It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.
Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.
Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.
We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.
After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.
We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.
The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.
But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.
Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.
When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.
After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.
Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.
Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.