This is a brief story about the bad news of Florida State Route 3, and a story about those who made it on time and those who didn't.
Some people always make it on time. It's luck, or it's experience, or it's a gift. Philosophically speaking, being early is for the birds. The first people to arrive at any party are always the ones who were invited last.
State Route 3 is a two-lane blacktop that traverses the orange groves on the way to the Kennedy Space Center. About 1 million people gathered yesterday to watch the shuttle Columbia liftoff. About 75,000 of them did it here. They came in 13,000 cars and 1,800 buses and 4,000 of them were reporters.
They all had to go through the same gate and they didn't all fit.
By 3 a.m., Route A1A in Cape Canveral already looked like the TGIF rush hour, and five miles later, on the bridge over the Banana River, the road turned into a Winebago sandwich. On the radio, local stations were promising traffic reports as soon as their correspondents checked in. The correspondents, however, were in traffic.
But the Winnebagos only wanted a piece of beach on which to park and as they pulled off the road the lane opened up again.
Halfway there and no problem. The turnoff for State Route 3 is like the turnoff for the Wolftrap exit on the Dulles access road. In other words, there's a long line of people patiently waiting their turn on the ramp. These were not opera fans but NASA families -- anybody who had obtained a space center viewing pass. They were quite surprised when some peope drove directly to the head of the line and cut in. Some say the act of cutting in line is devoid of human decency. And on the State Route 3 ramp at 4 a.m. yesterday some people were saying it loudly.
Once on the road there was stasis. Dead, cold immobility. The stars twinkled overhead.But the grassy shoulder was empty and onto it turned an NBC station wagon and a second vehicle bearing the equipment of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. which commenced to fly in formation past the parked parade.
"The gentlemen of the press," said a man sourly to his wife and four children.
People had their doors open and their engines off and they could talk to each other. It began to be obvious that they were going to miss the launch because they had seven miles to go. Not very far but a zero miles an hour, a journey infinitely long.
Another car appeared on the shoulder moving at a medium rate of speed, and as it went by the kids and the families jeered and horns honked. Then another again. The reporters, you see, realized they were going to be late and had to choose between civilization and shuttle. the choice was obvious.
The idea was to pull over onto the shoulder, which was bumpy and illegal, and just drive slowly ahead until the bottleneck was passsed and then apologize and return to the lawful one. On the left, those in the stalled traffic gazed malevolently; on the right was a drainage ditch filled with alligators. This was scary but necessary journalistic driving. Mile after mile the reporters encountered men who attempted to block their paths with their bodies. rEncountered grandmothers who shouted ungrandmotherly warnings. Encountered potholes and sinkholes and expectoration.
It was a relief to find one man waving a flashlight like a policeman. Big pothole ahead, watch out, he said, directing the shoulder traffic toward the ditch. "Drive into the ditch, you son of a - - - - - ," he yelled at close range.
Now the shoulders played host to a steady stream of brazen travelers and the sun was coming up.
Soon thereafter a strange phenomenon occurred. One by one the law-abiding citizens realized the absence of social laws in this situation and peeled off onto the shoulder. When the shoulder was filled, other pulled into the oncoming lane where there was little traffic, and soon that too was full. Then the shoulders of the oncoming lane swelled also so that a four-lane stampede toward the space center began.
Ahead, a Brevard county sheriff's car was parked its blue light blinking. But the oncoming stream merely passed around it and re-formed on the other side. By 6 a.m. it was clear that those who had chosen civilization would miss the launch of the suttle. And as the violators streamed through the checkpoint, waving their credentials, they received a snappy salute.
So the shoulder drivers were well in place for the shuttle blastoff despite the mammoth, four-hour jam. They had been spat at, cursed down, blocked, bumped, obstructed, reviled, and they had made children cry in frustration and scraped the oil pans of their rented cars, but they made it on time. The shuttle blastoff was postponed.