The year was 1969. The Apollo program was in full swing and I felt as though I was a part of it. I was 14 and I envied the astronauts. I wanted to go up in space, but first I needed training. How can a 14 year old get training to be an astronaut? How would I stand the confines of a space capsule for 4-5 days? I had an idea! My dad had built us a tree house around a tree. It had 8 sides and a pointed roof. It almost looked like a space capsule. I could use this for my “training mission”. A friend of mine, who was crazy enough to sign up for this adventure, agreed to submit himself to this training mission. He and I came up with the idea to use the capsule/tree house as a training environment. First, we had to make the inside look as if it were a capsule. I found a roll of aluminum foil in my mom’s kitchen. Armed with a staple gun and aluminum foil, I methodically lined the inside of the tree house walls and ceiling with the aluminum foil; of course one roll wasn’t enough. After 5 more rolls of aluminum foil, the inside of the capsule was almost complete. All we needed now would be loads of switches, buttons and lights. Using a soldering iron, wires and 12 volt batteries, I built a control panel that didn’t do anything but it sure did light up. Ok, the interior was complete, but how to get food to us? We didn’t have any of that cool space food in toothpaste tubes. All we had was Tang, the official drink of astronauts. it was time for another invention. I rigged up a pulley and rope system between our house and the window, I mean space observation area, of the capsule. My little brother Drew agreed to put food into the box of the pulley conveyor and send it to us daily. The big day had arrived. We wanted to look the part so we took our mom’s hair dryers, which in those days was a box that had a hose connected to it and then a bag that you put on your head. This looked almost exactly like what the astronauts carried into the space capsule. My buddy Bill and I donned jump suits and modified hair dryers, to supply needed oxygen and climbed up through the bottom of our tree….I mean space capsule ready for lift off. We were ready to begin our training mission. As we got settled in to our modified lawn chairs, we switched on our control panel to begin launch sequence when it occurred to us that we had not thought of a way to get rid of our food, rather our waste. Another great idea. I told my little brother that we would do our business in baggies and drop them out of the bottom of the space capsule escape hatch door for him to do as he pleased. He said, “You have got to be crazy!!. I didn’t mind making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sending them to you on the pulley transport but I REFUSE to get rid of your refuse! I quit.” For some reason, my mom and dad didn’t fancy the idea either. My buddy Bill and I looked at each other. Our mission had been scrubbed.
It was 1973 and the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended. N-63 was the designation for the Nike Site in then Nansemond County, VA. The abandoned missile site had long been forgotten. A barbed wire fence enclosed the entire complex. It was still federal property, but the abandoned Army complex was a ghost town. I remember when my parents would drive down the road by the site, seeing the missiles raised from their underground hideaways, poised to strike as the army personnel performed their weekly preparedness exercises. I had always been intrigued by the site and as a senior in high school, Billy and I had this great idea. How about checking out the site late one night? What was inside of these missile silos that had been long abandoned? The idea started to gel in our minds until we just couldn’t stop thinking about it. We decided to take the plunge and commit to explore it. Telling our parents about our plan was out of the question. We would have to do this in subterfuge mode. It would have to be late at night when everyone was asleep. Billy lived farther away from the site than I did, so the plan was that he would come by my house and wake me up. My bedroom was on the second floor. How was he going to let me know that he was outside, ready for me to join him in our adventure? We had to think of a quiet plan. Early that day, we used a roll of heavy duty twine. We threaded it out my second floor bedroom window, down the side of the house and behind the shrubs to await Billy’s tug to action. The plan was to tie the end of the twine to my big toe. When Billy arrived, he was to wake me by “gently” tugging on the twine to wake me. I was all set. The twine was tied to my big toe, hanging out of the covers. Suddenly I heard one of my parents come upstairs, calling my name. I removed the twine from my toe and temporarily tied it to the foot board of my bed. I went to see what my folks wanted, stopped by the bathroom and finally jumped into bed. I was so excited about our impending adventure, slowly falling into a deep sleep. There was only one snag, I had forgotten to retie the twin to my big toe. It was still attached to the bed. Around 1 AM Billy came to my house, outside of my window two stories down and scrounged around until he found the end of the twine. He “gently” tugged on the twine …..nothing. He sort of “gently” tugged again on the twine……nothing. Next, he not so gently yanked on the twine and heard a clunk. He didn’t think anything of it so he hauled off and yanked and yanked on the heavy duty twine. He was lifting the bed off of the floor, banging it against the wall. Lights went on and my dad burst into the room asking, “What the hell is going on!” I acted dumb at first, then realized that I would have to think fast. I told him that I had gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom and had fallen over my desk chair. Fortunately, he went for it, probably wanting to go back to bed himself. NOW, I was awake! I waited for my dad to go back to bed before I crawled out the window, onto the porch roof an scrambled to the ground. Billy was waiting for me and said, “What the heck was all of that noise?” I said, “You were lifting the bed off of the floor! Enough chit chat, let’s get going.” We were off. It was about a mile to the Nike Site. Billy had brought two flash