Space Race v. Cell Phones

When I was a kid, we had this really cool thing called outside.  It was amazing.  If you wanted to do something, you went there.  These days, I don’t think kids have outside.  They just sit in the house and stare at small, hand-held devices.  Well, if they do venture out, they being their devices with them and continue to stare.

Just the other day I heard a friend say that she went to Disneyland and “everyone was walking around, staring at their phones!”  When I was a kid, a trip to Disneyland was more precious than even Christmas.  My parents only rarely could afford a visit to the Magic Kingdom.  It costs more than a hundred bucks to get into the park today.  And in 1960’s dollars, the prices back then were comparable.  The park was truly magical and there was something to see in Mickey-and-Minnie-Disneylandevery direction you looked.  And those vivid, colorful images danced across closed eyelids as we dozed on the trip home.  How could the same phone that you carry around with you and stare at 24 hours a day, have anything more appealing to you than the enchantment of Disneyland?

I, too, have sat at a table in Starbucks or a restaurant and stared into my phone.  But I’m old.  I don’t have as much energy for outdoor adventures as I did once upon a time.

mattel gunsBut when I was a kid, outdoors was the place to be.  And there were no instructions on how to play outdoors.  You thought up your own fun.  One Christmas I got a Mattel pistol and rifle.  Bobby, next door, got a set of two pistols and Duane, the next house over, got a pistol.  Of course, they all came with holsters and we were cowboys—heroes or villains—for weeks after.

muddy kidBut you didn’t need toys.  Once we laid a hose at the top a slope at Duane’s house and let water trickle down the dirt hillside and we all busily directed the flow into a monumental stream, replete with waterfalls and lakes and islands and more.  We spent almost an entire day on construction and then got to experience the wails of our mothers when we came in for the evening encased in layer upon layer of mud.

Some days we took a deck of playing cards and attached some to the yokes of our bikes with clothespins.  The flapping of the cards across the spokes transformed card in spokesour bicycles into motorcycles.  One of us added a second card and then someone countered with three.  Soon, there were as many cards on our rear yokes and fender struts as could fit.  There was a certain point at which it no longer mattered how many you had and that was good because we soon had to decrease the amount of cards when our mothers brought the laundry to the lines and discovered that they had no clothespins.

In springtime we often just went out into the fields, especially after a rain, and ripped up handfuls of sweet grass.  Due to the softness of the soil, large clumps of wet dirt stayed attached to the roots and we’d throw these improvised hand grenades at each other.

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We once (or twice) laid an old piece of plywood across a few swells in the fields and dug out deeper tunnels underneath.  We’d climb trees.  We’d play catch.  We once built a go cart.  We made up our own fun!

Of course, one time, while I was still in grade school, my friend, Mike, who was in Junior High, had a bow and some arrows.  And these were not rubber-tipped arrows.  They were metal-tipped.  On one occasion I stood beside him in a nearby field as he shot arrows high into the air and we’d stand still just to see how close to us they would land.  I clearly remember one time when he said, “It’s coming straight down!  Run!”  We took off running and the arrow embedded itself into the ground just behind our heels.  Had any of those arrows met with either of use, we could have been easily killed.  I said we thought up our own games.  I didn’t say we were smart.

Another adventure in stupidity was the time my friend, Jack, and I built a rocket.  First off, he had three older sisters and one of them was engaged to be married.  Her fiancé was studying medicine and he gave us a huge chemistry set.  And it was a real set.  Picture the boxed chemistry set that they sold back then.  This was a couple hundred times larger.  It was the set of a college student and we were only in Jr. High.

chemistryHe made us promise to keep a log book of everything we did; every experiment we tried.  Jack and I were very interested in science.  At various times we hunted for fossils on the central coast; collected various rocks and semi-precious stones; and saw four of the moons of Jupiter through a telescope.  This chemistry set was akin to being given a buried treasure and was beyond anything we’d ever imagined.

What’s the first thing we did?  We made gunpowder.  Next, we took an old metal vacuum cleaner attachment (and it was cool because it tapered down, making it smaller at one end) and soldered the dome-shaped base of an old car antennae on it (his dad was a mechanic and had stuff like this in the garage).  It made a perfect nose cone.  Next we took the small metal top from a can of spray paint (they weren’t plastic back then) and drove a nail into it, making a hole; then we soldered that onto the bottom of what now was beginning to resemble a rocket.  Next we cut some sheet metal fins and soldered four of them near the bottom and finally we spray painted it black.

