Issue 204, Spring 2013
I think I need to figure out what I was doing, what I really felt I was up to, as a kid when, overwhelmed by some enthusiasm, some new all-consuming fascination, I’d require it to be fully expressed at once. I’d have to slap together something out of household odds and ends, available parts, to represent whatever it was. And generally leave it at that. Here I only mean the usual sorts of things you would expect to have engaged a dorky child’s imagination in the fifties—shortwave radio, rocket ships and outer space, the more spectacular forms of science—and, in the better class of dorky child at least, to have engendered real, immediate, and responsible curiosity, actual seeking after knowledge. I knew kids like that. And admired them all the more to the extent I failed to appreciate that what they really loved were the procedures toward a practical understanding. Strength of character, I preferred to believe, explained it. How they’d plowed through all of that to get to decorate their rooms with apparatus. That the visible instrumentation might be secondary—not sought, nor forced, nor longed for in itself but rather simply coming to be there all around you in your bedroom, easy as anything, as naturally as toys or sports equipment, unself-consciously as that—was a dismaying possibility. It made me wonder sometimes if those kids, smart as they were, knew what all those dials and lights and switches, curly wires and metal rocket parts and laboratory glassware really meant in the overall view of things. One’s distant and incapable view of things. Which I may actually have felt permitted insight and perspective unavailable to the competent and concentrated gaze. I may have felt I’d caught a revelatory glimpse of something way out there, the glint of all that machinery, the shimmery sense of it, so delicate, thin as paper—cardboard maybe, which is generally what would come to hand when I would try to invoke it with some taped-together cargo-cult construction on my desk. It could be anything. The look was what you wanted. Just the gesture. The idea of dials and switches seemed enough. So, what idea? Enough for what?
What, for example, was I thinking turning my mom’s old record player into a seismograph? I mean, my goodness, 78 rpm. That’s good for what? For Guy Lombardo. Smart cocktails and fleeting moments. Not the slow, eternal creaking of the Earth. You’ve seen a seismograph of course, the clocklike turning of the chart against the stylus. It’s a meditative instrument. It listens. It has nothing to do with 78 rpm. And I knew that. Yet here I had this thing all set up with a coffee can or something wrapped in graph paper and a brick on top to keep it on the turntable, coat hanger bent around and straining to present a stub of pencil to the chart, and a wire—just plain utility wire—that led from the coat hanger all the way across the room and out a window to a steel rod I had shoved into the ground. And just that crumbly black clay ground that we have here. The kind of ground that grounds things out, where hope and energy go to die, that’s not much fun to play in, even. Hard to dig. What information did I think might come from there? What was I thinking? I had read enough to know you needed bedrock. Who had bedrock? Maybe those smart kids. Not me, though. No bedrock here. No fundamentals. Yet it wasn’t an altogether empty gesture. You couldn’t have it be just that. Once you’d assembled your imaginary instrument, you needed an imaginary quantity, imaginary causes, fainter and fainter suppositions strung together in a Zeno’s paradoxical sort of way on out the window to converge upon the vanishing expectation. Say there were out there in the yard, in everyone’s yard, the common ground, unlikely properties, effects oblique and subtle and evasive to which bedrock, proper seismographs, and smart kids were insensitive. What if there were vibrations of so high and fine a frequency (the properties of Silly Putty, recently discovered, came to mind) that dirt might act more like a solid or a gel and send its pulse through slack utility wire like wind through weather stripping, mournful saxophones at New Year’s. I don’t actually remember turning it on. It would have tugged against the weight, the brick and everything on top, to get to speed. And then the coffee can would not have been quite centered, so the pencil would have skipped and dragged and skipped and dragged like time to change the record. And I bet it was a nice day, too. A weekend probably, kids outside, one’s whole life out there waiting as I’m standing there and watching this little mark get darker and darker on the pale blue–gridded paper, as if meaning might accumulate or something.
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 ecstatic 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 propellers. 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 neighborhood return—I can’t recall but I imagine barking dogs and screen doors 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 twelve-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.
Here’s what I would do: I’d pack an aluminum tube with about a fifty-fifty mixture of potassium nitrate and sugar—wooden dowel jammed in at one end and a Testors model-airplane enamel screw cap with a quarter-inch hole surrounded by a bunch of little holes because it looked cool at the other—glue three cardboard fins and a cardboard nose cone on, apply the paint (allover silver with red fin tips), touch it off, and watch it melt. What was I thinking? I mean it. What was this half-assed demonstration all about? I knew you couldn’t make a proper rocket nozzle out of a screw cap. I could have told you it would blow right out, the glue and the cardboard fins ignite. The melting—more like wilting—aluminum tube surprised me, though. You see, we do learn from our failures.
Have you ever seen Olivier’s film of Henry V? How carefully it graduates reality from act to act, unfolds it like a pop-up book from stage and painted scenery to something close to real, although compressed into the conventions and the teetery perspectives of the fifteenth-century miniature. And holds it there. You wait for another jump. For the origamic sets to fall away and the play to charge straight out into the world. And it almost does. The massive chivalry of France comes pretty close to bashing through—you think the churning, swampy earth can’t get more real than that, but then the battle’s over and you look around and find the rolling distances enclosing all this realistic mayhem are imaginary still. “What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?” A miniaturist, imaginary castle folded into painted hills. It’s Agincourt. You think of Krishna’s admonition that the battle is a dream—and how you want to ask: How is it, then, one’s duty to do battle is not also an illusion? And why is the inconsistency so thrilling? So ecstatic to imagine that we merely represent ourselves. That our going through the motions might be everything.