lights for us and we needed them as it was a pretty dark walk to the abandoned site. Once we arrived to the site, we looked around to make sure the coast was clear. The only thing that separated us from the missile silo was an eight foot chain-link fence and a few strands of barbed wire. The coast was clear so we made a run for the fence from our hiding places at the edge of the field. Scaling the fence was a pretty easy task, but maneuvering around the barbed wire was a little tricky. After a few carefully placed holds, we were on the other side of the fence. The site was almost all covered in solid concrete. We didn’t see much in the way of buildings, but what we saw next was pretty wild. We shined our flash lights toward a square box protruding out of the cement. It was about 18″ x 18″ with a steel handle on the top. We determined that this was a door of some type. We ran over to the door and lifted it up. The hinges were rusty as it opened up with a bit of squeaking. Billy shined his flashlight down the hatch. There were ladder rungs protruding from the sides of the walls of the hatch. I went first, down into absolute darkness. When I reached the bottom, I was standing in two feet of cold water. What the heck was this? I shined my light on the walls. This was a solid concrete underground bunker of some sort. Billy whispered, “What do you see?”. I replied, “This is really cool, come on down!”. He started down the rungs and found the same cold surprise that I had. “Dang! What am I standing in?” Billy said. “It looks like they have flooded this place with water for some reason; probably to keep people out.” I quickly replied as I tried to figure out where to go next. The room was only about 10 x 10. There were painted outlines on the walls where wrenches and tools would have been kept. On the far side of the room was a solid concrete door, at least 12″ thick. Fortunately, it was partly open, because if these hinges were rusty, there was no way that we would have been able to budge that door. We waded through the water, down a concrete hallway. This entire place had been made of reinforced, poured concrete. I felt something in the water. I shined my flashlight down into the water to see a piece of wet fried chicken bobbing up and down. We were either not the first to be down here since this place had been flooded or we finally found the location where Colonel Sanders came up with his secret recipe. The water was pretty clear, it was just cold. Billy said, “Where does this tunnel go?” I replied, “There is only one way to find out.” We both continued down the hall approaching another solid concrete door. It was open enough to squeeze by, but we tried to open it further. It would not budge. We tried a little more only able to get it open a few more inches. As we squeezed past the last concrete door it seemed as though we were in a much bigger room. Both of us shined our flashlights up and around the room. We both slowly said, “Whoa!” We had hit the mother lode. This room was huge. It was about two times the size of our high school gymnasium. The ceiling seemed to be about 20′ high and there were strange tracks and ladder rungs in the side of the walls that ascended to the top at the far side of the room. In the middle of the ceiling were two huge plates of steel, 30′ long by about 20′ wide that met in the middle. We figured that these were the two retractable doors that lifted out of the way to allow the missile to be raised into launch position. We wanted a better look, so we walked closer, almost under the doors when for some unknown reason we just happened to shine our flashlights into the water ahead of us. “Stop!” I yelled to Billy. Under the water, in front of us was a chasm that was so deep that our flashlights could not make out the bottom. “That was close!” Billy said as we both backed away from the missile pit. One more step and Billy would have had an underwater look at were the missiles used to sleep. As we wandered around the cavernous concrete room we had this awesome idea. This cool place is just going to waste. It’s been forgotten by the military and is a waste. This would be a really cool place to have a club where our friends could bring their guitars, drums and amps to have a rocking band practice area! All we would have to do would be to get a gas powered pump and pump out all of this water, then when it dried out, we could use gas powered generators to supply the electricity for our amps and guitars. Wild ideas ran through our minds as we decided it was probably time to head back. We waded through the water, past the two concrete doors, tunnel and back to the tool room. We shined the flashlights one more time around the tool room and past the fried chicken drumstick bobbing in the water. Billy climbed up towards the hatch as stars reappeared in the night air. As I climbed up, I was trying to imagine what this place was like when it was an active Nike Site; better yet, what it would have been like not to have to wade around in two feet of cold water, and who would throw away a perfectly good piece of KFC. We approached the chainlink fence once again. Scaling it was just as easy as the first time except my wet pants leg got caught on the barbed wire at the top, making a ripping sound as I tried to throw myself back over the fence. We were both finally back in the land of the free, or should I say the “legal side”. Our flashlights were beginning to wane and the walk back home seemed to take twice as long as our shoes made a lovely squishing sound as we took each step. As we reached my house, I told Billy not to mention a word to anyone about our find. I crawled up the porch railing, reached the porch roof, slowly slid open the window to my room. I stowed my wet clothes under my bed and slipped into bed dreaming of how cool we were going to be, having the only underground abandoned Nike missile silo band rehearsal place. Forty years have passed since that exciting night with Billy. For some reason, neither Billy nor I really talked about our adventure again. I don’t know why. Maybe we both realized that it was unrealistic. I don’t know, I just know that as a 16 year old in Nansemond County, that cold April night was one of the best adventures of my life!
