When I was 12 or so: Petty theft and rocket science


My original title for this column was “Garage Mechanics.” I decided that might be misleading, as I’ve never been good with my hands. When I enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Reserve at age 20, the battery of tests included one on mechanical aptitude. There were a lot of pictures of tools to identify and the screw-driver was about the only one I was sure of. I scored 35. They sent me off to boot camp anyway, outside Memphis, and then on to Jacksonville, for aviation ordnance school. I graduated as class “Honor Man” - more because I was good with book-learning than with bomb racks and 20mm aircraft cannon (though I did learn how to disassemble and reassemble both).

When I was 4 or 5, I remember my dad (also a “Richard,” though his Navy buddies called him “Frenchie”) parking his car under a tree and rigging a pulley to lift out the old motor and replace it with another. He retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer and aviation metalsmith, meaning he was as good at repairing planes as he was with automobiles. He tried introducing me at 12 or so to the workings of car engines; my eyes glazed over as soon as he lifted the hood of our ’57 Chevy, and his heart sank I guess.

Maybe he had high hopes, as he’d built a shed onto the back of our house a couple years before and that’s where I conducted experiments with the Gilbert chemistry set he and my mom Maggie bought me one Christmas. I invented nothing useful but did enjoy imagining the shed as my own Frankenstein’s lab and heating up test tubes on the Bunsen-burner, watching them bubble out gooey black substances.

Later my dad saved up his money and built a garage workshop in the backyard. Life changed a lot then. We moved the deep fryer out there, which pleased my mom, who’d always complained of the kitchen smells of fried croaker and whatever other fish we’d catch and clean. But for me the new garage was a place to concoct grand schemes.

At one end of our block was my elementary school, Crossroads. At the other was a gas station. The station had one of those soda machines with a vertical glass door on the left, about two feet high, soda-bottle width. You could see the tasty choices one atop the other, identifiable by their caps. Insert a dime, open the door, pull on the drink of your choice (my faves were Royal Crown Cola, Dr. Pepper, Grapette, and Orange Crush), and out came the bottle. Problem was, in those days, 10 cents could be a lot of money; my first weekly allowance was a quarter, and a dime would be 40 percent of that.

So here I confess my crime, with two variations. First a pal of mine and I figured out we could head to the station after it closed, open the soda machine door and pull one of the bottles as far out as it would come without inserting the dime, maybe an inch or two. You could then pop off the cap with a bottle opener, hold a paper cup underneath the bottle’s mouth, and dispense a few ounces of the sugary treat.

But even before that I’d tried a technique that proved too labor intensive. In our newly built garage, I found I could take a penny, tighten it into the vice on the workbench, and hone it down with a hand-file to the size of a dime. A quick walk up the street, drop that penny-dime into the coin slot, and voila, a soda at a 90 percent discount. Of course it took half an hour or more for the filing job, and so I abandoned the effort about as quickly as the vending companies got rid of those machines that could serve a kid a free half a coke so long as he had an opener and a cup.

It was around this time that the space race was making news. Sputnik I was launched Oct. 4, 1957, and the former Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, recruited to the U.S. after the war, was hard at work developing the Jupiter C rocket and America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, to help us catch up with the Russkies. My own interest in rocketry had already been launched watching a couple of TV series “Captain Video and His Video Rangers,” which aired from 1949-1955, and “Tom Corbett—Space Cadet” (1950-55).

I’m pretty sure I walked a mile or so from our house to Ward’s Corner on Granby Street for 12 consecutive weeks to watch the serialized, “Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.” The cliff-hanger, first released in 1951, was re-issued in 1958, when I think I saw it at the Suburban Theater’s 25¢ Saturday Kiddie Show, which also featured cartoons, coming attractions (nowadays called “trailers”), the occasional newsreel, and a full-length movie or two.

Thus inspired, I determined to turn my dad’s workshop into a rocket factory. A foot-long piece of 1-inch diameter aluminum tubing was the fuselage. I worked for hours scraping the sulfur off the tips of several large boxes of wooden kitchen matches -- enough to fill the tube and fuel my missile’s maiden journey. A pipe-cleaner, bored into the bottom end, was its igniter. All I lacked was something to plug the top, and one of our large lead fishing sinkers was just the right size to fill the opening. To ensure the sinker fit snugly, I needed only to pound it in with my dad’s hefty ball peen hammer.

The rest, as they say, is history - and more than 60 years later I still have the scar on the palm of my left hand. The lead sinker weight, blasted like a bullet from my rocket (a pipe bomb, some might call it), was later discovered on the street in front of our house; the aluminum fuselage which had ripped into my palm was splayed out like a half-shucked corncob. My ears rang for hours, long after the bandaged hand stopped bleeding. Thus ended my short-lived career as a rocket scientist, which had lasted only about as long as my criminal stint at siphoning RCs and counterfeiting dimes.

Rick LaFleur, who was “12 or so” in the late 1950s, is retired from four decades of teaching Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here