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Flying High

August 2, 2016



When I was little, I watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood pretty regularly. One of my favorite segments was when he would visit a factory and see how something is made. Despite the automation and repetition inherent in factories, there’s something mesmerizing about watching raw materials being turned into the things we buy. Nowadays there are multiple TV shows that are entirely composed of factory visits: How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel, Unwrapped on Food Network, etc. The hosts don’t bother changing his sweater and shoes, they don’t feed the fish, they don’t sing songs about friendship and confidence, and they don’t visit the Land of Make Believe; they just take you inside factories. Millions of people watch these shows. Sometimes I’m one of them.

Every time I plan one of these road trips, in addition to looking in general for fun things to do, I look for three specific things to include in our itinerary if possible: baseball games, state fairs, and factory tours.

We have had the absolute worst luck when it comes to state fairs; they always seem to be held the week before we arrive, or the week after we leave. This trip is no different in that sense, and we have still never attended a state fair.

We’ve done very well with baseball games. Most of the teams we want to see are in town when we are, and we’ve never been unable to get tickets to a game we wanted to attend.

Factory tours have been kind of hit or miss. We’ve been on a few that were really great (Ben and Jerry’s, Cabot Creamery) and few that were pretty good (Pez, Cape Cod Potato Chips), but we’ve also missed out on several for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they’re closed when we’re in town. Sometimes they don’t give tours on the day we’re there. Sometimes the hours don’t work out. Once the public tour of a Hyundai plant somewhere in the south (Alabama, maybe?) was pre-empted by a private event for VIPs. When planning this trip, I was disappointed to learn that Kellogg’s and Post, whose headquarters we’ll be passing, do not give tours at all. And in Detroit, only Ford gives tours, and not on the day we’ll be there.

Still, this trip has a few interesting factory tours on the itinerary, and the first one was the American Whistle Company in Columbus, Ohio, the only company in America that manufactures metal whistles, and the official whistle provider of the Super Bowl, the NYPD, and hundreds of other whistle-using organizations. Unfortunately, tours are by appointment only, and require a minimum of 15 people. If you’re fewer then 15 they sometimes let you tag along with a bigger tour, but you’re at the mercy of whatever they happen to have scheduled. And of course I forgot to call in advance to see what they had available for today. I had pretty much written it off as impossible, but decided to call anyway when they opened at 9. To our delight, I was told they had a tour we could join at 10 a.m.

That gave us just enough time to stop off at a Family Dollar to buy Sam a toothbrush and purchase a few other items we needed.

When the tour began we were totally underwhelmed, as the whole factory is one large room in one small industrial building that is shared by another company. But the tour turned out to be a lot of fun, for various reasons.

For one thing, we got to walk right up to the machines and workers, and we saw real whistles in real production, not just a dog-and-pony show they put on for tourists.


They don’t allow photos of the production, so instead here’s a photo of the special gold-plated Super Bowl whistle.


For another, I saw a stark difference between the 9-year-old Sam I took on the first road trip and the 14-year-old I’m traveling with now: After mentioning referees and cops as groups of people who use whistles, the tour guide asked if we could name other groups. Sam leaned over to me and whispered, “Rape victims.” I have no idea where he learned about rape whistles, but I am certain he didn’t know about them at age 9.

A little later on, the tour guide ended up talking a lot about the “safety whistles” that the company manufactures for various colleges, neighborhood watch groups, etc. Sam was pretty proud of himself for being a step ahead of the tour guide.

Like any good tour, they gave out free samples at the end. Everyone on the tour gets a whistle, and the tour guide joked about how much fun the drive home will be once all the kids on the tour get whistles. I didn’t find it very amusing, considering that my drive home is 4,000 MILES! (Not to worry: the whistles are safely in the trunk of the car with all the other souvenirs.)

Besides the whistle factory, we didn’t have much planned in Columbus–just a quick peek at the state capitol and then Bicentennial Park, a well-reviewed park with cool fountains. But we ended up liking Columbus much more than we expected.

Downtown Columbus is small but very clean, very modern, very well designed, and, as Sam pointed out, very quiet–no sirens, no honking, no rumbling trucks. There’s very little street parking but ample reasonably-priced parking lots and buses (very quiet buses) that come by so frequently that I almost thought today was some sort of bus holiday.

The state capitol matches the rest of the city: attractive but not showy, with modern touches that really make it stand out from most others.



The park, too, turned out to be much better than expected. We got extremely lucky and happened to find a metered spot right next to the park, which is always a good sign. The fountains were much cooler and more robust than we described, because they are meant for splashing and playing in, not merely for looking.



There are even pristine, free changing rooms right near the fountains, as well as a schmancy restaurant overlooking the whole scene.



And the rest of the park was just as great. Beauty was everywhere we looked: the walking/running/biking paths along the riverbank, the bridges that span the river, and even the bike racks.


It was a little early for lunch, but we loved the park so much we decided to picnic there.

Sam was practically ready to move to Columbus, but we still had lots of fun planned an hour and a half away in Dayton, so off we went.

Our first stop was the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. You may remember that, on our last trip, we went to a museum in Arizona that boasted the second-largest collection of military aircraft in America. Today we saw the largest.

Most of the planes in Arizona are, understandably, kept outside, but in Dayton they’re almost all inside, as the museum is made up of four enormous hangars. The fourth is brand new, so our timing was pretty fantastic.

What makes this museum more special than the one in Arizona, aside from the air conditioning and the size of the collection, is the specific planes in the collection. We saw the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, a B2 bomber (the “Stealth Bomber”), a weaponized drone that flew missions over Afghanistan, and so much more that I’m not going to even attempt to describe it all.