“No problem mom and dad, have a good time.” I said as I wondered where my parents had left the car keys. I was 15, my parents had left for the afternoon and I was left home to practice the piano. My parents had taken my mom’s car and left my dad’s VW Beetle in the driveway. I knew the keys were somewhere in the house, I just had to find them. After a few minutes of scrounging around the house, I found the keys to the bug. I asked my brother Drew, “Hey, let’s take the Beetle out to the fields for a spin?” Drew said, “Sure, why not!” My dad’s bug was a rather sick green/blue color, not a great color but one of VW’s more popular colors of the day. Before we fired up the bug, I told my brother, “You know, this car would look a lot cooler if it had wide tires.” I figured out that if you took the wheels of the VW and then flipped them over, they would still bolt to the axle, but then they would stick out from the body looking like you had big fat tires. Methodically, we took each rim off of the bug, flipped it over and re-bolted it back to each axle. Man, did it look cool. We both jumped in the bug and I fired her up. We headed out of the driveway, down the road on the way to a local farm. This wasn’t my first time driving the bug. I had negotiated the whole clutch, gear thing earlier. This time, I didn’t grind every last tooth off of my dad’s 4 speed transmission. We were heading to a local farm that had huge produce fields with sandy roads in between each row of freshly grown kale. I headed for the fields, flying through the roads, sand spinning up from our reversed wheels, laughing and hooting and hollering like Luke and Bo from Dukes of Hazzard. There was a curve in the road in the middle of the kale patch, and because the roads were pretty much pure sand, the curve had a steep bank around the outside edge. I told my brother Drew, “You know, instead of going AROUND the curve, I can use the curve as a ramp and jump it.” Drew said, “That would be cool, but then you would land in the middle of all that kale.” I replied, “Yeah and we would create a huge kale salad!” I turned the Beetle around and headed back about 100 yards. When I felt that I had enough room to accelerate, I floored the bug. The back tires spun sand high into the air as I shifted into second gear, then third gear. Just as I was shifting into third gear, the curve was dead ahead. We hit the curve, went straight up and over the banked corner, flying up into the air, high over what would soon be on many people’s plate for dinner. BAM, we hit the kale patch hard, the reversed wheels grinding into the fenders as we slid what seemed to be at least 40 feet. The front hood of the bug flew up blocking our view and the front eyeball headlights popped out, somewhere in the field. The tire iron and all of the tire changing equipment lay all around the crash site. We had plowed up a 3′ wide swath of kale at least 40′ long. We jumped out of the car, laughing and catching our breath. “Boy, was that fun or what!” I said. Drew was laughing so hard he couldn’t answer, but suddenly his laughter stopped as he pointed across the kale field. “Look!” he said. About 100 yards away, a brown Ford Bronco was heading like a bat out of hell in our direction. “Oh crap!” I said, “That must be the guy that owns this field!” Suddenly we jumped into action, throwing the tire equipment into the front hatch of the bug. We threw the headlights in the back seat, slammed the hood and tried to start our squashed Bug. The Bug almost acted as if it knew that it had just been used and abused and refused to start. Finally, the engine returned to life. I shoved it into first gear and floored it. Instead of it spinning sand like before, it slowly limped forward, but the more I pressed on the gas, the slower it seemed to go. We were doomed. The brown Bronco slid to a sand flying stop in front of us, blocking our way. Out jumped a very angry man, screaming at the top of his lungs. “What the hell are you doing! I’ve been watching you the whole time. I am going to throw you jerks into jail. As a matter of fact, I’m going to make sure you are buried under the jail! Look what you have done to my kale!” Oh boy, what was I going to do. I had taken my parents car without their permission, was driving without a license, under age and now I had torn up this farmers field. I knew I would end up in the slammer. My poor brother had just come along for the ride. How was I going to explain to my mom and dad that Drew was in jail too. I had to think fast. I had gotten us into this jam and I had to get us out of it. “My brakes went out!” I declared. “Bull-crap!” the farmer said. What was I going to do? I suddenly remembered that in the very front, under the hood of the Beetle there was a brake reservoir and that the last time I had checked, the top cap of the brake fluid reservoir had a crack in it. “Look, I’ll show you.” I said to the farmer. I popped open the hood of the Bug and pointed to the cracked top of the brake fluid reservoir. Sure enough the hard landing had caused brake fluid to shoot up through the cracked top and spill over the area. “Hmmmm” he said. “I guess maybe that could have caused the brakes to fail.” I agreed quickly, “Yes sir, we could have been killed!” He took off his weather beaten ball cap and scratched his head as if he was trying to figure out whether to believe us or haul us off to the pokey. “Ah hell, get in your car and get the hell off of my property!” he shouted. “Yes sir, no problem. Thank you sir.” I said as I jumped in the car, almost wanting to hug this big grumpy farmer. My brother’s eyes were about as big as saucers as I looked in the rear view mirror where he was sitting. We started the Beetle and headed home. It was a very quiet ride home. We arrived home and I figured we better quickly turn our dune buggy back into the family car. Drew said, “You got me into this, you change your own tires!” as he headed into the house. Slowly I turned the Love Bug back into the Slug Bug. I looked under the rear hood of the car where the engine was and discovered that all of that sand that had been flying up from our spinning tires had gotten into the carburetor. It took quite awhile to clean out the carb, but finally I had my dad’s car running fine before he got home. Eventually, my parents arrived home and asked the usual, “How was your afternoon.” Drew and I both replied, “Oh, you know, just another boring day in Nansemond County.”
