If you’ve ever scoped the back pages of a comic book from the sixties you’ve seen ads for products that appeal to young boys: X-ray specs, 1001 insults for everyday use, two-headed nickles, Joe Atlas body building so you can kick the butt of the bully that stole your girlfriend. The list is extensive and there was something for every boy. Including my little brother.
Feral was the engineer and physicist of the family by age ten. If paper route money wasn’t going for comic books it was used to test the laws of physics and good sense. Explosives were of great interest including cannons and rifles. Small combustion engines. By age ten he had a better understanding of how most things work than most men I know at age sixty. When an ad for rocket engines showed up in the back of a Batman comic he was on it like John Glen.
We had just moved into a small upstairs apartment in a very old neighborhood. The houses sat right next to each other except where a driveway might flow to a garage behind a house. A house fire on the block would likely take the whole block in an hour. Not urban planning at its best. My divorced mother was raising three boys and a daughter while completing her education. We were often left alone to find our own excitement.
Feral watched the mailbox like a hawk until his package arrived. The rocket engines, two included, looked like CO2 cartridges used in high powered BB guns. A flash pan was suspended below the cartridge by a wire frame. The rocket scientist needed to fill the pan with lighter fluid or some other flammable substance and light it to ignite the rocket engine. Once the cartridge reached a certain temperature the rocket engine ignited which would then propel anything it was attached to forward. The rocket could not be pointed vertically to the stars, but rather horizontal to the earth else the flash pan fluid would spill out.
We were suspicious about whether they really worked. Feral asked a neighbor boy, Buddy, if we could clamp a rocket in a vice in his dad’s garage. The garage was about fifty years old and made of wood that was dry as paper. The vice was bolted to a bench a few feet from the double swing-out door. On a side note, I had made the mistake of mentioning the rocket project to my mother, and she was concerned, but not enough to kill the project.
We clamped the rocket in the vice and filled the flash pan with gasoline and touched her off. And waited. Flames licked the rocket cylinder for maybe a minute while we shook our heads, sure it was a hoax. Then magic – a slow roar as flames shot out of the rocket cylinder about 4 feet stopping just inches from the tinderbox garage door. Our enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by the realization we could burn down the garage. Buddy freaked out of course. I opened the garage door so it wouldn’t catch fire and we waited for the flames to die out. There is no way to turn off the rocket. It lasted several minutes and Feral was satisfied with the test.
Afterwards I went back home, next door, to our upstairs apartment and found my mother in the living room where she was crouched down refinishing a piece of wood furniture. As a practical but somewhat thoughtless joke I pretended I burned my hand. My mother jumped up, grabbed my hands, turned them over, turned them over again, and looked in my eyes. Then she slapped me so hard I may have seen stars. I received the “don’t cry wolf ” lecture after she cooled off, about a year later. (This is the only know instance of my mom hitting one of her kids.) In my defense, my sad humor may have been caused by the nervous underlying realization we could have burned down the whole neighborhood.
Feral still had the second rocket engine. He related this story to me years later. He mounted the rocket on the top of a plastic model car. One with axles and wheels that rolled well. He and a friend took it out in the street, lit the engine, and watched it take off at rocket speed right down the middle of the street. Then it veered to the right and slid under someone’s parked car where it lodged against the curb with the rocket engine still burning. This rocket was identical to the first so flames were shooting out four feet. I understand there was some panic involved this time also since automobile gas tanks and rocket flames do not co-exist well.
Again, there was not much Feral could do. No off switch on a rocket engine. I would need to confirm this but I believe he and his buddy didn’t wait around to see what happened next. They were, of course, just kids.