Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Stories

I ran across a blog this weekend that was telling a story about a teddy bear that her brother owned and I was captivated. It was a normal scrappy blog during the rest of the month, but one Sunday a month it turned into a story telling time.

I thought it was a lovely idea and maybe it would inspire me to get some of the amazing stories my Dad has written into cyber space! Someday I'd like to take each story and load them into a publishing program and get a whole book made. Perhaps, by blogging these 2012 will be that year. If I think I can swing the time, perhaps I'll get little Grandma in the mix and see if she can provide photos that will aid with illustrating. Or perhaps they will be just recorded here for me!

Anyhow, here is the story for today. It's one I specially requested that corresponds with something that my son was exploring the other day with his Dad. They made a home made potato gun and had raided my spuds. They have further plans though and I can only be glad they are doing these projects together.

Rocket Man

By Bruce H. Mero

It was in Mr. Leland’s seventh grade science class that my adolescent interest in space exploration and particularly in rockets became obsessive.  It was the time of the first American Astronauts, the first orbital missions and a growing space race between America and the Soviet Union.  Each time a manned-rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral, the PA system in our school carried the live radio broadcasts and we school kids listened and I always imagined I was going along for the ride.  I paid rapt attention to everything Mr. Leland had to say about these first trips into space, especially when he detailed in color chalk on the blackboard how rocket ships were constructed and how solid and liquid fuels burned.

At the same time, four of my friends and I founded an after-school Astronaut club and collected newspaper and magazine clippings of everything to do with the planets, the moon and space ships.  We plastered the walls of an attic room in Craig Denning’s house with these clippings and talked endlessly about space travel and we all made plans to become Astronauts some day.  Billy Marks found an ad in a comic book and talked his mother into buying a package of rocket motors and an ignition kit, and complete directions for making and launching cardboard-tube rockets.  We occupied hours making these rockets and talked Mr. Leland into launching them on the school grounds, during school hours with all three classes in the middle school allowed to attend each launch.  We of the Astronaut club took turns setting the rockets on their launch pads and running the wire ignition cord to the ignition switch.  With each rocket launch, one of us was selected as mission controller and directed the set-up operation.  Once the rocket was readied, we waved to the crowd of gathered kids and swaggered back to the launch control center and took up our positions.  The school principal, a special teacher or a special girlfriend then stepped forward and accompanied by a chorus of kids loudly chanting the countdown: ten...nine...eight............three, flipped the switch and sent nine volts of electricity surging through ignition wires, to the rocket motor which, most times, ignited and sent our cardboard rockets skyward in a whoosh and cloud of smoke and wild clapping from our schoolmates.  We repeated this exercise several times each Thursday in May, with Fridays available in case of a rain delay, until the package of a dozen rocket motors was gone.  The five of us were school heroes that spring, and we each vowed that we would get our parents to buy more rocket motors and continue our launches after school let out for the summer in mid-June.

Summer vacation started with daily gatherings of our club, but our enthusiasm begin to wane as none of us was successful in talking our parents into buying more rocket motors.  Family vacations began to take club members away for weeks at a time and by mid-July we had disbanded, by default, for the summer.  

My enthusiasm for rockets remained high, however.  I had pestered my dad to buy rocket motors so much that his responses to my solicitations were becoming dangerous and I decided to take another approach to slake my appetite.  I had taken meticulous notes during Mr. Leland’s descriptions of rocket motors and decided to construct my own.  I had heard that solid rocket fuel was similar to the stuff that matches were made from and had determined that a rocket motor made from match heads would perform the same as the store bought ones I didn’t dare talk to my father about any longer.  Coincidentally, I learned a bit about making black powder from a friend, and had purchased a small can of saltpeter and mixed it with ground charcoal, and carefully ground match heads and made a substance which burned with enough vigor to set my tree house on fire.... but that is another story.  I now had rocket fuel.  I needed a good missile to put it in.

I had started spending my free time hanging around my grandfather’s machine shop, which was located adjacent to the house, we were living in.  Grandpa Curt was a self- employed machinist, an inventor and innovator.  I told of my idea to make a rocket from scratch, and after listening to the research I had done on the subject, he agreed to let me use his shop to build my rocket, provided I stayed out of his way.  He found a piece of aluminum pipe, about a foot long and an inch in diameter and set me up at an anvil, pounding one end of the pipe into a point to make the rocket’s nose cone.  Several times he looked at my project and offered advice.  After a couple of hours, I had pounded the end of the pipe into a perfect nose cone.  He helped me cut the nose cone off the pipe on his band saw, and I set to work pounding on it again to make the cone fit into the pipe, so it could be removed to fill the missile with fuel, then reattached.  This took another couple of hours, but the resulting fit was perfect.  Half of my rocket was finished.  Grandpa Curt had limited patience with kids and at this point he had had enough of me. My work in his shop was terminated for a couple of days.  I used the time to prepare the solid fuel for my rocket, carefully scraping match heads off the wooden parts of kitchen matches and filling a mustard jar with the red and white powder.  I burned sticks in the old cobblestone fireplace next to Grandpa’s shop and ground the charcoal which resulted into powder that I saved in a coffee can.  I had most of the saltpeter left, also.

