Sky Lanterns (part 3)

Perhaps you have heard by now of the Sky Lanterns that populated the night air above Pere Marquette Beach on August 5th?  You have not?  Well, let me tell the tale…

It was a night not much different from the night that started it all:  the night of the first Sky Lantern Incident (if you have not read that post, please read it first.)  Peg was the prime mover for this event, as she is for most things involving beaches.  It was to be another cookout on the beach, and Peg suggested we bring hot dogs, some extra firewood and maybe a few Sky Lanterns, just in case we felt brave.  This suggestion produced an immediate chill in my bones.  We had been lucky on our second sky lantern encounter, but Pere Marquette Beach was the site of our first near-disaster.  The place that almost marked the turning point of life as I knew it.

All day long as the beach party time approached, I had watched the wind.  The wind had proven on more than one occasion it was not my friend.  Several times during the day, I went out on my deck to observe and to measure its strength.  All day long it roared like a caged animal, frantically seeking a way out.  An email arrived from Peg saying she and Jeff were not going to bring their kayaks because wind and wave conditions were too bad for kayaking.  I knew the chances of finding a launch window in these conditions were poor.  But I brought the lanterns anyway.

We began gathering at the beach for our cookout.  The group slowly came together.  Old friends and new.  Arriving in separate vehicles and lugging bags and bundles of goodies and folding chairs.  Eventually, hot dogs, marshmallows, corn, chips, salads, and other munchies were laid out on the benches for everyone to enjoy.

Jeff had taken responsibility for making fire.  He brought dry wood and twigs carefully selected from his back yard.  He then called on his Boy Scout memories and conjured up a magnificent fire.  He even created a special pit for his fire to protect it from the wind, and he lit it without the customary use of Boy Scout water (white gas or kerosene), which naturally made him the envy of every guy present.  It is a testament to his skill that the fire burned well.  It had to because the wind was still showing great strength.  On this occasion, we had two former Scout Masters (Steve H. and Dad), but with Jeff’s skill, no assistance was needed.  Our meals were prepared and consumed with great gusto.  Afterwards, things quieted down.  And we began our vigil.  The one thing no one had talked about.  The one thing on everyone’s mind.  The sky lanterns.  And would they fly again tonight?

As dusk approached, the wind seemed to quiet down.  The paparazzi began gathering.  There were at least 6-7 of them in plain sight.  They pretended to point their cameras at the sunset, but I knew why they were there.  They had obviously been tipped by someone that we might try this again.  Secretly, I wondered who among our ranks had betrayed us.

The absence of the wind was puzzling.  Peg performed several high-tech wind measuring maneuvers with her lighter which confirmed this observation.  I know at dusk the wind often changes direction.  During the change, there is a brief calm.  This might be the launch window we were seeking.  It might also be another vicious trick.

Someone said, “You really did bring the lanterns?”  The question was asked with some temerity, and I thought I saw a couple of people wince when they heard these words.  I said I brought four of them.  Ardis, the bravest of the lot, blurted out that she had forgotten to bring her rubber gloves.  Marge had apparently planned the same thing, but also forgotten.  For a moment, I wondered if they planned to drive home to get them.  Not wanting to lose any momentum, I went to the car to retrieve the lanterns.  I returned with the four beauties I had selected earlier.  At the fire pit, I carefully removed the wrappings and set them aside.  I could feel their eyes on me.

But the time was not quite right.  Before I could approve a launch, we had to await slightly more ideal conditions.  This time, we would not just light a match and see what happened.  This time we would consider wind speed, wind direction, visibility, proximity of innocent civilians, and other important things.  Slowly, things seemed to come together.  The only negative seemed to be the growing number of photographers who would record our every mistake and publish it on the internet for all to see.

When I announced it was time for the launch, I found we had doubters in the group.  They still remembered our first failed launch attempt.  They wanted a new location.  A place far away from the Coast Guard Station.  I found myself heartily agreeing with this suggestion, so we trekked down to the water’s edge and prepared our launch.

Jim and Dad and I had attended the National Rocket Convention in Muskegon earlier in the week, and I was full of inspiration.  We learned all kinds of high-tech terms like “Prepare for Launch.” and “3-2-1-Launch!” and “Ignition Failure. Wait 60 seconds and try again.” and the all-important “Watch Out!” and “Duck!” and “Run!!!”.   We knew so much more now than we had at the beginning of the summer.  Back then, we were rank amateurs; now we were highly trained professionals.  We knew all the necessary terminology.  And we even had a successful launch under our belts.  That is why we decided to up the ante.

At the last successful launch, we sent up each new lantern only after 1) confirming the prior launch was successful, and 2) waiting until each lantern’s fire had flickered out.  This time, we would do a sequential launch.  With this in mind, we numbered each team from one to four.

Now, you mustn’t think a sequential launch is easy.  It requires that all the team members know their jobs and be able to complete their tasks in a timely fashion.  And, truth be told, there were some among us who had not yet been part of a successful launch.  That was why when Cindy asked, “Are we going to let go all at once?”, I made an executive decision and said, “No.  We are going to launch them in sequence!”  I knew we had to do a successful sequential launch, before we could hope to master a simultaneous release launch.  (See how easy it is to come up with technical terms?)

Team One was on deck.  My two most seasoned veterans, Ardis and Jim, were ready.  It was a good decision to lead with them.  No words were necessary.  They knew what needed to be done.  I offered a quick light, and they did the rest.  They took all their launching experiences and used it along with all the natural teamwork that comes from decades of successful marriage.  The launch was so flawless that I forgot to take pictures.

Remember in the last post when I said Jim showed great management potential?  By now, he was our greatest expert on optimum release timing.  He could sense positive buoyancy in ways the rest of us could only imagine.  When Jim said it was OK to release, you knew your baby was going for the moon!

