As teenagers, my friends and I liked to take our cameras out to spooky places in the middle of the night and take timed exposures. It was just for fun, like a dare, to be out in ruins or graveyards at one in the morning. We never saw a thing, and nothing ever showed up in any of the pictures…
…except this one time.
This is from a rural cemetery in Lodi, California, a very quiet place next to a small trailer park. When we were actually out at the cemetery taking this picture, neither my friends or I heard or saw anything unusual. I didn’t see any lights or movement around this gravestone, nor did I realize it was leaning to one side. You see, it was dark out there. Really dark. We could barely see anything. I think the shutter on my camera was open for around 40 seconds when this picture was taken.
So what’s weird about it? May I direct your eyes to the strange swirl around the leaning tombstone? That’s what’s weird about it — that and the fact that the stone itself is tilted up onto one edge with nothing underneath it.
Some of my friends where skeptical when I showed this to them, because they knew I could have faked it. It’s true, I could fake it. Easily. I can even tell you how to get this exact effect. The point is, though, that I did not fake this shot. It is real. If I wanted to fake a ghost photo I would do something a lot more dramatic.
After this photo was taken, we went back to the same spot and took more photos. Nothing strange showed up in the second set of photos, nor did anything strange ever show up in any other shots I took at this cemetery.
I don’t know if this mysterious photo is actually a picture of a ghost. I only half-believe in them. Sometimes I do, and sometimes (when I’m in my very rational mind) I don’t. Nevertheless, I can’t explain my strange photo.
But here’s a little ghost story for you…
On one of the subsequent nights when I was out there with my friend Jeannette, taking more pictures in the hopes of capturing another interesting image, I somehow lost the keys to my Subaru Brat. I’d dropped them somewhere, and we looked all over and couldn’t find them. It was about 1:30 AM and very, very dark — and yes, we were a little spooked. Fortunately I had a spare key in one of those magnetic boxes clamped to the fender, so we were able to get home okay. The next morning both her and I went back out there to see if we could find the keys, and I jokingly addressed the spirits, asking them, “If you find my keys, could you put them right here for me?” and patted the corner of a small brick fence.
There was no one else in the graveyard. Jeannette was with me at all times. We searched all over the place, trying to trace our path were we’d been taking pictures the night before. The keys were nowhere to be found. So we gave up, and were walking to the front of the graveyard when I spotted the keys. They were sitting on the corner of the small brick fence, exactly where I’d asked “the spirits” to put them.
Totally freaked out, I grabbed the keys, said a quick thank you to whomever it was that put them there, and Jeannette and I ran like hell back to the car.
Okay, brace yourself. I’m asking you to really shake the dust out of some of those brain cells. Many of you may be too young to remember. Maybe all of you, depending on when you read this.
There was this 1960’s Japanese television show called Ultraman. It was in the same vein as those goofy old Godzilla movies, and Ultraman would always “get big” to fight off whichever rubber-suited monster threatened Tokyo that week. While small, Ultraman (aka Science Patrol Officer Hayata) drove around in a 1960 Corvair (which the Japanese considered futuristic).
I had one of these Science Patrol cars. I had a 1960 “unsafe at any speed” Corvair.
Actually it was my Mom’s. It had started out as Dad’s, back in Tucson, but after we moved to California and my Dad bought a Caddy, Mom inherited it. It was easy to work on and very easy to drive. Like a VW Bug it had a rear engine that was air-cooled, and when it was running it was so quiet that it sounded like a sewing machine. To change gears, a tiny shift switch on the dash controlled the automatic transmission. When I was 12 my dad would let me drive it around on dirt roads. At home, I was allowed to back out of the driveway, and pull it into the garage. When I was fourteen, my mom would let me take it to the store (less than a mile away) even though I didn’t yet have a learner’s permit.
It was the summer of that year that my parents started leaving me at home on weekends while they took their boat out. My friends Brad and Pat were over one of these weekends, and I got a wild hair or something and decided we should take that Corvair for a ride. Brad’s father had a cabin up in the nearby foothills, so we loaded up on soda pop and Cheetos and took that Corvair out on the open road.
I knew the rules of the road. I looked at least 17 or so. We pulled it off, though we never did find the cabin. We did get completely lost in the woods and took hours to find our way out, and then headed back home to arrive just after dark with barely any gas in the tank.
My father, upon their return, noticed that the gas – which had been full when they left – was way down, and there was strange red dust in the wheel wells. “This car has been up in the mountains!” he exclaimed. “You took this car up in the mountains!”