One hour til high school graduation, I had plenty of time; 30 minutes to drive and pick up my girlfriend, 20 minutes to get to my high school and 10 minutes to spare. What could possibly go wrong? “Don’t be late. We will see you after the graduation.” said my mom and dad. “Of course I won’t be late.” I replied. I grabbed my cap and gown, ran down the stairs and jumped into my VW bug. It was a hot humid afternoon in Nansemond County. My Beetle didn’t have air conditioning, so 255 was my AC; 2 windows open driving 55mph. As I was driving, I got to thinking, maybe graduation started at 4:30, not 5PM. Hmmm, it wouldn’t be cool arriving to graduation during the middle of the valedictorian giving their speech. I know, I would take a short cut down Hill Rd. That would shave at least 10 minutes off of my drive. I turned on to Hill Rd. feeling great about my impending graduation ceremony, the wind blowing my long hair as I hung my elbow out the window. Life was good. Suddenly I slammed on the brakes. I stopped immediately in front of a big mound of gravel and dirt. Obviously, unknown to me, the county had started road work and cut a trench right across Hill Rd. A back hoe had dumped two hills of gravel and dirt on either side of the trench. My path was blocked. There was absolutely no time for me to back track and go the long way to Debbie’s house. What was I going to do! As I perused the hill in front of me, I had a brainstorm. I could back up and then jump the trench, using the hill as a ramp. That was it. What a great idea. I put the Bug into reverse and backed up about 100 feet. As I sat there gunning the engine, I imagined hitting the hill, sailing over the trench and then landing on the other side with gravel spewing behind my wheels. Ok, get ready, set, go! I floored the gas pedal, popped the clutch and the Beetle lurched forward. As the tach hit 5,000 rpm’s I slammed it into second gear, gaining speed, the mound of dirt and gravel coming quickly into view. Just as I shifted into third gear, I climbed the hill, ready to soar. “Oh crap”, I thought at the last minute, “what if I didn’t have enough speed, what if the gap was too wide.” I slammed on the brakes at the last minute. Instead of soaring into the air over the trench, I was stuck dead on top of the hill before the trench. Oh please don’t tell me this could have happened? The top of the tiny hill was directly under the middle of the car. I was teetering back and forth, balanced perfectly on my gravel perch. I opened the door carefully, making sure not to tip the Bug into the trench. I climbed down the hill, around the back of the car and grabbed the steel bumper. I tugged with all of my might trying to pull my stranded car back onto the road. The Bug would not budge. I pulled and pulled until the sweat started to bead up on my forehead and drip down my clean shirt. It was firmly stuck on top of old Smoky. What was I going to do? I had to have some help to get out of this. I was in the middle of farm country. Where was I going to find help? I looked around and down the dirt road next to my car was a pickup truck and some guys working on a tractor. That’s it. I ran down the dirt road, soy beans on either side of the road yelling as I ran, “Hey, can you help?” I reached the pickup truck after what seemed like an eternity running. “What’s up son?” they said as i reached the pickup. “My car is stuck on top of a gravel mound on Hill Rd. Can you help me get it down?” I pleaded. “Well, I guess we can lend a hand, but first we have to go to the barn and get some parts for our tractor here. Jump in.” they said. I jumped into the bed of the pickup with another man that looked like he had seen many days in the heat of the sun, riding on a tractor for 10 hours a day. The ride down the dirt road wasn’t exactly smooth, pot holes and dust were coating my already sweaty skin. When were we going to get to this elusive barn? Just then, the barn came into view. I looked at my watch. it was 4:20. This was not good. “Ok, Jessie get the carb cleaner and a new air filter. Oh yeah, get a rope too, we will probably need it to help this fella.” the driver of the pickup said. Yes, finally I was going to get some help. We drove back down the dirt road toward Hill Rd. Jessie who was riding in the bed of the truck with me, started laughing hysterically. When he finally stopped laughing, he said “What the sam hill is that little car doing on top of that pile of gravel?” Now I had to retell my story of how I intended to jump the hill and sail over the trench, but chickened out at the last moment. They scratched their heads and just walked around my trophy on top of Old Smoky. “Well, that there little car is probably so light we can probably just pull it down off of this here…….uh mountain.” the driver of the truck said as he started to laugh. “Ok, guys, let’s pull it back. One, two, three!” he said as they pulled the teetering Bug off of the hill and back onto the road from where I had begun. “There you go pardner!” Jessie said as he grinned, chewing tobacco tucked into his cheek. “Thanks!” I said as I climbed into the Beetle. “No problem, I’d suggest you turn around and go the other way.” the driver of the truck retorted as I waved, turned the Bug around and sped back down Hill Rd, going the long way. I was drenched in sweat, dust coating my arms, neck and