Monday, 18 November 2013

Alligators and Spaceships - Florida 1998

Me an’ my girl - well, one of them - in Florida. October 1998.

Stephanie, at 14 years old, had one of those daft adolescent obsessions: she was collecting everything and anything dolphin-shaped. Her bedroom was crammed with such crap.

So, when we fixed on Florida as an exciting and exotic holiday destination, the notion of swimming with real-life dolphins arose. She swam like a fish herself, anyway; on a “swimathon” in Telford, she had gone on for mile after mile of slow, stately, streamlined lengths of the pool. Her shape is curvaceous and athletic, a shape inherited from her great grandmother Lilian Russell, a swimming champion before the Great War.

As a parent, it is most satisfying to make the dreams of one’s offspring come true. Stephanie absorbed all the instruction given by the Dolphin Centre staff, listening intently to the do’s and don’ts of relating to these intelligent mammals with an almost spiritual aura. They would be watching her through one beadly little observant eye as she looped around the pool. When it was all over, she was quiet and subdued – the tranquility of somebody on Cloud Nine.

(Could we just clear up an earlier statement – swam like a fish herself. I am well aware that dolphins are not fish. I have a recording of a four-year-old Stephanie talking to me over a picture-book. At one point, discussing the phenotypes of the animal kingdom she exclaims in a chirpy, musical, French-accented voice, “dass not a way-ull! Dass a big feesh!”)

Not a big feesh, and that's final!

Florida being, in the British mind, synonymous with theme parks – especially Disney-sodding-land – I was determined to make the experience more meaningful than going on a series of rides. Even the best theme park ride is little more than a short term thrill; you can hardly tell people about it back home; it is to adventure what fizzy pop is to real nutrition – all of the appearance and none of the reality. But this was Steph’s trip as much as mine, so we agreed that we would alternate between Dad-days and a Steph-days. But I would not set foot inside Disneyland; would not even pronounce the D-word. When I see grown men dressed up in cartoon outfits, transmitting cartoon body language, I have an urge to snatch the great mask off their heads, look them in the eye and scream, “You were not born to this demeaning work. You could be something noble such as a coal miner. There, you are free! Flee! Take wing my litle one!” Or sommat like that, anyway.

So on Dad-days, we had some adventure. Original experience not prescribed by any overcautious engineer with a degree in delivering British Standard Thrill Units to brain-dead and passive punters.

On one such Dad Day, we passed a shooting gallery. “D’you fancy it?” I asked Steph. We parked up, and entered through the glass doors, feeling a little self conscious. Would the place be full of aggressive gun-nuts? Stephanie was up for it in principle, and I confirmed with the warmongers inside that 14 was not too young to have a blast. “Oh, we have people as young as ten come here and shoot,” said the beefy moustachoied manager. So I asked Steph if she would like to have a blast. She declined.

They asked me what I would like to shoot with. Inside the glass cabinets was an obscene array of gunmetal-grey lethal hardware. Let us not forget that these weapons are made to kill living creatures, including human beings. Faced with such choice, such abundance, such a macho testosterene-filled sack of toys, I went in the opposite direction to the prevailing ethos and asked for the simplest gun they had.

“Oh, then how about a revolver? A twenny-two.” (Translation: How about a simple hand-gun as opposed to a feckin machine pistol that sprays bullets out like a hosepipe. How about a revolver, a thing with six bullets in a revolving chamber rather than a square magazine that slots into the handle and fires a dozen bullets in quick succession. How about a 22-calibre bullet (a tiny one) rather than a great big thing that would sit heavily in the palm of your hand?)

So I take my little handgun, my ear defenders, and my squalid little box of fifty bullets. I go forward into the shooting gallery. It is set up for six shooters (not six-shooters as in Billy the Kid, but six enthusiasts like me). The shooter stands in a sort of stall, like a horse in a race, with up to five like-minded people either side. Over to my right, Stephanie is watching through a plate-glass window. In front of me, maybe twenty yards away, is a cardboard target. I decide to stand lags apart with both hands on the pistol, which I believe I have heard referred to as the "Weaver Stance", and begin to fire at the target. It kicks lightly in my hands. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. I open the chamber as shown, spill out the empty shells into a bucket and (taking care to keep the weapon pointed downrange as instructed) and insert another six bullets. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Such fun!

