I grew up in the space age, when we (the collective we of our country) were racing the Russians to be first in everything space-related. Who would be the first in space, the first to orbit the earth, and the big one, the first to land on the moon. The space program dominated the imagination of kids my age.

That’s why, in the spirit of Robert Goddard, we wanted to build our own rockets. Not the hobby store, pre-made rocket kits, but completely-from-scratch missiles, including our own home-made rocket fuel.

Now keep in mind, this was the before the world turned so sinister. Experimenting with explosive materials in the backyard wasn’t anything the FBI would have been concerned with. And there was no Department of Homeland Security. So with a little research, we learned how to make a gunpowder-like mixture that would serve as the solid fuel for our rockets. Then we stuffed the mix into paper-towel tubes wrapped in aluminum foil that would serve as the booster. Most of our rockets barely moved, but the failures were spectacular.

One of my rocket-building buddies was James. Without him, none of this would have happened. I mentioned in a previous post that I was no Sheldon Cooper. James was.

In those days, every kid had a chemistry set, but most of us had no idea what we were doing. James did. And he supplemented his set with real scientific equipment like flasks and beakers and test tubes from Preiser Scientific, the local supplier of such goods. You can’t walk in and buy stuff like that now. They would assume the worst and notify local law enforcement. James even had a gas-fired Bunsen burner. He was so serious about his science, his parents trusted that he wouldn’t burn down the house.  I was in awe of his mind.

At some point James moved away. I always wondered about him. Recently, my sister found his sister, and she told us that James works in the computer industry and sends satellites into space.

That’s just perfect.

Then there was Pat. I became friends with him a few years after James had moved. Pat was nothing like James. He was spontaneous, loud, and uninhibited. Physically, he was big and strong. I was skinny, shy, and timid. Ours was a friendship based on geography. He lived up the street and we would walk to and from school together, then hang out until dinner time.

We were leaving school one day and for some reason, an older student decided he didn’t like me and made some kind of derogatory comment. My normal reaction would have been to keep quiet and try to walk away. But Pat was with me. I was emboldened. Pat would have my back. So I shot my mouth off to the bully. As it turns out, Pat wanted no part of this particular confrontation. The bully took me by the shirt collar, just like in the movies, and pulled back his fist to let me have it. Just before he was going to pummel me, my Latin teacher looked out from the second story window and asked the bully what was going on. “Just playing around,” he said as he put his arm around my shoulder like we were the best of buds. Saved by my Latin teacher. That says a lot.

Pat got into trouble now and then. He once rode his bicycle down Elm Street (ridiculously steep) without any brakes. Barefoot. Turns out he couldn’t stop himself like he thought he could and he ran into the concrete wall at the bottom of the hill. He was lucky he wasn’t killed. He managed to hobble home with bloody, broken toes. He didn’t always make the best decisions.

Eventually, Pat and his family moved away.

A year or so ago I ran into someone who knows him. Apparently, Pat has also enjoyed a career in the space industry working for NASA.

So, like, wow.

It would be really good to talk to James and Pat some day, though I probably never will. That’s kind of how life works.  But there’s this to take home and ponder:

Sometimes things turn out exactly how you think they should.
Sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes people change.
Pretty interesting concept, don’t you think?