face. My long hair was soaked in sweat, my nice whit shirt was no longer white. After 15 minutes, I finally reached Debbie’s house. “Where have you been?” she asked. “It’s a long story, get in the car, I am LATE.” I shot back as I opened the door to let her in the Bug. I tore out of her driveway, heading to my high school. I retold her the events of the last 40 minutes as she giggled. “I can’t believe I was that dumb!” as I took hold of the horn handle on the steering wheel and shook it hard. It broke off in my hand. “Great!” I said as I tossed the metal horn handle out of the Bug through the open sun roof. “Calm down, we are almost there.” Debbie said as we reached the High School. John Yeates High School, my soon to be alma mater, parking lot was packed on this hot humid evening. I finally found a spot at the back of the parking lot. “I have to run, I’m super late.” I told my girlfriend. “You’ll have to find a seat and I’ll see you afterwards.” As I ran towards the football field, the procession of graduates was already streaming onto the field in alphabetical order. Thank God my last name was Trotman. I found my spot near the back and settled into the stream of my fellow classmates. I was breathing like a freight train, putting on my gown while trying to keep in single file. Finally while we entered the stadium, I tried to make out my parents and brother in the stands. Sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes, blurring my eyes. I couldn’t make out my family. I was just glad to have not missed my own graduation. As we filed into the row where I was to sit, I sat down in the heat of the evening. My maroon graduation gown was slowly turning to black with sweat. Slowly the principal called out our names and as my name was called I walked across the stage, my gown stuck to me like fly paper. I was sure that everyone could tell that I had just jumped into a pool. Gill Trotman, the principal said as he handed me my diploma. I grinned, shook his hand and thought, “I wonder if I can jump that trench on the way home if I get a better running start!”
I moved to Estes Park CO this past August, but this isn’t the first time that I have been acquainted with the word Estes. Back in the late 60’s, man was reaching toward the stars and every kid had the dream within themselves to do the same. It was the perfect time for the model rocket company Estes to flourish. Estes model rockets were originally produced in Denver CO before moving to Penrose CO in 1961. Our local hobby shop sold Estes model rockets. These weren’t just rockets that you built out of plastic and displayed on a shelf; these were balsa wood, plastic and cardboard core rockets that you loaded with a real gunpowder rocket engine and launched from a remote launch system. The exhilaration of taking the time to build a beautiful bird then take it to the nearest open field and start the countdown to launch. Upon ignition, the engine ignited rushing your rocket to 1,000’s of feet into the air, reaching apogee then releasing the parachute to glide to a soft landing. This was the era of Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and the other 4 of the Mercury 7 team. Living in Nansemond County left a boy a lot of time to daydream. We didn’t have malls and theaters to keep us distracted. As I could save up my allowance, I built several of the Estes rockets, but I was getting bored with the single engine design of the rockets I was building. It was time to build something unique. It was time to build a much bigger rocket with a cluster engine. The largest engine that Estes made back in my day was the new D engine. I wanted to build a 42″ tall rocket with a cluster of 3 D engines. It was going to take that many of the new powerful D engines to get my rocket off of the ground. First, I had to find a cardboard tube large enough to form the main body of my rocket. I rummaged around in my dad’s garage. After searching for a while, I found an old cardboard tube that used to hold a special film that my mom used in her art work. It was the perfect size. Now I had to fashion fins and a nose cone. That was not going to be an easy task. I had to use lightweight balsa wood, but it had to be shaped to the perfect size. Shaping a cone is not easy, especially when you don’t have many tools. Somehow I was able to whittle the pieces down to the correct size and then sanding it with many sheets of sandpaper. I had to then build some sort of engine casing that would hold all 3 of the D engines. Scrounging again around the house finally led me to the freezer. A frozen orange juice concentrate can fit perfectly inside the body of my rocket. I then took the 3 engines, glued them into the orange juice can and slid them into the base of the rocket body affixed against the engine bulkhead. Now I needed a shock cord for my nose cone and parachute assembly. More searching led me to my mom’s sewing drawer where I found a piece of elastic for waistbands. Finally, I had all of the parts assembled for my first home-made bird. I took a can of silver spray paint to finally give my rocket the “official” look. A few carefully placed decals displayed “USA”, just in case it went into orbit and whoever found it wanted to know which continent it was launched from. Launch day arrived one beautiful June morning. That day our maid, Claudia was there. Claudia