Radioactive Memory Lane

Because of the usual subject matter and the historical distance typically involved, it’s rare that the arrival of a new wargame here at the Swamp Bunker gives me pause for a personal stroll down memory lane. Recently, though, I’ve had one of the games from Strategy and Tactics 263 — Wurzburg Pentomic — on the Big Table and it’s sent me mentally wandering back to the days of the Mushroom Cloud Menace.

When I was a kid growing up in Clermont, one of our next-door neighbors had a fallout shelter on his property. This was circa 1969 and a lot of the nuke scare had passed, so the thing may well have been stuffed full of empty beer bottles — but still, there it was right in his front yard: A little reminder of the Great Game that was playing out on the global field between ourselves and our Soviet buddies sitting just on the far side of the polar ice cap.

These days it’s hard to imagine growing up in a world that was so sanguine about the probability of nuclear warfare. Clermont was dotted with family-sized fallout shelters. Some of the local public facilities like the library, city auditorium and the high school gym were still labelled with the appropriate Civil Defense signage. Most of the adults I grew up around clearly remembered that Florida wasn’t exactly Fun Central during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We were beyond the era of “duck and cover” drills in school, but not by much. The high schools still taught a (mandatory) class called “Americanism Versus Communism”. Leonid Brezhnev was the bogeyman on the nightly news; less entertaining than Nikita Kruschev but also somewhat more stable, albeit in an under-handed, bogeyman sort of way.

The Cold War was in full swing and by my understanding at the time, the Soviets made great antagonists. Their alphabet was indecipherable and their spoken language sounded just plain weird. They had Siberia, T-62 tanks, borscht and advisors helping shoot down American aircraft in Vietnam. Bad. Guys.

Being a kid, of course, it’s not exactly like I walked around all day scanning the skies for the tell-tale contrails of approaching atomic doom. Nuclear devastation was a fairly remote concept. During a visit with one of my uncles who was a missile silo commander at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, I remember tooling around with him in one of their training simulators — completely oblivious to what I was ‘simulating’ when I turned my launch key at the end of our countdown. For me, it was just a very cool way to play at launching rockets.

Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I’m really happy that my uncle wasted all of those taxpayer dollars and never had to do his job outside of a simulator.

Once we were giants

We took the kid off to Kennedy Space Center for the weekend and it reminded me of something: I really have a love-hate relationship with Florida’s Space Coast.

I love visiting KSC and environs because I grew up during the Great Space Race and it reminds me of all the amazing things our country did when I was a youngster. I hate visiting KSC and environs because it hits me in the face with the fact that we’re not doing those amazing things anymore.

One of the places my wife wanted us to visit was Space View Park in downtown Titusville. She stumbled onto the place by accident on the morning of the last Atlantis launch when she took Juan Carlos over to see the thing go up. Even devoid of the thousands of people who jammed the place on launch day it’s an interesting little slice of history.

I’d never been to the park before. It’s a lot smaller than I thought from watching the video she shot during the launch. It’s a long, thin strip of land that runs from the north side of town out to the coast. Viewed from the town side, it points directly at the distant Launch Complex 39 and the VAB. The neatly-kept walkway is populated with various memorials to America’s astronauts and space missions, including a very nice memorial to the Gemini program just yards from the sea shore.

On the day of Atlantis’ launch, it was packed with thousands of people who had come down to the coast to watch one of America’s final shuttle launches. Last Saturday, there were six people at the park: Four members of my family and two drunks trying to bum lights for their smokes from the shade of a picnic shelter. Three more drunks were fishing from the far end of the pier at nearby Veterans Park (which includes the Project Mercury memorial) until one of them toppled into the ocean.

That sort of sums up America’s interest in space exploration and science very neatly, doesn’t it? When something ‘big’ is happening, tens of thousands turn up. The rest of the time it’s a neatly-kept facade that looks a little run down but still gets a lot of respect from a few Average Joes who remember better days — even though the people really in charge are basically a bunch of drunks lolling around cussing and falling into the smelly, mucky coastal flats.

Of course, we are the Nation of Short Attention Spans. Hundreds of millions watched Apollo 11. Hundreds of thousands watched Apollo 12. The TV networks cancelled the prime-time broadcast from Apollo 13.

If you paid attention to the Great Space Race back in the 60s and 70s, then you remember the vision promoted by all of the Big Corporate Space Vendors. There were books, fliers, pamphlets, film shorts and major motion pictures stuffed with space stations, moon shuttles, hydroponic domes and moon bases. Thousands of Average Joes living and working in space and on the moon, using science and technology to build a better world.

