Hello, my name is Amiko.
I was made in Japan, born in Minnesota and raised in Texas. Most of my travel experience – before my first flight at 23 – occurred before the age of two. As an Air Force brat, I traveled extensively until about the age of four when my father moved our family to Texas to plant roots.
I grew up in a tiny town called China Spring. Established in 1867, the town lies about 12 miles northwest of Waco on Farm-to-Market Road 1637. The town post office opened in May of 1873, exactly 100 years before I was born.
Rumor holds “China Spring” was originally plural — “China Springs
.” The town was named after two springs that met at the chinaberry grove. In 1882, it was discovered one of the springs had permanently dried up, so they had to change the name of the town. I’ve often wondered what will happen if the other spring evaporates as did the waterfall – across from Eagle Canyon Lake – where as a child I hunted for sea urchins and trilobites.
My mother inherited her family’s summer home – situated deep in China Spring thickly flanked by cedars about a mile-and-a-half down a winding gravel road from a 42-acre rifle range – after her father passed away. So we packed up our dingy-white Chevy Chinook motorhome trimmed in broad green-and-yellow stripes and left the white sands of Fort Walton Beach (and a backyard treehouse of which I was most fond) for my eventual homestate of Texas.
We were a family of six at the time: Dad, Mom, my one brother and two sisters – one older and one younger – and me. It’s a long drive from Florida to Texas, especially when you are four years old.
I don’t remember any details of my previous travels that began with an international flight from Okinawa.
My parents were stationed at Naha Air Base on the Oroku Peninsula in Japan five years earlier. I wasn’t born yet, but I existed. I was born two weeks later in the U.S. major port city of Duluth, a large Midwest metropolis that sprawls on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.
My earliest travel memories come from our trip to Texas in the Chinook.
These memories – I’ve stitched them together like a calico quilt – were the first to spark my wanderlust. I remember how excited I was to embark on such an adventure. And adventure was my middle name despite my parents neglecting to give me a middle name at birth. I guess they decided a Japanese first name wasn’t unique enough.
There were a limited number of beds in our motorhome, so I was allowed to pick my sleeping space – any spot that wasn’t an actual bed.
I chose a cabinet.
My tiny, twenty-pound frame allowed me to curl up snuggly under the counter of the kitchen space where I imagined it as my own rocket ship with ochre shag carpeting. My brother, the oldest of my six siblings, largely influenced my intrigue with space and all things of the cosmos that led me to Houston and eventually to work for NASA.
I remember the day we pulled up to what I called home for most of my childhood.
Our new home was a putty-colored, masonry-styled cinder block house slightly elevated a few feet from the gravel road on which we lived with a short, wide concrete driveway and large covered carport that had room enough and more for our camper-topped Chinook.
Thick putty globs of painted-over hardened mortar used to glue the staggered concrete bricks together protruded from the exterior walls that served as rain shields for the dirt daubers that took up residency in their molded mud homes beneath. Black wrought-iron bars encased every window, some of which were two-by-one foot like the firing holes along stucco walls of historic Texas battlefield forts.
The front door was gated with the same wrought-iron burglar bars. A ten-foot high, chain-linked galvanized steel fence with three-strand barbed wire atop it surrounded the large yard that wrapped around the tar-and-gravel flat-roofed house.
The house was as how Winston Churchill described a puzzling Russia – a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
My late grandfather who built the house constructed it to heavily guard his family from outside intruders that didn’t seem to exist here in the middle of nowhere. Ironically, what me and my siblings needed protection from was on the inside. Domestic abuse was too taboo to talk about then and is difficult to talk about now. Despite those darker days and the isolated peculiarity of the house, it and my childhood had its charms.
Peering out from the back sliding glass door, you could see that our house rested a few feet from the edge of a jagged rocky ledge that when you were looking up at it from the deep ravine below always seemed as if it might fall off the cliff over time from erosion. My house and the foundation on which I stood proved to me nearly 40 years later to be stronger than I knew.
When we weren’t ripping weeds from their bulbous roots in our gardens, my siblings and I bounded down that ravine most of our days to swim, fish and have stink-mud fights in the murky brownish-green Brazos River below our house that we referred to as “The Bottom.”
The Bottom was a resource for more than our horseplay.
We also grew and harvested acres of vegetables down by the river where my dad rigged an irrigation system from it out of large polyvinyl chloride piping. Okra, green beans, corn and potatoes thrived at the Bottom.
I tended a strawberry patch alongside the west side of our house before it became a pen area with rabbits we raised and butchered for meat.
May – the month I was born – was the perfect time of the year to harvest strawberries. My mom had prepared a strawberry dessert of some kind for my birthday every year from the time I turned one. The strawberry dessert has become a birthday tradition ever since.
We didn’t have much then, but I never missed a strawberry on May 27.
And for that, I never felt unfortunate.
The financial burdens of a large family in a low-income household circumvented opportunities to travel.
But I am a wanderer. I am curious. I am inquisitive. And I am my happiest in nature.
So I spent most of my time outdoors. I traveled up and down our gravel road and ventured deep into the woods, often fantasizing about being in another part of our world – places I had only read about.
My brother took me camping for my first time when I was five years old. He rolled an old iron skillet in the center of a sleeping bag with a couple of fresh-laid eggs gathered from our chicken coop. He signaled to me it was time to go. Time to begin our adventure.
I lifted my sleeping bag with my scrawny tan arms, carrying it on top of my head as if I were carrying my gear for an expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro. We set out as we did so many times after that trip, me chatting non-stop through my wide, toothy smile and all my senses taking in as much as they could.