“No I didn’t.” I proclaimed my innocence over and over, and since he didn’t have any real proof he let it drop.
It was about a year and a half later that I got my learner’s permit. I took driver’s education in High School and then my parents rounded it out by sending me to Sears Drivers Training School.
My instructor was a belligerent dickhead. We drove around in a special car with a steering wheel, gas pedal and brake in both the driver’s and passenger’s side. He seemed to love throwing on the brakes for no reason and yelling at me for imaginary mistakes. “You just wiped out a whole row of parked cars!” he yelled once.
I looked around and wondered where these cars were. There wasn’t a car within 100 feet of us, parked or otherwise. It turns out I was supposed to pretend that there were parked cars in every parking space, but he’d neglected to tell me this up front. When I pointed this out to him he just got more belligerent.
This guy was everything I hated about adults all rolled into one consolidated butthead.
Regardless, I passed and got my certificate. I also passed my driver’s test and got my real, actual driver’s license. The first thing I did was take the Corvair to pick up Brad, and then Brad and I drove to our favorite place, Tower Records. I bought Leftoverture, the new album by Kansas (which gives you an idea when all this took place).
Though the Corvair was still technically my Mom’s car, I was the one who drove it. She didn’t need it, because whenever she wanted something from the store she’d just send me. If she actually had to go somewhere, she usually went with my Dad.
If you haven’t heard anything about the 1960 Corvair, there’s one thing you should know. This is the car that Ralph Nader made his reputation on. The car was poorly designed and very unsafe. Through the years I found this to be true over and over again.
The first time was when I was driving to my friend’s house near the local university, and I made a right turn and the car leaned over and stopped. I got out of the car and found, to my horror, the right rear wheel was about two feet from the car, like the rear axle had telescoped out. I called my Dad and he knew instantly what was wrong. It seemed this had happened to him before. He drove out with his toolbox and had me jack the car up, and he crawled under and reattached the axle to the transmission.
Years later, after this car had been passed back and forth in-between family members several times, it ended up as mine again. This time it was actually registered to me. I was newly married, struggling to survive, with a new baby at home that needed food and diapers. I got a job as a computer repairman for ComputerLand and used the Corvair to make house calls. There was this one call I was going out on for a professor at the University of the Pacific, and I hadn’t gotten three blocks from ComputerLand when I saw smoke pouring out of the vents on the back hood. I whipped a quick U-turn and zoomed back to the store, and once in the parking lot I got out and raced around to the back end. Opening the hood, I discovered the engine was on fire.
Panicked, I raced into the store, startling sales people and customers alike, ran to the break room and grabbed the two-gallon coffee maker. I raced back out carrying the coffee maker, again startling everyone in the store, and dumped all two gallons of coffee onto the burning engine. It put the fire out all right, but after that the car smelled like burnt coffee for years.
One good thing came out of it, though: ComputerLand bought me a van to use for company business.
More years passed. The car passed hands again amidst the family, and ended up as mine one last time. My baby daughter was now 4 years old, and her and I had been with her mom at some event and decided to leave early. It was past dark and getting close to my kid’s bedtime. Her mom, having her own car at the time, stayed behind to finish up.
As my daughter and I were driving home on the freeway, the car began to shudder. My first thought was that the engine was freezing up. Our exit was within sight, which was a relief. I let up on the gas pedal and let the car coast, but the shuddering continued to increase. It became violent, and my daughter started screaming, and then suddenly it stopped and the Corvair very slowly tilted to one side. Moments later there was a muffled dragging sound. I let the car glide over to the side of the freeway and stop.
“Daddy!” my 4-year-old cried, “I’m scared!”
“It’s okay honey. A wheel just came off the car. We’re okay now.” I got her out of the car and we started walking toward the off ramp. She was still shook up and frightened, and in an effort to console her I said, “It’s okay sweetie. We’re having an adventure. This is a real, true adventure! Isn’t it exciting?”
It took her a moment, as I guess she was thinking it through, but then she said, “Daddy?”
“I don’t like adventures.”
After that, I gave the car back to my Dad and never touched it again. He called me one day and said, “You know, I’ve got your Corvair all fixed up. You can pick it up anytime.”
“No, Dad,” I told him, “that’s okay. You can have it back. It’s yours.”
