The Worlds Largest “Fully Steerable Radio Telescope”
I don’t know if living downstream from “Chemical Valley” mutated his DNA, or if a steady diet of Vienna sausages and Oreo cookies creates superpowers but my 81-year-old dad is beyond human. In similar fashion, although locals believe that my mother is a good, sweet Christian woman, my sister and I know that she obviously made a deal with the devil earlier in her life to still have the metabolism she has, the figure she has and the energy she has.
These people wear me out. Literally. I spent a week with them and had to come back to Nashville just to lie in the floor with the dog for the next five days. Daddy called yesterday just to “check in,” then said he needed to go because my mom was spring cleaning and flipping over their king size mattress. She might need help.
I need help trying to make the bed. Fluffing the pillows is exhausting.
By Day 3 of our Spring Break West Virginia excursion, Man Child and I were ready for some rest, but Pawpaw had taken off work and was determined to show his grandson the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. “But it’s predicted to snow,” we whined.
“Get in the car,” he groused. “We’ll go until we have to stop.” I was catapulted to the early seventies and Sunday drives that left me nauseous, but educated. If my first grade teacher was going to discuss the state flower, we were going to drive into the mountains to find rhododendron and bring some home. Of course it was against the law, but it was in the name of education.
Man Child rode shotgun, while my mother and I cringed in the back seat. The sky was heavy and gray. Sheets of sleet dropped sideways from the heavens. Speeding tractor-trailer rigs spewed dirty precipitation on the windshield, limiting visibility. I hoped Spousal Unit and Girl Child would continue to thrive after our untimely demise. I debated texting them with my last will and testament, but I didn’t want them to worry.
We continued north on I-79 and I broke out some essential oils. My mom and I sat in the back seat snorting oils like we were coke-addicted music producers. “Here, try this,” I offered her some lavender. “It’s calming.”
“Ooh. I like lavender,” she answered, rubbing it on her like lemon for a tequila shot. She breathed in heavily. Man Child’s head swung around.
“I smell essential oils.” Damn. Busted. I felt like William H. Macy in “Shameless.” Terrible parent, I am. Terrible.
We crested a mountain, along with twenty or so of our closet friends, long-distance truckers. The road was covered in white. I breathed in a mix of lavender and frankincense, a “spiritual” oil. I figured I’d go ahead and get a head start into the spiritual realm for when one of those suckers slid and pushed us off the edge of a precipice.
Daddy took the Buckhannon exit off the interstate. Ah. That must mean we are almost there. My former boss at a Nashville ad agency hailed from Buckhannon, where his father was a state trooper. Jud told stories about his dad climbing down into hollers and busting moonshiners when he found their stills. People from West Virginia always have stories.
From Buckhannon, we travelled to Elkins. Ah. That must mean we are almost there. Elkins is a cute little college town and I was enjoying its small-town charm when Daddy swung a sharp left and then u-turned into a parking lot. I swallowed down my breakfast for the second time and looked out the SUV’s window at a 10-foot-tall statue of a female Native American atop an eight-foot-tall podium.
We had landed at the infamous Hiawatha Country Store in Elkins, W.Va. I jumped out of the car and headed in. Ten-year-old me wanted ALL the things. I do so love swag. I wanted kitsch. I wanted t-shirts. I wanted moccasins that I could wear to school and make Cindy Grass jealous. My 23-year-old son grabbed my arm with excitement. His “Ohmigod mom, this PLACE,” jolted me back to the reality that it’s been a few decades since I was ten years old. It’s actually been a decade since HE was ten years old. Sigh. I needed to be a grown up, so I slithered over to my mom who was tittering at smart aleck postcards. She loves being right at the edge of orneriness.
As I was paying for some postcards, my bladder demanded I acknowledge its presence. My bladder is codependent as hell and ALWAYS wants my attention. I asked the clerk if they had a public restroom. No, she answered and looked quickly away. At the same time, there was a big old West Virginia boy hanging around and I watched him out of the corner of my eye. I hoped he was a friendly, but he lurked and made me nervous. Sometimes people can hang around and they’re just hanging around, but lurkers, they can mean trouble. He nodded to the clerk and asked where the bathroom was. She told him. I bit my tongue and squeezed my legs.
I was gathering up my postcards and receipt when she glanced up at me, looking as guilty as my dog after he’s eaten cat poop. “We don’t usually let people use our bathroom. They can make a mess that I have to clean up, if you know what I mean, but if you want to use it after he’s out, you can.”
After ten minutes passed without his exiting the not-for-public powder room, I realized he hadn’t been lurking so much as pacing in pain and that yes, now I do know what she means and she would certainly have to clean that up. My family agreed to enjoy the hospitality of the gas station across the street.
Not only did we enjoy the hospitality of the gas station across the street, we also enjoyed playing with the pinhole security window of the establishment’s back door. My parents stood in amazement as Man Child and I took turns running outside to show each other that the image was inverted “just like a pinhole camera!” We were so busy with the advanced security system that we ignored the advice from our elders that we “might want to get a snack” because “it would be a while until we get to another place that has food.” My parents each got a slice of pizza. Man Child and I scoffed. That’s not a snack. That’s lunch and it’s only 11 a.m. Geez, these old people probably belly up to the Shoney’s salad bar at 4:30 for dinner.
