laon for that time we were part of a French classic car rally.

Home Away From Home


So of course I would travel 4,000 miles from home, and go look for Twickenham and rockets. I’ve already written about going to “the other” Oxford and about seeing SLS in the London Underground, but one of the cool (and accidentally convenient) pilgrimages of the trip for me was getting our picture made with a Twickenham sign.

Early on and very briefly, Huntsville was named Twickenham — the “father of Huntsville” Leroy Pope’s namedropping nod to his famous poet cousin, Alexander Pope, one of the original Twickenham’s more famous sons. Since this was happening around the time of the War of 1812, pro-British sentiment wasn’t at an all-time high, and pro-Leroy-Pope sentiment wasn’t that great either, and the city was named for founder John Hunt instead.

The name has stuck around, however, and it still used fondly in talking about old/downtown Huntsville. As a fan of Huntsville history, I thought it would be neat to visit our city’s quasi-namesake. For logistic reasons, that visit was a selfie out the window at the train stop, but it was still a neat experience. (In doing some quick research, it looks like Huntsville is the only other place to have used the name.)

We also made a trip to the British science museum, which has a room dedicated to space. It was neat seeing an Apollo command module and some Saturn engines so far from home, but it was more interesting seeing the early-space-history stuff. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun and his V2 missiles than Huntsville did (one thing I wanted to do but failed to make happen on either of my London trips was to [knowingly] visit a V2 bombing site), and it was interesting seeing the difference in presentation. Honestly, what surprised me most wasn’t the more realistic depiction of the V2 as a war machine, but the graciousness with which von Braun was treated. They were far kinder about his place in history than one might have expected.

And, really, Iooking at the pictures, I think we’ve held up pretty well in the exchange — we’ve taken Oxford and Twickenham from them, and in return we’ve given them space ships. Not too shabby.

All the World’s A Stage


Catching up from the trip a bit more — So one of the things we realized we just weren’t going to be able to squeeze into the trip was a foray up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, which this year is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare. But, in honor of the anniversary, we did take in a few other sites and exhibits related to the Bard.
 
We revisited the New Globe Theater, built several years back just meters from the site of Shakespeare’s Globe. We’d gone by last year but were in a hurry, so we only walked around the outside and into the gift shop. This year, we were excited that we actually had the time to do a tour, but, of course, when we got there, tours were closed for rehearsals for an upcoming performance. (I was a little disappointed, also, that they didn’t have anything in the gift shop marking the 400-year anniversary.)
 
At Windsor Castle, there was a Shakespeare exhibit, including an original first folio, and then at the British Library they had a special exhibit on Shakespeare, which included not only the only known script with his writing, but also two of the only known six remaining examples of his signature. (You had to pay to see the exhibit, and we were running short on time so were afraid we couldn’t do it justice, but then realized that, even if those things were all we saw, the odds that we’d come back to the States and say “I’m so glad we saved a few bucks not seeing Shakespeare’s original handwriting” were about nil. If you ply your living working with the words of the English language, you owe a debt to Shakespeare.)
 
From the Globe, we made a quick trip further into Southwark for another literary pilgrimage to find the original site of the Tabard. It’s a little bit deeper cut than Shakespeare, but the real English lit nerds recognize the name:
 
“Bifil that in that seson, on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout courage…”
 
The general prologue from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was burned into my brain a quarter-century ago in Tish Hammer‘s English class at Huntsville High School, and on a good day, I can still breeze through more than 30 lines in the original language (which isn’t bad, considering we only had to memorize the first 18). We’d had another Chaucer encounter earlier in the trip, seeing his crypt at Westminster Abbey.
 
It made me really grateful for Mrs. Hammer and the other great English teachers I had at HHS. It really says something about a teacher than can inspire such interest that decades later on the other side of the ocean I want to take the time to track down a small marker in a shady alley to find something we studied in her class. (Similar side trips were made in Oxford to find Lewis Carroll sites, inspired by a video project Jasons Smith and Hutchinson and I made for Mrs. Guerin’s AP English class.)
 
