Friday, February 4, 2011



Once upon a time, when holidays were too brief and taking the kids on any trip was playing Russian roulette with your credit cards, I perfected the Downing rush to somewhere.
We loaded the car with snacks and good pop and threatened to behead any son who asked whether we were there yet. It worked fine, and readers of the Tely, Sun and the Ontario Motor League magazine seemed to appreciate my tales from the road.
Just before the sons flew the nest, we specialized in Toronto to the south of Florida in 27 non-stop hours. Even though we had four drivers, dad always drives the most, I find, and I used to sink into the sea with a Bacardi and coke in hand, semi-comatose, on Saturday afternoon after fleeing Toronto in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Old habits die hard, and Mary and I have continued the dash to Florida, after increasing it to a civilized two days. My son, Mark, who lives in China, has rejoined the expedition for the last two years. And last year he grumbled that it would be nice to actually see something as we roared south.
So this year I played hooky from the normal schedule. And it took us four days and 300 km. more. Say about $600 extra for museums, motels and meals. But the three Downing musketeers had a good time. (Or so they say. Wait, however, until they're mad at me.)
Mark has a science and chemical engineering degree from U of T, plus a MBA that he finished on an exchange with a Hong Kong university. He was fascinated with the birth place of THE bomb, much of which happened at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Not that far off the main street for Canadians fleeing to Florida, I-75. Pleasant drive in, and then the museum called the American Museum of Science and Technology. Admission for adults is $5, $4 for seniors. And we had a good visit.
There was one wing jammed with information on the Oak Ridge community and  the staggering numbers of people who worked on the atom bomb. I had no idea that something like 80,000 people were there for a few years, or that the project "borrowed" $100 million worth of silver in the work developing the bomb.
As someone who reads widely and was also in the RCAF a decade later -  not all old military equipment looks that strange to me - I was surprised pleasantly to find much of the material to be new and  interesting. Fascinating stuff on the instant houses and instant transit system that were created in weeks. Don't remember anything about this in my urban geography classes.
Much of the displays in the museum resemble what you find in the better science centres of the world (for example the Ontario Science Museum in Toronto) but the displays related to the Manhattan Project  just brim with information. As Mark quipped in a twitter, the information is so dense, "there is a critical mass of ideas."
So yes, to answer the eternal question from parents hurtling south with kids bouncing off the roofs, it is an interesting detour.
Mary then announced that she had always wanted to see the aquarium in Atlants. I have always gone around Atlanta rather than through it since we were almost mugged on a hot summer night by a street full of angry blacks (but that's another story.)
So we went around and around downtown,  past the CNN headquarters and Coca Cola museum, and then Mark using his I-phone found us Martin Luther King's church. We finally ended up at a Holiday Inn that didn't cost a fortune
We were at the Georgia Aquarium before it opened. It is debt free, it claims, and no wonder. Seniors pay $21.95 each and adults $25.95. I have been to aquariums all over the world and love them, but I have never paid that much. But it says it is the largest squarium in the world and its huge main tank is a wonder to behold. It is packed with such spectacles as three of the world's largest fish, the whale shark, cruising comfortably while a giant manta ray practises languid somersaults over and over.
The fish shimmer and dance in puffs of colour. All the exhibits are first class, the staff great, and the crowds  tolerable. (I would hate to be there during a school break.) For the first time in decades, I thought I might recommend that driving through Atlanta, which many do instead of taking the bypass, is worth considering.
Since Mark in 2010 made two trips across Florida to watch a night launch of the shuttle around 4.15 a.m. on Super Bowl weekend,  it  seemed that not going to the Kennedy Space Centre was rather dumb. After all, we hadn't been there for a couple of decades. (I wrote a blog about Mark's nocturnal adventure, Chasing The Shuttle, on Feb. 7, 2010. On March 22, 2009, I wrote about how most of us now view the shuttle in a blog titled A Shuttle Of Past Glories.)
As the space centre continually reminds visitors, it receives no taxes to support it. Obviously it couldn't exist without all the exhibit and material provided by NASA, and the centre and the active launch pads on the Cape have a symbiotic relationship that is more important to the space centre, I suspect, than it is to NASA.
So there is a hefty admission charge, a basic $39.11 for seniors and $43.46 for adults. Is it worth it? I thought it was. But I really think readers should consider those costs, when one of the big arguments in government today is making programs and projects, whether in culture or education, pay for themselves.
So the aquarium and the space centre don't get government money and as a result, the three Downings had to pay $200 to get in. Do I really have to say that such admission charges mean that there are families who just can't afford it, no matter how wonderful the displays are.
And they were. The garden of rockets at the centre. Walking underneath the gigantic tube of Apollo 18. A wonderful IMAX film about the glorious colours of space revealed by the Hubble telescope after it was fitted with two new lenses in a space walk that we viewed in vivid 3-D technology.
I have not given you a shopping list of what to see in the Georgia Aquarium and the Kennedy Space Centre because you can Google them and see everything they have to offer. i thought every single display was done superbly, from the humble one off to one side in a giant hangar where you could touch a rock from the moon to trying to find the leafy seahorses hiding in the kelp.
However, if I had left Ontario a few days later when the predictions were that most of North America was about to be buried under avalanches of snow at any minute, I might have been inclined to roar right through to where you could swim in the pools, not skate on them.
Thank heavens we caught a break. And thanks to my wife and son, it was a pleasant interlude!

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