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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Endeavoured to Join the Parade

(my first view of the Endeavour once I found it: looking south down Crenshaw Blvd as Space Shuttle creeps northbound en route to Exposition Park in south Los Angeles)

Deciding to brave the Los Angeles traffic and gathering throngs, I packed the Yamaha with snacks and a camera and set off on an afternoon journey across town as I endeavoured to join the parade --to see a one-off procession and final arrival of the Space Shuttle Endeavour

I recall years ago when I lived on the east coast, a college-era friend of mine and I drove down to Cape Canaveral, Florida (from Atlanta) on a spring break to witness the liftoff of Columbia. We parked and walked to a good viewing spot and beheld the gantry tower and familiar shape of the Shuttle's launch profile, with the tank and twin boosters looming in the distance across the water. 

I was excited to have finally made the pilgrimage to see a launch, anticipating the sound and visual spectacle, the shaking of the ground, as nothing can quite replace a live event personally attended. And it had become an American institution, a cultural mainstay, and something I casually assumed I would indeed see in my lifetime. It was too common of an occurrence to not see it, the Space Shuttle being a household name. At the viewing area, my adrenaline raced as the clock was already in progress, ticking down to less and less minutes to go. 

When it got down to about T-minus 25 seconds the clock stopped. And that was it. We hung around for about a half an hour longer until it was announced that the launch had been scrubbed, a weather-related issue. As it came to pass, the date of the new launch was set beyond the time we were to be in the area, and I was never to see it again: In the intervening time, as the years got on by, "life happened" and things just never led back to the Cape. It has been nearly twenty years since that time, but today, finally, I would not pass up the last opportunity to personally see the Shuttle in motion. 

(on the sidelines of Crenshaw Blvd as Space Shuttle Endeavour creeps northbound en route to Exposition Park in south Los Angeles)

Leaving in the early afternoon, about 2pm, it would take me at least an hour to get to the shuttle's present but slowly moving location as it was in south Los Angeles, south of downtown. Endeavour's last destination, Exposition Park, where the California Science Center, LA Coliseum, USC, and LA County Museum of Natural History are located, would be no casual jaunt over the hills. This became a mission. 

The choice to take my Yamaha Zuma 125 alleviated what would have been easily a 2 or 3 hour car ride with the event traffic. And the solo trek, with helmet and gloves, made the event all the more eventful. The open roads across LA's environs proved a wonderful excursion of its own as I became a sort of Saturday sightseer in my own city. The Saturday traffic was generally light on the surface streets compared to a weekday, and the autumn energy infused the journey with a pleasant feeling of being alive, something already amounting to a warm recollection.

On the road, my small motorbike left far behind whatever occasional bottlenecks that happened to gather, lane-splitting my way through the changing landscapes and localities of LA. Beginning from the literal foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley, I set out traveling southwest through North Hollywood, down and over the Santa Monica Mountains through Laurel Canyon in Studio City, taking a right onto Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, a left down the steep La Cienega incline into the basin, past the Beverly Center and Larry Flint building, crossing southbound over Wilshire, Olympic, Pico, Venice Boulevard, all the way on down past Blackwelder into Culver City -then to a sharp left/east onto Rodeo to MLK Jr Boulevard. The city miles had dropped away and my beeline traverse passed sooner than I thought. But the work had only begun. 

Once in the immediate vicinity, evidence of Endeavour's presence started becoming apparent. I felt it. In the otherwise quiet neighborhoods along Rodeo in Baldwin Hills, occasional people in groups began dotting the sidewalks, all walking in a common direction. Police cruisers would come and go, becoming a frequently seen type of car. The outskirts of the event looked like people arriving to an outdoor concert venue. Traffic cops and barriers came into view, and the first rerouting of my line of travel happened: Once on MLK ("King Boulevard"), I went only a short distance and found I could not directly go to find Endeavor on its northerly path up Crenshaw Boulevard. That road and many before it, leading to it, were blocked off. This forced the rest of the way into becoming a perpetual redirection and intuitive navigation. 

(on the sidelines of Crenshaw Blvd as Space Shuttle Endeavour creeps northbound en route to Exposition Park in south Los Angeles)

Having no idea of its actual specific location, I knew of Endeavour's general itinerary based upon news reports of where it would be at certain times. And now I was there in the vicinity so close. Indeed, something much larger than the circus had come to town, as I had never seen so many people walking in LA at the same time. Getting ever closer, motoring down parallel streets proximal to MLK en route to Crenshaw, I would have to just find the spacecraft -searching for a lost ship in the urban grid, over oceans of avenues through seas of people. 

On the Yamaha I whizzed in, out, through, and past columns of cars. The buzz of the proceedings charged the town alive while navigating through chains of suddenly appearing barricades, police cars, fire trucks, sirens, crawling traffic, numerous detours, and walls of humanity. By the location of the sun over the city grid, I pressed on, heading generally southeast. The near-distant downtown skyline and mountains became crystal clear sunny landmarks in the lush density. In a lucid moment, LA's beauty confronted me gently, a town that cannot be fully discovered. Reduced to a standstill the streets became parking lots as I scooted past the labyrinthine immensity, in between cars and buses and people walking everywhere. 

Pulling up next to a man in a silver car with his window down, I said hello through my helmet and asked him, naively, "So are you going to see the Space Shuttle?" The jovial Luciano Pavarotti-looking fellow said "I hope so. I just got back into town and I'm telling my wife I'm going to see it" as he texted something on his phone. We said a few more things before I pressed on and bid him good afternoon with a thumbs up. What a great impression, this conversation with a stranger that had the feeling of normalcy and familiarity, mentioning his wife and his trip back into town. And thus became revealed the tone for the whole experience from beginning to end: A friendly humanity enjoyed the afternoon (if not with many of them stuck in their cars), convened and enjoined in a common curiosity. There was no hate. There was no fear. 

