It took me a while to write this one, but here it is, with lots of art!
As I crawled into bed Thursday night after a long day of remembrances, a feeling of excitement began to come over me. The hard part of the trip was done and we were looking at two days of an impromptu family vacation in my hometown.
It’s something of a pet peeve for me that for many people, “Family Vacation” plus “Southern California” equals “Disneyland.” Now don’t get me wrong. I like The Mouse as much as the next guy…well maybe not that much…but I don’t really have anything against it. It’s just Disneyland is fake and expensive when there is so much more to see and do in L.A.
We were staying in La Puente, a bedroom community out at the east end of the San Gabriel Valley. It was not one of my usual haunts growing up and I knew nothing about it. Still, we found a hotel with suites and breakfast at a pretty good price, so it worked for us. This was our starting point for our adventures. The first stop was going to be Exposition Park, except I messed up on the interchange from the 605 Freeway to the 10. So we took a roundabout route through the foothill communities and then through downtown…with a trip through “The Donut Hole”, a drive through donut shop (L.A. seems to have a lot of donut shops, by the way. I’d never noticed that before. Burger stands? Yes. Donut shops? Who knew?) shaped like a donut on either end of the drive through, and a stop in Arcadia for Starbucks. Ironically, it was across the street from the other hotel we had considered.
So, rather than three freeways to Expo Park, the 605, the 10 and the 110 if you’re keeping score, we took 6, the 605, the 210, the 134, the 2, the 5 and the 110. Before long, we were inundated with the crimson and gold of USC as we made our way from the freeway to the parking structure for the California Science Center.
When I was a kid, the California Science Center was the California Museum of Science and Industry. It was okay for a free museum, but really nothing that special. Now it has a space shuttle, but more on that later.
It also has the A-12, mounted on the grounds. What? You’re not an aerospace buff and don’t know what the A-12 is? It was the trainer for the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. In other words it looks like a space ship.
This is about when the kids became hooked. Aside from donuts and Starbucks, we’d spent nothing. The parking attendant had even let us off the hook because we didn’t have any cash. I tried to pay as we left, but there was no one attending to the exit.
We actually went past the California Science Center, which was alive with school groups and walked past the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, also festooned in crimson and gold (grrr…I’m a UCLA fan) and headed for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.
I’d spent quite a bit of time here in my youth. My mom had worked across the street, so I took science classes during a couple of school breaks. It was the place in L.A. to see dinosaur fossils, and I’d spent my junior year in high school as part of a National Science Foundation research apprenticeship studying the overwintering ecology of Monarch butterflies.
I weighed and measured them, check the sex (you can tell by wing patterns; no magnifying glasses needed) and checked to see if the females were expecting. Then, I put stickers on the wings so we had a chance of tracking their north and eastward migration in the spring.
In all that time, I don’t think I really got to appreciate how great a museum it is. It’s undergoing final renovations for its centennial, and they’ve upgraded the dinosaur exhibits quite impressively. The Allosaurus and Stegosaurus that were locked in mortal combat in the main atrium had been moved to the new dinosaur hall and replaced by a Tyranosaurus Rex and my favorite, a Triceratops. It was here that Harry put his dad to shame in a conversation with a docent about how to tell the difference between the two predators. Apparently the Allosaurus has three fingers to the T-Rex’s two.
That kid’s been watching too much Dinosaur Train.
As impressive as the new Dinosaur Hall and the Age of Mammals exhibit, which we only glimpsed in passing, are, the thing that really struck me about the museum was the old stuff. The megamouth shark and the oarfish were still in their cases. I’m guessing that any attempt to re-display them differently would have hastened their decay, so they were there, just as they’d always been, biological oddities for museum-goers to stumble upon between the marquee exhibits.
The North American and African Mammal halls were just as I remembered them; tributes to taxidermy from a time before wildlife conservation but not before the thirst for knowledge of the natural world. I could spend hours there, wandering from diorama to diorama, each beautifully painted to create a picture of each animal in its natural habitat. The background paintings are considered works of art in and of themselves.