As I turned around, I found Team Two was eager to go.  Steve H. and Cindy boldly moved into position.  I admired them for their courage.  They had never seen a successful launch and had only their memories of our failed attempts just two months ago.  Yet they were ready.  I lit the fire and moved back.  I took up my camera as Jim moved forward to assist with the release.  They worked together quickly and efficiently like the great team they are.  And soon the second baby was adrift in the darkening sky.

Team Three, consisting of the LeBel family, was the least organized of the group.  Marge still seemed worried about fingerprints.  Dad was sitting this one out.  I was trying to take pictures.  Cindy, flushed with her victory from but moments before, came forward to help.  As the fire was lit, and the lantern began filling with hot air, I could see the mile-wide smiles on Marge and Cindy’s faces.  This was to be the first all-girl launch ever.  They were picturing their names in the Guinness Book of World Records, the world tours that would follow, the instant fame and notoriety, and the TV interviews.  Steve H. and I will probably never know how close we came to losing them that night.  Not surprisingly, their launch came off without a hitch.

Team Four showed great initiative, and by the time I turned to evaluate and record their progress, Jeff and Peg had already achieved ignition.  It was quickly reported, however, that the wick was only burning on one side, and several attempts to achieve a balanced burn had failed.  Jim was brought in for a quick conference with the launch team, and they determined that if the release was delayed for a bit, they could still achieve a successful launch.  And that is just the way it turned out.  A launch to make anyone proud.

We remembered, somewhat belatedly, the lanterns were supposed to be sent up into the sky carrying a wish from the sender.  For me, I was too busy giving thanks for trouble-free launches to think of anything to wish for.  I hope others did better and their wishes come true.

And as I drove home that night, I felt the warm glow from work done well.  I also felt a slight quickening of my heart when I remembered the six lanterns that still remained in my closet…

 

Rocket Building 101

When I was a kid, I had a chemistry set.  My parents thought it would be educational, and for a 10-11 year old kid, I suppose it was.  But after I’d made all the crystals and stinky stuff,  I yearned for more.

That was about the time the kid across the street introduced me to carbide.  This is a little rock with an unusual property:  when you spit on it, it bubbles like crazy (kinda like spitting on an Alka-Seltzer).  And if you hold a match to the bubbles, they ignite.  This got me very excited.  But when I went home to my chemistry set, carbide was not one of my chemicals.  Reading the manual more closely, they explained that my set only included “safe chemicals” that do not explode.  That is when I knew I had to go outside the system.

After making discreet inquiries about this carbide stuff, I found a kid who had some.  He was willing to trade me a small supply for 4 steelies, 8 puries, and 10 of my best cateyes (marbles).  It was a high price, but I was determined.

When I got them back to the lab (my chemistry set in the basement), I began experimenting with my new purchase.  I found if I contained the gas and let it build up a bit, it ignited with a very satisfying “boom”.  To do this, I used very high-tech equipment consisting of a tin can with a hole in the side that I made with a hammer and nail.  My experiments suggested the best nail hole should be near the opening, about 1/2 inch in from the rim.

As you know, you can’t really count on results you find in the lab.  If you are going to do proper testing, you have to field test it.  Fortunately, I had a large driveway that worked well.  My required components for the test included:  a wood board (launch pad), a tin can with a hole in the side, a carbide pellet, matches, and spit.  I carefully put the pellet on the pad, spit on it (being careful to get generous amount of spit so as to fully cover the pellet).  Then, place the can over the spit-pellet. Wait until the can fills with pellet gas.  Then hold a lit match next to the little hole in the side of the can.

This produces a really great little explosion, which blows the can straight upward for several feet.  Several repeated trials convinced me I was on to something here.  Unfortunately, my supplies were running low.

I could have gone at this point to talk to my parents, but I hadn’t really talked with them about exploding things.  And, after all, the chemistry set manual had proudly proclaimed there were no exploding things inside, which suggested most grownups would not approve of exploding things.  So at this point, I was not willing to expose my plans to such risk of ruin.

Fortunately, I was by far the best marble player at Lincoln School.  Only Fred Herring could sometimes beat me, but not often.  So, armed with a few more marbles, I went out to increase my wealth.  And I knew all the tricks.  As soon as my challenge was accepted, I would immediately say, “Triple Kings! Last all times!”, which guaranteed me the coveted right to go last for the duration of that game.  Lots of kids, knowing my reputation, wanted to play for “Funs”, but I didn’t give in.  It was “For Keeps” or nothing.  And, of course, we all agreed that “Trades” were allowed because if you lost the game, you certainly didn’t want to lose your lucky marble, so you were allowed give up a similar marble of like quality.  And with every kid who would agree, we would put an extra marble or two in the pot to increase the stakes.

In four more days, I had what I needed to go back to my supplier.  He was happy to see me.  He had even laid in a new supply in anticipation of my return.

A few more days blowing tin cans into the sky led me to some disappointment.  The amount of satisfaction you get from popping a tin can up in the air has a diminishing rate of return.  After 30-40 times, the launches seem to blur together.  I recruited Keith, Larry, and Jeff into the launch team.  And it was fun to share the experience.  But, eventually, I knew I needed more than just blowing a tin can into the air.

I knew I needed something that could go higher and faster.  I needed more power.  I needed to have my own rocket if I was ever going to achieve greatness.  Nothing else could reach the heights to which I aspired.

Fortunately, my wait was not a long one.

(Continued in Rocket Building 201.)

