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Observations: My grail has a first name

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image NASA’s GRAIL on the launchpad shortly before a scrubbed launch attempt. It turns out, that grail wasn’t mine. Mitch Traphagen Photo

My grail’s name is...

I woke up at 3 a.m. and was bound for Kennedy Space Center by 3:30. I arrived just as the press credentials office opened and, in their usual efficient and friendly manner, they handed me a card and I was out the door within minutes. Soon after, I was on a NASA press bus for the 20-minute ride to Launch Complex 17B. The weather was forecasted to make a turn for the worse, but it was a beautiful morning. The sun rose while on the bus ride and the press site for LC17 was incredible — I had a perfect, straight-on view of GRAIL, the twin moon probes mounted atop a Delta rocket.

With only minutes left in the countdown, the weather and the rocket were all a green for go. My heart began to race as I prepared my three cameras to capture what I expected would be an incredible sight.

But then, nothing happened. Upper level winds were outside of NASA’s specifications for launch so it was decided they would try again at another window of opportunity an hour later. That attempt was scrubbed at T-Minus a few minutes. Given the view I had of the rocket, I decided it was worth a night in a cheap motel to try again the next morning. Since I didn’t have to drive from South Hillsborough, I was able to “sleep in” until 4 a.m. I didn’t bother to check my email as I arrived at the NASA News Center at 5:15 a.m. to find that no one was there. Sometime in the wee hours of the night, NASA decided to hold off for another day. I decided to drive home. On Saturday morning from my computer, I had a great view on NASA TV of a picture-perfect launch. I could have gone back, but I decided that specific grail would not be mine.

I’ve learned that my friends are the grail I seek in life. I’ve always greatly enjoyed giving presents, but it has been considerably more difficult for me to receive them. Over the years, I’ve been working on that issue. I’ve long since grown past train sets and Hot Wheels, so for the presents I have sporadically received, I’ve learned to say “thank you” rather than, “you really shouldn’t have — let me pay you for this!” Learning to be gracious isn’t easy. But for reasons not entirely clear, I’ve had a ton of opportunities to learn graciousness in the past several weeks, and in that time I have been both honored and humbled by the benevolence of friends.

My grail’s name is Jon. I’ve known Jon since we were both in the second grade — he is one of those best friends that is more than a simple acronym — he truly is for life. We lived on the same street and played in a rock band together. Without ever saying a word about it, we both knew we would be there for each other. It has been years since I’ve seen him but our friendship and bond has never waned. He is happy that I’ve rediscovered music and the guitar. So much so, I’ve received two emails from him saying he was sending some equipment that he knew I would need to “do things right.” “My treat,” he said both times. I can’t place a value on how much his support and friendship is worth to me. It’s not the stuff he gave me, it’s the realization that he thought it was important enough to do. He has given me motivation and inspiration that I didn’t know I had. I will know that I have lived right if someday I have the honor to share a stage again with my lifetime best friend.

My grail’s name is Jerry. When I met Jerry I was in a life raft. Seriously, Jerry and his wife had just arrived from Colorado to move aboard their boat and my wife and I were floating around the marina in a life raft we bought at a garage sale. (We learned that day there is a very good reason you shouldn’t buy critical lifesaving equipment at garage sales.) He was walking to the other end of the marina and we told him to hop in. But ever since that day, it is Jerry and his wife Stephanie that have been my life raft. There is nothing in my life that has happened since that day nearly 15 years ago in which I wondered, would Jerry back me up? He always has. Most recently, he made it possible for us to endure the heat on our boat in cool comfort. He knows what that means to us.

My grail’s name is Tom. Tom is one of the happy and fortunate convergences in my life. He is the same age as me and appeared at our lonely marina in Ruskin about the same time my wife and I did back in the mid-1990s. He has since moved to Tampa so we’ve lost daily contact, but when I was recently going through a personal crisis, Tom called and then called again. And then again. He made certain that I knew that I was not alone. A few months earlier, he sent an email inviting us to a Jackson Browne concert. “My treat,” he said. Among the many things we have in common is a love for Jackson Browne’s music. A few years ago, we invited him to a concert in Des Moines — in December. I think his choice of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater was the better one.

My grail’s name is Michelle. Michelle is my wife and partner in life. Together we have been through enough bizarre, happy and sad experiences to fill a couple of books. After I traded a guitar I cherished (but rarely played for 30 years) for some camera gear I felt I needed for my job, Michelle showed up one day with a new guitar that she knew that I was interested in. Since then, she has been so much more than supportive as that guitar has turned into amps, speakers and various accessories — enough to fill a bedroom in our house. Much of it is stuff that I don’t feel I deserve. But she thinks I do. She believes in me more than I believe in myself. There is no way to express what that means in my life. Her belief is making me better, not just at playing the guitar, but in being a person. I want to be who she thinks I am.

As I type these words, a UPS driver just delivered the first of Jon’s treats and I can’t wait to try it out. Tomorrow night, Michelle and I will spend a relaxing evening on the boat, thanks to Jerry. And then, I’ll try to carve out a day to learn a Jackson Browne song or two, and think about my friend Tom.

I am blessed beyond belief; and I am just cynical enough to wonder if my friends somehow learned that I am dying of some horrible thing and are being extra nice as a result. But I know the truth; I am so fortunate to have these people in my life. Not because of what they buy or do, but for who they are — and because they make me better than I would otherwise be. I love them all.

As for dying, I’m not (that I know of), but the reality is we all have that one thing in common. Life is a fatal disease, after all, and I think that some people forget that in their quest for power and wealth — the holy grails of our times. But my grail is neither of those things. My grails have names. I’ll take that over wealth and power any day. I have no doubt that when my time does come, I’ll die happier because of it. At the end of the day what could be more important?

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