We Stand With London


When Rebecca and I were planning our honeymoon, I photoshopped an image of her standing on Westminster Bridge in London to go on our wedding webpage.

On our first full day in London, two years ago last week, I took a picture of her standing in the very spot she was in that photoshop image.

We were discussing the other day a question about our favorite memories of our marriage, and I said mine very well may be that moment — we’d just gotten married, we were on our honeymoon, and we were on the other side of the world doing a thing we’d only dreamed of. It was surreal and inspiring. That moment redefined my sense of the possible.

That moment was dear to me. That spot is dear to me. London is dear to me.

It grieves me to see that city, that spot, come under attack.

But on my last trip to London, I made an odd sort of pilgrimage. I work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. A bust of Wernher von Braun stands within sight of my cubicle. Here, he’s the man who made the moon landings possible. London had a very different experience with Wernher von Braun, and I believed I owed it to myself to acknowledge that. I found and visited a block in London where people had died because of von Braun.

The Germans, with the V2s and the Blitzkrieg, believed they could terrify London into submission. They were grievously wrong.

During that time, King George VI said, “It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.”

It is a fool who believes he has the wherewithal to cause London to cower. Whatever it is a person might believe he is capable of, London has withstood worse.

I love London. I will return there.

We stand with London.

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.