‘They’ promised us moonbases and what we got instead was a flock of dithering political hacks who can’t even pronouce “ineptitude”, let alone spell it.

But I digress.

Even when it wasn’t beat to crap by major road construction, downtown Titusville was getting a bit dusty and seedy. Saturday afternoon downtown was very quiet — no foot traffic, only a few optimistic businesses open and most of the place looking like it had just received a fresh blast from the sugar sand cannon. So much for Spaceport America.

Across the bridge and on into the space center, things are only a little better. The Visitors Center has some great ‘content’ — don’t get me wrong — but a bunch of it isn’t quite up on current events. There’s a lot of ‘flying Constellation back to the moon” action going on. Understandable, to an extent, but even that’s a bit aggravating because I was never a big fan of the space program reaching for something it’s already grasped.

The Astronaut Hall of Fame is an interesting mix of Space Memorial and Science Museum. Or at least it used to be. On this visit I couldn’t help but notice that more than half the ‘simulators’ had fallen into disrepair and no longer worked and that one of the main theaters was suffering an air conditioning failure. Most of the visitors in the place were foreign tourists, so I  wondered what they thought about the current state of America’s space program.

It also didn’t escape my notice that the indoor gun range at the Police Hall of Fame across the street had about three times as many ‘customers’ as the Astronaut Hall of Fame. It has a cool armored car parked out front, though.

A little stuck in time

OK, how weird is this? With all of the new – and sometimes not-so-new – wargames sitting unplayed in the game closet, all of the sudden I’m having flashbacks from the Wayback Machine. It’s one of those middle-age things, isn’t it? I’m fiddling around with something on the Big Table, or maybe just starting to read the rules to a new game, when I am irresistibly seized with the urge to pull down and paw through one of my golden oldies.

Mind you, I am NOT a hoarder. I’m not even much of a ‘collector’. My game closet may still have space for the first two wargames I ever owned, but many of my other early game acquisitions moved out long ago.

Some months back I blogged a little about the second wargame I purchased, the SPI flat-pack “Barbarossa”. Today I’d like to wax all poetical about my first wargame, “Tank!”, which is an SPI flatpack from back in the mid-70s.

“Tank!”, designed by Jim Dunnigan, was originally published as a magazine game in issue 44 of Strategy & Tactics. The flat-pack version I purchased was published a bit later and included expanded rules and additional counters.

It’s funny how some things stick in your memory. I was barely aware of the existence of things called “wargames” when I spotted the Tank! flat-pack sitting on a bottom shelf with the history titles at a Waldenbooks store in the Altamonte Mall. I was instantly smitten. I couldn’t fork over my $7 fast enough and get the heck out of there. Whatever book I had been hunting was immediately forgotten. In the space of just a few minutes I became a life-long wargaming addict.

I’m surprised mall security didn’t lock me up for vagrancy. I sat in my trusty Volkswagen Squareback out in the mall parking lot and read every last scrap of the rules – the ‘basic’ rules folder and the ‘advanced’ booklet. When did they invent cool games like this? What had I been missing? How many more were there?

The generic map for Tank

The generic map for Tank

Subscriptions to magazines like S&T and Moves were still in the future and $7 spare cash was tricky to come by in those days, so every game I bought got an extensive workout. I conned like-minded buddies into playing. I scribbled pages of notes and home-brew variants. The whole wargame concept was truly mind-blowing. I considered it one of the greatest creative achievements to ever roll off of a printing press, only one small step below the full-color Playboy centerfold in the hierarchy of print media wonders.

The main countersheet for Tank. The expansion added another small sheet.

The main countersheet for Tank. The expansion added another small sheet.

With the advantage of 35 years of hindsight (and a few advances in the art of game design), sure, some of the game’s mechanisms seem a bit wonky. The old ‘Panic’ rules were an early attempt to introduce some chaos into game-play. ‘Panic’ was fumbly and gamey, but at least somebody was trying. And, as game designers have subsequently learned, no matter how you try to bring a sense of the chaotic battlefield into a game, many gamers are NEVER going to like any game that takes even one, single, well-planned movement point out of their absolute control.