During warm summer nights in that small suburb of Tucson, a mighty hunter emerged from our house. Six years old, wearing shorts and a tee shirt, high-top tennis shoes, and carrying a flashlight, a bucket, and a butterfly net, I stalked off through the streets in search of prey. It was toads I was after, big ugly warty toads. And they were out there, hundreds of them, hopping from out of the desert and through the neighborhood, all answering Mother Nature’s annual call of love.
During the day, the only time you would see one of these puffy, awkward creatures was on the road — smashed flat as a pancake. You’d see a lot of them, everywhere, rows of them where cars would score more than one at a time. It was disgusting. Of course as a young boy I was fascinated by that, too.
But at night they were big, round, and alive. Not quite frogs, and not quite lizards, these toads had short legs and didn’t jump as their froggy cousins did. No, they hopped. Quick, furtive, nimble little hops. Like this: Hop hop hop hop hop!
Being a born Herpetologist (even though back then I couldn’t even pronounce it, let alone know what it meant) I didn’t find these creatures at all ugly. They were adorable! I liked their weird bumpy skin, their gleaming eyes, and their humble just-leave-me-alone body language. To dogs, I knew, they were deadly poison. I remember at least once my dad sticking a running garden hose down my poor dog’s throat after catching him chewing on a toad. There was poison in those bumps, and if you broke them it would come out and kill you. That is, if you happen to be chewing on it. Being that I had no intention of doing that (and this being a long time before people found they could get high by licking them) I knew I was safe.
I remember walking along the sidewalks, catching them in my net and dumping them into my bucket. I also remember dodging tarantulas and other assorted big bugs. One was a long beetle with huge pinchers in front, and if you picked these up and got them mad they’d hiss at you. I also remember some of my friends out under a streetlight with their father’s fly fishing pole, whipping the fly around in the air and catching bats (who thought the fly lure was a moth, no doubt). But mainly I caught toads. Dozens of them. Literally, dozens, all piled up and hopping in a mass at the bottom of the bucket.
Then I’d bring the bucket of toads home and put them in the backyard. One time my future sister-in-law Cara was curious as to what exactly was in this bucket I kept bringing in at night, and looked down into it as it sat on the concrete of the back patio.
I can still hear her piercing scream.
“My God!” she shrieked. “That bucket is full of toads!” By the hysterical tone of her voice, it was like she’d found a severed human head. She did a frightened dance on her tiptoes and escaped into the house, complaining loudly about the Bucket ‘O’ Toads.
I remember one time I was out later than my curfew. I was late and I knew it. I don’t remember why I was late; there must have been something extra interesting, because it was a conscious decision not to leave just yet. Then when I arrived home and my father said I was late and that meant a spanking, I voluntarily submitted, putting myself over his knee and telling him I was ready. That made him laugh; he thought it was hilarious. But the spanking still hurt.
Since being a 6 year old toad hunter I’ve learned that I was right about the creatures. They really aren’t hideous little monsters. In fact, they’re a boon to us because of the hundreds of tons of bugs they eat every year, including cockroaches. That’s hundreds of tons of bugs that would otherwise be crawling around our homes.
Yes, this toad hunter has retired his net and bucket, but every once in a while I’ll happen upon one of these little guys, and I’ll pick it up and say hello. They’re welcome around my house.
Back in the mid 1970’s, during a period when my Dad’s business was going full blast, we had an office down in San Diego that was being run by a crook. We didn’t know this at the time, but we should have. As Dad liked to brag, this was “one of Nixon’s old dirty-tricks guys.” He enjoyed having one of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks guys on the payroll. I don’t want to use his real name, so let’s just call him “Dick Headley.”
I hated the guy the moment I met him, and that’s a rare thing for me. He was somehow oily, slithery, in a social way. Smarmy and smart-ass. I could just tell that everything he said was a lie. He was the type to talk to you like a best friend and then insult and make fun of you the moment you walk away.
Dad realized there was something weird going on when a big check showed up at the office for work we had no record of performing. Another thing we noticed, is every time my Dad left to go down there, our office manager would call Dick Headley and let him know Dad was on his way. She did it, said another office assistant, even after my Dad told her not to.
We found later that this office manager was having an affair with Headley. We also suspect Headley was slipping her money under the table. It was a fact that she was spying on the main office for him.
What my father suspected was that Dick Headley was running side operations, using our employees and equipment, but pocketing the money. The check sent in for work we didn’t perform had actually been performed, on the side, and the innocent customer had sent the check to the wrong place. According to Headley, business was slacking down there. During one “slack” week, my Dad called me into his office, and with the door open, said, “Hey son, how’d you like to go trout fishing with me up in Oregon?”
