Letters & Essays

Mad Science

David Searcy

Hank VanWagoner was the most spectacular smart kid in the neighborhood. He lived two or three houses down across the alley, and we’d hear him testing rockets in his backyard sometimes, usually on weekends. Bear in mind, this was before those little foolproof rocket kits came on the market in response to general horror at the mounting number of injuries sustained by young enthusiasts. The call to space rang clear across the land, and none of us who chose to answer was discouraged in the slightest. It was easy for a kid to buy explosives at the drugstore, bring a bag of potassium nitrate home like jelly beans. Though Hank was well beyond such simple, stable, solid fuels and into the truly touchy realm of liquid propellants, which included caustic, toxic, self-igniting “hypergolics” such as hydrazine and something called “red fuming nitric acid.” So we listened, in our own backyards, my parents in their folding canvas lawn chairs, with some interest.

I remember a test so loud it woke me up one Saturday morning, sent me running down the alley. I have no idea where his parents were. I hardly ever saw them, don’t recall his mom at all. His sister—rumored to be, in her own way, as precocious as her brother—was an intermittent, dark, alluring presence in the evenings on the balcony outside her little suite above the garage. In any case, Hank seemed to suffer under no constraints and here he was, while other kids were rising to Rice Krispies and cartoons, about to blow it all to hell. A rocket engine when it’s working most efficiently, is pretty close to blowing up. You feel it. You don’t have to know a thing to sense some limit is about to be exceeded. It’s ecsatic in that way—you grip the Cyclone fence, your face against the wire. You note how close he’s standing to it. Is he crazy? There’s no smoke, just hard, blue flame and a roar like nothing you’re prepared for in the general calm of 1957 or ’58 when leaves were raked and airplanes still, for the most part, had propelers. How can he have a thing like that? How can he stand there like he knows what he is doing? It’s suspended from a sort of parallelogram that’s hinged, I see, to swing up with the thrust, which is recorded by a marker on a graduated chart. All this is clear to me as small details are said to be at the moment of one’s death. This sort of noise can only mean that something terrible is happening. Surely everyone can hear it. Surely all the other kids can hear it, paused before their TVs, their Rice Krispies suddenly silent in the bowl. And then the flame is yellow, sputtering, and the parallelogram goes slack, rectangular again. The other noises of the nieghborhood return—I can’t recall but I imagine barking dogs and screen door slapping. He had stuff you can’t imagine—some sort of rocket-tracking radar thing he showed me once, my God, the dials and switches. And a ten- or twleve-foot framework—maybe six inches in diameter, longitudinal spars and bulkheads made of welded steel and weighing probably fifty pounds—he gave me. The absurdly overbuilt interior structure of some liquid-fueled experiment. Some rocket never launched, I think. Sure, take it. And I did. I dragged it home and leaned it up against the fence, amazed, bewildered like a member of some preindustrial tribe deciding how it might be hammered into spear points. There was nothing to be done with it. My longings seemed to get all tangled up in the rusty pragmatism of it. Here was fundamental structure, to be sure. The wind blew through it. Had we honeysuckle growing on the fence, it would have made a sort of trellis.

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