 

Rocket Building 201

Keith Anderson is the one who took my fascination with carbide tin cans and elevated it to the level of rocketry.  I think we were 11 or 12 at the time.  He said he heard from a kid that you could make rocket fuel just by cutting off a bunch of match heads.  An intriguing concept to be sure, but my initial lab work to test the concept was not particularly successful.  Lots of matches were hard to come by, especially without raising adult questions.  There are only so many times I can justify lighting the little alcohol lamp that came with my chemistry set.  So, unfortunately, we had to abandon that line of research.

More inquiries turned up rumors that rocket fuel could be made with some sort of charcoal and sulphur and saltpetre combination.  Closer scrutiny cast some doubt on this, however.  Saltpetre was used by farmers for some reason we couldn’t seem to understand.  It was also (according to a friend’s older brother) used by the military to keep their soldiers from having a good time – whatever the heck that meant.  How could anything like that be used for rocket fuel?

This is when I realized we might need to go to the library to find out more.  I found a book by a guy named Goddard who made some early rockets.  It had to be a good book because they said he was the Father of Rocketry right on the front cover.  One of the first fuels he experimented with was saltpetre mixed with sugar.  Eventually, he went on to use liquid oxygen and stuff like that.  I decided to give the saltpetre another look because they talked about it in the first couple of chapters of the book.  The beginning of the book was the easiest to understand, although each new chapter kept adding more drawings and formulas and diagrams and complicated stuff.  Sticking to the first chapter would make things much easier.  I admit the saltpetre and sugar didn’t really sound plausible, but the guy had written it in a book, so it had to be right.

The next part of my plan was more complicated.  How would I get my mom to help me acquire the saltpetre I needed?  What if she asked me what I wanted it for?  Would she accept that “I need it for a chemistry experiment.”  I doubted it.  She had a sharp and suspicious mind when it came to mysterious and smelly things coming from the basement.  But, I took a chance, and after several days of nagging, she agreed to take me to a feed store.

The store smelled like a barn, but we found what we were looking for.  In fact, they were selling it by the scoop.  You just shovel how much you want into a bag.  I had hoped to get enough to fill a small bottle from my chemistry set.  Instead, I came home with an unending supply.

Eager to begin my experiments, I went to my basement lab with my book and my new loot.  I had to make a quick run back upstairs for a supply of the sugar.  Mom gave me some, although she questioned why I needed so much.  I carefully mixed the sugar and the saltpetre together in the recommended ratio.  I read the mixture had to be heated, and, if you did it right, it would turn into a liquid.  They did say you shouldn’t let the temperature get above something like 325 degrees or else something called combustion” might happen.  But that didn’t matter to me, because 1) I didn’t have any way of measuring the temperature, 2) I didn’t know what 325 degrees were, and 3) what the heck was “combustion” anyway?

Reality can be a harsh teacher.  Laws of Chemistry, I found, just hate to be ignored.

My little alcohol lamp was merrily heating the stuff in my test tube.  And, it actually was turning into a liquid, just like the book said it would.  Now at this point, you might think I should have known what to do next.  But the book was kinda sketchy on that part.   So I hadn’t really thought about what might come next.  When the liquid in the test tube started boiling, all I was really thinking about was the interesting thick bubbles that were forming.  Which is probably why I wasn’t expecting the explosion.

On the scale of explosions, it probably wouldn’t be considered a huge explosion.  In truth, I don’t even remember the sound.  I do remember the mushroom cloud that leaped out of my little test tube.  It shot up until it hit the ceiling, at which point it started spreading throughout the room.  You know how everything seems to be in slow motion during an emergency?  It was like that.  I watched that demon cloud as it broke free and left its signature forever on my mind, indistinguishable from the nuclear bomb blasts we were taught to fear.

The reason I knew there was sound from the explosion was because my mom came racing down the stairs and directly to my workbench where I sat in stunned silence.  I knew I was in trouble.  I hadn’t exactly offered full disclosure on how I intended to use that saltpetre.  And I was pretty sure she wasn’t expecting it to be explosive.  I knew she saw every detail of my deception clearly written on my face.

Instead, she surprised me by asking me in a rather angry voice, “Have you been smoking?!”  What?  Smoking?  I was only 12.  Why would I be smoking?  That was when I realized she had seen all the smoke and drawn the wrong conclusion.  I leaped on the opportunity to give her an explanation other than the one she feared most.  I explained it was just a chemistry experiment.  I tensed for the possibility she might change tack and begin a new line of interrogation into what kind of experiment causes explosions, but after checking my workspace for cigarette butts, she was satisfied and left.

Now some people might consider this experiment a failure.  Not me.  I had proven that whatever it is they feed to farm animals and soldiers had great explosive power.  I just had to make sure to avoid the explosion part.

My inquiry soon shifted to another area.  What was I going to use for a rocket?  I certainly didn’t have any.  Anything made of plastic would certainly not work.  Rummaging through my dad’s workshop turned up an interesting possibility.  It was a cardboard tube about a half-inch in diameter.  This was perfect!  I had limited permission to use dad’s power tools, so I used the jigsaw to turn a dowel into a nose cone for my rocket.  I then taped it into place with electrical tape (none of that scotch tape stuff for us; my dad was an engineer and had all the good stuff).  The next problem was wings.  How do we make it go straight without wings?  I found cardboard on the back of a writing pad and cut out a triangle.  I knew the wing had to handle the high wind speed and high G-forces during the moments after launch.  So I used glue to hold my triangular wing in place.

Mixing up a batch of rocket fuel was easy, now that I had perfected the process.  In fact, I made several process improvements by introducing a small pan that could hold 5-6 times more than a test tube.  My final improvement was the introduction of a small glass stirring stick to stir the liquid (and reduce the chance of that combustion thingy happening).

