Bradbury’s evocative visuals in Rocket Summer led me as a twelve-year old to imagine that anyone could assemble a space-worthy vehicle with the right parts and know-how. Like many in the 1970s who got caught up in the great Space Race, I had a reasonable understanding of propulsion and was not remotely dissuaded by the fact that all of my homemade missiles had exploded on the launchpad.
Surely I just needed the proper materials; Mom’s rich assortment of household chemicals labeled Flammable! Danger! Explosive! just weren’t doing the trick, no matter how many I mixed together.
So the hot Summer day when I discovered some household appliances dumped in the field behind our home was a joyous occasion indeed. I was especially intrigued by two: an old gas-fired water heater, and a clothes dryer.
To my half-baked mental machinations, these were the critical components. In the water heater I saw fuel storage and a combustion chamber; in the dryer, a pilot’s capsule. The latter even had a windowed door!
Even though I was undersized for my age, I wasn’t a fit for the capsule. Besides, I would need to manage launch control.
This is when I finally thanked my mother and stepfather for providing me a little brother.
At four, he was just the right size… and smart enough, I figured, to learn a few basic controls. Launch, orbit, and land. How difficult could it be? He could work a TV remote, so.
Naturally he would have to operate a camera, too. I could just imagine the shots he’d get!
One thing I knew about NASA: they ran their astronauts through rigorous tests to ensure their capability and safety. Could I do any less for my own flesh and blood? Of course not.
With great care and excitement I helped my agreeable brother Eric into the electric dryer in our own home. Sure enough, he curled up nicely with a bit of room to spare. But space flight could get rough, so we needed a tumble test. Mindful of his comfort, I set the temperature to cool. I also kept the door opened and manually pressed the safety switch for the first run. No need to make him panic right off the bat.
With everything in place, I pushed Start. The fact that he began screaming immediately was not encouraging. Unfortunately for my erstwhile astronaut, the dryer had to slowly coast to a stop… so for a few seconds after I released the safety, he continued tumbling. And screaming.
I forget how I blackmailed him into not telling, but results are what count.
Eric survived this and many more adventures, and seems none the worse for it these days. And in time I came to understand how naïve I’d been, and to limit my space exploits to the printed page.
The cool thing about fiction is, you get to leave some details up to imagination. And no one gets hurt.