Rocket glared red on Independece Day

By Bob Huber

When Independence Day — the holiday, not the movie — rolls into town each year on a Wal-Mart truck, I always remember the launching of America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. That singular event established once and for all that children should never play with matches.

It began one summer when my friend Smooth Heine and I left a movie matinee all squinty-eyed and patriotic because of a Buck Rogers saga that showed us what Hollywood scenario writers could do with the 25th Century.

“Boy, that Buck Rogers,” Smooth said. “He inspires me to greatness.” I nodded, but I knew better.

To understand my apprehension you should realize that within the confines of our 11-year-old limited partnership Smooth had involved my tender body in a dozen life-threatening schemes. Still, I remained an official camp follower, a reluctant grunt who should have stayed in bed.

That said, picture Smooth as he grabbed my arm and pointed at a store window. A poster there said, “July 4 Fireworks Show, Bring the Family, 8 p.m., Sponsored by the Local Volunteer Fire Dept. and Your Friendly Merchants.”

“That’s it!” Smooth said. “We’ll give their show a little bonus in the form of a giant, get-to-Mars, Buck Rogers rocket.

When the firemen take a breather to reload, you’ll set her off.”

“What do you mean, I’ll set her off?”

Smooth ignored me. “We’ll become heroes, depending on our survival rate.”


Anyway, during the next few days we gathered rusty rain gutters and bailing wire for a Rube Goldberg launch mechanism, and on top of that we manufactured a three-stage rocket out of steel irrigation pipe. Directions for the rocket came from a tattered edition of “Dell Comics,” always our project Bible.

For initial phase fuel we used black powder from old shotgun shells that Smooth’s father kept in his work shed, and we stuffed gunny sacks soaked in gasoline between the rocket’s two remaining stages. Then after dark on the night of July 4 we began our final countdown in the boulders overlooking my hometown.

I huddled behind a makeshift bunker of brush and held a long snakeweed torch. Smooth, meanwhile, leaped on his bike and rode away. He explained later that he wanted a better vantage point, because he was planning a first-person account of modern rocketry for “Popular Science” magazine.

The volunteer firemen, meanwhile, began their fireworks show below. Pop! Zing! The crowd sighed, “Ooooh, aaaah.” I mumbled, “Boy, are you guys in for a surprise.”

Then came the predicted pause while firemen reloaded, and I thrust the burning snakeweed at our rocket and closed my eyes. It was a good thing, because the resulting explosion eliminated my eyebrows, my elaborate pompadour, and most of my clothing, and I was tossed ruthlessly backward in a cloud of acrid smoke and bunker debris.

Our rocket didn’t lift slowly like Buck Rogers’ craft. It roared away in a blinding flash, turned a figure eight, and descended like a smart bomb on the crowd below. Ovations from the crowd turned from “Ooooh, aaaah,” to “AAAEEIIIIII!”

Both the second and third stages erupted simultaneously a moment later and directed the nose cone into the fireworks left behind by the panicked firemen. That in turn caused a blast that illuminated the night sky in 50 directions.

The crowd stopped running, and they sighed, “Ooooh! Aaaah!”

Needless to say, it was the grandest July 4 fireworks extravaganza ever witnessed in my hometown. I might add it was also the shortest. The firemen, some of whom didn’t stop running until they reached the summit of Lookout Mountain, might have had other thoughts, but they received so many accolades over the display that they kept quiet.

To this day my eyebrows are a little sparse, like new growth after a forest fire, and my pompadour never did come back.

When I got home that night, my mother looked up and said, “Go wash your face and get to bed. That is you, Robert, isn’t it?”

I suppose I could have had eyebrows tattooed on later, but my incinerated pompadour presented a deeper problem. I thought about training a squirrel to sit up there and look pompadourish, but all in all, it seemed like too much trouble.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.