As soon as I had finished the cooking, I set the pan aside to cool.  Later, scraping out bits of the fuel, I poured the combination of nuggets and powder into my rocket’s body.  I was ready.  My rocket launch would be the first one ever seen on Crestwood Lane.  I called my friend Keith over to witness my proudest moment.

I had to prop up the rocket with twigs to keep it pointing upright.  And we had to use stones to hold the base of the rocket off the ground so I had room to get the match close to the fuel.  You might be thinking a smarter way to light a rocket would be with a fuse, but there were none in my chemistry kit, so I had to improvise.  It turns out the first few matches did not do the job.  The reason for this is every time I thought the rocket might be lit, I would break into a mad 100-yard dash for shelter.  Actually, none of the matches so far had started the rocket fuel burning.  And I was rapidly running out of matches.  Going back to mom for more matches was not an option.  So I had to be strong, for the sake of the launch, and hold the match in place until the ignition was confirmed.  Ignition, it turns out, is not shy about giving confirmation.  The only problem is ignition seems to turn almost instantly into launch, which doesn’t leave as much time as one would like to run away.

On this day, Dr. Goddard’s spirit was with us and everything went right.  Flames shot out of the bottom of the rocket, thrusting it upward.  It zoomed up and up, leaving a trail of smoke behind it as it made its ascent.  I admit it didn’t go perfectly straight; it actually seemed to do a lot of twisting and turning and a little wobbling, but it was close enough.  And when it had spent all its fuel, it turned around and fell to the earth.  It fell straight down (aided by the weight of the dowel nose cone and the wing).  It landed in the grass, with its tail sticking up in the air.  This was to be one of my best launches.

I was ready to run back to the basement and mix up more fuel, but it was not to be.  The little rocket’s butt was burned to a cinder.  In fact, we had lost at least 3/4 inch off the length of the rocket because of the hot exhaust.  And the walls of the rocket where very thin in several spots.  It looked like the rule would be: one rocket, one launch.


And thus began the adventures of the Rocket Boy of Crestwood Lane.

(Continued in Rocket Building 301.)

 

Rocket Building 301

When you are 11-12, girls aren’t really much of a distraction.  This lets you throw the full weight of your passion into more scientific pursuits.  For me, this was my rockets.  Having perfected the rocket fuel that was to lift me above the ordinariness of carbide cannons and other children’s toys, I was ready to take my rocketry to the next level.

Over the next few months, I experimented with different rocket bodies made from many different substances.  I created special wooden nozzles for the rockets that would give greater compression and lift to the rockets.  I experimented with different wing designs.  I tested different mixes for the rocket fuel, including powder fuel vs. solid fuel.  All of these unique rocket designs had one thing in common, which my mom summed up rather well.  “They are just sticks of dynamite with fins glued on,” she said.

My rocket production laboratory was actually a mass production assembly line that would have impressed even Henry Ford.  I prepared everything I needed to build 3-4 rockets at a time.  With enough saltpetre and sugar, I was sure I could reach the moon.

The rocket design changed over time, as you might expect.  I eventually settled on a process that involved cutting a wooden dowel into two pieces.  The first piece was sharpened to a nice point to ensure minimal air resistance.  The second dowel had a hole drilled through the center, which was a technique I designed to increase the rocket’s thrusting power.

Now the rocket body presented something of a challenge, since I had long since run out of that cool little cardboard tube.  But I discovered the paper my dad occasionally brought home from the paper mill was exceptionally strong.  I found that I could take a few sheets of the paper to roll them into a tube.  I used the two dowels as my guide to get the paper as tight as possible.  I then used tiny nails to attach the paper to the nose cone dowel.  I had to wait until later to nail the nozzle section in place (after the rocket was filled with fuel).

Even the wings were a new design.  Basically, this was a triangle folded in half so the rocket was nestled in the “V”, providing it with two points of contact for the glue.  To keep the wing stabilized, I designed a second smaller triangle wing that fit into the larger wing to provide additional stability.  It was an engineering marvel.

When the glue had dried, I filled the rocket with my enhanced fuel.  When it was full, I carefully pounded the nails through the rocket’s paper body attaching the nozzle dowel.  The job was nearly complete.  I still had to add more rocket fuel to fill up the hole in the dowel because I still hadn’t solved that fuse problem.

Now, I have to admit what my mom said about my rockets was mostly true.  So you can imagine all the time I spent picking up small bits of paper that had been blown all over our driveway and lawn.  But I wasn’t discouraged.  I knew it was just a matter of time before I got it right.  And besides, my reputation for rocketry was becoming legendary among my friends.  They had even started calling me One-Match-Steve.  All my friends were of the stick-the-match-sorta-close-and-then-run-away-as-fast-as-you-can type.  I, on the other hand, was the only kid stupid enough to hold the match steady until the rocket had started burning.  But it didn’t matter.  I wore my new nickname with pride and dignity.

Eventually I developed the Wanderer Class of rockets.  They had smaller fins and less compression on the exhaust, which seemed to make them less likely to explode.  Even today, I remember with great fondness the rocket I had called Wanderer II.  It had a revolutionary new wing design, and I had altered the basic design a bit.  My friend Keith was there for moral support.  Wanderer II did not disappoint us.  It got off to a great start by not exploding on the launch pad.  This alone guaranteed it shelf space in my Rocket Hall of Fame.   There might have been more entries, but piles of shredded paper didn’t seem to impress anyone.  After all, I had my standards.

The great Wanderer II continued to rise, reaching a height of approximately 20-25 feet above the ground.  In my mind, this baby was not only in the Hall of Fame, it was the leading candidate to become the Hall of Fame centerpiece.  I would write a book about it, rivaling anything Goddard had written.  People would come from everywhere to see how I had done it.  And if NASA wanted a few pointers, well that was OK with me too.