I gave him a funny look. It was a Wednesday. He wanted to go trout fishing? In Oregon? “Um,” I said, “sure, I guess.”
“We’ll fly up tonight,” he told me, saying that we’d stay at his friend’s ranch. “I need to get out of here and relax.”
When we left for the airport, my Dad explained what was really going on. He wanted me to go with him down to San Diego, and sneak around without the office manager tipping Dick Headley off we were in town. I was going along to photograph evidence.
I’d never seen Dad so paranoid. He acted like Headley might have spies everywhere. We got into his plane, took off and flew North as if we really were going to Oregon, but after we got away from town he made a wide circle round to the south, and we followed the coastline down to the bottom of California. When we landed, it was at an airport he never used.
We rented a car that no one would recognize.
Dad got us a hotel room and we ate in, watching TV, and then he made some phone calls. One of the calls was to Headley, telling him he was up in Oregon and would be incommunicado for a few days. Still no work? No? Got any promising leads? Yes? Great! Go get ’em!
The next morning we started snooping around. Dad made phone calls to some of our established customers to see if there was any work going on. Nothing was brewing, although some said they’d have work for us later in the month. Then one of the people he spoke to said he’d seen one of our trucks working at another site. My Dad inquired where and when they’d seen the trucks working. They were working that very day, down in the San Diego shipyards.
Dad and I piled into the rented car and zoomed out there. We drove up and down the shipyards until we spotted one of our white vacuum trucks, removing sandblast sand out of the inside of a ship. Dad had me sneak up and take photos of the truck and the workers with my telephoto lens. I got a lot of shots, from several angles. I recognized the guys who were working.
Then Dad walked right past me, out in the open, and crossed the yard to where they were working. I followed, feeling nervous. What was he doing? I’d thought this was supposed to be a covert mission.
Dad asked them how the job was coming along. The guys looked freaked – they all had that “Oh shit!” look on their faces – and Dad poked around and asked how long they’d been working on this job. They all gave different answers, but it was clear it had been going on since Monday at least.
“Well, keep up the good work,” Dad told them, and he walked back toward the car. He was walking so fast I had trouble keeping up with him.
He drove in a rush across town to the local office, which was a small warehouse in a shabby business park. The place was closed and locked, and Dad’s key didn’t fit – Dick Headley had changed the locks. There was a window open, though, up on the second story. “Can you get up through there?”
“Uh…” I looked it over. “Yeah,” I told him, and started climbing. I had to get on the roof of a lower building and work my way over the top of a large sliding door. Swinging one leg through the window, I found … nothing. There was no second story inside. The inside wall, however, wasn’t finished – there were beams and supports that I used as rungs to work my way down inside. I unlocked the door and let my Dad in just as someone pulled up. It was one of Headley’s guys, a shop mechanic, coming back from lunch.
“Hey!” he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing! I’m going to call the cops!”
“Excuse me,” my Dad told him, “but I own this business.”
“What?” He looked unsure. It took him a few minutes, but he changed his tune, and afterwards was following my Dad around helping him.
Dad was confiscating all the paperwork. The receipts, the ledgers – everything. He went through all the drawers in the office, all the file cabinets, all the desks. When the guy asked him what he was doing, Dad said, “I’m performing an audit.”
We piled it all into the trunk of the car, and locked it up. Before we could leave, though, Dick Headley himself came driving up, very fast, like there was an emergency. Apparently he’d gotten a call from one of the guys at the job sight. The car slid to a stop in the gravel driveway, and he jumped out. “Jim!” he said to my Dad. “I thought you said you were in Oregon!”
“I thought you said we didn’t have any work.”
“We just got some today. I was about to call you.”
Dick Headley was desperately trying not to lose his cool, quick-talking a mile a minute. Dad wasn’t listening. At one point, Headley began getting belligerent, like my Dad had no business sticking his nose into what Headley was doing. Dad, in one of his rare shows of restraint, just rolled his eyes and told me to get into the car.
Dad had an accountant go over the papers and receipts, and as it turned out, there were two separate ledgers. This didn’t surprise the accountant – this was common. Usually it was one real ledger and one for the IRS. In this case, it was one for the company and one for Dick Headley. Dad was able to take this down to the DA’s office and get a warrant. They used my pictures as evidence, too.
