My first time in Huntsville was at Space Camp. It’s true — I was one of those nerds. Even worse, I went to Space Camp (well, Space Academy) twice. How my parents afforded it, I don’t know.
It was at my second visit to the Rocket City when I first stepped foot at what would become my home for five years: The University of Alabama in Huntsville. We did an aquatic rescue exercise in the swimming pool that is now filled in and covered by a weight room in Spragins Hall. I got a one-hour credit for that week in town; I ended up with something like 168 towards my undergraduate degree.
I moved to Huntsville for the first time in mid-August of 1997, fresh from two years at The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. My MSMS experience made adjusting to college life fairly easy — probably too easy, because I was too lackadaisical to keep my GPA at a 3.5 or higher. (Note to past self: you really should’ve taken 21 hours your second semester.) I wasn’t a stellar student, mainly because I had too many non-academic things going on in my life — namely Student Government and my co-op experience.
I didn’t settle down right away because I didn’t really think that I would stay here, and so I moved from a dorm to my parents’ for a summer to a dorm to an apartment to an apartment to an apartment to an apartment to a rental house where I lived in a detached garage to one final apartment to a townhouse that I’ve owned for over 11 years.
That 11-year period is the longest I’ve ever had one address in my entire life. Such is the life of a military kid. That house is on the market now, because my wife and I have bought another, much nicer one. I bought that townhouse thinking that I’d be in it for a few years before getting married. Try 10.5, kid!
As of today, I’ve lived half of my life in Huntsville, Alabama. (Yes, yes, I live in Madison. I hate Madison. If I cross my cul de sac and walk through my neighbor’s yard, I’m in Huntsville, and that suits me just fine.) It’s frankly astonishing to me that what I thought would be a launchpad to greater things somewhere else in the country has ended up a base of operations.
I’ll turn 38 in a couple of months, and I realize now that I’ve lived about 2/3 of my life within a four-hour drive of my home — the exceptions being Dayton, Ohio, and San Antonio, Texas.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
I figured out once that I’ve only been gone from Huntsville for more than 10 days at a stretch just three times since I moved here:
- A summer with my parents in the Mississippi Delta between my first two years of college. I drove back at least four times over the course of the summer.
- Three weeks with my parents in 2012 after my dad had a heart attack. He needed taking care of, and I was available.
- Eight weeks in 2013 when I took an internship at MITRE.
When I look back at Facebook’s Memories gee-gaw, I see the sadness and frustration that built up during those last two experiences. The longer I was away from home, the more despondent I was. The last experience was definitely trebled by the fact that I figured out just a week into my internship that there was no way that they’d be able to hire me, as a freeze was on for that group. (I think it’s still in effect.)
The MITRE thing is funny to me, too, because I was living about ten minutes from my in-laws’. I was a year away from even meeting my wife. It’s always interesting how these little jumbles and bumbles keep life jiggling on — like how getting back into aerospace happened because my co-op mentor needed to clone himself and suddenly I was back in his orbit, or how that job led me to meeting my wife, or how we both got moved away from a glovebox project within a week of my starting my current job, or how I’m now studying to work on glove boxes again.
And yet that Saturn V is a marker, a fixed point, a lighthouse seen in most any storm. It’s a symbol of our city’s (and nation’s) aerospace past, sited near its present at NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center, and placed right next to its future leaders at the US Space and Rocket Center.
Sam Cristoforetti and I both went to Space Academy in the summer of 1995. I like to think that we were there together, although I think that I’d have remembered an Italian girl with a lot of heart. I don’t know when Kate Rubins went, but she is the first ISS astronaut younger than I am — by all of 13 days. I watched Sam work on orbit while I was in my training, and now I’m getting to watch Kate kick a lot of ass in her increment. I may not be a Space Camp Hall of Famer like those two are, but I do my part, I guess.
I can do it only because I came to this little nook of the Tennessee Valley 23 years ago. I came because my school friends from Ohio were coming here, and I missed them and wanted to see them. It’s funny then that in searching for a home that I’d left, I found one that I barely knew existed.
Sweet Home Alabama indeed.