The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

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.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

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.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

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.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

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.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

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.

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

booktoursteve
Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey

Just over thirteen years ago, a young newlywed couple moved into their first home together in the small city of Rockford, Illinois. You could say that it was the beginning of a wonderful journey on which they would earn a couple of degrees, begin careers, change jobs a few times, travel the world a little bit, have a couple of amazing kids, and own homes at various times in three different states. But theirs wasn’t the only journey to have begun in Rockford, Illinois.

The Swedish-born inventor John Nelson immigrated to the US in 1852 and settled in Rockford where he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker before establishing several manufacturing businesses of his own. But it turns out what captured Nelson’s attention the most was the quest for a comfy pair of socks (and who could blame him?). He sold his other manufacturing plants and invested all of his energy into producing a machine that could manufacture everyday work socks for the everyday working man.

The Symbol, a large piece of modern art sculpt...
“The Symbol.” at Rockford’s Riverfront Park. It’s nice, but I think a giant sock monkey would have been even better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After partnering with fellow inventor W. W. Burson, Nelson patented his first knitting machine in 1870 and by 1873, the two had created the world’s first seamless sock produced by an automated process. The partnership between Burson and Nelson dissolved, Nelson founded the Nelson Knitting Company, and then he died in 1883.

But the quest of sock perfection continued with his three sons. The Nelson boys started Forest City Knitting Company, eventually merging with Nelson Knitting to become the world’s dominant sock producer.

Business was humming along, but over the years the industry had attracted a number of competitors, all of them producing brown work socks with a tan toe, top, and heel. To distinguish the original and best out there, Nelson Knitting decided to get a little wild. In 1932 it introduced to the world what it called the “De-Tec-Tip” sock, which was a brown work sock with (and I’m sorry if this sounds a little shocking to more delicate readers) a RED heel.

It was certainly a risky move, but the world was ready for it. Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. History has forgotten who was first to pin it to their Pinterest page, but Nelson Knitting was rewarded the patent for everyone’s favorite stuffed animal in 1955.

All buckled up and ready for takeoff!
All buckled up and ready for takeoff!

No worries, however, for the craft bloggers out there because the patent expired in 1970 and since then sock monkeys have been popping up everywhere. And that’s where our two stories come together.

A few Christmases ago, when our sons were very small, my husband received a sock monkey (alas I am not a craft blogger so this one was not homemade). The boys named him “Steve” and he became a permanent fixture in our family culture, taking on quite a mischievous personality (because he is, after all, a monkey).

So fast forward a few months. The not quite as young and not quite as newlywed couple got the opportunity to leave their two young children with Grandma and Grandpa and take off for a week together in Hawaii.

We had gone away for a weekend a few times, but this was the longest I had ever planned to spend away from my little guys. So I was trying to figure out a way to help them know they were on our minds and feel like they were in some way part of our trip. It was my wonderful mother-in-law (and yes, I do mean that sincerely) who suggested that we photograph a favorite stuffed animal along the way and post the pictures so the boys could follow our adventure. We stuffed Steve in a suitcase and we were off.

Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some "pineapple juice."
Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some “pineapple juice.”

Steve has been our family’s travel mascot ever since. When either “Mom” or “Dad” heads out for a conference, Steve travels with us. He always shows up on family vacations. He kept family and friends posted during our cross-country move this past year.

Most recently Steve and I attended the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve never been there, just trust me when I tell you that a lady walking around taking pictures of her sock monkey doesn’t really garner much attention. At one point I posted a picture of Steve sitting behind a friend’s book table at the conference and captioned it: “Steve is hoping to sell some copies of his self-published memoir entitled No Shoes Required: My Life as a Well-Traveled Sock Monkey.”

The crazy thing is that I’ve had several people tell me they would be happy to buy the book. Now, I’m fond of Steve. And I am delighted to know that his journey and ours began in the same place long before our paths crossed and we started to travel together. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into the sock monkey genre (Worldcat lists 33 new sock monkey entries for 2013-2014) and I do NOT have time to ghostwrite for a stuffed animal.

I do apologize to Steve’s many fans out there. A blog post will just have to do.

The ladies sure do love him.
The ladies sure do love him.