Dick Headley went to jail. At least, he ended up there for a few hours, only long enough to get himself bailed out. He still had some strong political ties, as strings were pulled and he was let off, after paying back part of the money he stole. It was only a small fraction, though, and then Headley walked away. Smirking.
And people wonder why I’m cynical about the American justice system.
We didn’t get a chance to fire the office manager who was spying. She quit the moment she heard what had happened. She was gone by the time we got back.
I was a kid when my grandmother on my mom’s side passed away. We were out camping at the time, so word didn’t get to us until we returned from the trip. My mom was devastated. Her mother had choked on a chicken bone during a midnight snack, and Grandpa didn’t find her until the following morning.
Years passed and the tragedy faded. We made the move to California. I remember this part clearly, because we were still living in the duplex, before we ended up at the house with the pool. At least three or four years had passed.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, my dead grandmother arrives via parcel post.
I don’t remember a whole lot about this grandmother. She’s only a vague memory because she passed away while I was so young. Being that she was only 14 years older than my mom, she didn’t feel she was old enough to be called “Grandma” so I was instructed to call her “Nana.”
Nana and her husband, my mom’s stepfather — who for some reason they called “Spud” — were only occasional visitors. I mainly remember them from Christmas mornings. Grandpa Spud is especially vivid in my memory because of the year he dressed up as a convincing Santa and scared the holy crap out of me.
So, years later, Nana shows up at our duplex in California in a white box. She’d been cremated and these were her ashes. Obviously they didn’t wait this long to cremate her, but I’m at a loss for why it took so long for the ashes to reach us. I’d hate to think they’d been lost in the mail all that time.
The ashes arrived addressed to my father, because Nana’s will stipulated that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes spread via airplane over a specific forest in Oregon. My father, being a pilot with his own airplane, was the logical choice. They had all lived in the same area up in Oregon in the 1950’s, back when my dad was in the lumber business. I guess this forest was someplace dear to Nana; perhaps that’s where Spud had proposed to her. My father was familiar with the place. The idea of flying up there and taking care of Nana’s last wish wasn’t a problem. However, it wasn’t a priority either. After all, she was already years dead, and my father was a busy man.
Nana’s ashes, still securely sealed in the white cardboard box, sat around the house for a while. It would spend some time on the dining room table, or the coffee table in the living room. Or I’d occasionally see it sitting on the kitchen counter. Finally during a frenzy of housecleaning, Dad took the box and put it on a shelf in the garage. There it sat for quite some time.
It was after Dad put the white box in the garage that Mom started noticing weird things going on. She’d be cooking dinner, and have the oven set to a specific temperature. She’d turn away and take care of some other detail, and turn back to see the oven temperature knob was not where she’d set it. Puzzled, she’d set the knob back to the proper temperature, then later discovered someone moved it again. This was unsettling, especially since she was the only one in the kitchen the entire time.
Then Mom noticed that someone kept changing the temperature on the air conditioner. This also was odd because it was happening while my dad was at work and I was at school. There was no one else in the house.
These things had been going on for a while before Mom finally mentioned it. She didn’t seem frightened; she seemed bemused, almost comforted. It was familiar to her, because it was exactly the kind of things that would happen when Nana was around. Mom and Nana always argued about what temperature to set the stove or oven, and Nana always wanted it colder or warmer in the house than Mom did.
This talk of Nana’s ghost being in the house scared me, but I didn’t see any of these inconsistencies of temperature settings with my own eyes. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time. My toys weren’t moving around, and I wasn’t seeing anything strange. Nana wasn’t appearing to me in a doorway or anything like that. So I didn’t really believe it. It still gave me chills but it was fun to go along with it. Mom had always believed in ghosts. Ghosts were fun.
Being scared was fun.
This changed when our little dog, Taffy, started getting involved. Dad used to call used her “Ten pounds of love in a five pound package.” She really was a tiny little thing, but she thought she was a ferocious attack dog. Taffy had no fear, and she was on guard at all times to protect her family. She’d bark at the mailman, at other dogs and cats, and especially at visitors that she didn’t recognize.
Suddenly Taffy had begun to bark frantically at things that no one could see. Especially in the late evening, she’s suddenly start growling and barking for all she was worth at a corner in the dining room, or at a spot in the hallway. It didn’t seem to be that she was barking at something she heard or smelled, because she had her eyes fixed on a specific point and all her attention was right there, right in front of her. She was barking and snapping at thin air.