Simultaneous movement was featured in a number of 70s-era SPI games, including Tank!. That could have worked out better, too. Looking at my old notes, I guess we home-brewed something akin to alternating activations pretty quickly. I also still have a couple of the old SPI ‘Si-Move’ pads up in the closet somewhere.

Tank! was a pretty ambitious design, all things considered. It tried to span the breadth of armored warfare systems across a 40-year period of intense technological change. It didn’t quite get everything right, but back in the day I thought it was definitely ‘in the neighborhood’ of what it set out to accomplish. It was also a great platform for home-brew tweaks. A few hundred hours of entertainment later, that $7 investment sure seems like a good deal.

Día de mi familia

For most folks in these United States, the almost-holiday of Halloween isn’t much of a holiday at all – and it hardly bears any philosophical importance of note beyond, perhaps, deep debates about how many pieces of sugary candy somebody can eat in a day before they develop instantaneous diabetes.

Around our little slice of swamp, however, Halloween is a red-letter day. But that’s not because we’re an uncontrollable mob of candy-lovers, or because we’re stoked with anticipation of Pastor’s upcoming All-Saints Day sermon.

The morning of October 31, 2005 was chilly and rainy as my wife and I stood outside the US Embassy in Guatemala City, trying to keep our 8-month-old son warm and dry while simultaneously digging through our paperwork to find the appointment slip demanded by Mister Whackenhut Guard with a Shotgun and an Attitude.

Oct. 31, 2005. Dressed up to meet Uncle Sam.

Halloween, 2005. Dressed up to meet Uncle Sam.

I was pissed off, to put it mildly; pissed off in a very special look-you-little-shit-I’m-an-American sort of way. It was 8 a.m., cold, and raining on my wife and baby and here I was debating civics lessons with a snotty, five foot tall rent-a-cop just to gain access to my own damned embassy.

Our embassy experience wasn’t exactly a jolly welcome to Guatemala’s little slice of the land of the free and the home of the brave. The place was a cold and imposing urban fortress, guarded not by nattily-attired US Marines but by some seriously unhelpful local security grunts. The Whackenhut Ranger was getting just as soaked as we were, though, so after we produced the appointment slip we were allowed to make our way through the metal detectors and concrete truck-bomb barriers and into the embassy.

After 10 days in Guatemala City, we had only managed to gain our 8:30 a.m. interview appointment by dint of a small miracle. A few days earlier we had been told that the embassy staff couldn’t possibly find time for our 10-minute interview any earlier than Nov. 14. Since we didn’t fly back down to Guatemala until the embassy had informed us our appointment would be within a week, we were extremely aggravated to discover ‘one week’ actually meant ‘three weeks, maybe’.

And then – a minor miracle. Just moments after receiving anxious inquiries about our case from the offices of US Rep. Cliff Stearns and US Sen. Bill Nelson, the embassy staff discovered they had an open appointment much earlier.

Never, ever underestimate the political power of four registered-voter grandparents armed with telephones.

As our embassy interview concluded and we handed over the requisite paperwork, the staffer informed us that our son’s visa would be issued that afternoon at 2:30 p.m. She handed me another appointment slip for the Whackenhut Rangers. I couldn’t help notice that behind her, in the easily-visible embassy offices, most of the rest of the staff was very busy decorating the place for Halloween.

“You’re not closing up early today for any sort of Halloween party, are you?” I asked nervously. By many accounts of some fellow Americans we had met, the embassy kept notoriously spotty hours and seemed to close up and cancel appointments whenever they felt like it.

“Probably not,” she shrugged.

Great. Don’t mind us. We only have a flight back home booked tomorrow.

All-American Halloween 2009.

All-American Halloween 2009.

When we returned around 2 p.m., the embassy lobby was a good deal more crowded. Most of the Guatemalans waiting for their visas were at the very end of a process that had stretched across years. We shared their anxiety as the embassy staff called out names in groups of 6 or 7.

2:30 came and went. Then it was 2:45. 3:00 p.m.

“They close at four, don’t they?” my wife and I asked each other about ten times in five minutes.

3:15 p.m. and another group of names. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, Foster.”

The embassy staffer behind the little window smiled as we propped Juan Carlos up on the counter. She was wearing a nice set of vampire fangs. We encountered a lot of people – adults – sporting fangs that day. No ‘Dracula’ costumes or anything like that. Just fangs.

It took away a little something of the Cecile B. Demille drama of the moment, I must say, to be handed our son’s visa documents by a fanged functionary.