All that was left was some fuel.

match headsWith a table knife, we spent hours cutting the heads off of 300 wooden kitchen matches.  The task was so daunting that we nearly gave up.  But one pause to glance at our addition to the space race and we were reenergized.  The rocket was roughly 18-inches in height.  We had it upended so we could fill it from the bottom and, once it was filled with 300 match heads, we slowly dumped in the gunpowder we’d made in order to fill in the spaces.  Finally, we figured we’d squirt some barbeque lighter fluid into to mix.  We turned the craft right-side-up and a match head plugged the hole perfectly and sat there, awaiting the flame from a lit match.

In his back yard was an old, weather-worn table.  Near to one end, there was a ragged hole.  As fate would have it, the fins of the rocket allowed us to perfectly sit the rocket into that hole.  I can still see that rocket sitting on the table.  We crouched beside and looked under to observe the exhaust port with the match head perfectly awaiting a flame.

Gee. We cut the heads from three boxes of matches, yet didn’t save any to light the rocket.  We scrambled back into the house and were lucky enough to find a few more.

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Available in paperback and for Kindle.

We crouched by the table, both ducking our heads underneath to see what we were doing.  We struck a match and held it to the hole.  For some reason, the perfectly positioned match head didn’t light.  We struck a second match and held it to the hole.  As we pondered whether we should have left some room for oxygen, we heard a faint ssssssssssss...  We threw ourselves back, landing on our backsides a few feet away.  The hissing faded and we began to sit upright.  Suddenly, with a tremendous WHOOOSH!, an orange flame exploded from the bottom of the rocket.

I was surprised at the lack of smoke as the flame reached to nearly the ground and the sound bordered on a roar.  The rocket stayed on the launch pad but vibrated with great intensity and the flame continued to thunder from the bottom.  Jack and I sat in awestruck wonder as our craft continued to belch forth flame for the longest 15 to 20 seconds I’d yet to experience.  Then, with a few sputters, the flame retreated into the rocket and all was quiet.

Cautiously we approached.  The smell of sulfur hung heavy in the air.  Through the few remaining wisps of smoke we inched closer.  Jack reached to pick up the spacecraft but his fingers halted an inch short.  The heat was evident and he stopped shy of burning his fingers.  We could clearly discern evidence of tremendous heat signatures on the side of the rocket.  The paint had begun to blister and it appeared the tube itself had buckled.  Upon closer examination we realized that the solder which held the fins to the side had begun to melt and the fins slid upwards on the cylinder; actually causing the rocket to slip lower through the hole.  With all of the excitement and our focus on the flame, we hadn’t even realized that our quasi-welds were failing.

apollo launchWe allowed the craft to cool for about ten minutes and we took it back to his side patio.  There we discovered that the solder that held the bottom on had also begun to melt and had lost all integrity.  With a simple twist the lower housing of our rocket was removed and the charred contents were deposited onto some old newspapers.  We sifted through the remnants and discovered that our fuel had only burned about two-thirds of the way up the rocket.  It probably ran out of oxygen and died out.

Soon our amazement gave way to outright laughter as we began excitedly discussing our adventure; each of us asking if the other had observed various aspects of our attempted launch.  After about ten minutes or so, our excitement died down and we began discussing ways to improve upon our design and fuel formula.  It was obvious that our metal rocket was far too heavy.  After a while, we caught a whiff of smoke.  Walking back to the rear of the house we discovered that our launch pad (table) was burning quite heartily.  Quickly grabbing the garden hose, we doused that fire and discovered that the 3-inch-diameter hole that had been our launch pad was now about a foot wide.  We’d have to find a new launch pad, too.

We couldn’t wait until the following Monday when we could tell our ninth-grade science teacher about our weekend’s adventure.  Our enthusiasm was quickly dashed when Mr. Peyton, with open mouth and bulging eyes stopped us in mid-description.  “Are you crazy?!” he said.  “You could have killed yourselves or some innocent neighbor!  What you built could have gone off like a bomb!”

Man-in-the-MoonJack and I blinked.

“That thing could have exploded!  If you ever try anything like that again, your rocket must be made out of cardboard.  If it explodes, at least there will be no shards of metal flying around that could cause permanent damage!”

Once we had all calmed down a bit, Mr. Peyton told us of his youthful endeavors with rocketry and how his cardboard rocket had actually gotten a few feet off the ground before it blew up.

If we tried that today, Jack and I would probably be arrested for constructing a terrorist device or something.  But, for a few seconds there, it was glorious fun.  Tell me an iPhone can provide that kind of fun!.

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