This is something I witnessed personally. It was very freaky. I remember that it even disturbed my Dad. “Taffy!” he’d say. “What the hell are you barking at? Taffy! Stop!” He’d have to bend down and pick her up, and carry her away from whatever had her so upset.
Finally, there was the time when my dad was gone on an extended business trip, and my mom and I were up late and watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We were sitting together on the couch, with Taffy at our feet, and Taffy started growling. By this time she’d gotten a lot less frantic about the whole thing, having become more familiar with whatever it was that upset her. She’d just stare and give a low warning growl.
On this night, she did more than just stare at a spot in front of her. Very slowly her head turned as she was growling, as if she were watching something cross the room from left to right. It was weird. I remember sliding over closer to my Mom. Taffy suddenly stood up, still tracking something with her eyes. She was pointing toward Dad’s rocking chair.
As we watched, and as Taffy continued to growl, the chair moved slightly. Just a little bit forward, and just a little bit back, like something was trying to rock in it. I remember the look on Mom’s face. She turned toward me to make sure I was seeing the same thing she was seeing.
I didn’t have to convince her to let me sleep in her and Dad’s bed that night. We slept with the lights on. As soon as my dad got home from the business trip, Mom told him that he needed to get Nana’s ashes spread over that Oregon forest.
He needed to do it now.
Dad agreed. He took me along as copilot. Back then he had a single-prop Cessna 192 and it took a while to fly all the way up to Oregon, but he navigated us via familiar landmarks to where we needed to be and then had me open the white box. Inside was a thick plastic bag. I’d expected the ashes to be white and powdery, like the ones in the fireplace, but they weren’t. They were strange flat chips colored black and gray. After all those years, there was Nana – and now, as I’m writing this, when I think about Nana this is all I can see. Not her face or her voice, but these strange looking ashes.
In an airplane, you can’t just crank down a window and toss something out. The only part of the window that opened was this little five-inch hatch, and when Dad reached across and flopped it open, the wind made an unbelievable wail and it was like a tornado had been let loose inside the cockpit. I had a hole cut in the plastic bag, and I shoved it up against the open window hatch as my dad dipped one wing low and circled. Most of Nana’s ashes made it out the window, but a good percentage of it swirled around us in the cockpit. I even got some in my mouth. My dad was yelling and the airplane bucked and jumped. The ashes stung my eyes.
There was a sudden THWAK, and the window sucked the last of the ashes out along with the plastic bag. I shut the little hatch, and continued spitting out ashes. Dad leveled the airplane, and after a few moments began laughing. We turned south and headed back home.
After that day, Taffy no longer barked at invisible things, and the air conditioner and oven ceased changing the settings on their own. That cinched it for Mom. For her there was absolutely no other explanation than it being the ghost of Nana haunting the duplex, waiting for us to fulfill her final wishes. I think my father was convinced, too.
With loud hissing and crackling the rocket leaps off the pad and streaks up into the blue. My friends and I crane our necks back so far we nearly fall over backward. If it wasn’t for the smoke we wouldn’t even know where it went.
There’s a distant popping sound, and impossibly far above us blossoms a tiny white and orange parachute. My friends and I shout and whoop with excitement, then go chasing after it. We were young teenage boys and we’d just discovered a new thrill.
Because this toy was labeled as “science” and my parents liked the idea of me becoming a scientist, my mom was more than willing to bankroll the project. At the time model rockets were still illegal in California as they were considered fireworks, so I couldn’t ride my bike down to the local hobby store and buy them. I had to get them via mail order.
I would gaze through the catalogs of the strange and exiting rockets, pick the ones that fell within the budget set by my mom, and fill out the order form. Mom supplied the handwritten check and the stamp. Half the money was spent on new rocket kits, the other half on engines. Then there would be two weeks of agony waiting for my rockets to arrive.
They came in long, rectangular boxes of white cardboard. The joy at seeing the mailman bringing one of these boxes up to my front door was equal to that of firing them off. The launching was not just something to do, it was an event. I would call all my friends. We would set a date and time. We would pray for good weather.
Sometimes I would experiment with the engines themselves. About the size of a big firecracker, they were high quality little cylinders of ceramic and dense, treated paper. Big hole on one side, little hole on the other. The little hole was the nozzle where the fire would come out. The solid rocket fuel would burn inside the cylinder and force high pressure gas out with a lot of noise and smoke, burning its way up the inside of the cylinder. When the propellant was spent, it would slowly burn a delay charge which released smoke and helped us see the rocket while it was coasting upwards. When the delay charge finished burning, the fire would hit a little packet of explosive called the ejection charge, which would blow the ceramic cap off the other end and push the top of the rocket off, and also (hopefully) push the parachute out.