That was when things took a turn for the worse.  More precisely, the rocket decided it had enough of this “up” stuff and decided to try a little “sideways” stuff.  It didn’t like that very much so it quickly switched to “down” stuff and then “over” and “back” stuff.  I remember marveling at what an interesting display of zigs and zags was taking place before my eyes.  Somewhere out of the corner of my eye, I was aware that Keith was running at top speed in the opposite direction.  But I couldn’t be bothered with that now.  This was history in the making.  I almost forgot to move when one of the zags started heading straight at me.  But at the last second, a new zig forced it up.  It got about 25 feet up when it began a new maneuver.  This one I call a spin-in-place.  You often have to develop a new vocabulary to describe the varied takeoff sequences, especially if you haven’t quite worked out some of problems with the wings.  So naturally my journal is full of technical terms like “spin-in-place”, “zig zag maneuver”, “twisty”, “shaky”, and “wabbly”.

The spin-in-place maneuver seemed last quite a while.  The tail of the rocket just went around and around.  That was the last thing I remember before the explosion.  Suddenly, Wanderer II had vanished from the earth.  The only evidence of its departure being those darn little pieces of paper and cardboard that came fluttering down.  It looked like he wasn’t Hall of Fame material after all.

But no matter.  My career had just begun.  And the perfect rocket was yet to be made.  And I was just the kid to do it.

(Continued in Rocket Building 401.)

Rocket Building 401

Now, with all these design problems, you might wonder if I ever got it right.  I think it was Edison who said, “I haven’t failed.  I just know 1,000 ways it won’t work.”   Words to live by.  And, we did eventually get it right.  At least on one occasion.  And that was the last rocket I ever built.

At this point, the only other kid with the guts to participate in my advanced research was Keith.  We never called him One-Match-Keith, but in his own way, he had courage.  He had his own chemistry set, and he had access to his sister’s outdoor doll house which we quickly converted to a mobile lab.  It was here we hit on the best combination of rocket fuel.

We used exacting standards to evaluate the quality of each new batch of fuel.  It consisted of breaking off a small BB-sized piece of the fuel, placing it carefully on a flat surface, and then lighting it with a match.  Our trained eyes would evaluate the intensity and the length of the burn.  Usually, this only lasted a second or so before everything was consumed.  Sometimes the fuel was so good, the pellet actually danced around while it was burning.  Those were the formulas we liked the best.

Then came the day we discovered the perfect combination of ingredients.  We knew when we finished the cooking process that it had potential, but it wasn’t until we gave it the BB-Fire Test that we knew what we had.  Instead of sitting still and producing a nice big flare, this little BB burned so hot and so fast, it launched itself.  It didn’t need to be in a rocket or anything.  It just flew.  And, since we were inside a 6 x 8 foot doll house, the flying BB bounced from wall to wall like a bullet.  Keith and I ducked and dodged that flaming pellet from hell.  Eventually, it was quiet.  When the smoke cleared out of the doll house, we examined ourselves for burn holes, but it seemed we had been spared.

Being the good scientists we were, we naturally repeated the experiment.  And sure enough, everything was exactly the same.  Even the terror and the mad scramble to get outside the little house were the same.  I am sure that little fire bug tried to hit us this time too, but he was going so fast it made it hard to steer, so he had to content himself with multiple ricochets off the walls, floor, and ceiling in the hope of winging us with a lucky shot.  He failed.

We smiled in triumph.  At last we had the ultimate fuel.  We had been working all summer to perfect this.  Unfortunately, we had taken no notes on the exact combination.  As perfect as it was, we only had one batch of it.  And if we added any common batch to it, it would only reduce its power.  So we resolved to save this for a special rocket.  One that was worthy of such an amazing fuel.  It wasn’t long before we found something.

Now in our neighborhood, not all kids are the same.  I was a BB gun kid.  Some kids had pellet guns, which required you to pump up the air pressure for each pellet.  Keith was one of those rare kids who had a CO2 powered pellet gun.  When I saw that cool empty CO2 cartridge, I just knew you had to be able to do something with it.  Nothing this perfectly formed deserved to be thrown away.  That is when I realized it would make the perfect body for a small rocket.  It was made of metal!  And it already had a natural nozel built into the end of it.  And, if it worked out, we could get more of them very easily.  Perfect, perfect, perfect!

Now the wings were a bit of a challenge.  No cardboard wings would do for this bird.  We anticipated G-Forces that would leave cardboard wings standing on the launch pad.  We needed something stronger.  Back to dad’s workshop where we discovered a small triangle of sheet metal.  I had no idea how to cut metal, but then I realized it was the perfect size and cut already.  My eyes glistened.  Things were coming together.  But how do we attach this wing?  Elmer’s was not going to do it this time.  Although electrical tape was one of my dad’s favorite solutions (this being before duct tape was introduced), it didn’t seem right.  I considered soldering, but I wasn’t allowed to use the soldering iron.  I had heard of welding, but I was pretty sure if I wasn’t allowed to solder, I wasn’t going to be allowed to weld.  But then, as I was rummaging through my dad’s workshop, I chanced on a glue called Liquid Solder.  If there was ever a sign that I was supposed to stay on the path I was on, this had to be it.  I squeezed out some of that liquid solder, my only disappointment coming when I read you had to wait 24 hours for it to dry.  When you are 12, 24 hours is pert near forever.  But, when I reminded myself we were building the perfect rocket, I knew some things just couldn’t be rushed.

The next afternoon, the glue was dry.  Keith came over early.  We carefully worked our Ultimate Fuel into a fine powder.  We couldn’t use fuel chunks because the hole in the CO2 was only about 1/8 of an inch, so it had to be powder.  And, in yet another sign, there was just exactly enough powder to fill the rocket.