I’m very blessed that I enjoy what I do for a living. I love the subjects I get to write about at work, but I also love just the shear act and art of storytelling. And without a doubt, there that love of language and story owes a huge debt to teachers I had at Huntsville High.

From Oxford to Oxford


So while almost all of our England/France trip was vacation, a really neat opportunity popped up during the planning that I had to take advantage of — a conference about deep-space CubeSats at the University of Oxford.
 
For those that don’t know (and Facebook was really insistent that instead of CubeSats, I probably meant cubists, which would have been an entirely different thing), CubeSats are small satellites ranging from a little larger than a softball to a couple of lunch boxes put together. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on with CubeSats in Earth orbit now, but this conference was focused on using them for interplanetary missions. Huge potential, but the trick is getting them there. Conveniently, we’re building a rocket that’s going to be launching 13 deep-space CubeSats the first time it flies. (No planned cubist launches at this time, though.) So the folks at work agreed that it would be worthwhile to go and build some relationships with people in this relatively new field.
 
And, yes, it was professionally very gratifying to help build those bridges, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also very very cool on a personal level. I mean, I went to college in Oxford, just not that one. The opportunity to give a presentation at a 350-year-old theater in “the other Oxford”? Yeah, that’s kind of awesome.
 
I put on my Oxford shoes, because that’s the sort of nerd I am. (I realized that I left an Oxford comma out of my presentation. #APforLife!) We spent the night in the converted prison of a thousand year old castle. We ate lunch were Tolkien and CS Lewis hung out with their writer friends. I saw where the OED is edited. We saw the lamppost and faun decoration that supposedly inspired Narnia. (Rebecca got to see some cool Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter stuff while I was NASA-ing.) I saw posters for a talk Buzz Aldrin was giving in the same theater the next week. (He often shows up places after I’m there. I guess he’s comfortable being second.) I bought some Oxford gear to wear the next time I’m in Oxford. I randomly told Rebecca “Hotty Toddy” from time to time.
 
‘Cause, you know, my Oxford may not be that Oxford, and that Oxford is probably a bit more prestigious, maybe. But I wouldn’t have been at that Oxford if it weren’t for my Oxford and folks like Joe Atkins and Robin Street and Samir Husni and Judy Crump. So, yeah, you know what, Hotty Toddy.
 
There was a neat bit of serendipity around the talk, too. Boeing’s Above and Beyond exhibit is at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, and the first time we went into London after we got back from France, we saw a poster for it in Fenchurch Street Station. A poster featuring NASA’s Space Launch System. When we went to Oxford, we were seeing that poster everywhere — the train stations, tube stations, newspapers. It was incredibly, incredibly encouraging to be seeing the rocket randomly and ubiquitously on the other side of the pond. Maybe the word is getting out. But the timing was nice, too. Here I was, over in England, getting ready to go talk about the rocket at a conference in Oxford, and the rocket had come to London to wish me luck.
 

Never the Same River Twice


A year ago today, Rebecca were saying goodbye to Mag and Tim Patrick Alvis as they prepared to head to the Memphis airport for their flight home to England after a month with Rebecca’s aunt and uncle, Amy and Tim Alvis. Before they left, the England Alvises said again, as the couple of times we say them during their stay, that we should come and stay with them at their home outside London.
 
Saturday morning, we were saying goodbye to Mag and Tim as we prepared to head home on our flight back to the States after three weeks staying with them.
 
Tim and Mag happened into our lives completely randomly. He struck up an online friendship with Rebecca’s uncle after looking on Facebook to see who had the same name as he. When they found out last year that we were coming to London for the honeymoon, they offered to show us around one day, and gave us tickets to the Tower of London as a wedding present. A couple of months later, they were in the US visiting Rebecca’s family, and a year later we were staying with them in England. And their campsite in France.
 
We owe the trip entirely to them, both for hosting us and for encouraging us to do it; we would never have thought to undertake something like this on our own, but it was an amazing experience. So we’re incredibly grateful for those reasons that they happened into our lives. But we’re also grateful they happened into our lives because we’re so glad we have gotten to know them.
 