Besides, we’re almost there.
As we drove into the Monongahela National Forest, trees reached over us protectively as clouds covered the sun and dropped snow on our lone white Ford SUV climbing higher into the mountains. White packed snow replaced shiny wet blacktop. I started taking hits of essential oils again. My father is the best driver I have ever known, but these roads looked slick.
My parents were calm, chewing on their pizza, him reaching his slice back to her so she could remove his pepperonis. Sixty-plus years of marriage will do that. Words aren’t needed for her to pluck off the heartburn-inducing pepperonis as he keeps his eyes on the road ahead.
It’s 50 miles between Elkins, West Virginia and the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. As the crow flies, I think it’s about 30. Somebody once told me that if you straightened out West Virginia, shook it out like a wrinkled sheet and laid it flat, it would be the size of Texas. When you’re driving those wrinkles on snow-covered roads and a tendency toward carsickness, you kinda wish for a big old hot, steaming iron.
Two hours later, we rounded a curve and saw it. The world’s largest “fully steerable radio telescope.” It looked like a baby bird with its mouth open waiting for Mom to bring a worm. I was impressed, but y’know, we’re in West Virginia, where the dish satellite is the state flower. It looked like a satellite dish. What I didn’t realize is that we were still miles away.
When we got to the observatory grounds, my jaw dropped. This thing is HUGE. It’s as tall as the Washington Monument and the dish surface is 2.3 acres. You could get one helluva cell signal in these parts. Except you can’t. Thirteen thousand square miles create the National Radio Quiet Zone surrounding the observatory so that Daddy telescope and all of his baby telescopes can do their job. That means most of the eastern part of West Virginia can’t have cell phones, microwaves, decent radio stations, ham radio, or cable TV. I suppose one catches up with one’s church gossip through tin cans connected with strings and apparently smoke signals are okay. As exciting as this ginormous technological outer space monster is, I have to wonder if it really helps my home state progress and enlighten when so many people are left in the dark.
Of course Man Child about dirtied his britches. This was everything he stood for. A lifetime of nerdiness, blowing stuff up, building radio stations with little more than a bunch of tiny pieces and a soldering iron, and getting a degree in drone technology culminated in this one moment, when he could become one with Big Daddy Telescope. Mesmerized, he strode toward it, SLR film camera in hand, as if he were Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I’m pretty sure I heard the five-note sequence that beckoned the space ship as Man Child became smaller and smaller in the distance. I hoped the aliens would be kind to him and provide him with Mountain Dew and bow ties. This was going to make his girlfriend very unhappy with me.
Luckily (for us earthlings at least), his camera messed up and he came trotting back. It had eaten his film. He thinks the camera glitched. I’m pretty certain that the Men in Black from Point Pleasant had come and ensured that he didn’t get any close-ups of bug-eyed people with no apparent sex organs. (I always wonder, were there no Adam and Even aliens? They’re always running around naked, so apparently they didn’t eat the forbidden fruit and become appalled at their nakedness.)
Pawpaw wanted to show his grandson where he went turkey hunting for several years, so we waved goodbye to Big Daddy Telescope and drove down to a convenience store to ask directions. It had been a while since he, his uncle, a friend and my 80-some-year-old grandfather had been in these mountains pretending to hunt turkey. Because he only brought home maybe two turkeys and one sad-looking squirrel in decades of hunting, we kinda knew it was a way to justify getting out of the house and away from the three women who dominated my dad’s existence.
Buffalo Mountain Road was the other way (this is how one gives directions in West Virginia: just go this way a little bit and then go the other way for about a mile, then you’ll see the old bank. Turn right and go thataway ‘til you’re at the top of the mountain). We passed the telescope again and screamed. In a matter of minutes, it had changed position from baby bird looking for food to pterodactyl looking for prey. More than two acres of mass had gyrated from a cereal bowl position to a klieg light position. It was like Big Daddy Telescope was looking for Man Child. I felt sorry for the big old thing. I feel the same way when my boy is away from me.
We saw the old bank, turned right and went thataway, then realized we should have gone thisaway, so turned around, headed to the top of the mountain and found the hunting “cabin.” Please know that during all those years of turkey hunting, the womenfolk fully believed that these trips were their men’s version of going into the woods and beating a drum. We had civilized them and they needed to commune with nature, become one with their ancestors, grunt in acknowledgement of one another as they ripped recently cooked-over-a-fire flesh from bone with their teeth.
My dad pulled up to the gate and stopped. Gate. I said gate. Le château was safely ensconced behind a gate as if it were the estate of a country music legend tucked in the outskirts of Nashville. It had once been an old school house, pale gray in color. A chimney, made of local stone, rose from the center of the house. A front porch looked out on the mountains and valleys with an excellent view of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. The roof of the porch created a deck that was accessible from a second story bedroom. According to my dad, a schoolteacher once rented the place and grew marijuana on the front porch. This gated community was nirvana.