And when we went outside, we discovered the launch conditions were perfect.  Not a cloud in the sky.  No traffic on our street.  No kids anywhere near.  We set up the launch pad at the end of the driveway.  We pointed the rocket upward, tilting in the direction of the far end of the street.  All was ready.

And who should have the honor of launching this rocket of rockets?  There was no question really.  Only Rocket Boy, the foremost rocket scientist in this part of the country deserved such an honor.  I stepped forward, accepting my due and pulling out a match to do what needed to be done.

Keith, always the smarter of us two, was standing at the far end of the driveway.  But I was fearless in this moment of my greatest triumph.  I reached down with the burning match.  The fuel was so amazing it took but an instant to light, surprising even me.  I didn’t even have time to run away before the rocket thrust itself into the air.  I watched it climbing higher and higher.  Soon it had gone higher even than our streetlight, which was a new personal best for any rocket I had ever built.  That is when it exploded.  I don’t mean “exploded”, I mean “EXPLODED”.  The sound was like a stick of dynamite.

I stood there in shocked disbelief.  There were no little paper shards falling to the ground.  That thing was gone-gone-gone.  And with the force of that explosion, I was pretty sure it could have gone anywhere it wanted to go.  I looked around the immediate area to see if there was a hunk of exploded metal lying somewhere on the ground.  I didn’t see any metal shards, but I did notice Keith’s heels as he ran through the field toward his house.

Now, you might think a missing rocket would call up a Twilight Zone moment.  For me, it called up a Horrors on Haunted Hill moment.  As I wondered what could have happened to my rocket, how far it could have gone, and how much damage it could do, I knew with fatal certainty the only thing that could have happened.  That rocket was pointed in the direction of the Fonstein’s house on the far side of the circle.  I couldn’t see the house because it was 1/4 mile away, but I could certainly picture the hole in the side of the house and the 2-3 dead people inside.  I hoped I hadn’t killed all of them.  As I rechecked the flight angle, I realized my only hope was if they hadn’t been home at the time.  But it was close to dinner time.  Surely they would be home sitting at their dinner table, close together, where a single missle strike would get them all.  And what could I do?  It was too late to do anything.

And so, I went into my house.  At best it might take a day before their bodies were discovered.  But after that it would be simple to calculate from the hole in the side of the house the direction from which the rocket had been launched.  I knew I needed to put my affairs in order.  They would be coming for me soon.  But I didn’t want to make it too easy, so I said nothing.  I just stoically awaited my fate.  When they came for me, I would calmly admit everything.  Through that night and all the next day, I waited.  Still they did not come.  Nor did I see any police cars or ambulances.  Nor did I see Keith, although I am sure he watched for police cars from his bedroom window.

By the second day, I dared to hope things might not be as bad as I feared.  Or maybe they had just not discovered the bodies yet.  I had to know.  So, filled with fear and trepidation, I began the long walk down the street.  All along the way, I looked for any sign that my rocket had not gotten that far, but I found none.  At last, I was in front of their house.  I looked up, afraid of what I might see, but as near as I could tell, there were no holes in the wall.  And I thought I caught a glimpse of movement from inside the house.  Could it be?  They had somehow survived?  A flicker of hope emerged.  And I cradled it like a precious flower.

Now, years later, I can’t tell you why, but I never built another rocket after that.  Maybe it was because I became interested in girls.  Or maybe another hobby came along and displaced my interest in rockets.  But I think it was simpler than that.  I think there are times in your life when some cosmic force reaches down to give you a good emotional shaking.  Kinda like God’s way of saying, “What’s the matter with you?  Are you nuts?  Stop that!!”

This time I listened.

 

Sky Lanterns (Part 2)

On the 4th of July, a small sub-set of intrepid adventurers gathered to watch the fireworks.  Many of these were the same suspects involved in the original Sky Lantern Incident.  (If you haven’t read “The Sky Lantern Incident”, read that one first.)

We stood on Pigeon Hill looking out over the dunes in the direction of Heritage Landing and the Muskegon Country Club.  Both sites are well-known for their fireworks.  This time, because of Michigan’s liberalized fireworks laws, there were sounds and sights all around us, even coming from Pere Marquette Beach.  At least one display was happening at the site of our infamous Sky Lantern Incident.  The light from the fireworks surely lit up the broken body of our little friend high up in the Coast Guard tree.

As we watched the fireworks, I thought of our little lantern friends, whose only crime was wanting to be free.  To ride high and free in the sky as they were meant to.  I tried to put this thought out of my mind.  The last time I tried to free them had not gone so well.  But try as I might, I could not cast out the thought.  I even told myself that surely on 4th of July, with the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air, there was no way to get into trouble.  And so I quickly walked home where some of them waited my return.

I chose four of the sturdiest and best looking lanterns I could find.  One yellow, one white, one red, and one green.  A fine-looking group they were, too.  I returned to the fireworks watchers with my prizes.  When I arrived, I could tell they had mixed feelings about this venture.  No one would make eye-contact with me.  After all, they had been party to our last effort, which hadn’t exactly worked as planned.

But my new-found enthusiasm was at least somewhat contagious.  I quickly recruited the most adventurous of the group (Ardis).   The others held back, showing various degrees of fear and fascination on their faces.  Ardis calmly held our pretty lantern in place while I lit the little square at the base.  Her only trace of fear showing when she wondered aloud if the lantern’s surface would retain her fingerprints.  Soon enough we had fire and a little smoke rising up inside the lantern.  She said it was getting hot, but she held on anyway.  Every few seconds we checked to see if we had positive buoyancy.  Then, proud lantern midwife that she was, she announced that it was time.