A couple of days passed.  I had the ingredients for my rocket motor ready and it was time to approach Grandpa again about finishing my missile.  He agreed to let me work in his shop with the same conditions as before, to stay out of his way.  However, it wasn’t long before he had the aluminum tube in his hands and had inserted and brazed a steel washer in the bottom of the tube for the rocket motor’s exhaust gasses to exit the pipe. I was ready, almost, to fuel the rocket, but I had to figure out a way to ignite the motor.  The ignition set-up we had used to launch the rockets in school belonged to Billy Marks and he was away on vacation until August.  This was a dilemma.  I had no way to launch my rocket until Billy got back from vacation and then I remembered a package of firecrackers I had been given by my cousin Mike.  I could use one of the fuses from a firecracker to light my rocket.  While grandpa was occupied in the bathroom, I drilled a small hole near the base of the missile for a fuse and I was in business.

Rocket fueling operations were conducted in my tree house.  Carefully, I mixed the components together, the match-head powder, the charcoal powder and the saltpeter, and I poured the concoction into the missile tube.  When all of my ingredients had been used up, I had only filled the aluminum tube about one-half full.  I had more space in my tube and could make a more powerful rocket, I thought, and decided to fill the rest of the tube with match heads and the black powder from the firecrackers cousin Mike had given me.  The fuel mixture for the second stage of my rocket filled the next three inches in my tube.  There was still space.  I was out of materials for more fuel, and getting impatient to launch.  I had been working on this project for long enough.  Frustrated, I stuffed Kleenex tissue into the remaining space in the tube and then soaked the stuffing with cigarette lighter fluid, and connected the nose cone.  I now had a three-stage rocket, much bigger and more powerful than anything we had launched in seventh grade.  I inserted a firecracker fuse into the little hole at the base of the tube and I was ready for launch.

I had decided earlier to use the cobblestone fireplace as my launch pad, and had everything set to go, when I heard my Grandpa shuffle up behind me and ask, “What are you doing, boy?”  “I’m going to launch my rocket, Grandpa. Do you want to watch?”  Grandpa Curt looked over my rocket and launch set-up.  He asked me where I got my fuse when I told him about the firecrackers my cousin Mike had given me.  He suggested that the fuse needed to be a little longer.  I scrambled up the ladder to my tree house and returned with a couple more, inch-long firecracker fuses.  This was all that I had left from the package of firecrackers I had emptied into the second stage of my rocket.  The rest of the fuses had been stuffed in the missile tube between the stage two match heads and black powder mix and the stage three lighter fluid-soaked Kleenex wadding.  Grandpa carefully twisted the fuses together, forming a single strand about three inches long.  He stepped back and looked things over, then readjusted the rocket on the stand.  He was ready and took the pack of matches out of my hand.  He had taken over my rocket launch, but I was afraid to say anything to him, so I stepped back a few yards and watched him light a match.  I ceremoniously started a countdown: ten...nine...he lit the fuse before I hit eight.  It fizzled, smoked and then the sparks ran quickly down the fuse.  Grandpa took a few steps back.

The aluminum tube shook and fell off of the launch platform. There was a brilliant flash. The explosion that followed rocked the neighborhood. Leaves from a nearby apple tree fluttered into the air and hundreds of green apples fell to the ground.  Parts of my tree house thumped on the dirt at the base of its tree. Some of the windows in Grandpa’s shop nearest to the fireplace shattered. My rocket launcher had disappeared. The top third of the cobblestone fireplace lay on the ground in a cloud of cement dust and ashes.

Every dog within a quarter mile was barking.  My rocket was gone, and all around us shreds of flaming Kleenex and smoking firecracker fuses rained down.  Neither of us was hurt, fortunately.  Grandpa Curt was still standing up but rocking back and forth a little, smiling and shaking his head.  I was on my back on the lawn. Some of the chimney stones and cement dust had landed on me. 

Grandpa Curt teetered over to where I had fallen and handed me back my matches. He straightened his cap and said,
 “It didn’t work, boy,” he said as he shuffled away. We’ll work on a second version next week. See if you can get any more of those firecrackers from your cousin Mike.”


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