was more like a part of the family than domestic help. I brought the rocket out of the garage and she said, “What you gonna’ do with that thing?” as she started her trademark laugh. “I’m going to launch my rocket today. Will you come watch?” I asked. Just then my mom came in the room asking if today was going to be the day that I tried to launch it. “Yep, can you give me a ride down to the Eberwine field? I don’t know how much space I will need and they have a big field.” I grinned. “Ok, get your brother and let’s go.” she agreed. The drive to the field seemed to take forever, but we finally arrived. Launching a rocket wasn’t like launching a bottle rocket, you didn’t light a fuse, you used a remote launching system. I had constructed my launch pad out of an old 6×6, bored a hole in it for the exhaust and then used an old pole as a guide rod. As we got out of the station wagon, I carried my rocket and launch pad to a level spot in the field. I carefully attached the igniters to the engines, then ran the wire back to the car. Back in the 60’s we typically would use the car battery to provide the power for the igniters. “Ok, stand back!” I shouted as I counted down. 10, 9, 8 all the way to 1, then I pressed the ignition button. There was a great whoosh of smoke and fire. The rocket slowly lifted off of the launch tower only to reach about 100′, then the parachutes deployed and it was over. “What the heck!” I said as I ran to go get my rocket. I turned over the end of the rocket only to find that two of the engines had not ignited. What I had seen was the result of one rocket engine. Claudia just shook her head and my mom gave up a whoop thinking that this is all it was supposed to accomplish. “No, no, it didn’t work!” I complained. “It was supposed to go a lot higher.” My brother just shook his head as he walked back to the car.
The next week, my grandfather from Alaska arrived to visit. This was his first visit to VA and I was so proud to have my Alaska grandpa in town for the next planned launch. I removed my orange juice can rocket cluster and replaced the spent rocket engine with a new one. This time, I made sure to carefully install the igniters while the rocket was in the garage instead of in the field. “Hey grandpa, would you like to see me launch my rocket?” I asked. “What’s that? A rocket? Are you going into outer space?” he kidded. “No, I built this rocket and I want to see if it will work this time.” I explained. “Sure, let’s give it a try.” he said. Again, my mom, brother and now my grandpa climbed into the Ford station wagon and headed again to the Eberwine field. After setting up everything like before, I told everyone to stand back and started the countdown. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 IGNITION! I felt a lump in my throat, waiting for something to happen, then WHOOSH! All three engines ignited simultaneously forcing smoke and fire out the hole of the launch base. Then the engines thrust the rocket up immediately past the launch tower, streaking up towards the clouds. Higher, higher it sped as it reached apogee. It glided for a few seconds, then the ejection charge popped the nosecone of the rocket out allowing the parachute to unfurl. The rocket, only a small speck slowly glided back down towards the ground. I ran in the direction of the descending silver tube almost able to catch it as it landed in the field across the street. Cheers erupted from my grandpa, mom and even my brother Drew as they couldn’t believe that this assembly of household finds had defied the powers of gravity, even if only for a few moments. I came home that day feeling like Robert Goddard, the American rocket inventor. Now I had the bug. My next rocket project was going to be bigger and better than ever. I quickly found two old carpet tubes, one larger in diameter than the other, one being the booster and the other the second stage. This rocket stood taller than our two-story house. I decided to work on the payload section by leaning out the window of our second story bathroom window. My rocket was doomed to never see the launch pad. You see, I had reached the limit of what was commercially available in rocket engines. Combining three D engines was not recommended and I had pulled this off with my silver bird, but I would need an engine that would produce at least 1,500 lbs of thrust and that was something that was not just sold over the counter at your local hobby shop. I tried formulating my own gunpowder, but without the proper combustion chamber and nozzle, there was no way to make an engine. I tried using sheets of copper and forming a nozzle, soldering the nozzle to a pipe, but when it came to test fire the engine, the solder simply liquified under the heat of the gunpowder and my nozzle fell to the ground resulting in a smoking, stinky flame of goo. I was probably fortunate that the nozzle had fallen to the ground. I probably would have ended up with a pipe bomb and then not able to type this story. My rocket days were over, at least for 20 years. I did pick it up again later as an adult, but the realization that this wasn’t a cheap hobby nor one for the garage was becoming very clear. Neil and Buzz would have to go to the moon without me. NASA didn’t call to ask for my help either, but my mom was calling me to take out the trash. Yep, I was back to earth.