But there it was. A thick manilla envelope with an embassy seal over the flap, to be handed – unopened – to an immigration officer at the airport in the US.

As we left the embassy it was still cloudy and crappy outside. The Whackenhut Rangers were dispersing the line at the security checkpoint because the embassy was getting ready to close. I checked my watch. 3:45 p.m., October 31, 2005.

It was official. We were a family.

July 20, 2009

We normally run a pretty tight vacation schedule at Swamp Base Foster. All of our various adventures are planned far in advance, primarily so we can get the best deals from the cruise line. This year, however, one of my ten days off almost slipped through.

A couple of weeks ago my wife realized I still had a day to use before it vanished at the end of the month. I scheduled it quickly for July 17 (with nothing planned). Since our 4-year-old has lately been enthralled by all of the ‘space stuff’ associated with the recent shuttle launch and space walks, we decided it was good timing for a trip over to Kennedy Space Center.

But does he have the Right Stuff?

But does he have the Right Stuff?

A few days out, however, work-folks asked me if I could re-schedule to Monday owing to some scheduling conflicts. No problem, as we hadn’t yet firmed up any plans.

So it was by sheer scheduling accident that we found ourselves at the Space Center on the 40th anniversary of mankind’s first landing on the moon.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a Florida resident for 40-plus years, I had visited the Space Center proper exactly once – back in the early 70s as the moon program unwound due to public ennui. There wasn’t much to show at the time. A sense of history had yet to grip NASA. At the time the agency was also struggling with some serious budget cutbacks – even as the very serious space science program of Skylab began to throttle up.

Things have changed. The modern-day Visitor Center sprawls across a large chunk of former coastal swamp. From my perspective, at least, NASA has managed to turn the place into a bit of Space Science Theme Park. A regular, two-day admission isn’t cheap at $38 – but the $50 annual pass for Florida residents isn’t a bad deal when you live just a couple of hours away.

Juan Carlos had a blast. He spent a lot of time running around the “Rocket Garden”, ogling the collection of boosters and trying on all of the mock-up space capsules for fit. We shelled out a few extra bucks for a Sunday evening “Dinner with an Astronaut”. He enjoyed the NASA video quite a bit – lots of “blast off” footage and people bouncing around in weightlessness – and at least behaved himself through the 45-minute talk given by former shuttle astronaut Bob Springer.

Monday we rode around on air-conditioned tour buses (they didn’t have those when I was a boy…) to take in some of the outlying ‘attractions’.

Shorter than the other guys.

Shorter than the other guys.

The observation gantry at Launch Complex 39 offered a good view of both shuttle launch pads (39A and 39B). We were also treated to the rare site of the 4-million pound Transport Crawler in motion (at a speed of 1 mph) as it lugged the rigging from last Wednesday’s launch of Endeavor back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The VAB itself was off-limits to visitors as Discovery is currently being assembled for a scheduled mid-August launch.

As it was the 40th Anniversary of the first manned moon landing the main attraction, in my mind, was the Saturn V / Apollo Center. It’s an enormous building which includes, among other things, a complete Saturn V rocket displayed horizontally. Not a mockup, mind you. The complete, real deal. It was the launch assembly intended for one of three Apollo missions cancelled as the nation and Congress lost interest in their new Moon toy and its expense.

In case you were wondering, them suckers were big.

Juan Carlos was particularly interested in repeatedly rubbing the piece of basaltic moon rock on display. To my surprise, he was also impressed by the venue’s two main video presentations. The first was a second-by-second replay of the final minutes of the launch of Apollo 8, which was presented in a theater populated by a number of the monitoring consoles preserved from the original Apollo launch control complex. The second was a 10-minute, narrated presentation detailing Apollo 11′s moon landing.

We also briefly toured the International Space Station Center, where you can traipse through mockups (or perhaps duplicates) of some of the space station’s modules and then visit a glassed-in gallery with a view onto the processing facility where technicians are assembling station modules that are to be lofted aboard the final 7 or 8 scheduled space shuttle missions.

After leaving the Visitor Center, our final stop was the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with main admission…) a few miles to the west. It’s a very kid-friendly facility, set up after the style of a hands-on science museum. Video presentations reprised all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program launches from video screens built-in to some of the original Gemini program launch consoles. Juan Carlos probably spent 45 minutes monitoring ‘his’ rocket launches from those consoles.

