Baboon Pirates

Scribbles and Scrawls from an unrepentant swashbuckling primate.

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Location: Texas, United States

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tales Of Geekery & Woe

No Science Fair Awards Here...

A while back, Ellison 'fessed up to numerous counts of Aggravated Geekery in the 3rd degree, namely some experimentation with model rocketry.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll come clean as well. I was known to have launched a rocket or two in my youth. There was one major difference between his flights and mine, though.

Mine were mostly shot horizontally.

Back in my Junior High days, I ran around with two guys I'll call Heckle & Jeckle. We made a habit of combining scientific experimentation and juvenile delinquency in equal measures. We'd haunt junkyards and trashbins behind auto repair shops & electronics stores looking for materials we could use in our projects.

Heckle was a scientific whiz kid, one bright SOB. He was the one that crunched the numbers, and usually wielded the tools. Heckle's dad worked for the King Mopin air conditioning repair company in Houston, and via Heckle making a copy of his dad's work van key, we had access to a treasure trove of tools & supplies.

Jeckle was a quiet country kid transplanted into the big city. He had a good imagination and sense of humor, but usually ended up being the water carrier for Heckle & I.

Me? I was the Idea Rat. Back then, same as now, I read everything I could get my hands on, and as a result came up with the schemes that needed trying out.

Heckle's little brother got involved in model rocketry as part of Cub Scouts. Naturally, this led Heckle to make off with a few engines for experimentation. We quickly came to the conclusion that the little Estes "A" engines were for nerds and pussies. We wanted more power!

Enter Jeckle's mom, who was happy to see us involved in a project both wholesome and possibly good for extra credit. She supplied some funding, and off we went to the hobby shop.

Back then, "D" size engines were as big as we could legally acquire. They were pricy, so instead of wasting money buying rocket kits that took forever to assemble, we just bought the engines & some small nosecones.

A late-night trip to Heckle's father's work truck, and we had a 6' length of copper pipe, some wire, switches and battery packs. Some judicious work applying guidance fins and nosecones directly to the engines, and Voila!

A kid-sized Bazooka!

It wasn't enough to just launch the rockets out the tube. Oh, no. We needed an earth-shattering KABOOM! to go along with it. Trouble was, no one in their right mind was going to sell gunpowder to 13 year olds. Jeckle's dad was into black powder shooting, but he kept his stash locked up tight.

I'd read somewhere that the initial energy release from striking a match was equal to a rifle primer being fired. Heckle took that ball and ran with it, appearing on my doorstep one night with 6 boxes of strike-anywhere matches he'd boosted from Krogers. We three were strong on the scientific inquiry process, but unfortunately light in the ethics department.

We spent hours carefully scraping off the matchheads from hundreds and hundreds of matchsticks. Every 50 matches, we'd sweep up the powder, sulphur & phosphorus flakes, and the odd sliver of wood, and dump it all into a film can. After we had a sizable pile, we did some experimenting.

Heckle & I built a couple of "bolt bombs" by screwing lag bolts into an extra-long nut we'd pull off of the blinky lights from those road-hazard sawhorses that DOT used before the big orange barrels came into existence. Heckle would twist the bolt into the nut two or three threads deep, forming a cup in the center of the nut. We'd fill that up with the matchhead scrapings, then CAREFULLY screw in another lag bolt, gently compressing the mixture. I might add for the record that neither he nor I had a clue that safety glasses even existed.

We went out to the deserted road near the local bayou, and took turns chunking that double-ended bolt down the street until it finally landed dead-square on the bolthead. The insanely fast WHOOOOOO!!! as that fractured bolt screamed past our ears let us know we had the explosive we were looking for!

The engines we'd bought were booster engines. That meant (for a model rocketeer) at the end of the burn, it fired a brief burst of flame upwards to ignite the second stage engine. For us, that meant it would ignite the matchhead powder we'd crammed into the plastic nosecones.

Late one Saturday evening, we packed all our gear into a pack, lashed the bazooka to Heckle's bike frame (it was just a bit conspicuous, especially after he'd painted it OD green and applied electrical tape to look like a flash suppressor...) and took off for the bayou. There was a developer laying out houses & condos back there, and it was 'dozed and graded, with bits of poured concrete here & there.