As I am doing my modest thing, a person steps into the stall on my left. This is one serious dude. His gun is three times the size of mine. I think it is a Colt 45. When he fires his first shot, the noise hurts my ears, even through the ear defenders. He is theatrical. He fires with only one hand. BANG! He goes down one one knee, and blasts a shot off. BANG! I do not turn to look at him. I don’t want any trouble. This guy is Dead Eye Dick, or Dirty Harry, or Slim Pickens, or just another silly boy with a toy. Afterwards, Steph would say to me, “Daddy, your gun only sent out a bit of smoke, but that man’s gun had a great flame coming out of his.”

And then I hear an angry raised voice speaking to Dead Eye Dick. It is the Range Warden. “I told ya not to do that, ya goddam idiot! I told ya! Get the hell outta here!”

When I have finished popping away at my targets, and am safely away from the action, I ask the Range Warden what he had so exercised him. He angrily tells me that the man on my left had had a problem with his gun. It had stopped firing, and as a way of investigating had turned the gun towards himself and peered down the barrel.

 I ask the Range Warden if, in this land of crazy gunmen, he often had deranged local people doing dangerous things. “No!" he snarls in a gravelly voice, "He wassunt an American. He was an Englishman like you!” Oops!  


On another Daddy-Day, we drive across the width of the tongue of land that is Florida to Cape Canaveral. As a lad, the exploits of the Americans and their heroic astronauts filled me with admiration. I followed the Mercury programme with its solo astronauts, the Gemini programme with its pairs of astronauts, and the Apollo programme with its trios. After leaving the Earth’s orbit, and doing practise circles of the moon, they landed on it in 1969. For the next few years they went back, ever more ambitious, even driving around the dusty surface on “moon buggies” until dropping the whole thing.

Today, in 1998, there will be a Space Shuttle launch. The crew will consist of the usual fit scientists and military men in their thirties, but also the oldest man ever to go into space. John Glenn, or rather Senator John Glenn as he now is, was the first American to orbit the Earth in a Mercury capsule. (We should not forget that other Americans went into space before him, on so-called sub-orbital flights, strapped onto unreliable rockets designed to do little more than lob a nuke onto the Russkies. We are also not likely to forget that the Russkies beat them to orbit, with Yuri Gagarin circling around above their heads whilst America’s rockets exploded spectacularly on the launch pad time after time.)

And today, septuagenarian John Glenn was going up again, forty-plus years after he made history.

In the coastal towns around the Cape (renamed Cape Kennedy for a couple of decades until the notion of naming such features after recent dignitaries was declared unworthy) they had not seen such a turnout for many years. Amazingly, Space Shuttle launches had become routine! People had almost lost interest in the four-monthly launches of these wonderful machines. The crowd of sightseers has over the years been steadily dwindling, and the John Glenn mission was an exception, a pleasant reminder to the locals of past glories. They try to charge us to park in the sidestreets of their coastal villages. One young woman holds a placard inviting us to turn back to Jesus.

Looking out eastwards across the Atlantic, we await the launch with electric anticipation. At tee-minus-ten, the launch is suspended: some dickhead in a Cessna light aircraft is circling the launch pad too closely. We waited impatiently while they did what they had to do (maybe chasing him off with military jets). We could visualise the astronauts in their space suits, lying on their backs, breathing in the oxygen, tenser than us mere spectators. And then, thrillingly, the count recommences.

Through somebody’s car radio we hear the dramatic countdown. For me, the passage of time has never been so dramatic, so palpable, so irreversible. As the seconds drops from the thirties and twenties to the lower digits, an almighty yellow-white flame appears in the distance, and the crackling sound of superheated air reaches our ears, and the mighty spaceship muscles its way up, above the restraining gravity of Planet Earth, and gains speed poised on its sparkling burst of fire, and crackles off into the sky, into the distance, towards the horizon, leaving behind it a plume of passive smoke.

