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Circumstantial flummery from a would-be spoonbean hustler.

Mad Science Mentor Part 2: Rocket Science

April got away from me, but how about that post-season hockey, huh? For the record, I just want to add that I loathe everything Boston in professional sporting and I think the NHL’s officiating has been royal garbage, but I am holding out hope the Canes come back to Raleigh and skate like bona fide bandits tonight.

In other current events, we had the big world premiere screening of my film MERIT BADGES this past weekend at the Longleaf Film Festival and I’m delighted to say the turnout and response was pretty terrific. It only took about three years to get this thing underway and finished, but hey we finally got there! Endless thanks and appreciation to everyone who came out for the show and to those who supported the project from soup to nuts.

Now for another entry in the Legend of Harry Caldwell:

IN MIDDLE SCHOOL we had one of the classic science projects, the famed egg launch. But at Daniels Middle School circa 1992, our version was a bit more projectile than parachuting off a rooftop. Our task was to head out to the football field and present a solution for getting our ‘eggstronaut’ unbroken to a target 100 feet away from the launchpad, minus any sort of combustion or battery-powered devices. A simple exercise in physics with potentially hilarious results, right? So while most kids were rigging up slingshots, trebuchets or cages with parachutes, I immediately had something more ambitious in mind, the perfect Grandaddy-implemented magic, a homemade rocket.

Now, you may think that the no-combustion rule was going to disqualify me, but give me some credit because Grandaddy’s genius obviously served me better than that. Some background: Growing up we typically spent every Sunday after Church at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house. We would come over directly after the 11AM service ended, eager to change out of our itchy church clothes, have lunch and then play outside, dig through a mountain of board games, or watch tv and movies until dark when Moms would load us up into the car for the long drive home.

SOME YEARS EARLIER, one particular Sunday after lunch at Grandma’s house, Grandaddy was sitting at the kitchen table and fussing with an empty 2-liter Pepsi bottle (this was definitely during Mom’s Diet-Pepsi era, she later shifted to Diet Coke). I remember growing curious as I watched him continuing turning it over in his hands, thinking. After a while, he picked his folding ruler– which we were most decidedly not allowed to play with– and then he made a few measurements, stood up and disappeared out into The Shop.

After some time, he emerges with a bicycle pump, the empty bottle and a few scraps of wood, assembled into a small platform with a hole and short length of copper pipe fitted in the middle between a u-shaped wooden pin and rudimentary bracket. He drags this platform into the middle of the small backyard and then instructs me to go back into the Kitchen, and fill the bottle with water.

At this point, I don’t know what’s going on, and Grandaddy’s being cagey af- just this grin and glimmer in his eyes- which I know promises something spectacular is about to happen. So I shuffle off to the kitchen sink and fill up this 2-liter bottle and come back outside, careful not to spill. I’m then floored as Grandaddy immediately takes the bottle and begins pouring out half the water.

Now maybe you’ve already guessed where this is heading– Grandaddy was building a water rocket and was about to launch this mofo about 300 feet into the air. Not that unique of a backyard science project, and very likely an entry in a circa 1989 issue of “Cool Grandads Magazine” (aka Popular Science) I’m sure, but let’s appreciate for a second that this was all pre-Internet and Grandaddy dropped out of school in 4th-grade. In fact, I got a little curious about this and dove into the googs to see if I could trace something specific, and a few sources traced the first article explaining how to build PET bottle water-rockets as appearing in US magazine, Mother Earth News (August 1983). The Internet also purports that “Water rockets as science fair project ideas never really became serious science fair experiments until about the year 2000. This was due to the availability of reliable pre-built water rocket kits.” However, commercially manufactured water rockets existed at least 35 years ago, so they’ve been around since the early 1940’s and it certainly wasn’t out of character for Grandaddy to build his own homemade version of any and everything that tickled his fancy.