We set up shop behind the big D6 Caterpillar that we'd already learned how to hotwire earlier that spring. One of us, probably Jeckle, had earlier realized that we'd have hot rocket exhaust blowing back at our faces upon launching, so we had made face shields out of some window screen that got pried loose from a vacant apartment. Tucking the screens into the brim of our ballcaps, we looked like redneck beekeepers. Well, except for the swim goggles we wore for eye protection in lieu of welder's goggles, which none of us owned. The goggles made us look like redneck geek swimteam beekeepers.

The bazooka performed like it was designed. The rocket was slid into the back of the tube. An igniter was wired up via alligator clips, and slipped into the rocket motor, then plugged to hold it there. The back hatch was slid shut, you tapped the firer on the shoulder, said "You're Live!" and backed away quickly.

A flick of the converted wall light switch (which looked almost like a trigger) closed the circuit, and the 9 volt battery ignited the engine, and sent it screaming down the tube.

It's when it left the tube that our difficulties started.

See, there's a reason rocket scientists exist. They know the math required to design tailfins and canards out of composite materials that will allow a rocket to fly to the end of its engine burn on a straight and level trajectory.

Math? Feh. We had duct tape and balsa wood! Epoxy and scotch tape! We also had rockets that would do the damnedest things once they left that tube.

The first one went almost vertical upon exit, then abruptly swung south and corkscrewed down in a broad spiral. It hit near the contractor's trailer, bounced once or twice and exploded. Rockets #2 & #3 flew almost normally, one even hitting the Port-O-John we were aiming at, but both failed to explode. (Note: you have to understand that, to a teenager, the thought of firing rockets at an outdoor shitter falls in the category of Unbelievably, Catastrophically Funny!)
Rockets #4 & #5 flew off on weird tangents, one sailing over into a nearby condominium community and exploding in midair.

That last one sent us scurrying for home, despite one rocket remaining. We'd already run afoul of those condo folks for hijinks the previous Halloween.

There was a police cruiser nosing around for a couple of hours, and we watched from the safety of the woods near the Episcopal church, which afforded a quick escape via either the cemetary or the apartments nearby. I'm sure our fingerprints were everywhere, but nothing was on file. Then, anyway.

A couple of weeks later, we're sitting in Jeckle's bedroom, wondering what to do with the last rocket. There was a plumber's panel van in the parking lot outside Jeckle's window, and it didn't take Heckle too long to convince Jeckle that we needed to bounce the last rocket off the side of the van. Apparently there's a rivalry between plumbers and A/C techs that was previously unknown to us. This last rocket we'd already pulled the explosive from the nosecone to make rat trap-based boobytraps for Heckle & Jeckle's younger siblings.

As Jeckle pried open the window screen, Heckle & I looked for the battery and got out the rocket. We couldn't find the last good igniter or the 9V battery. We had a partially broken igniter, and it might do the trick if we pushed some heavy current through the thing. It took about 10 more minutes of pestering before we convinced Jeckle that we needed to cut the cord off his bedside lamp in order to wire the cut ends to the broken igniter inside the rocket motor and achieve ignition. Our grasp of how electricity behaved in household-level voltages was fragile, to say the least.

Jeckle agreed to everything, provided he could fire the rocket. Fine by us! Jeckle crouched by the window, Heckle would hold the lamp cord in place, and when Jeckle said "FIRE", I would jam the plug into the wall.

Countdown... 5...4...3..2..1... Fire! I plugged in the cord, there's a huge puff of smoke, every light bulb and electrical appliance in the apartment goes dead, and the rocket heads for parts unknown, but not before sailing over the tennis courts and leaving a smoke trail right back towards Jeckle's apartment window.

Well, there was a reason back doors were invented!

Jeckle caught hell for that one. Heckle eventually got popped for testing out a radio-controlled bomb (powered by matchheads, of course) that worked perfectly, but flying gravel from the blast chipped some paint and a headlight on a new Corvette parked nearby, and the owner watched it happen. Neither he nor Heckle's parents were amused.

Me? I got busted for taking out lightbulbs in a parking garage from 100 yards away using a homemade air cannon constructed from an old treadle air pump, assorted valves & connectors, and (what else) "borrowed" copper tubing. It shot glass marbles, and the whole thing broke down in three parts and fit neatly into a backpack. It's always perplexing when the parents never see the genius of your engineering, and only focus on the piddling cost of a few incandescent bulbs...

More Heckle & Jeckle tales in the future, perhaps. They run kinda long!