If used as directed it was completely safe. However…
I found I could wrap paper around the engine, gluing it in place, and form my own homemade body tubes. I could also fill this body tube with something other than a parachute. Oh, say, possibly firecrackers, which would be ignited by the ejection charge. I’d make my own paper nose cones and fins too, making the rocket expendable.
The model rocket manufacturers had spent a great deal of time and money making these little engines as safe as possible, and there I was circumventing all their efforts. This went against everything that model rocketry stood for – a safe, exiting, fun hobby for kids and their families. It just goes to show, you could put just about anything in the wrong hands and have it turn to evil.
Not that my friends and I were evil.
Well, okay, maybe we were a little evil.
I had one set up and ready to launch in my front yard, and my friend Larry — who lived down a few houses and across the street — just happened to be coming out his front door and heading my way. I yelled, “Hey Larry, watch this!” and shot the rocket off.
My paper fins, folded over in a v-shape and theoretically sturdy enough, weren’t quite sturdy enough. The rocket shot straight up about twenty feet and then veered over, hurtling like a missile right at Larry. There was an instant of time where I saw the rocket heading right at him, and saw him standing there staring at it, eyes wide, and then at the last second it veered upward again and exploded about 30 feet above his head, showering him with bits of hot paper.
After a few moments of shocked silence he yelled, “What are you trying to do, kill me?”
“It wasn’t supposed to do that!” I yelled.
“That was cool!” he yelled back. He ran over to see the other ones I had made.
At night time we would shoot these into the air and couldn’t believe how beautiful the colors were just coming from the rocket engines. They would explode about 1000 feet up and the firecrackers would come crackling down. For a few years our 4th of July celebrations were especially fun. Our highly illegal rockets rivaled the efforts of the professionals.
We also continued traditional, safe model rocketry, launching them out in a field beside the railroad tracks. I had ones that would fly up as a rocket but come down as a glider, and ones that had three stages and flew so high we never found them again. We also had ones that would carry things up inside, such as small lizards and tiny tree frogs, and I’m happy to report they all survived.
There was this one day we were shooting so many off that it had become boring. When a train came by I had a sudden idea. “Hey,” I said, “lets shoot one at the train!”
I chose an older rocket that was beat up and on the verge of falling apart, and aimed it at the railroad cars as they lumbered past. It shot like the missile it was, and to our delight it went right inside the open door of a boxcar. My friends all laughed and one said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if a hobo was in there?” Just as he said that, a hobo poked his head out the open door and shook his fist at us, and we all fell over laughing.
Toward the end of my teenage rocketry career, I was in Arizona visiting my brother Hank and had brought all my rockets with me. We went out one afternoon and shot them off, which my older brother thought was amusing, and when the engines were all gone we went back to his house and found, to my complete amazement, a model rocket in his back yard. It wasn’t one of mine, either. It was some other kid’s rocket, and they had shot it off and it went too far up, and the wind carried it away, and it just happened to land in my brother’s back yard right after we had been out doing the same thing.
Years later, after I’d grown up and gotten that horrible, bad, dangerousness out of me, I took my kids out shooting rockets at a big club in Dallas, Texas. Some of these guys were shooting off huge rockets with really powerful motors, and they weren’t made out of cardboard and plastic, either. They were metal and hard PVC, and had sophisticated electronics aboard. These guys were very professional about the whole thing, and were highly safety conscious. I thought this was a good, safe way to introduce model rocketry to my kids.
One big, white rocket went up with a terrific crackling roar. I was video taping it, and heard everyone start yelling. It had gotten to the top end of its flight, which is called the apogee, and it turned around and started coming back down. The trouble was that the parachute had not come out, and now it was a deadly missile coming straight down. I turned the camera off and took a few steps back, because it looked like it was coming right at me.
The rocket hit the ground and exploded not more than ten feet away, showering me with stinging little pieces of PVC shrapnel, and to my horror I realized it had hit the curb right in front of my van, right next to a little kiddy table, right exactly where my younger daughter had been sitting not 30 seconds before. She had just happened to get up and wander away…
In all my years of abusing model rocketry, I had never come as close to disaster as these safe and sane rocketeers had.