The light in the room was blinding. Where was it coming from? I pulled the covers back over my head. Slowly, the grogginess started to clear as I remembered that the night before, the forecast had called for snow. I threw back the covers and jumped to the floor. All of our hard work was now going to pay off!
It all started one fall day
Two months earlier, the leaves on the trees had just started to turn to a golden hue as fall had arrived. Coming home from school, the crisp fall air caused me to zip up my jacket. It was a reminder of what was to come, every school kid’s winter dream; a snow day! I loved winter. I loved the snow. Nine months earlier, the 1968 Winter Olympics had been aired. It was the first year that the Olympics had been broadcast in color; a treat for those of us that had climbed the social TV ladder to acquire a color TV. The Olympics that year featured Peggy Flemming winning the gold medal for figure skating. Jean-Claude Killy won the downhill skiing even. Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, from the Soviet Union, had defended their pairs figure skating gold medal from four years earlier, from whom later, as an adult, my wife and I were able to meet and take a few figure skating lessons from.
My favorite event was bobsledding
The highlight for me wasn’t watching figure skating or skiing, it was the bobsled events. I dreamed of using our neighborhood hill to create a bobsled track. I envisioned us sledding down the hill, going into a steep banked curve, the G forces pushing us deep into the slats of our sled. It would be great to experience something like that! As I walked home from school that day, I tried to think of who I could enlist for a project like this. Let’s see, there was Chris, Jim and my brother Drew. Surely they had watched the bobsled events from the previous winter Olympics. I called up my buddy Jim and told him my idea. “This will be the coolest track in the neighborhood if we all pitch in and build it before the first snow!” I told Jim. He was on board. Next came Chris and my brother. I would have to convince my brother first since Chris was my brother’s friend. “You want to build a what?” Drew said. “I want to build a bobsled track. Don’t you remember watching the winter Olympics and how fast those guys were going? We can build something like that on the hill in the woods!” Drew was used to my wild and lame brained ideas. He knew that somehow I would get him in trouble as well as make him do the dirty work. Somehow I convinced him to enlist as well as talk his buddy Chris into helping with our monumental task.
The bobsled track planning and design team
School seemed to drag on that first day of construction. Didn’t my teachers know that I had more important things to do? Who needed to know how to bisect a circle with a compass anyway? All I needed was a couple of shovels, rakes and hoes, along with weeks of sweat and achy muscles. The first day of construction, we all met at the top of the hill. Now was the time to share my vision of how to turn this ordinary hill into an Olympic grade bobsled track. As we stood at the top of the hill, I explained the design. “We will have the starting point here next to this dogwood tree. After you push off from the starting blocks, you will point your sled to the right of the track. We will need a banked curve on the right to keep us from running into that big tree over there, then after the first turn we will run down the hill, gaining speed, pointed right for the center of those two sycamore trees. There is just enough room between those two trees for a sled to fit. We will build up dirt on both sides, right before you get to the trees to create a chute. It will guide you right in between both sycamores and shoot you out the back. Our only problem is that after you exit the trees, there is a ditch, so we will have to build a bridge over the ditch in order to keep going.” Chris, Jim and my brother looked at each other. “You have got to be kidding.” Jim said. “That will take forever!” “It won’t take that long if we all help. Think of how fun it will be! Everyone will want to come over and sled down our hill.” I said. “Yeah, I guess it would be fun.” Drew said. It didn’t take too much to get everyone excited as I took them through what the experience would be, that first run down the hill.
Building the bobsled track begins
We worked on that hill every chance we got, moving dirt, building banked turns, removing rocks and roots that would ruin our beloved track. I had never worked so hard and shoveled so much dirt in my life. If my dad had wanted me to hoe his garden, I would have feigned a cramp within an hour, but this was different; this was the creation of a neighborhood sensation! Building the bridge across the ditch proved to be a challenge as none of us owned a Skilsaw. We found a couple of old wooden pallets which proved the perfect width for a sled. We found a couple of 2×4’s that we used to span the ditch and fastened the two pallets to the top. Scrounging around the neighborhood, we found some more wood to fill in the gaps on the pallets. We packed the top of the pallets with dirt and smoothed the transition between each bank and our crudely built bridge. Weeks turned into months as we worked on our track. Each week that passed, the temperature dropped a few degrees at a time. We exchanged our fall jackets for winter coats as the promise of snow kept us on task.
