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Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Missile-aires Come to the Valley…

Rocket familyToday a bit of spring sunshine has managed to seep through the cracks of winter. As Gladys and I glide past the Decks’ Dairy, we notice a fresh batch of cats—a fat half dozen--jockeying for the sunniest spot on the porch overhang of the old house. Cats are phototropic (or should that be “thermotropic?”) and stalk the sun much the same way as sunflowers.

Earlier as I pedaled the ‘tween curves stretch of road east of Swiss Hall, I noticed a trio of people in the middle of the field guarded by the two ancient maples. They were engaged in activity of some sort, and like those sunbathing cats I was to see later, The Ripple is likewise curious. “If those folks are there when I return,” I promised, “I’ll just have to see what they’re up to.”

Upon my return, as luck would have it, they were still in the field but had apparently finished what they’d been doing, were done for the day and making their way back through the field to the road. I reined in Gladys in order to roll up on them just as they reached the shoulder. A young man with a boy and girl in tow stop in surprise as I roll up on them. “What are you up to?” I asked in the best journalistic tone I could muster. Finding himself suddenly confronted by an old fellow on a girl’s bicycle immediately puts the young man on the defensive and as if I’m some sort of a threat, the children edge closer to his side. The young man gestures toward Decks’ compound and in near apology answers my question with: “I asked the fellow over there if he’d mind if we used his field, and he said it was ok.” To put them at ease, I smile and say I’m not the Valley police, just a reporter out gathering the news. When the fellow learns I’m not a bicycle cop, his guard drops immediately. The kids relax, too, and stop looking around for weapons.

Father Bill, son Austin, and daughter Hallee  (“Is that Haley with an EY?” Of course not, I learn…make that a double EE if you please; these days no young lady would settle for the commonplace) have come to the Valley to launch Austin’s Christmas present, a miniature Redstone rocket. That’s what the three were up to way out in the middle of that wide open field on this sunny day.Rocketry “We need lots of open space to fly this thing,” Bill laughs.Three countdowns later they were finished with rocketry for the day. When I asked if the flights were successful, Bill grinned and replied that on one flight the missile “went way up there nearly out of sight.” But something went awry during reentry I’m told. The rocket was so engineered that at the end of the engine burn, a small explosion was supposed to pop the nose cone from the rocket tube and release a small parachute. Then both components would float gently back to earth where they could easily be retrieved and readied for the next flight. A glitch in the system, however, caused the tether connecting the nose cone to the rocket to pop loose from the tube: the nose cone drifted down gracefully according to plan, but the tube went into free fall and had to be searched for. With a little ingenuity from Mission Control (Dad) and a couple drops of glue, the problem was solved. On the third launch both nose cone and rocket returned to earth in tandem.troubleshooting

Kids love things that explode and fly into the air. Dads, who after all were once kids themselves, love things that explode and fly into the air. (If it weren’t for dads and dads-to-be, there would be no fireworks stands in the middle of the summer. ) I asked Bill if he and his kids had seen the movie October Sky (they hadn’t). The film was based on a true story about an Appalachian boy named Homer Hickam and friends growing up in a coalmining town in the 1950s. Hickam, inspired by the Russians’ launch of Sputnik, studied trajectories, rocket fuels and nozzles from a book about rocket engineering brought to his attention by his high school science teacher. Three friends, one a math whiz, and Hickam built their own rockets, launching pad, and firing system, and after many failed attempts, finally succeeded in launching a rocket that reached an altitude of 30,000 feet. “There’s a bit more to the plot than that,” I explain, “but I think you and the kids would enjoy the film.”

I, too, as a boy loved things that exploded and flew into the air. I remember, also, standing on the boss’s lawn on a clear October night, my neck craned skyward until I finally saw it: a speck of light tracking resolutely in a straight line across the sky among the stationary night stars until it was swallowed up by the sable void. “Ever make a matchbook rocket?”I asked Bill. Austin, bored with this adult chit chat and the while has been fiddling with his box of rocket parts, suddenly becomes attentive. “No, how’s that work?” All you need, I tell him, is a book of matches, a paper clip, and some aluminum foil. Note: At this point if your ‘tween or teenage son is reading this post, you’re well advised to have him skip the next paragraph.

Yes, matchbook rockets—or ICBMs—we called them: Inner Cafeteria Ballistic Missiles. Why cafeteria? Because that’s where we put our matchbook rocketry to the test: the high school cafeteria. Our window of time: lunch hour. Because we launched indoors, the vagaries of weather were not an issue; however, certain conditions had to exist before lunch time countdown. Our rocket fuel and igniter contained a certain amount of sulfur, so it was best to choose a school day when the lunchroom cookery was especially pungent. Barbecued hamburgers on the day’s menu, for example, was excellent cover for indoor rocketry. (Heavy on the onions….) We’d make short work of lunch and then from our pockets fetch out the rocket components we’d brought from the home missile silo: a fully loaded matchbook (the kind that states above the strike strip “Keep out of the hands of children,”a regular paperclip (the launch ramp), and a square of folded aluminum foil (combustion chamber). Then one of us would prepare the match for launch while another kept a weather eye out for the teacher assigned lunchroom duty. We’d tear a strip of foil from the square, detach a match stick from the pack, place the head and half the shaft in the middle of the foil square and wrap the foil round and round the shaft as tightly as possible, folding the excess over the match head. The launch ramp we prepared by bending the inner curve of a standard paperclip upwards, leaving the larger outer curve for the ramp base. A forty-five degree bend was sufficient for most flights; however, if downrange included the adjoining lunchroom table where Jimmy Schrable, the tallest kid in class, took his lunch, an angle of fifty-three degrees, twenty minutes, and 18 seconds was necessary to clear his Brylcreemed hair.ICMB on launch pad

Once the missile was cradled on the launch ramp and the nose cone pointed downrange, it was countdown time and Mission Control took over. A nod from Control tells me the lunchroom supervisor is chatting up the teacher’s pet. It’s time to “light this candle.” I strike a match, hold it under the match head, a brief whiff of sulfur and then“ignition”: pffttt…the gas from the exploding match escapes down the shaft of the match. “We have liftoff.” A light plume of smoke trails from the missile as it sails downrange, ten maybe fifteen feet and lands in the aisle beyond the next table. It was a textbook flight. No spectators hurt and none the wiser even though the rocket’s downward trajectory barely cleared their heads. Another successful launch under the nose of the enemy and better yet, undetected. And there you have it, school cafeteria rocketry—in a capsule.

The U.S. space program has stalled. The tired space shuttles are moldering in museums, but because of Bill, Austin, and Hallee the Tualco Valley has its own space program. I thank them for their time and tolerance and allow the three to wander off toward the Swiss Hall parking lot, Austin, the young rocket engineer, carrying his box of rocket dreams, sister Hallee toting the launch tower.

I spur Gladys into motion and as I wheel past the rocketeers, I call out to Bill, “I like to see dads spending time with their kids.” Bill turns, gives me a smile, and replies, “They grow up so fast.” So true…I know…I’ve been there myself.Missile-aires

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