I held the lower rim while Ardis released the balloon.  Yes!  It was ready.  At this point, it occurred to me to wonder about the wind.  Last time, he had vexed us beyond all reason.  This time, I felt nothing.  No wind.  Perhaps he was in pursuit of other victims.  Perhaps he didn’t like the sound of all the explosions.  It didn’t matter.  This time, our launch would be without the demon antics of our evil friend.

Eagerly, I gently lifted and released the rim of the lantern.  Slowly, ever so slowly, it moved away from me.  Then it seemed to lose a little altitude as it drifted in the direction of the Harbour Towne Condos.  Quickly sighting up the lantern, I saw that at its present speed and course, it would ever so gently drift into two large pine trees.  Alas!  How could this happen again?  It was a calm night.  Conditions were ideal.  Nothing should have gone wrong.

But then, miraculously, the lantern began to lift.  It lifted and lifted until the tree no longer posed a threat.  Our baby was airborne and free.  What a sight!  At this point, our fearful friends were heard to comment on the grace and beauty of our lantern.  Up and up it floated.  A magnificent sight by all accounts.  The accolades were unanimous.  That was when it occurred to me that this needn’t be a solitary journey.  Three more lanterns stood in readiness.

I turned to ready the second lantern.  I was surprised my action was not met with cries of joy and other expressions of unconstrained enthusiasm.  Instead, they were holding back.  They wanted to see what happened to our pioneer before they were willing to trust.  How could they hold back?  Didn’t they see what I saw?  Did they not believe?

As I paused, wondering if I could generate any enthusiasm for a second launch, I heard a lot of calculating and figuring.  I heard things like, “It looks like the wind is moving in a safe direction.”  “Probably the light will go out long before it ever lands.”  “The light only seems to burn for about 5 minutes.”  “We should have timed it to be sure.”  “People probably didn’t even notice us with all the other fireworks going on.”  I saw the fears and the doubts begin to subside, although they lingered until the lantern flickered out of sight.  Slowly, I could feel the sense of pride emanating from our group.  That is when I knew a second launch was going to happen.

This time, Jim joined Ardis and me.  He helped Ardis steady the lantern as I made fire down below.  Jim moved several times up and down and around the lantern to observe all aspects of the operation and making mental notes on everything he saw.  I could see the gleam in his eyes.  I have always been able to recognize talent and management potential.  I resolved right then that the next lantern launch was to be his.

This time, everyone knew the playbook.  The fire burned nicely.  The lantern inflated nicely.  We had to puff out the sides a little, but otherwise it was going well.  It was T-minus 10 seconds, and all systems were green.

Then, like members of a synchronized swimming team, we flowed and floated around the lantern as it powered up for liftoff.  And a magnificent liftoff it was, too.  The wind took it back toward the trees, just as before, but this time, we had held it a little longer, and so it rose faster.  The trees were never even a possibility.  We complimented each other on our excellent launch techniques and on the wonderful sight as this lantern joined his sister in the sky.

Then, suddenly, someone sighted a lantern in a place it should not have been.  Over near the Muskegon Country Club.  We watched, wondering how our baby could have made it so far.  Then we realized the truth.  They also had Sky Lanterns.  And they had launched one.  Although I felt a moment of disappointment at no longer being unique, it was quickly replaced by relief from knowing there were other conspirators doing the same thing.  Did they have the same experiences?  Had they nearly set the Country Club on fire?  Had they narrowly missed the trees?  Maybe they spotted our lanterns and drew the courage necessary to make their own launch.  The sky was a big place.  They were welcome there too.

A thought occurred to me.  It was motivated, I am sure by our nearly disastrous experiences the other night.  What if the police saw the lanterns rising up from Harbour Towne and the lanterns rising up from the Country Club at the same time?  Which ones would they go for?  I feared we Harbour Townies would become examples of our justice system long before the Country Clubbers.  But when I looked up again, I reminded myself of the near-perfect launches.  Nothing could stop us now.

This time, I wanted to make sure we had photos (having been criticized for not having any the first time).  Jim required a little more instruction because of the child-proof device on the lighter that has thwarted more adults than children.  But he quickly mastered the complex mechanism and made fire.

This time, Dad came forward to help.  I was pleased.  A trained engineer is always a welcome addition in any high-risk endeavor involving fire.  Dad watched carefully, like the professional manager he is, leaving the details to other members of his team.  This time the launch was flawless.  I was busy taking pictures to mark the moment.  Ardis was still worried about leaving fingerprints, but I told her that didn’t matter any more because there would be a picture of her doing the deed on the internet within a day.  With such evidence, no one needed fingerprints.  And no denials were possible.

And so went the fourth launch.  Absolutely flawless.  With a team like this, the Russians would never have beat us in the Space Race.

As we sat around afterwards, basking in the glow of our achievement, it was a glorious feeling compared to our first attempt.  The first attempt had left us broken and bitter.  Defeated by the wind at every turn.  Forced to head home carrying the extra lanterns we had not dared to launch.

But tonight was our night.  We were amazing.

 

The Adventure Continues here…

Gridlock Party

It is obvious to me that our political process is deeply flawed.  The frustration I hear and feel every day that emanates from Washington is getting worse and worse.  I think I have a solution.

The Abuse of Power

To begin, let me define the basic problem.  Each political party is made up of a variety of special interests. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means it only takes a vocal minority to establish a position within a political party.  Once that is done, the party is obligated to honor it and advance if it can.

The parties advance their causes by passing laws and regulations.  We all know to pass a law, the House of Representatives and the Senate pass it and then the President signs it.  It is my thesis our biggest problems happen when the House and the Senate and the Presidency are all controlled by the same political party.  Let’s call these power brokers (House, Senate, and President) the Big Three.  And we will call any party that controls all three the Ruling Party.