A January snow
As January rolled around, we would listen to the weather forecast, hoping for snow. Back in the 60’s, the weathermen were about as accurate as they are now, only 50% of the time were their forecasts spot on. The chance of snow seemed to only bring rain. Our hill was waiting, our track was ready, our sleds were waxed and poised for action. When was it going to snow? This morning was different. That light that was pouring into my room was from the glistening snow crystals that had fallen the night before. As my feet hit the floor, I peered through the window to see a thick blanket of fresh fallen snow. Our wait was over. I threw on my clothes and headed down the stairs. “Looks like you have a snow day.” my mom said. “You bet, I’m going sledding on our bobsled track!” I said. “Your what?” she replied. Ignoring her question, I put on my rubber boots, gloves and my hooded coat. Out on the porch lay my sled, poised for action. I knew that my brother would head to the hill as soon as he realized what was waiting for him as he awoke from his slumber, as well as Jim and Chris. The snow was deep. Since it was the first snow of the season, it was a little wet which would make packing down the snow on the track much easier. Trudging through the snow, I dragged my sled and saw that Jim was coming down the road with his sled in tow. I have to admit that there were butterflies in my stomach as I climbed the hill with my sled. All of our hard work was now going to be paying off. As Jim arrived I told him, “We will need to pack down the snow so that the track will be fast. Let’s use these pieces of plywood. One of us can sit on the plywood and slide down the hill, packing the snow as we go.” Performing this task was an arduous one, as none of us wanted to take the time to do this. We wanted to take a run on our track, but knew that if we didn’t do this first, the runners of the sled would dig too deep into the snow and our track would not last but a few runs. After about an hour or so, we had finished packing down the snow, adding extra snow to the turns and putting a thick layer of snow on our bridge.
Haste makes you wet!
It was time. The first run of the day was about to begin. Who would go first? We had all worked so hard to prepare the hill for this day. We decided to flip a coin. I took off my gloves and searched my pockets for left over lunch money. I found a nickle. “Hey, how are we going to flip a coin for all four of us?” Chris asked. “Good question.” Drew said. Before I could think of an answer, Jim was on his sled, already heading down the hill. “Hey!” we all yelled. Before we could protest, Jim was already down the hill, headed for the first banked curve on the right of the course. He barely kept his sled from going over the edge as he came out of the curve heading for the straightaway. He was going at a pretty fast clip, too fast it looked, as he dug his toes into the snow to slow himself down before heading between the Sycamore trees. His right hip hit one of the trees to which you could hear him yell with pain, but there was no time to rub it as he was speeding out of the chute, headed for the bridge. His left runner of the sled veered off of the bridge and before he knew what was happening, he lost control and the sled went over the edge of the bridge, into the icy water below. Splash! “Crap!” he yelled as he lay sideways in the ditch, the cold water finding it’s way into his pants. “I’m going home!” he complained as he dragged his sled behind him like a fallen warrior drags his sword on the ground after losing a battle. “Serves him right.” I thought as I watched him waddle home, only imagining how cold his legs must be. We stood at the top of the hill watching Jim head home.
Any Olympic run
“This was your idea, so I think that you should go first.” said Chris, pointing to me. “OK!” I exclaimed. This was the moment I had dreamed of. I lined up my sled in the starting position at the top of the hill, slid the sled back and forwards, imitating what I had seen the Olympic bobsled team do and tried to settle my nerves, having seen what Jim’s first run had resulted in. One, two, three, go! My chest hit the wooden slats of the sled as I cleared the ridge of the hill. Aiming my sled at the first curve, I made sure to not repeat Jim’s handling of this banked turn. I kept the sled in the middle of the curve, feeling the G forces try and pull me off of the sled. Hanging on tight, I shot out of the turn and headed down the straight-a-way picking up more speed than I dared. I wasn’t about to slow down now. The two Sycamore trees were coming up fast; at this speed I had to be in the dead center of the track or I would have hit one of the trees with too much force not to be injured seriously. The packed dirt that we had used to guide the sled into the chute was now covered in snow. The sled was being guided into the chute. The wet snow had now started to turn into ice in this area and the sled zipped through the trees and shot out the back of the chute before I could even realize it. Before I knew it, the bridge was right in front of me. I had to keep the runners on the bridge if I didn’t want to end up the same way that Jim did. I tightened my grip and leaned just enough in order to keep the sled in the middle of our make-shift bridge. The bridge shook as the sled skimmed over the water below. I had made it. The bridge was behind me. I glided onto the flat area and into softer snow as the sled slowed down enough for me to dig my toes into the snow to act as a brake. It was over, the waiting, the work and now the prize. I let out a holler that echoed through the woods. “That was AWESOME!” I don’t remember who was next. I just remember that if I hadn’t of moved, I would have been hit by either my brother or Chris who had just finished their first run.
An Olympic success
News of our bobsled track had gone through the neighborhood and anyone that had a sled or anything closely resembling one was taking a run down our bobsled track. It was a great feeling knowing that I had been part of creating something that so many were now enjoying. As the days elapsed, the snow slowly melted and our bobsled track went the way of most Olympic venues. Our bobsled track turned into a BMX bike racing course. The bridge we had created slowly rotted and had to be removed. Eventually, the lot where the hill was located was sold to a builder who built a house and we were no longer allowed to use the hill for sledding. It’s been many decades since that first snowy morning, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Even now, I get excited at the very first snowflake of winter.