I leaned back into my seat, happy that my dad had met his goals in showing his grandson the world’s largest “fully steerable radio telescope” and his “roughing it” hunting lodge. Now we would eat lunch, right?
Several harrowing hours later, with my stomach rumbling more loudly than the wheels of the tractor trailer who’d been playing Duel with us on hairpin curves, we were on a four-lane highway. Civilization! Food! Cell service!
But nooooooo. Pawpaw the Superhuman had yet another goal. He wanted his grandson to see one of the world’s longest single-span arched bridge. How was this man still driving? I had begun gnawing on my arm and was hallucinating that the back of my son’s head was a bowl of spaghetti. The only thing that kept me from chewing on his noggin was that I wasn’t sure it was gluten free.
My dad drove over the New River Gorge, turned around and drove back. There. We’d done it. The New River Gorge Bridge. When he has a goal, my dad doesn’t let silly details like getting out and actually looking at the structure get in his way. He could check “Take grandson to New River Gorge Bridge” off his bucket list.
By this time, my codependent bladder had awakened from her nap and reminded me that it had been a LONG time since Elkins. I told her if she didn’t behave, my stomach was going to ingest her because it hadn’t had attention for far more time than my bladder had. They both got into it and I didn’t have an essential oil available to calm them down.
Daddy swung a sharp left and my head got involved, bitching that it had ALWAYS been sensitive to motion and my stomach told it to shut up because it could kick in nausea faster than a headache could even think about poking my eyes out.
I tried to remain chipper. After all, if the old man could keep going, then so could I. It was obvious that Man Child was fading. Oh dear, my parents were going to know that I raised a lightweight. Stay strong, son. You can do this!
I looked over at my mother, who just four years previously was completely paralyzed by Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Her recovery from that is the stuff of which medical journals are made. She still looked hardy, perkily looking out the car window. Good God, man, what was in that pizza?
Daddy pulled the car off the road into a parking spot. Hawk’s Nest. Omigod, I love Hawk’s Nest. I love everything about Hawk’s Nest and at that moment I loved the Hawk’s Nest ladies room most of all. I limped, Quasimodo, style up the stone steps to the stone cylinder that held the restrooms. A sliver of evening sunlight shown upon the throne and a chorus of angels sang.
With my bladder gloating to my other organs about the attention it had received, I grabbed Man Child and said, “We’re going for a walk.” He had never seen the Hawk’s Nest overlook and he had no idea.
Like Girl Child in an art supply store, Man Child was speechless with awe and delight. This overlook had everything. Scary height. Beautiful scenery. Train tracks! And a TUNNEL!!! Even a story about the tunnel tragedy highlighted on a historical marker! We love historical markers! The story on the marker is sobering, though, made more so when further research is involved.
Often considered America’s worst industrial disaster, construction of a three-mile tunnel for hydro-electric power in the thirties was just one of many abuses the West Virginia worker has suffered. The project allegedly killed more than 2,000 men, many of whom were black and – much like the African-American lives lost in Katrina – remain unaccounted for and unnamed. Once again, the beauty and rugged grandeur of my home state is covered in a film of heartbreak and tragedy.
Just past Hawk’s Nest, around a few hairpin turns where – as the saying goes – you kiss your own ass as you round the curve, is Gauley Bridge. If one is a white water rafter, one knows about Gauley Bridge. Just past Gauley Bridge is Glen Ferris. If one is someone who eats, one knows about Glen Ferris and the Glen Ferris Inn.
Situated on the bank, and I do mean Right On the Bank of where the Gauley River meets the New River and creates the Kanawha River, this haunted old building houses a hotel with a restaurant where cops come to eat. Cops are like truckers. You want to eat where they eat. Cops and truckers know things.
We were seated two tables over from a four-top of officers of the law who checked out Man Child’s large jean cuffs. I hoped they wouldn’t ask him to raise his hands above his ankles. We ordered food. We ate food. Without dishonoring my parents’ cooking, because they both make some awesome fried chicken, I scarfed down the best fried chicken I’ve ever had the great fortune to eat.
With a nod in the generation direction of my nutritionist, I didn’t eat any of the homemade rolls.
I still regret that.
I regretted even more that we were still almost two hours from home. My poor dad had to be exhausted. Man Child or I should offer to drive. I mean, the old guy’s been driving all day and he’s probably plum tuckered out. “Let’s go!” he hollered and herded us into the car. Good Lord almighty, man, are you not even gonna swill some of that free coffee in the hallway. Waitaminute. I think I forgot my phone omigod he’s got it in drive.
He had met his goals for the day. Like a horse who knows it’s dinner time, he was heading back to the barn, whether we had hold of the halter or not. At one point, belching mashed potatoes, as we careened around a curve on two wheels, I audaciously declared, “Daddy, these curves are making me a little sick.”
“Well, I’m trying to straighten them out for you.”
Well, yeah, the straightest distance between two points is a straight line, but when one side is a mountain going up and the other side is a mountain going down, I think we need to reconsider going straight on a curvy road.
When we got home, Man Child and I staggered into my parents’ house and fell facedown onto our beds. Nanna and Pawpaw stayed up and cleaned out the car.