Summer? Winter? Vacation! Part 1: Christmas in the USA

Now that winter is summer and summer is winter, our school vacation schedule is upside down. For the last 15 years in Turkey, China, Laos, and India, we followed a North American calendar with a couple weeks off at Christmas and a longer summer break. In Chile, our “summer break” occurs now – from December to February.

To kick it off, we joined my sister Kate and her family at my parent’s house in Florida. Check out my last post about The Villages to get the scoop on this unusual place.

Christmas usually explodes all over my parents’ house, but my dad was under the weather and my mom couldn’t tackle the job alone. They put up a naked tree, and Kate’s three boys made cute decorations.

The first few days in Florida were cool but sunny. Kate, Tony, and the kids even went for a swim. I just dipped my legs in the hot tub.

On Christmas morning, we all opened our presents. Tony had just one gift left, marked “Open last!” He ripped off the paper to find a box of Cheez-Its, his favorite snack. Everyone leaned in to have a laugh, but it was a ruse. Even Tony didn’t know that I had wrapped up two Nerf guns and extra ammo. We pulled out our weapons and started pelting everyone. The kids shrieked and dove behind the furniture. The Christmas Nerf War is a Dickinson family tradition, so we were shocked that nobody else was armed. Kate quickly ran out to her van, where the boys had coincidentally left a couple Nerf archery sets. The kids holed up in the kitchen to load their bows. Eventually, Tony and I ran out of bullets, and we were too lazy to get off the couch, so we called a truce.

The boys wearing their silly knitted hats from Chile.

I also gave them each a little leather coin purse from Atacama, which Nico said was his favorite present. What a love bug.

The day after Christmas we ditched my parents and took off for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The entrance featured the word “Explore” in huge letters with a rocket garden towering in the background. “This really is a dream come true for me,” said my brother-in-law John.

Visiting the various “mission zones” was like stepping through time, from the early days of America’s space program to the space race and moon landing to the ongoing efforts to get man to Mars. Most attractions featured videos with footage from the time period, NASA personnel commenting on their work, and astronauts reflecting on their experiences.

I had just watched the movie “Hidden Figures” on the flight to the States, so it was fun to put the true-ish story in context at the place where it all happened. One of the most fascinating take-aways for me was those first rockets launched with less computing power than we have in our cell phones today.

Gearing up for a 3-D movie about NASA heroes and legends.

Perhaps because I have such vivid memories of the space shuttle program, my favorite mission zone was “Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other.” I remember the pride and awe I felt over the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station, both made possible by shuttle missions. I also remember gathering in a friend’s dorm room at the University of Kansas to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger and its horrific explosion that killed everyone aboard. According to the Kennedy Space Center website, “A ship like no other, the space shuttle launched like a rocket and landed like a glider while transporting astronauts to space and back for thirty years.”

At the space shuttle mission zone, the shuttle Atlantis was suspended from the ceiling, and exhibits demonstrated life on board for the astronauts. Atlantis flew its last mission – and the last of the shuttle program – in July 2011.

Nico and Paul check out a Mars rover concept vehicle.

On the Kennedy Space Center bus tour, we saw the insanely enormous gas-guzzling crawler-transporter that moves spacecraft from NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building to the launchpads (which takes about five hours at a speed of 1 mph!). It is the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world. We also drove by the SpaceX building, where we glimpsed the Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful operational rocket. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he plans to die on Mars, “just not on impact.”

At the IMAX movie, “Journey to Space,” we got a 4-D overview of NASA’s accomplishments and future plans. Four-year-old Jack fell asleep, but the rest of us were absolutely blown away. Such an exciting reminder of how far we’ve come and space adventures that await! NASA’s research and development in preparation for a Mars mission was straight out of a sci-fi movie.

We had expected to spend a few hours at the visitor complex, but we got there shortly after it opened and we left at closing time. It was an incredible place!

A few days later, Kate and her family packed up the van and drove back to Michigan, and Tony took off for Kansas to meet up with his sisters. My other sister, Megan, joined me in Florida for a few days to hang out with Mom and Dad, and then she and I flew to her home at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.

As soon as we pulled up to the house, these two cuties – Annesley and Will – ran out to greet me. So much love!

We went to the base library and checked out a bunch of books. I must have read Where the Wild Things Are 25 times. Stories and snuggles on the sofa? I could do that all day! We also played Headbanz, which was hilarious. At five years old, Will is surprisingly savvy at asking the right questions to guess the picture on his card. Annesley just tells you your picture, which essentially ends the game. I logged quite a bit of time pushing Annesley on the swing in their backyard, which was wonderful because she chattered the whole time.

Another highlight was Annesley’s tea party with her fancy china and stuffed animals. She fed them grapes and Scooby Snacks (dog bone-shaped graham cracker treats) and entertained them with ring-around-the-rosie and duck-duck-goose (tricky when your party guests can’t run).

Britt played ball tag with the kids in the backyard after work. They looked forward to it all day!

I got to visit each kid’s school. Here’s Will’s classroom.

One day, Megan took us for a hike in the Seminole Canyon State Park. The kids were good little trekkers, and Will genuinely listened to the tour guide, even asking a couple questions. (Maybe he’s the next generation Guide Hog?!) We walked to the Fate Bell rock shelter, where 4,000-year-old pictographs decorate the canyon walls. Our guide, Tanya, explained the ancient artists used minerals, plants, animal fat, and other natural resources to produce their paint. What do the pictographs mean? Nobody knows for sure, she said. According to the Texas State Historical Association:

The Pecos River style is a polychrome style that is considered a manifestation of the shamanic cult. The central characters of the pictographs are faceless anthropomorphic figures, elaborately dressed and often holding a variety of accessories such as atlatls, darts, and fending sticks. The figures are often depicted with their arms outstretched, and in later pictographs the anthropomorphs’ arms are increasingly stylized and seem to be more akin to wings than arms. At one end of the shelter there are also examples of Red Linear figures-a Late Archaic Period style characterized by very small stick figures engaged in various activities.

Tanya shares some details about the site while I marvel at the weathering and erosion that has sculpted the rock.

Looking out at the canyon from the rock shelter.

Some of the pictographs.

Megan checked out a Junior Park Ranger backback for the kids, which included binoculars, a sketchpad and crayons, a magnifying glass, and wildlife guides. So cool!

A prehistoric sea left fantastic fossils embedded in the rocks.

On another day, I got to combine two of my favorite things: my sister’s kids and horses! My brother-in-law, Britt, works with Ms. Jill, who recently broke her ankle and needed help keeping up with her five horses. Britt and I mucked out the stalls, which was much harder work than I expected. I actually only mucked out about half a stall before my body gave out on me.

The highlight, though, was this little guy. About four months old, he was 50% pony, 50% horse, and 100% loco.

One night, Megan took me to the Del Rio Civic Center, where the Lions Club offers bingo a few nights a week. I had no idea what I was in for. Bingo was serious business to this crowd. I’m guessing there were more than 100 people in the room, and many had their dauber collection on display. I bought a bright orange dauber and a bunch of bingo cards and then prepared to hit the jackpot. I was just two numbers away from winning $750, but alas, we both walked away broke but amused. And it was a great way to practice my numbers in Spanish! The bingo ball always appeared on the video screen before the announcer called the number in English and Spanish. I tried to say the number in Spanish in my head before she said it aloud.

Although my visit was too short, I felt grateful to experience a slice of life with my sister and her family.

Now, farewell to winter and hello to summer back in Santiago. We still have another month off work!

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