But let’s jump back to Grandaddy’s backyard launchpad in 1989 (if not earlier). So you got your 2-liter, half filled with H20, and you slide the top into the copper pipe fitting and the u-pin and bracket slip over wide ring-lip of the bottle securing it tightly enough so the water stops trickling out. Grandaddy then assigns me to bike pump duty. I’m there pumping like mad and as the pressure starts to build up I notice Grandaddy slyly backing away- “Don’t stop!” he says as I’m lagging because this damn bottle is about to burst, I’m sure. Then another half dozen pumps and he says “All right, that’s enough, stand back.” I drop the bike pump in the grass and run, he picks up a length of rope which he’s tied to the u-shaped pin and lets her rip. It takes off, flying straight into the blazing sun.

Cabarrus St in the late 1980s was a major artery out of downtown Raleigh. Cars would flow down Lenoir St into Boylan Heights at about 55 mph and take a free-flowing turn at speed onto Cabarrus which merged into Western Blvd down near Central Prison. Nowadays it’s slow, peaceful, serene. So picture launching this bottle nigh into the sun, right next to this major thoroughfare…

Luckily downtown traffic on Sundays was a bit lighter than average. So after retrieving the bottle, refilling and half the number of pumps, Grandaddy, my brothers and I spent the rest of the afternoon delightfully launching soda bottles into traffic.

SMASH CUT TO a few years later, 7th-grade science. We have to launch eggs across the football field. I mean what could be more perfect than Pressurized Soda bottle, mortaring padded egg capsules through the sky?

From the very first minutes of our Teacher explained the challenge, I knew I wanted to water rocket these eggs, but my first challenge was figuring out how to get the egg attached to the 2-liter bottle. And since the water rocket was usually just a straight up and down shot, not accounting for wind, I knew I need to add a bit of angle to the launch platform. Then I figure I can test the range, measure out the right ratio of pumps and water, calibrate it and then let fly. Luckily at this point, I’m spending afternoons after school at Grandma’s house, so I eagerly explain to Grandaddy my idea for using the water rocket, but how to deliver the poultry payload?

I sat down at the kitchen table with paper and pencil and started drawing up a potential cone apparatus to attach to the bottom of the bottle, which would be the nose of my rocket and could detach and deploy a parachute. Why not follow NASA’s lead? But Grandaddy does me one better- why build something when you already have something else ready-made– namely another 2-liter bottle. So the afternoon immediately after hearing of the assignment, I’m already gluing foam rubber and nylon twine and a black trash bag into my nose cone and drawing helmets onto eggs. Mind you this project wasn’t due for another week or two, and I was one of those kids who never did homework until about 15 minutes before it was due to be handed in. Grandaddy knocks together another launch platform- which we had to rebuild since the previous version was dismantled or thrown away in the years since the first launch. We added a pair of adjustable rise legs on one side and now I’ve got to figure out my angle of attack. For this, a change of locales is needed, and so launch trials had to wait for the weekend.

And to be honest I can’t quite recall where that part took place- possibly Kentwood Baseball field, maybe the church parking lot. But this story is way too long already. So skip the whole trial and error bit and jump to the day of the egg launch. I carry my giant platform, the bike pump, 3 2-liter water bottles and my precious eggstronaut survival capsule out to the football field. We get three tries. My first shot misses the target completely but the egg survives, where I recall many if not most of them did not. Second shot- dead on target but the chute doesn’t deploy! #RIP eggstronaut. The third shot is money, just right of a bullseye and Eggstronaut Aldrin is fresh and whole.

My memory regarding what grade I got is a bit fuzzy, but I usually didn’t have to work too hard to do well in most subjects, and given I do remember my instantaneous focus on the problem and figuring out how to convert Grandaddy’s rocket to my purposes, I’d say it was worth an ‘A’. Nobody else was getting anywhere near my altitude, anyway.

Next time I’ll dig into a few memories with Grandaddy’s true expertise, the angry wall pixies, or as you might know it, electricity.

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