The animals don’t move. There are no animatronics or sound effects. They’re not needed. Their reality speaks for itself and literally stares you in the face.
The museum itself is a work of art. Its architecture combines Spanish Renaissance, Romanesque and Beaux Arts styling. The floors, the columns, even the elevator doors combine to give a sense of grandeur, of history. The footsteps sounding through the galleries echo the tread of prehistoric predators. The fossilized skeletons have far more power and import than some mechanized robot covered in what someone thinks the animal’s skin looked like.
In the rotunda stands a stature of The Three Muses representing the disciplines of art, history and science. Together, they hold aloft a lighted sphere, representing enlightenment (I would assume). That’s the feeling you get in the Natural History Museum. It’s big and grand. You walk through the doors, and you are practically assaulted with the feeling, the certainty that the knowledge you are about to glean in those grand galleries is valuable, critically important to the enlightenment and advancement of humanity.
We didn’t have time to see everything we wanted to see. We skipped the gem collection, the insect zoo and the Becoming Los Angeles exhibit. We had a space shuttle to see.
If the Natural History Museum stands as a monument to the knowledge gleaned from investigating the natural world and human interactions with it, the California Science Center is all about the application of that knowledge to the future. It’s sleek and shiny. There are jet fighters hanging in the atrium. It’s filled with interactive exhibits. But those exhibits were not our destination.
Growing up, the Space Shuttle was the pride of the aerospace industry, and the orbiters were assembled in Southern California. Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was heavily involved in the science around the shuttle. Early in the program, before they built a long enough runway in Florida, the shuttles landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert. Sometimes, depending on the approach route, the twin sonic booms that marked the orbiters’ reentry into the atmosphere would echo across the southland and reach my young ears. I remember, in detail, learning about the loss of the Challenger, just as my mom remembered the Kennedy assassination, and my dad Pearl Harbor.
So it was with jealousy that I watched the Facebook posts roll in from my friends in LA, a wildly diverse group in every way you can imagine, united in their excitement as they chronicled the return of the Space Shuttle Endeavor to its final home in Los Angeles last fall. First came pictures from all over the southland of the orbiter’s on the back of a 747 escorted by a pair of T-38’s flying low and slow in a grand tour of the Los Angeles basin. Then there was the land segment in which Endeavor was towed through the city streets from the airport to the California Science Center. Crowds lined the route to witness Endeavor’s final voyage.
For a generation, Endeavor and her sisters, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis, had embodied that impulse as old as humanity itself to reach skyward. The orbiters were meticulously designed and built, using every bit of relevant knowledge gleaned over millennia of scientific inquiry. Time and again, the sisters were hurled skyward, powered on their missions of discovery by rocket fuel and audacity. Time and again they returned on mighty wings engineered to protect them the heat of reentry and the fate of Icarus.
Twice, they didn’t make it back. Twice our nation mourned. Twice, we returned to space, wiser, but no less bold.
And then the surviving sisters were retired.
We journeyed up an escalator, through a number of exhibits about the shuttle, including a virtual reality shuttle simulator which the kids enjoyed thoroughly, down another escalator and finally across a breezeway and into Endeavor’s temporary home.
We walked in, and there it was, mounted above us, massive, scarred, and inspiring. The kids thought it was cool, but Alissa and I were struck by the emotional impact of seeing a shuttle up close. We could make out the heat-resistant tiles. There were scorch marks from reentry on white fuselage. All the hatches and access ports were visible, as were the tiny cockpit windows and the massive exhaust nozzles of Endeavor’s engines.
All along the wall were pictures of each shuttle crew. I didn’t remember all of them. Young and Crippen from STS 1 stuck in my mind. Sally Ride, breaking the gender barrier was there, as was John Glenn’s return to space. The doomed crews of Challenger and Columbia were shown in black and white.
The iconic images of the shuttle program came to life in that room, from the first satellite launch, to the use of the robot arm to un-tethered EVA’s in the manned maneuvering unit. The launch and repair of the Hubble and the construction of the International Space Station helped us look back to the origins of the universe and forward to a future in which humanity is no longer earth-bound.