He was also quite thrilled when he managed – with a little help from his old man – to safely land his space shuttle simulator on the first attempt (much to the consternation of the 10-year-old who had hogged the simulator through three successive crashes before us).

If there’s any accuracy to the thing, by the way, the shuttle flies like a dead elephant with a shop fan strapped to its ass.

Not a bad way to spend a nearly-overlooked day of vacation.

July 16, 1969

I was standing on a sea wall along the Indian River, maybe 18 miles away. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my entire, young life. As much as anything else, I remember the sound rolling in from across the water with a low, violent vibrato that rattled car windows for miles. Nothing man has produced in the last forty years can come close to rivalling the launch of a Saturn V booster for sheer spectacle.

On that particular Wednesday morning, I considered myself one very lucky 10-year old.

The Big Event

The Big Event

A month earlier our family had settled into a rented house in Clermont – maybe 70 miles from the coast – after moving to Florida from northern Kentucky. My Dad was a high-school science teacher, so it was a foregone conclusion that we would try to attend the launch of mankind’s first attempt at a Moon landing.

Forty years ago, Florida wasn’t quite the fancy place it is today. State Road 50 was still a two-lane highway that bumped and rattled through orange groves and on into Orlando. In pre-Disney days Orlando featured a lot of fruit packers, McCoy Air Force Base and the Naval Training Center.

Eastward out of Orlando, State Road 528 had not yet become the Bee-Line (nowadays “Beach Line”) Expressway. The drive from Clermont to Titusville was not the high-speed run familiar to modern drivers. Travelling from the center of the state to the coast took a bit of time and, occasionally, a Rand-McNally road map.

No matter. Both of my parents worked in the school system, so we typically spent summers travelling anyway. We loaded up our Rambler station wagon the evening before and drove over to find ourselves a wide spot in the road to spend the night.

Times have changed, haven’t they? A1A wasn’t wall-to-wall condos and restaurants, and nobody had much of a problem with people just pulling off onto the shoulders or turn-outs to spend the night in their Dodge vans, VW combis and station wagons.

That evening we found a nice place to park about 100 yards north of a Shell gas station. ‘Convenience stores’ weren’t quite in vogue, but we did manage to snag a few cold drinks and use the johns before calling it a night. I remember the owner telling us that because of the anticipated crowds, he was planning to stay open all night. We stood out in front of the station for a while, chatting with the owner while we all stared across the river at the brightly-lit launch complex.

Shell also had some promotions going to mark the “Moonshot”. Dad bought me a cardboard cut-out Lunar Lander that I fiddled with by flashlight in the back of the Rambler until it was time to scoot into the back and go to sleep.

The decision to head over to the coast half a day before the scheduled 9:30 a.m. launch turned out to be a good one. By the time we started stirring around just after sunrise, A1A was curb-to-curb with parked cars. We trooped down to the Shell station for another toilet break and some more cold drinks, then chowed down on whatever we had lugged along in our trusty Coleman cooler.

Memory is a funny thing. There are some images from that morning that I’ll never forget. Sunrise cast a hazy, purplish hue over the whole scene – parked cars lining both sides of A1A as far as I could see. A few people were already sitting on a sea wall across the highway on the other side of a grassy clearing. The enormous Saturn V rocket in the distance, shimmering like a desert mirage as the July sun began to drive away the morning dew. The pungence of the nearby ocean mingling with the wet aroma of new-mown grass and the occasional whiff of auto exhaust.

Hundreds and hundreds of people along the waterfront all screaming “Go! Go! Go!” as the biggest damn rocket ever built blasted its way into the sky.

Other things I don’t remember at all. How hot was it? I don’t know. It was July, so it must have been pretty steamy. At the time, I think I could have cared less. Were all of those hundreds of people lining A1A paying visits to the gas station’s toilets, or was there something else around for public ‘convenience’? I have no idea. Fiberglass chemical toilets were still a thing of the future. Maybe there was a hotel or something in the neighborhood. All I remember, though, is A1A, a jam of parked cars, the grassy lot and the sea wall.

I wish I had some photos from that day. Unfortunately my Dad – the one-time professional photographer – decided to capture the Big Event with a Bolex Super 8 movie camera. I have no idea what happened to that film. If he kept it at all over the years it likely would have been part of the rusty lump of ruined movie reels I found when I cleaned out his workshop storage after he passed away.

Not that it really matters. Mere images – even moving images – couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the memories captured by a 10-year-old boy on the day men first set forth to land on the Moon.