Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.



i am a mist

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

from the Book of James

Rocket Science

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?


Author’s Note:  Another excerpt from the story of James and Katherine. Completely out of context, it might not make much sense.  In this scene, Brad McNear has offered to provide assistance to Katherine’s daughter, Chloe.


“I want to pay you, you know,” Katherine said.

“Of course you do.”

“And you’re not going to let me.”

“Of course I’m not.”

“We’re all helping each other,” Katherine said.

“That’s right.”

“You’re helping Chloe and in the process, you’re helping me. But how am I helping you?”

“That’s not how it works,” he said. “It’s kind of like grace.”


“If I help you and you turn around and help me in equal measure, then it’s just a business deal. But if I help you just because I want to, not because you’ve earned it or I expect you to pay me back in some way, well, that’s helping out of love.”

“Are you saying you love me, Brad McNear?”  She smiled when she said it.

“I do love you. Not in the way that sells records, but in the same way that I love Chloe.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Maybe I’ll love you even more when I do.”  This time McNear was smiling.

“Grace,” Katherine said.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

James and Katherine

Author’s Note:  The following is an excerpt from my novel in progress.  James and Katherine were each lost in a wilderness forest before finding each other.  They work together to survive and try to find their way out.   In this passage, you’ll see James in the lead role, but this is an anomaly.  Katherine is the strong leader; James the weaker of the two.  But because of injury and illness, Katherine can no longer determine her own fate, and James can no longer be the passive follower that is his nature. Early in his ordeal, James lost one of his boots.  He is hiking with one boot, one bare foot.

James and Katherine

James walked bent over, Katherine hanging on his back. He occasionally had to hitch her up higher and bend forward a little more to keep her arms around his neck. She never spoke, and James wasn’t sure if she was asleep or even conscious.

He had been hiking for about an hour, he guessed, with no more focus than his next step. Not that he could muster much attention for that simple exercise. He misjudged a small log in front of him and clipped it with his boot as he stepped over. He barely reached out a hand to a tree in time to regain his balance.

But he did not stop.

The broken branches on the ground jabbing into his bare foot was constant. When the sole of his foot began to sting, he knew his skin had been broken. Many times.

But he did not stop.

Katherine cried out, as if she had awoken from a bad dream, or maybe she had banged her ankle, now full of poison and puss, against his leg. Or maybe it was her fractured elbow. It broke his heart to hear her in such misery.

But he did not stop.

One hour stretched into two, then three. The sun was high in the sky but the wind was picking up and the clouds were again starting to thicken. The air was brisk and his bare foot, his fingers, his nose and his ears were almost numb.

“James,” Katherine whispered, her breath warm on his neck. “I’m thirsty.”

“Hang in there,” he said.

He was afraid to stop. Afraid he might not be able to move again. Afraid that if he paused, even for a few minutes, he’d be tempted to try to shelter for the night. And as cold as it was becoming, he was afraid they would die.

So he did not stop.

But after another two hours, he came to an impassable precipice. He looked to his left, then to his right. The mountain had heaved up its jagged sandstone for as far as he could see. The stream he had been following gathered in a small pool before tumbling over the rocks and splashing down below. How far below, he couldn’t tell, but from the sounds of it, it was long drop. He walked toward the stream and found a flat boulder and eased Katherine down. She landed on her bad ankle, which was even blacker and more swollen, but she didn’t make a sound.  She collapsed, virtually lifeless.

He looked around for shelter, something that would protect her from the wind and rain. He found a small cleft in the rocks, only large enough for Katherine, then went about collecting branches and leaves to make her the best bed he could. He carried her to the small cave and tucked his coat all around her, then took her jacket to collect water and food.

When he returned ten minutes later, he could barely rouse her enough to take a few sips. The berries he laid beside her. He touched her forehead and she was hotter than ever. He pulled off his boot, then his sock, and took it to the water where he washed it as best he could, then brought it still wet and cold, and placed it across her head.

“l’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said. Then he kissed her cheek.

He looked up at the sun and judged he had a couple of hours before dark. His plan was simple: explore a little, try to find the best way down the mountain, then come back and spend the night with Katherine. And pray.

James Brown was in church most Sunday mornings, and sometimes worked the Bible into his reading routine. But praying wasn’t his strength. He felt selfish when he prayed. But as he climbed down around the rocks, he found himself pleading, not for himself, but for Katherine.

“Please, God, let her live.” Over and over again. He knew she probably wouldn’t make it. And if she died, he wouldn’t be far behind. “Please, God, let her live.”

He made it down the rocky cliffs and once again began his mindless, step after step after step, ignoring the all pain and weariness and mental fatigue. The ground leveled out and though he noticed, he had lost his purpose, his reason for leaving Katherine alone, and was simply walking again, his head light and dizzy, his eyes watering, his lips numb.


Scratches on his leg. A thorn in his foot.


The wind blowing hard. His body shivering.


Underfoot, there were no sticks, no rocks, the ground smooth like soft mulch. Then as quickly as the respite came, it was gone. Sticks, thorns, rocks. He had gone maybe fifty feet when he stopped. He turned and looked back, then started retracing his steps.

He stepped out of the underbrush and onto the groomed trail.

His heart raced. A whimper of joy released itself and at once he felt new life energize his body. He looked up the trail – north, by reckoning of the setting sun – then down the trail, south. He would go fifteen minutes, he told himself, then head back to Katherine. Tomorrow he would find a way to get her down to the trail.

He took a few steps south. Then he stopped, took off his shirt and tied it to a tree to mark the spot that would lead him back to Katherine. He started walking, then began a slow jog. The prospect of someone being just over the next little rise, or around the next curve of the trail, was too much. He couldn’t temper his hope with the rational thought he needed to survive. So he ran.

Fifteen minutes passed. Just over the next ridge. Thirty minutes.

And then the last of the evening sun betrayed him, and it was dark.

He looked down the trail, realizing he had gone the wrong way, and turned around to go back to Katherine. And just as quickly as the sun had vanished, so did his hope. He had never felt such despair. As the last of his adrenalin faded from his muscles, the lightness in his head returned and the fatigue that had been building over the last few days could no longer be resisted.

James Brown took two more steps and collapsed in the middle of the trail.

copyright Joseph E Bird, 2014,

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