In one corner of the room, next to a case with high end scale models of the shuttle fleet there’s a small display showing the future of the exhibit. It’s just a architect’s mockup, but what it shows, what it predicts is beyond awesome. It shows a building that features a spiral ramp circling around the shuttle. But the shuttle isn’t mounted horizontally. It’s in launch configuration with the orange external fuel tank and the white solid rocket boosters. It appears to be an open-air display that would make Endeavor a permanent part of the Los Angeles skyline. Maybe it’s just a dream, but if it is, it’s a dream worth reaching for.
It was time to go, but the science center does a great job of self-promotion. To get out from the Space Shuttle exhibit, you have to go through the new ecosystems exhibit which could warrant a visit all its own. And the admission is free! They do suggest a five dollar donation, and even at that rate, it’s a steal.
We had dinner plans, but we had hopes of a little downtime in the hotel in between. However, we accidentally caught the 60 freeway out of Expo Park and began a slow crawl eastward. It was as if it was Friday afternoon and everybody was going home from…oh….
Compared to Seattle, the L.A. weather was positively balmy, but it was still late winter and the day had ranged from sunny to partly cloudy with occasional showers. But as we made our way out of downtown with the rest of the world, the clouds rolled in to blanket us in gray. The slow pace, the warm car, and the leaden skies quickly lulled everyone else into much-needed naps.
There weren’t a lot of landmarks for me to relate to in this part of the city, but there was one; a Sears warehouse. It even made an appearance in a song on a CD that I once bought from the singer at a coffee house in Sierra Madre. As a complete work, the CD is something of a love song for L.A, a reminder of my hometown.
Of course, the warehouse wouldn’t have stood out in the song if it didn’t carry memories for me. I’ve never been there, but my dad worked nearby at the L.A. County Metro-East office. On occasion, I’d go to work with him, spinning on his office chair, going on rounds to collect mail with him, and helping him run letters through the postage meter. (I don’t think those childhood experiences, led me to work for four years in my college post office, but one never knows.)
It was a long drive from Eagle Rock to East L.A., but the sight of that Sears warehouse was a sure sign that a spinning chair and a postage meter were close by.
What was not close by was our hotel. We were not going to get that break, so when we came across the exit for the road that traversed the San Gabriel Valley all the way to our destination, I took it.
And so it was that we found ourselves at the home of a mouse; not that mouse, mind you, but another famous one. This one is in the business of letting kids be kids and separating their parents from their money for “pizza” (I use the term loosely) and video games. Oh, and he has an animatronic band, although they did not play while we were there.
Our dinner hostess (since she unexpectedly insisted on paying (Thanks, Karen!)) was there when we arrived. She’s a good friend from college. We had somewhat overlapping majors (Politics and Public Policy), but more importantly she was one of the officers who worked tirelessly to get our college’s Circle K Club (not the convenience store) off the ground, and most importantly, she was part of a close knit group of friends who formed out of that service club and are still in touch with each other to this day, even if we are rarely, if ever, all in the same place.
It was good to see her and to catch up a little. She was two weeks out from running the L.A. marathon. We chatted and ate “pizza” until “midnight” began looming, threatening to turn our two charming little mogwai into very tired and cranky gremlins. (And it wouldn’t even take feeding them after midnight.) The time was too short, but parental responsibility demanded that we get our kids to bed.
An hour, a shower, and a bedtime routine later, I was with two more friends, one from that same Circle K group and one from elementary school who had been my best man, having drinks and appetizers at Denny’s, an echo of a scene played out far too many (from a dietary perspective) and far too few times (because it was time with friends and there can never be enough of that) in our early adulthood.
The conversation was far from earth-shattering. It was more catching up and sharing experiences. These two knew everything. They’d been there through everything that passed for drama in my life, he since third grade and she since my sophomore year in college, and I’d been there for theirs. They knew the context, the larger arc of my life story, and I theirs, so we could pick up right where we left off.
As I crawled into bed that night, I felt exhausted. It had been a long day, a whirlwind through the city with which I will always identify. But in reality, it had been too short. I wanted more. I would get more the next day, not nearly enough, but more.