The picture is of me on the left and Rusty on the right in Rusty’s basement with our science project. We were converting electricity through heat. Our pal Stoney was involved with the project as well. Are there two more dorkey-looking teenagers in the entire world? If you don’t know who Rusty is, read the entry, #15 The Carnegie Library, Den of iniquity.
Rusty and I found each other in the first year of the band. He wasn’t much bigger than I was, we shared a love of books and classical music, and we were equally inept at finding girlfriends. Rusty was shyer than I, but he was far smarter. Where I maintained a straight C average, (with other highs and lows) he received mostly A’s. He studied; I didn’t. We teamed up to be in the Science Fair together and won one of the top prizes. In a pale imitation of the young man who wrote the bestselling book, Rocket Boy, the writer Homer Hickam from Coalwood, West Virginia, we even crafted an elegant model rocket. More on that adventure below. After reading Hickam’s excellent rocket book many years later, my mother would tell anyone who would listen that Hickam had stolen the idea of building rockets from her son’s foray into that field.
Rusty lived about twenty miles outside of town, so we mostly hung around together in school. His father was a silent, gruff, tough man who scared the shit out of me. It was clear (or at least I thought it was clear) that his father didn’t much care for Rusty’s pursuits – playing classical piano, reading, getting good grades, being in the band and hating all sports – and he didn’t like me. When he spoke to us at all the tone was slightly scornful, a tone that made me feel even smaller than I was.
His mother, on the other hand, liked me. Even more than my other friend’s mothers, she was quiet, and I never could tell what she was thinking. She was an attractive blond and when we were at Rusty’s house you never knew where she was, always sitting quietly by herself in one of the rooms of her impeccably clean house.
One day I was headed to the bathroom, coming upstairs from the basement where we hatched all of our science and other projects, and I heard a bird singing in the house, loudly, unlike any bird I had ever heard. I came into the kitchen and found Rusty’s mother sitting at the kitchen table, looking at a bright yellow canary in a domed wire cage. (I almost wrote “doomed wire cage.”) The bird continued to sing, and Rusty’s mom smiled at me. The birdsong was beautiful — clear, liquid. I think this moment sparked my lifelong interest in canaries and birds in general. As an adult I raised them and became an avid bird watcher. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to break such an obvious spell. I smiled back and walked through the living room to the bathroom. When I came back out I stood in the living room for a minute, watching Rusty’s mother. She didn’t see me in the other room. The sun had come out from behind a cloud and light streamed through the kitchen window directly on her and the canary. The scene was splashed a golden yellow: her hair, the bird, the table. Her smile had vanished, replaced by the saddest, most faraway look that I had ever seen on an adult. Once again, the symbolism is obvious as I write about this moment — the lonely wife, the taciturn, remote husband who kept her trapped — not in the tower of a castle — but in this ordinary suburban home.
Remember, I was a very young man and had grown up reading romantic adventure books where such heroes, heroines and villains were commonplace. Life then (my real life) was a series of events that occurred one after another, and I encountered them, dealt with them and moved on to the next. There’s not much room for introspection in a fourteen-year-old boy’s mind.
I went downstairs and continued whatever project Rusty and I were working on. But I have never forgotten the image of that moment, and the story that my mind made up about it. The only thing missing was a hero to come riding in to rescue the Princess. I wonder if somehow that moment was a seed, implanted in my subconscious that many years later bloomed into my garden of novels. All of which, God help me, hew fairly closely to that old formula: Villain, Hero, Doomed Princess.
Can a single moment shape a future? I don’t know. But I think, from this 50-year distance, that it’s possible that just such a moment can color a future. Ah, it’s so hard to say, to guess, to make these connections. All we have are our memories. Who can say what they mean?
OK, the rocket mentioned above. In a less science-inspired moment, Rusty and I decided to build a small rocket that we would fire off in some as yet thought of location. At the expense of once again sounding like an old geezer, (“By cracky, I remember helping the Wright boys get that damn contraption into the air.”) you might remember this was just around the time that Russia launched their Sputnik into space. Even West Virginians were excited about the possibilities of space flight.
Our “rocket” was far from Homer Hickam’s elegant flyers. I’m not trying to convince you we were anything special when it came to rockets or science. The real point of this story is to relate one more example of kids doing things back then that could have easily resulted in death. Trying something like this today would result in jail time for anyone involved, even a well-meaning adult like my dad.
The rocket was a fifteen-inch section of aluminum pipe with a balsa wood nosecone, a rear nozzle carved out of a piece of asbestos, and sheet-aluminum stabilizing fins. I can remember leaning in close to my bench clamp, filing away at a chunk of grey asbestos, fashioning it to fit the rocket. Of course I didn’t know that I was probably inhaling a lethal dose of cancer-causing particles in the process.
My dad volunteered to help Rusty and me fire off the rocket. I guess he might have offered so he could keep us safe in the process, but I think he was just interested in seeing what would happen. We had all seen countless film clips on television of rockets roaring into space, this could be just as majestic, except on a much smaller scale. Right?
Our fuel was gunpowder, so you’d think we would have some notion what was going to happen. And where did we acquire enough gunpowder to load a 15-inch metal tube? Well, boys and girls, back then the basic materials were pretty easy to come by. The drug store would sell you saltpeter, (potassium nitrate) which was the primary ingredient. Charcoal was next, which we obtained by grinding up briquettes. And sulphur, which we didn’t need much of… well, I can’t remember where we got that. Just picture it: two fairly clueless boys down in their basement workshop, grinding up gunpowder and tamping it into a metal tube. Upstairs, even more clueless parents, watching TV, going about their daily lives, unaware that the house was only inches away from being blown to smithereens. And remember, we were the smart kids, the future scientists, geeky science nerds, the good kids. And experts today think that little Johnny in his room playing on the Internet is in some sort of danger?
It’s a miracle that any of us ever survived.
Launch day arrived, it must have been a Saturday because my dad was home, and we piled in the car: Rusty, me, and our pal Butch who had joined the adventure. We drove to Butch’s family’s farm outside of town. This modest farm was jocularly known as “Oleo Acres.” The name, Butch would say, came about because it was “One of the cheaper spreads.” Har har.
We found a likely spot, which means it had no observable cows, people or homes in the immediate area. We set the rocket up and ran about a hundred feet of bell wire we intended to attach to a dry cell battery. We lay down behind a low berm and attached the wires to the battery and waited. There was no countdown as we had no idea how long it was going to take before the wires heated up and…
It scared the shit out of us. I had the impression that the thing, after smoking for a minute or so, actually achieved vertical lift-off of about 12 inches or so before blowing up. We were a little shaky, but we got to our feet and went to the remnants of the bomb… er, rocket… which now resembled one of those exploding cigars you used to see on cartoons: bottom half missing, metal peeled back like a banana skin, nosecone still intact. We scouted around for a minute looking for any shards of metal but gave it up quickly because everyone agreed it might be best to get out of the area before anyone came to investigate the impressive explosion.
The mood in the car on the drive home was fairly euphoric. Sure, the rocket failed, but we were used to seeing many rocket failures on television. But that explosion, well, it was awe-inspiring. If we had been better people, like Homer Hickam and his rocket boys, we would have retreated to our basements and worked up a new version, incorporating the lessons learned from our failure. But we weren’t, we were just kids, and we had just blown something up and almost died in any number of ways. Even dopes like us knew that was pretty cool.