Consider this: most of our legislative actions are done by majority vote.  If 51 people want something and 49 do not, it can become a law, no matter how much the 49 disagree with it. This is the “tyranny of the majority”.  There really is no way to guarantee protection of or respect for the minority position.

Regardless of which party is in power, that party tries to pass laws and regulations to satisfy their special interest constituents. If they have enough power, they get their way and they effectively move the societal pendulum away from the center. (Think of the “center” as the “comfort zone” for the vast majority of us.)  If they have enough power and/or stay in office long enough, they push things so far away from the center that things start getting bad for the rest of us.

And, to further complicate things, the Ruling Party is often driven by one of their minority special interest groups, who are often not even a majority opinion of their own party.  What kind of check and balance is there to prevent the “majority” from changing things that the real majority wants?  Not much.

I know you are thinking right now, “Well, it is true of the other guys, but not about MY party.”  Sorry.  It is equally true in either direction.  Given enough power and enough time, neither party is immune.  Absolute power corrupts.  Just that simple.

Do We Need A Ruling Party?

My argument is the best times for the American people happen when no single party controls all of the Big Three. Why is this?  It is because when no one has all the power, neither party can get into too much mischief.  Even if one Party wanted something, if the Other Party is in control of just one of the Big Three (House, Senate or Presidency), then it isn’t likely to happen. Neither party has the power to force its will on not only the Other Party but also on all the rest of us.  This is a very good thing.

We have all heard the term “gridlock” applied to Congress. They usually say it like it is a bad thing; I think it is a great thing.  As long as we have gridlock, then no single party can ramrod a piece of legislation through just because they have one more vote than the Other Party.  When we have gridlock, we have a balance of power that is good for the rest of us.

When the Pendulum Is Out Of The Comfort Zone

When we find things are starting to feel bad, there really aren’t a lot of choices for us as individual citizens.  We really have only one choice: vote out the Ruling Party and put in the Other Party. This sorta works. We elect the Other Party because they promised to move the pendulum back to the center.

When the Other Party Gets the Power

If the election throws out the Ruling Party and makes the Other Party the new Ruling Party, then we have effectively transferred absolute power to the Other Party. The new Ruling Party, proclaiming their mandate, will do everything they can to reverse the actions of the previous party and move things further back in their own direction. If they take it too far, of course, it causes us pain, because once again we have been moved out of our confort zone.

And when that happens, what do we do? We do the only thing we can do: we vote them out and put the first party back in.  And the process begins all over again.

When the Other Party Gets Some Power – Gridlock

If the election resulted in something less than a clean sweep, and we have a situation where there is no Ruling Party (because both parties control at least one of the Big Three), then we have managed to break up the power block of the Ruling Party. This, in my opinion, is the ideal outcome.  The Ruling Party no longer has the power to rubber stamp whatever they want done. This gridlock environment means there are no more slam dunks in the legislative arena.

It is true that a gridlocked Big Three isn’t going to be as “productive” as a Ruling Party with complete control over the Big Three.  But do you want that?  I don’t.  That just guarantees more fussing and fighting while the dominant party jams its agenda down our throats.  And then, of course, we have to wait until the next election when we can throw them out and try to reverse the damage they have done.  Am I worried about a do-nothing congress that just sits around and collects their fat paychecks? Nope. Not a bit. Our country is used to paying people not to work. I have no problem bribing 435 + 100 + 1 elected officials to just sit on their hands.

I think Gridlock is a much better solution than throwing one party or the other out every 8-12 years. It would produce a lot less wailing, name calling, gnashing of teeth, biting of knuckles, and general animosity than any other solution.

My Proposal

So here is what I propose. Right now, we can all go into a voting booth and vote a straight party ticket. I want to add one more check box to that ballot. I want the option to vote for the Gridlock Party.

So who is in the Gridlock Party?  How does it work?  Well, it is quite simple, really.  The Gridlock Party ballots get counted last.  Count up the other ballots first.  Figure out who would have won.  Then if it looks like either party will become the Ruling Party with control over the Big Three (i.e., winning too much power), then our votes go for the Other Party.  Think about it.  We are voting to limit the power of the majority by denying them absolute power.  Then everyone has to play nice if they want to accomplish anything.

We combine the full force of our voting power (liberal, conservative, and independent alike) to vote for a condition we believe will be better for everyone.

Gridlock Party Credo

We, the members of the Gridlock Party, are made up of all races, creeds, ideologies, and religions.  And we are liberals, conservatives and independents.  But the thing that unifies us is we don’t want to be jerked around by either party every few years.  We don’t care about various social issues to the exclusion of all else. We don’t want causes. We don’t want raging debates. We are tired of half of the world being divided into enemy camps because they are conservative or liberal.  We are tired of not being able to talk with neighbors about politics for fear of offending or inciting them.  We just want a quiet enjoyment of our lives.

What are the biggest advantages of the Gridlock Party? Simple. We know when gridlock prevails, neither party has enough power to pass anything over the trampled remains of the Other Party; this puts an end to ramrod legislation and unpopular laws passed by a “majority”. Yes, it is true that fewer laws will be passed. This is a good thing. If they do pass something, then both of their fingerprints are on it. If it turns out to be a problem, they are both motivated to fix it. There will always be ideological differences. But if something happens that really is bad, and both parties can agree on a solution, then it is probably OK for us too. If they can’t agree on a solution, it is probably because each party wants to take us further away from the center. So it is just fine with me that they don’t reach an agreement. If they can agree, then OK. If they can’t, then I don’t want to go there either.

I can’t think of a better system than our democracy, but I do think we need to control the abuses of power that happen when one party gets too much Power. I, for one, will never again say “gridlock” like it is a bad thing.