I grew up in a tiny fishing village on the outskirts of St. John’s called Wedgewood Park. We fished for trout. It was an idyllic childhood, long before Internet, cable television, or safety, for that matter. All the information in the world was contained in our Encyclopedia Britannica, and it was opening this Pandora’s box that very nearly got us killed.
Space travel was in vogue at the time. While the moon was touted as a wonderful place to plant flags and play golf, my brother was completely fascinated with the method of getting there.
Fortunately for him, our encyclopedia held a concise diagram of how a rocket works, including insignificant details such as fuel mixtures and trajectory. Unfortunately, the phrase “do not attempt this at home” had not been invented yet and, looking back on it now, he may have had something to do with it.
The juvenile delights of rocketry
He set about with great purpose collecting the necessary materials to build a rocket and the sounds of industry issued from the basement. It wasn’t uncommon back in those days for a teenager to possess a hobbyist welding kit and there was not a hint of guilt on anyone’s behalf as they sold him more small canisters of propane and oxygen.
It’s no surprise we were the last generation of free-range youngsters and truly took advantage of the lack of sense that is so abundantly common these days.
His ticket to danger was already secured by passing the awkward stage of life whereby a choking hazard was no longer a threat – even though the two words “choking” and “hazard” had not yet met and labelled on everything smaller than a basketball.
It was no secret that an event of epic proportions would take place in our backyard and on the prescribed day the neighbourhood assembled.
I heard the commotion and took my coffee by the back of the house to witness the juvenile delights of rocketry and showmanship. Etiquette at the time gave my brother free reign over combustibles in order to enjoy all the privilege and notoriety of igniting them. It’s no surprise we were the last generation of free-range youngsters and truly took advantage of the lack of sense that is so abundantly common these days.
‘And now for full power!’
The result of my brother’s imagination and mechanical abilities were impressive. It consisted of a combustion chamber of sturdy sheet metal resplendent with a flared cone resembling the business end of a rocket. A pair of copper lines with valves bore the ill intent of injecting oxygen and jet fuel into the machination, which was anchored between two posts in the back lawn. Apparently this was a test bed to measure thrust before mounting it onto a bicycle in the very near and successful future.
This was a huge accomplishment. It was right up to that moment that I was still comfortable being there.
He opened the valves slightly and lit the noxious hiss. A metre of jaunty flame shot out. The crowd was startled at first, but quickly regained their composure and responded with encouragement. This was a huge accomplishment. It was right up to that moment that I was still comfortable being there.
He lowered a pair of welding goggles over his eyes and shouted in the general direction of the crowd: “And now for full power!”
None of us had time to react. We were all thinking the same thing, but couldn’t get away in time.
The flame doubled in length for a moment, sputtered and… BOOM!
A fireball erupted from the explosion and formed a beautiful red and orange mushroom cloud as it lifted over the backyard. I was blown back against the side of the house and lost my coffee. All the kids lining the fence were knocked down.
While I was admiring the black cloud of smoke drifting away, I could hear the sounds of hockey cards flapping on bicycle spokes as the crowd of kids took off madly in all directions. This was the standard operating procedure for fleeing a crime scene back in those days.
My brother stood amidst the the ruins of smouldering posts and scorched lawn. Flaming bits of sheet metal rained on him. “Houston, we have a problem,” he said.
For the most part, we grew up.
Although my brother went on to do great things, we are quietly disappointed he never made it into space. I, on the other hand, achieved huge mediocrity by writing about him.