Summer morning, and I’d awaken and jump out of my bed, eat a bunch of sugary cereal, and then jam on down the street toward the train tracks to meet my friends. I had a Stingray bike with a tiny front tire, a banana seat, and a tall sissy bar. 5-speed, straight shift. Front wheel had a drum brake like a motorcycle.
The bike was “boss.” It “burned rubber.”
I’d race down the dirt of the levy road, dodging shadows and fallen branches, then leap over a mound of dirt and rumble down a rocky trail to the tracks. Turning north I’d follow the tracks to the second bridge where the creek was wide and deep. Usually I was the first one there, but not every time.
Randy would show up, sometimes with his neighbor Philip. Sometimes Larry would be there. Other friends came and went; I don’t even remember their names. All us boys were in-between the 4th and 5th grades. Lizard hunters, proto-motocross riders. Creek swimmers. Train challengers.
This was the lost Tom Sawyer boyhood of my youth.
The railroad bridge was a quiet place. Overgrown with trees and brush, the creek ran gurgling at a good pace. There were mini-rapids both upstream and downstream, but right around the oily, wooden bridge supports it was almost a pond. Deep enough to swim in, and if I stood it would come up to my neck. Because of broken glass, swimming with shoes was mandatory.
There were always new things to see or find. We’d catch at least one snake a day, but rarely do anything besides hold it for a while then let it go again. Only exceptionally cool snakes would be taken home so that they could escape and scare the bejeezes out of our moms. But there were also alligator lizards, and skinks (with really pretty red or blue tails), dozens of bluebellies, massive bullfrogs, and the occasional swimming turtle. They had the tendency to bite, though.
The really fun stuff was more dangerous. One of our favorites was to jump our bikes into the water. I only did this when I brought my second “junk” bike out. We would zoom down the short hill from the tracks, up a big lump of dirt, and fly 15 feet through the air and into the creek. Another favorite was to huddle under the bridge as a train went by. There was talk of actually lying down the middle of the track and have the train go right over us, but thank God no one actually tried it.
Then one day we found the hiding place of a genuine railroad hobo. Abandoned during the day, apparently this hobo returned at night to sleep in a corrugated metal pipe that ran under the tracks. There was clothes, cans of food, bottles of water, blankets, and a pile of really nasty, dirty magazines. They weren’t like our dad’s Playboy magazines. They were lurid and sleazy; wide open and shocking. We were fascinated, like deer unable to look away from oncoming headlights.
We didn’t know what to do with this forbidden treasure. We were afraid if we simply left it, it would disappear. But no one would dare take it home. We could all imagine the nightmare of it being found. So it was decided we had to find a new hiding place for it.
We searched the surrounding area for a likely place. There were piles of old railroad ties, and boards under grass, and areas where there were piles of concrete. We were surrounded by farmland, and we found what we thought was a perfect place: another corrugated metal pipe on the other side of a barbed wire fence, right below a small tree. It was perfect. It was about a foot wide and hidden by tall grass.
The next day we came out and yes, the treasure was still there. We’d all pour over it, joke about it, ask each other question which none of us truly knew the answer (though it didn’t stop us from bluffing and stating our guesses as fact). We were boys trying to fathom the mysteries of women. We were trying to integrate our knowledge of our mothers, sisters, and girls next door with what we’d learned from the dirty magazines. It was difficult and ultimately frightening.
I think we were all a bit relieved when several days later we came out to find the pipe holding our forbidden treasure was under water. As it turned out, the field was a rice field, and the farmer had come and turned the valve, flooding the area with water from the creek. The water had carried the magazines out into the acres of rice paddies and they were obviously ruined and lost. Our only consolation was that the next day we were treated to the joyous show of a biplane flying right over our heads, dropping sprouts into the fields of water. The daring of the pilot earned our undying admiration, especially after he waved at us from about ten feet off the ground.
After that it was back to normal at the bridge. Snakes, lizards, bicycles, and swimming. Seeing how long we could stand on the train tracks while a train bore down on us. Stupid boy things like that. I’m sure we spent the whole summer out there, but when school started again and the weather grew colder, the place wasn’t as much fun. Things changed, bulldozers pushed things around, and the old wooden railroad bridge was replaced by a new, modern, concrete one. And for some reason they cut down all the surrounding trees.
It was over. The next summer the tracks didn’t hold the same magic, and it took many years to find a place like that again. By that time I was a teenager in a different crowd of friends, and girls were involved, and there was not much innocence left. People had jobs and responsibilities. Car payments had to be made. It was different.