On the honeymoon, they were basically the first people we really spent any time with after the wedding, and we could not have asked for a better couple to be around as newlyweds. After half a century together, Tim and Mag seemed like newlyweds themselves. We got that impression immediately in that first day together last year, but staying with three weeks confirmed that not only was that first impression accurate, it was, if anything, understatement. I hope that we can age together so well.
 
They were incredibly gracious hosts to us, and did so much to make sure our trip was amazing. We loved getting to spend time with them (and the interesting folks they introduced us to).
 
Last year, on the honeymoon, we took a tour boat with them on the Thames as we were sightseeing. Two months later, we were on a boat with the same couple on the Mississippi, which seemed a rare and special thing. A couple of weeks ago, we were on a boat with them on the Seine.
 
I hope that someday we can find ourselves on a boat with them on some new river somewhere else in the world.

Walking The Great War


The first year I did the Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll, I portrayed the second governor of Alabama, Thomas Bibb. The second year, the regular Bibb portrayer returned, and so I was assigned a new character.
 
To be honest, I was a little disappointed with the change. Bibb was a more fun story than Turner Mayes, a local man who died in World War I, and I felt that I’m not the greatest fit for the character — I’m twice his age and twice his mass. But for the last three years, while I’ve occasionally checked on the availability of other characters, I’ve tried to do the best by Turner I could.
 
I was surprised by how immediate and present the Great War was during our trip, particularly the week we spent in France. I had an academic understanding of where and when and how the war was fought, but it did nothing to prepare me for how it had touched and scarred every where we went. There was perhaps more awareness in these centennial years, but the reminders and effects are permanent.
 
It had a particular impact visiting the site where the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” armistice that ended World War I was signed; at the museum there we saw images and artifacts of the war from throughout France. My travels did not take me to the places Turner walked, but here I saw where he had been. Between the places I visited and the things I saw there, and the stories of the family I stayed with, for whom the war had cost relatives only two generations back, Turner’s story became a little more real. A little more concrete. A little more visceral.
 
I won’t be asking about a different character for the Stroll this year. If I portray Turner Mayes for as long as I do the Stroll, it will still be the smallest token of deserved respect and gratitude.

Europa and Eupora


Europa

This is Europa. It’s a moon.

Europa is a moon of Jupiter. Planetary scientists believe that underneath a shell of ice there may be twice as much liquid water as is on the planet Earth.

Eupora is a town in Mississippi. In the 2010 census, it had a population of 2,197.

Eupora depot

This is Eupora. It’s a town.
(Well, this is the old depot in the town of Eupora.)

What do they have in common? As best as I can tell, pretty much just me.

Sixteen years ago, I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Eupora. Today, I support the development of a rocket that could be used to send a probe to Europa. And I think that may be the only point of commonality between the two.

Last week, I was back in Mississippi around the test firing of an engine for that rocket at Stennis Space Center; the longest I’ve spent in the state in nine years.

Driving down, I had some extra time, so I drove to the Stennis area the slow way. I get back to Mississippi fairly often, and revisit most of my old stomping ground at least every couple of years. But last week I also had the opportunity to pass through towns that were the exception to that, places I hadn’t visited in 16 years.

I stopped at two newspaper offices and met current caretakers of publications I’d been general manager of. You hear a lot about the decline of the newspaper industry, but word hasn’t reached Ackerman, Mississippi. The town has a population of about 1,500 people, and still supports a weekly newspaper. (In those places where the newspaper focuses on local news, the local community still supports it.)

Huntsville is and to some extent always will be home. But Mississippi is and always will be a part of me. Time I spend there is restorative.

My first full day down there last week, someone asked me why I’d gotten in so late. As soon as I answered, I realized that the answer to that question was also my biography — I’d gotten to NASA via a long and winding road through Mississippi with detours through small towns and stops at several newspapers.

I had a great time at Stennis last week. The engine test was amazing, and I was honored to get to be there for it.

But I also had a great time getting to Stennis last week. It was so nice to have the opportunity to revisit places that helped make me who I am.

I’m grateful for where I am.

I’m grateful for the journey that brought me here.

I look forward to the day we reach Europa. But I’ll never forget the days I spent in Eupora.