I could hardly contain myself. Emotions washed through me. I was struck by the contrast between the excruciating pain of the pre-launch delay and the bollocks-out action of the real launch. These Amercans  I thought,  they either don’t go for it or they go for it full-on! Next to me, my callow adolescent daughter was disdainfully wondering why these old guys get so carried away by such mundane things as a spaceship launch. Can’t he be like normal people, I imagine she was wondering, and get excited on a roller coaster?

In the course of sampling the different cuisines on offer, I had been shocked by the paucity of American cuisine. Wherever we went, it was lower than canteen food. Part way through our trip, we discovered Cuban cuisine, and Italian restaurants, and others. But there is no such ama-mull as authentic Yankee grub. The low point came in the …. wait for it…. International House of Pancakes, where a stack of floury slabs was placed in front of me. Maybe four thousand calories on my plate. A squalid jar of mock-maple syrup to pour upon it. After a quarter of this calorie-fest I was bloated, and had to stop, embarrassed at wasting enough food for three people, imagining my mother mentioning all the starving children in India.

On one occasion, in a Chinese restaurant, I was so impressed by the spectacular grub that I took a photo of my plate. When the eating was good, I would make “yummmm” sounds, like some theatrical luvvie. “Ohhhhh, yeeees!” Stephanie put me down with teenage skill: “Why can’t you just enjoy your food like normal people without making all this noise?!”

On Steph Days we did the theme parks. There were some spectacular rides and water slides that will last in my memory until… er… 1999.

And as part of Dad’s Days, we hit the famous Everglades. Situated at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, the Everglades slope downhill at a microscopically small rate. I mean the gradient is so slight it's literally as flat as a bowling green. The figure is something like an inch a mile. This has resulted in endless grassland, or maybe reedland, where the mosquito is king, and where the local indians were a hardy bunch indeed. I think they were called the Pepsi Cola tribe before the white men heroically wiped them out. Nineteenth century technology was more than a match for the snivelling stone-age barbarians that had occupied the continent for only a millennium or two.

We hired a canoe. To begin with I took the front position. We were hopeless. We could not go in a straight line along the twenty-metre-wide channel, literally hitting one side or the other. Whatever musclepower I expended we just could not advance in a straight line. We figured out that the rear oarsman had more control and so swapped places. Now we had it! Smooth and coordinated, we got up some good speed, and got out of the channel into a lake which was a bit choppy so we retreated back into our channel.

A guy came past in a powerboat, throttling right down out of courtesy, and said, "You guys seem to be working smoothly as a team", which was true. Our minds were frantically calculating moments of inertia around the centre of percussion, and drag limitation via minimal y-axis oscillation. Some, understandably, might say smoothly.

We noticed a little landing platform and parked up for a walk on a dry pathway among the mangroves. And then the mosquitos started on us. Our little stroll became a run and then a mad dash to try to outpace the bastards. I was trying to swat them from my face and legs and calves all at the same time, hopping and flailing and running and jumping. This was too much for Steph. She 'corpsed' - the sight of her crazy old man doing this deranged dance gave her a fit of the giggles and she couldn't run for laughing. The mossies made her pay for that, devouring her whilst standing stationary and shrieking with laughter. We later counted the bites on her legs: there were around a hundred.

Retreating back to the boat, and safety, we noticed a crocodile in the water, just eyes and snout showing, and an alligator basking on the bank. "Let's get a photo, Steph!" We approached a bit closer. "Still too far, Steph. A bit closer please!" Wicked swine that I am, I wanted to see a look of fear on her face before clicking the shutter.

Years later she confessed to hamming it up, feigning terror in order to make the fool behind her click his stupid camera.

On that Florida trip we had the most diverse fortnight imaginable. We met up with my sisters and Steph's little cousins; we drove through the tail end of Hurricane Mitch; heard our food being crunched in the darkness by cockroaches in fetid motel rooms; and survived to tell the tale!  


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