Sunday, June 19, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 170: Rockets

Saturday, June 19, 1993

When you raise kids to believe that they can build anything, there may be unintended consequences.  After Will constructed a model railroad but before he started crafting his own guitars, he passed through a different type of passion: rocket ships.  Basically, Will would go down to the basement and build pipe bombs with pinholes in the bottom.

They were amazing.  You could buy fuses for the bottom and a mini-parachute stuffed inside a nose cone that you could attach to your homemade bomb.  Will bought a rocket-launching pad, which is simply a rigid upright wire on a base to guide the rocket for its first few feet, along with a spark igniter with a hundred feet of wire.  He bought a legal rocket fuel that looked and smelled suspiciously like gunpowder.  He painted each pipe bomb with snazzy colors.  Somehow, he never blew up the house.

Ben with rocket
He launched a few at the playing field of the La Honda Elementary School (after hours), but there was some, um, concern about safety.  So on Saturday, June 19, 1993, we set off to Pescadero with Will's friend Ben, who was equally rocket-crazed.  We found an empty soccer field a couple miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

These rockets don't start slowly like a moon launch.  They go off like a bullet.

Will's first launch went a half mile high.  As designed, the parachute popped open.  Immediately the wind caught and carried it across a field, over some trees and out of sight.  We searched among some strawberry fields but never found it.

This is the beauty of a rocket hobby - rapidly depleting inventory.  Also, a lot of healthy running and searching.

Ben was next.  His contraption was already dented and cracked.  Come to think of it, I don't know why I allowed him to launch.  Fortunately it didn't explode into high-velocity shrapnel but zipped along a curling path into the top of a tree where we couldn't reach it or hit it with stones. 

So far, the two rockets launched had been built from store-bought kits.  Next, Will launched an entirely home-made model of his own design.  It flew a series of loop-de-loops that had us running and dodging, and then finally it plowed into the earth.

Lastly, Will launched a two stage rocket which I had doubted would ever work.  It shot straight up and then seemed to pause for a moment.  Then the second stage ignited, and the first dropped to earth though nobody saw where it fell.  We were watching the second phase rising more than a half mile into a cloud of wispy white fog...  And it never came down, as far as we could see.  Weeks later, perhaps, somewhere in some strawberry field near Pescadero, a farmworker must have come upon a spent first stage and, much farther away, a second stage attached to a parachute.

Will with small rocket

It was a great day.  Will and Ben continued their rocket-building for a while, but gradually Ben was drawn to automobile engines while Will was drawn to music.  I'm not sure either of those new interests is any less dangerous than rockets to a young teenager.

Will and his friends formed a band - which included Ben for a while - and joyfully tackled any song that caught their fancy.  Within months, they were jamming, making it up as they went along.  Their music teacher, John Fuller, shook his head in wonderment.  "They have no fear," he said.

In music, as in everything else in his young life, Will believed he could make anything.  After handling gunpowder and dodging errant rockets, he would simply launch a guitar riff like a barely contained explosion and expect to somehow come out safely on the other side.  If he got lost, there were always more riffs he could build.

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