Loamy smells of wet, dark earth and the spicy aroma of juniper seeping from the sap of a cedar-filled woods; the lemony sour taste of sumac berries picked along my journey that I rolled against the roof of my mouth with my tongue; the hot sun on my shoulders and the sharp crushed combination of granite and limestone beneath my feet.
My dream of travel never left me. As much as I had come to know and love these woods, these trees, these waters and these skipping rocks, I also knew I would need to leave it to pursue my dreams.
At night I would slip out of my house and lie on our driveway that had been heated by the biggest star in our solar system to look up and imagine worlds even farther away.
I moved away from home at a tender age. My parents divorced when I was 12. I moved out on my own at 15.
It was a difficult to leave as I felt a strong obligation to stay and care for my younger sisters. But I had no choice. Home had become too tumultuous. My mother forced me out when I stood up to her abuse. I was working three jobs to supplement our family’s income, which prevented me from graduating from high school.
But school was never abandoned in my mind. I moved to Houston where I felt my chance for that opportunity was more likely. I took and passed my GED test, so I could begin college immediately. And I did.
The biggest challenge I found was not school; it was confidence. Despite that, I eventually earned degrees in computer information technology, business and communication.
Before then, however, I had married and became a mother for the first time seven months after I turned 18. My second son was born 4 1/2 years later. And I pursued my education while raising both boys – eventually as a single mother.
Never taking my eyes from the stars, I applied for a temporary job at NASA. The government had a hiring freeze, so it would be my only opportunity if ever I was to get my foot in the door. I applied for a secretarial job for which I had to take a timed typing and grammar test to be eligible. I passed both.
I then got an interview and was offered the job. I turned the job down. I wasn’t ungrateful for the opportunity, but I knew it was not for me nor was I a fit for it. Fortunately, I received another call for an interview.
I walked in and met the man who would become my first boss at NASA. He was a tall, lean, and fit man named Hank Davis. He was a former Navy pilot, and his directness was intimidating. He intimidated most of his employees. This was the job I would take.
About a month after being hired I had told him I wasn’t a secretary, and I didn’t mean any offense to any secretaries. I admire and appreciate these people most. But I wasn’t a secretary. I lacked patience and polish.
I told Hank he needed me for something else, and that I would be so good at it, he would never want to let me go. He slapped his knee in hysterics, throwing his head back in laughter, but he would agree. A month later, he extended my contract that gave him another six months to come up with a billet that allowed him to hire me permanently.
I was in. He hired me, and he said to me four words that have carried me in many phases in my life from that moment on: it’s up to you. That was February 1998.
I immediately applied for a program at NASA called Project IQ which Hank nominated me for, and I was accepted. It allowed me to attend college during up to eight work hours and paid for most of my tuition. I only was required to cover my books and supplies.
My boys were young, and I was a full-time employee. I had to get permission to attend school full-time too. I took on 14- to 16-hour semesters, barreling through it.
I had my sights on a job in the Public Affairs Office, so I created a position in my office at NASA. I was working for the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office at the time. I saw a need that I could fill, so I filled it. I took on a marketing communication role and served as a liaison with the Public Affairs Office while I still managed my secretarial job. I wasn’t able to be classified outside my current position, so I did both jobs in my original role.
Jim Rostohar, the Public Affairs Director at NASA, visited my boss and expressed a need for some help that had origins in our office. She (Hank had since retired, so I had a new boss) pointed to my office.
I met with Jim and was excited for the challenge he brought. I had no idea that it would lead to a job in Public Affairs. I only liked to solve problems.
Jim called me a week later and asked if I wanted a job. I started working in Public Affairs a week after my graduation in 2004. It was an incredible challenge – since the primary focus of this organization is communications. I got a degree in communication, but only because it was something hard for me, and I wanted to overcome it. I have a hearing problem that was discovered when I was young. It’s actually more of a brain problem. I have dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a condition that most people understand as an inability to read. But really it affects all areas of language and the ability to communicate – and learn. I was reading at 3, so it wasn’t obvious why I struggled. My ears heard sound, but they could not accurately decode words. I attended a few years of speech class where I learned sign language because it was believed I might be losing my hearing.
I learned to manipulate sounds that made sense within context by reading lips. I recall my fear when I was asked to begin performing commentary on PAO console in NASA’s Mission Control Center to live broadcast spaceflight events.
I accepted the job but not without an exasperating explanation of my limitations. My speech had improved over the years, but even now, some people notice a slight impediment. On occasion someone will note I sound like a person who has a hearing problem. The speech patterns are very similar.
Working in Mission Control during a space mission was exciting for me, and I enjoyed interviewing people most. I can read lips better face-to-face rather than twirling my chair and peering over the consoles at the Flight Director or other flight controllers to see what they were saying on the loop. Also I love to meet new people and learn from them.
I began training for commentary when my boyfriend (now my fiance) who is Astronaut Scott Kelly was in space. We had been dating for a year, and he was on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.
We met outside of work but knew of each other because of our work. We have been together now for eight years, and I’ve been with him for 500 of his 520 days in space. We both share a love of travel – he’s been around the world more than most people. And now that he’s returned after his yearlong space mission that was an unprecedented mission to further NASA’s reach in its endeavors of space exploration, we’re circling the globe together – albeit on Earth.
Life is a journey.
I have always dreamed of traveling, and now I am living that dream. I am ever grateful for every path I’ve come to – including the most difficult ones – that have led me where I am today. I am happy to share what I come across along the way and hope you will enjoy these musings too.
I also plan to share tips and resources for your own journey. And I hope you will share the places you find yourself in life with me.