The Trip to Bountiful and the Idealized Past

Last week I had the opportunity to enjoy a powerful production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.  The performances, staging, and set design were all truly fantastic.  It is now entering the final week of its run and I recommend catching it if you have the chance.

Set in the spring of 1953, the play focuses on the character of Mrs. Carrie Watts, brilliantly portrayed by Cicely Tyson.  Carrie is in the twilight of her life.  It has been 20 years since she last visited her hometown of Bountiful, TX – a mere three-hour drive from Houston, where she lives with her son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams).  Her days are made of sharing a cramped one bedroom apartment with Jessie Mae and reflecting upon her childhood in Bountiful.

Seen from one perspective, the play is a sort of love letter to small town life.  Carrie pines to escape the big city and return to that place, which has become to her a symbol of happiness, freedom, and pristine beauty.  Ludie, too, is enamored with it.  Jessie Mae stands out as the one person that harbors no affection for Bountiful, which serves to make her the lone antagonist within the world of the play.

Seen another way, however, the play is an allegory to what happens when we create within ourselves an idealized version of past places and events.  Though Carrie reveals at one point that her father struggled to keep the family farm going and we learn that unsustainable farming practices reduced the community to a ghost town, Carrie chooses to cull out only the happy memories that she has of the place and the people with whom she shared it.  She has come to hold Bountiful sacred as a utopian ideal, where the people were kind, the air was fresh, and each day was full of joyous adventures.

And so it is with life, once we begin to hold an idealized past time and place in our minds, the present time becomes more cruel and wherever we live now seems to have nothing good to offer.  Time tends to wash away pain and intensify positive memories, making them more pungent, poignant and blissful than they actually were.  We run the risk of having our past become a toxin that poisons our present.

I saw this trick of the mind play out many times during the years that I worked as an actor in Los Angeles.  People arrived here seeking opportunity in the entertainment industry, but ended up pining for the place from which they came.  Crystalline memories of home made the harsh realities of this place all the harder.  Eventually, it seemed like everything was better where they came from.  They would stop looking for the good in this place and these people.  They’d start to wonder what they were searching for when they came here – after all, things were pretty great there.  Like Carrie, they would come to wonder how they came to feel so bitter and angry all the time.  They’d start to think that maybe if they went back home, then they’d become more like the happy person they once were.

And so that’s the great takeaway from The Trip to Bountiful.  Like Carrie, we’d probably all be a lot happier in the here and now if we would let the past remain in the past, and stop taking it out of the box from time to time to clean it, polish it, and move it a little higher up on the mantel.

Endeavour Makes History at California Science Center

Sometimes history is made by “firsts,” like the first solo flight across the Atlantic or the first footstep on the moon.  Other times, history is made by “lasts,” such as the last automobile of a rare model to roll off the assembly line or the last space shuttle flight.  Today, the California Science Center marked an historic first and last.  A key part of a delicate operation entitled “Go for Payload” took place, which involved the instillation of a flown SPACEHAB (sort-of like an extra room that could be added to orbiters) into space shuttle Endeavour.  Go for Payload is the first time that an operational orbiter’s payload bay doors have been opened on Earth outside of either the Palmdale assembly facility or the Kennedy Space Center, and the last time that payload will be inserted into an orbiter.

Upon entering the Samuel Oschin Pavilion, it was striking to see space shuttle Endeavour – a now familiar fixture at the Center – with its payload bay doors open.

Endeavour with payload bay doors open. ©Matt Vasko
Endeavour with payload bay doors open.
©Matt Vasko

On hand for the occasion was retired NASA Astronaut and first teacher is space, Barbara R. Morgan, who flew aboard Endeavour on STS-118, serving as mission specialist.

Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan stands in front of space shuttle Endeavour. ©Matt Vasko
Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan stands in front of space shuttle Endeavour.
©Matt Vasko

After a brief introduction by Science Center CEO Jeff Rudolph, Morgan took time to reflect upon her nearly two-week-long mission aboard the orbiter in 2007.  STS-118 delivered 5,000 lbs. of equipment and supplies to the station, including seeds that had been selected for delivery by American school children.

Morgan compared floating in space to the feeling one has when flying in a dream.  She also paid homage to Christa McAuliffe, whose duties Morgan assumed as Teacher in Space Designee after the space shuttle Challenger accident, stating that she believes that McAuliffe deserves the distinction as America’s first teacher in space.

Dr. Kenneth Phillips, curator of the Endeavour: The California Story exhibition, performed a Q&A with Barbara R. Morgan, after witch, Morgan took questions from guests.  Most notably, one attendee asked what she had to say to school children who might not be interested in science, but are still interested in participating in the space program.  Morgan provided two answers.  The first was that if kids are interested in the space program they should be told that, “Every single subject matter and every single college degree you can think of – there are jobs at NASA for those people.”  The second answer (and most important in Morgan’s belief) was, “Everybody in this country [in order] to be a fully participating citizen, needs to think  mathematically and needs to be able to have an understanding of how the world works.  And more then anything you have to have that curiosity and that drive to continually learn.  And that’s where the sciences and the math come in.  So, I would say if the kids aren’t necessarily interested, then it is up to us teachers to make science and math really fun so that they can get engaged in it and they can really get a feel for the joy of exploration, discovery, research, and things like that.”

With that inspiration in mind, it was time for the main event.  A crane was used to slowly and meticulously hoist the SPACEHAB into the payload bay of Endeavour.  The following photos chronicle the event.

Technicians prepare the SPACEHAB module to be lifted into the orbiter ©Matt Vasko
Technicians prepare the SPACEHAB module to be lifted into the orbiter
©Matt Vasko

The comparatively easy first part of lifting the SPACEHAB into place. ©Matt Vasko
The comparatively easy first part of lifting the SPACEHAB into place.
©Matt Vasko

Turning the SPACEHAB while being careful to avoid obstacles. ©Matt Vasko
Turning the SPACEHAB while being careful to avoid obstacles.
©Matt Vasko

Progress was slow, but deliberate and skillful. ©Matt Vasko
Progress was slow, but deliberate and skillful.
©Matt Vasko

The SPACEHAB reaches the top of its ascent and is ready to be turned into position. ©Matt Vasko
The SPACEHAB reaches the top of its ascent and is ready to be turned into position.
©Matt Vasko

The SPACEHAB enters the payload bay. ©Matt Vasko
The SPACEHAB enters the payload bay.
©Matt Vasko

Live feed of the SPACEHAB in its final position inside Endeavour. ©Matt Vasko
Live feed of the SPACEHAB in its final position inside Endeavour.
©Matt Vasko

With the SPACEHAB safely at rest inside of Endeavour’s payload bay, the event drew to a close and the Pavilion opened to visitors for the day.  There is still work to be done, such as installing the tube that will connect the SPACEHAB to the airlock, but a major milestone in the history-making first/last event had been achieved.