July 4th

Here in America, it means there are lots of events involving fireworks.  Some of these things are legal, some are not.  Some can be made with good old Yankee ingenuity, and some can be made with a little bit of knowledge of chemistry.  There can be an astounding variation of things, but the bottom line is that they all explode, fly, or make lots of sparks.

And of course, if you do it right, they’ll do all three.

And the thing about my friend Jimi was that if there was any possible way that something could blow up, or fly, or make lots of sparks… he’d figure it out.  It seemed like “The Fourth” for Jimi was a day to celebrate everything – and he went all out on it.

One time – he and I had decided that the big Styrofoam gliders you could get would fly better if they were powered by something stronger than an arm, like, say, a rocket engine. So we found that there was one kind of thing, called a ‘ground bloom flower’ – that, if aimed correctly and taped securely to each Styrofoam wing on this glider, two of them might produce enough thrust to get it airborne.

It turns out that timing the ignition of these things was a pretty major challenge – and that the concept of asymmetrical thrust – that is – one of these things lighting before the other – was not theoretical at all, and the plane, when we did manage to get it in the air, didn’t fly so much as spend its time trying to do a very colorful pirouette to one side, followed by a lurch forward for the split second both “engines” were firing at the same time, followed by a feeble attempt at another very colorful pirouette to the other side as the first engine died and second one lit off.

Was it entertaining?

Heck yes.

Did it fly well?

Uh…. No.

It’s safe to say that it really didn’t fly very well.

It’s also well to say that it wasn’t very safe, at all…

I mean, a highly flammable object, that’s already got a totally unpredictable flight path, combined with devices that are already spewing sparks and flames…

What could possibly go wrong?

<ahem>

In our misguided attempt to actually get the thing to fly, we kept fiddling, and finally got things set so we could try again – and found that where the fuse came out of the ‘ground bloom flower’ wasn’t exactly where the fire and thrust came out.

We were able to deduce this by the large hole the flame had burned in the right wing.  We taped over that and decided a single producer of thrust would work better if we could center it.

So we – after long and hard thinking of all the things that would be illegal to purchase and let fly in Shoreline (where Jimi lived), we realized that model rocket engines would be perfect (and legal) – and bought a few of those, made a self-ejecting holder out of some ductape, stuck a fuse into the engine, lit it, and threw the plane, figuring it’d fly, gracefully, as it should.

Turns out that adding that much thrust to one of those things doesn’t necessarily improve anything in a predictable way – and after even more fiddling, the first one that actually flew did a very tight loop, hit some wires, and came down hard, mostly in one piece.

The next one was a little better, but it was the last one, that I didn’t see, that was clearly the best.

I’d just run into the house to get something, when I heard the rocket engine fire, and I heard Jimi yell.  I heard a thump, the rocket continued to burn, and Jimi laughing like an absolute lunatic.

By the time I got out there, tears were running down his face, he was holding his stomach, and having trouble deciding whether to laugh or breathe.

I looked around and followed the smoke to the hood of his car.  It seems the engine had burned itself out by then – the smoke more of a haze at that point – but before it had done that, the little rocket engine had pushed the plane up high enough so that one wing had hit a telephone wire again.  That spun the plane around 180 degrees, pointed right at the ground. It came down at full power, almost pulled up, but hit and bounced on the hood of Jimi’s little Chevy Nova, getting the nose stuck under one of the windshield wipers.  The little engine that could wasn’t done yet, and continued to burn with the plane trapped by those windshield wipers – finally ending up burning the paint off part of the hood of the car.

Jimi was just beside himself.

I was mortified, and thought that he’d have to figure out how to explain that to the insurance company, but he just wanted to leave it the way it was.  The scorched metal, the blistered paint, was worth far more as a story to him than getting a new hood put on the car ever was.

I’ll always remember that laugh of his – and how much it meant to just hear that childlike joy.

It’s funny – Jimi and I were so much like kids in all of that that neither he, an award winning photographer who never went anywhere without his Olympus cameras, nor I, a budding photojournalist who never went anywhere without my Nikons, took any pictures of the event.

We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

And some memories are best left there, in your mind, as a memory that remains strong, and bright.

I miss him.

For now, just imagine the intense hiss of a model rocket engine, the hollow metallic thunk of some hard Styrofoam on a metal hood, and the sound of two grown men laughing like the little boys that were still very much alive inside us.

Those little boys who had read all the small print on the fireworks and rocket engines… “Use under adult supervision…”

Yeah, we supervised alright.

It was a good day.

Years later, in Jimi’s memory, I decided it was time to share that joy of Styrofoam airplanes, rocket engines, and some adults who still remembered what it was like to be a kid with my son, but that’ll be a story (complete with pictures) for another time.

Have a safe Fourth of July, folks.

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