[Side Note: Sam refused to be photographed in front of any fighter planes. “I don’t want to smile in front of a bunch of death machines,” he explained with conviction. It’s hard to believe that he’s the same kid who was joking about rape whistles earlier in the day.]

Better than all the war planes were the museum’s interactive features. We got to sit in the cockpits of an F-16 and an F-4, which was pretty cool.


The coolest part was a dogfight simulator in which we climbed into a little plane-looking box to play a video game–or so I thought. I realized what we were in for when they had us empty our pockets before we got in. I was the pilot and Sam was the gunner, and once we were strapped in we hunted enemy planes while the simulator really tilted and even rolled us to match what was happening on our screen. It was 4.5 minutes of intense action as we actually turned upside-down and sideways while chasing after enemy aircraft (we shot down 10 enemy planes). It was lots of fun, and it was surprisingly exhausting. Considering we were sitting the whole time, we were both a little baffled as to why we got so tired. My theory is that, as we were tumbled, our bodies naturally fought against the movement, futilely trying to remain upright and exhausting our muscles and our equilibrium in the attempt. With training and experience, I presume that actual fighter pilots get used to the tumbling and their bodies just let it happen.

But the real highlight of the museum was the Presidential Planes exhibit in the brand-new fourth hangar. There are 10 planes on display that had flown various U.S. Presidents, and visitors can go inside four of them. So of course we did. We were inside the plane that flew FDR to the Yalta Conference and I was struck by the custom elevator that allowed him to easily enter and exist in his wheelchair. We were inside the plane that flew Truman to Wake Island for a meeting with General MacArthur. We were inside Eisenhower’s plane, and I was struck by how his bathroom despite being made specifically for Presidential use, is still basically just a roomy airplane bathroom.


Yes, that’s the toilet sticking out in the back.



And finally, we were in JFK’s Air Force One. It’s the first plane to look like today’s Air Force One. It’s the plane that flew Kennedy to West Berlin to deliver the “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It’s also the plane where LBJ was sworn is as president in Dallas before flying back to Washington with JFK’s body on board.



On our last road trip we stood in the spot where Kennedy was shot, so this had a bit of added meaning for us.

Up next was another aviation-related stop that harkened back to a previous trip: The Wright Cycle Company in downtown Dayton.



The Wright Brothers lived in Dayton, where they ran a printing press, a failed newspaper, and eventually a series of bicycle shops. It was then that they got the idea to use some of the technology used in bicycles to design their first flying machine, and they soon started splitting the years between Dayton and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The exhibits were just OK, but it was pretty cool to walk inside one of their actual bicycle shops. It was even cooler because I realized this morning that we were in Kitty Hawk exactly four years ago today seeing the fruits of the tinkering they did in this shop.

Our last activity for the day was a ballgame–specifically the Dayton Dragons, the single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The stadium doesn’t have an official parking lot, and private lots rarely allow tailgating, so before we headed to the game we grilled dinner in the Wright Brothers’ backyard–literally at a picnic table right behind their bicycle shop. After such a fun day, we decided to treat ourselves with a dinner of lamb chops, green beans, and snap peas, and it was DELICIOUS.


Not bad for a portable tabletop grill I keep in the backset of my car, eh?



The ballgame itself was mind-numbingly dull, as the Hometown Dragons took almost four hours to get destroyed by the visiting Bowling Green Hot Rods, but there were several particularly amusing moments. The great thing about single-A baseball is the accessibility to the players, and Sam took full advantage. First he had an intense pregame conversation with Bowling Green DH David Rodriguez.



Then he spent some time during the game chatting up the Bowling Green bullpen until one of them finally tossed him a ball.


[Side Note: This keeps alive Sam’s streak of getting tossed a ball at every single minor league game he’s ever attended. Someday soon he’s going to outgrow the cuteness that gets him such perks, but he’s milking it while he still can.]

But hands down, the best part of the game was the multiple appearances by the Mini Dugout Dancers, a  group of about a dozen girls who appeared to range from 8 to 12 years old and whose job is apparently to come out between innings a few times per game and perform highly choreographed dances to various songs, much like the Laker Girls but without all that pesky coordination. I’m going to do you a favor right now and share with you a short video of one of their performances, during which I zoom in on one of the younger girls because her over-enthusiasm is endlessly entertaining.


You’re welcome.

One final thought. Thanks to two weeks of political parties’ national conventions, there’s been a lot of talk about how and why Ohio is so important in presidential elections. “As Ohio goes,” someone always says, “so goes the nation.” This is somewhat true, politically speaking. (It turns out, in fact, that Donald Trump made a campaign stop in Columbus today shortly after we left.) And with so much time spent in Ohio, I’ve been thinking a lot about why.

So here it is: Ohio really is a small version of America. It’s got everything America is known for from sea to shining sea, all smushed into one medium-sized state that, as they say here, is round at the ends and HI in the middle. There are farms, there are cities big and small, there are major corporations and lots of factories. Today alone we saw Confederate flags and Hillary bumper stickers, posh restaurants and roadside diners, trendy biergartens and dive bars, major universities and check-cashing stores. There’s air pollution and there’s a beloved National Park. Ohio is major league and minor league; it’s blue and it’s red, it’s the Wright Brothers’ flyer and the stealth bomber. New York is wonderful in many ways, but there aren’t many parts of the rest of America that resemble New York. Ohio, on the other hand, and I mean this in a good way, looks like everywhere. Except for the Mini Dugout Dancers; they look like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Conventional wisdom says that Columbus discovered America; today, in a sense, we discovered America in Columbus.

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