 (the left wing of Endeavor passes right overhead; looking more closely the serial numbers on the tiles can be seen)

Everyone I encountered, from bumping into them in close quarters to asking for information from the police -all of it was among some of the nicest mass-interactions between crowds of people I have ever seen. The people heeded the rules and the barricades, respected the miles of yellow streamer tapes, and everyone got along in harmony. The sheer bewilderment to the sight of the Space Shuttle traveling through Los Angeles appeared to have surmounted any other personal concerns, at least temporarily, that the spectators each individually must have had. Every mood was good. Everyone was kind. 

Society itself was on parade: Every age, race, and gender flooded the streets for miles. Among this I could hear different languages being spoken, some of which were clearly from tourists, those from abroad who were able to make the long journey. Certainly, something like this would never be seen again. And everyone knew it. 

(a small sampling of the gigantic showing of people in south Los Angeles to witness the final journey of Space Shuttle Endeavor)

After asking a couple of police officers about where the Endeavour was along the boulevard, I zig-zagged my way closer and closer on the bike until I came upon that special moment: Knowing I must have been upon the site, I glanced to my left as I went through a particular intersection (crossing over Crenshaw) being directed by a traffic cop, and then saw it: My first view is posted herein as the first photograph of the article, but I will include another shot of it just below here: 


(another moment of my first view of the Endeavour once I found it: looking south down Crenshaw Blvd as Space Shuttle Endeavour creeps northbound en route to Exposition Park in south Los Angeles)

Looking down the street I did a brief double-take: I gasped when I saw it. OMG, there it is down the street. The suddenness of my feelings of surprise and elation overtook me, being something that could not ever be faked or simulated. It just came out like that and I grinned so widely that it wrapped around my head. Because the sight was so strange and different, it could not have been prepared for. That alone was the priceless reward of the trip but there was more to come as it grew nearer and nearer. Something like this, a unique live event involving the people of our time, is something one must do personally and live, immersed in the unadulterated present moment in order to completely understand. Today the most jaded man or woman would have melted and succumbed. Every man was a kid, every woman a girl. 

(Endeavour's engine outlets, to never flow fire through them again, mark the presence of the the majestic space plane as it passes gently among the people lining the streets to its final home at the California Science Center)

As its beautiful industrial fuselage crept closer and closer, the surreal spectacle revealed the battle-scarred and pockmarked Endeavour gliding along the boulevard -a gentle giant celebrity representing layers of various meanings and memories to generations of the public. The imposing and incongruous sight of it created the sensation of being inside of a movie that was real, if not laced in the tacit acceptance that it could all be a dream anyway, a sort of mind-fuck du jour

In quick reminiscence as I finally parked and dismounted the scooter, to mingling into the peaceful crowds, I had been able to see NASA's shuttle program come and go: from first televised launch of Columbia (when they were still painting the main fuel tank white), "America's first Space Shuttle," to the final procession of the last one built, the 5th and last, the Endeavour -replacement to the tragic Challenger

(full shot of Endeavour farther up along Crenshaw Boulevard, heading northerly)

I took pictures until the camera was out of memory space, having lost some great shots towards the end of my visit due to lack of space. One in particular that I regret not getting was upon my final moments at the event, packing up my scooter, getting ready to leave: I saw the shuttle's tailfin pass over and behind the roof of a "Louisiana Chicken" restaurant, appearing like a dorsal fin in the movie Airplane! At least I have that moment in my own memory, something I will never forget. 

Regardless of the corporate interests and geopolitical scandals that influence our world daily, some of which were and are undoubtedly responsible for having given rise and fall to the Space Shuttle program itself -none of that seemed to matter for a while. Wonder and innocent fascination ruled the day. And despite the heavily organized police and rescue forces on display, the parade of the Space Shuttle Endeavour was the largest unguarded moment I have ever been part of. 




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4 comments:

  1. You wrote about a beautiful experience that you will carry in your memory forever. Thank you for sharing this with all of us who could not attend.

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  2. Anonymous, my pleasure indeed. Thank you so much for reading it.

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  3. Word is that over 1 million people over the 3 days of its travel witnessed it (it was delayed Saturday for 17 more hours so the journey continued into Sunday). Roughly guesstimating, then, averaging that number over 3 days brings about 330, 000 people per day to flood the streets. Having seen the sheer number of people on Saturday spanning the city blocks I would say that is about right. That number of people would fill 3.3 LA Coliseums per day (at a capacity of 100,000 per coliseum).

    To add, people were climbing trees and going up on rooftops to photograph and video the event. Some people were selling home-grown "event t-shirts" as you would see at a rock concert, and there were people outdoors preparing food on the sidewalks and blaring music in various blocks.

    At some points I could see the navigation of Endeavour becoming problematic through some stretches of the boulevard as the wings would barely clear some trees and posts (and buildings). This is what led to its 17-hour delay well into Sunday which was not anticipated. But all the better as more people could enjoy it for that much longer.

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  4. Looks like you were back on my old stoop Chad. I used to stay one block off the "Shaw". Glad to see the Shuttle made it through LA without slings and arrows. I took off out of LAX @ 0500 Fri and saw the Shuttle as it was leaving airport property. When we returned "eight hours" latter it was on Sepúlveda! It was parked in a bank parking lot in Westchester. That's two to three miles an hour with stops. All of a sudden my feet are now hurting ...

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