About 2 weeks ago, I was looking around the Web for the BIGGEST
skyrocket that I could get shipped to me via common freight carrier. I located a
fireworks importer in Wisconsin who had this mondo skyrocket… biggest
thing I had ever seen…called a Sky Dragon. These things are 48 inches
tall and are mounted on a 2-inch wooden dowel. Pure aerospace
I plopped down a bunch of money and had them send me two cases of the
things. The arrived at the freight dock in a few days and I had to drive
the van over to pick them up. Two boxes each 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet
in size containing 80 rockets each. The “Class 4 Explosives” sticker on
the side of each box was a real bonus. I am gonna have to save them for
That night, me and the kiddos had a gen-u-ine rocket launch ceremony. I
placed one of these beauties in a liter-size glass bottle and the bottle
fell over. “Hmmmm… this thing was waaay too big.” I looked around the
shop for a pipe to set it in, but realized that the only dirt I could
drive the pipe into was in plain sight of my neighbor’s house. I knew he
was a cool guy, but I didn’t want him to call the cops. You see,
“projectile-type” fireworks are totally illegal in this county. I was
surprised that the Buncombe County Sheriff Department wasn’t waiting for
me at the loading dock when I picked these things up.
Anyhow, I finally rigged a launch pad by prying up one of the driveway
drain grates with a crowbar and sitting the stick into the deep pit.
Looked sorta like an ICBM silo with its hardened lid slid aside. I asked
which of my three kids wanted to light the fuse, but all took a few
steps back and politely declined. Chicken-shits. Kids just aren’t made the
same nowadays. They fulfill their danger quotient by shooting bad guys in
video games. About as far from real danger as you can get, if you ask
I told the little weenies to stand back as I bent to light the device
with a Bic lighter. The lady at the fireworks importer promised me that
these things would NOT make any noise. I told her that they HAD to be
relatively quiet so I could shoot them off in my neighborhood without
causing undue alarm.’ She said I wouldn’t have any problem. I
emphasized the particular legal problems I would have if there were any
type of loud report at apogee. I emphasized the fact that I lived right
next to a National Park and that any type of firework that was
discharged or assumed to be discharged on that property would get me sent before a
FEDERAL judge right before I got sent to the COUNTY judge. She again
assured me I would have no problem; that lying bitch.
That rocket engine had a burn time about as long as any I had EVER seen,
and the ascent echoed off the surrounding trees. Diamond shock patterns
extended from the back end. It kept going and going and going. When it
hit apogee at about 1000 feet, the rocket disintegrated into a huge
shower of silent red sparks. Pretty cool, I thought… until the shower
of sparks burned out and suddenly transformed into a cloud of extremely
bright and loud explosions.
The kids scrambled into the back door “Three Stooges style” (i.e., where
all three try to get through the same door at once) and left me standing
in the smoking haze waiting for the cops to arrive. The dogs that live
along our street were all barking their heads off at the apparition they
had just witnessed in the night sky. That ended the fireworks test for
The next day, my oldest son Doug and I decided we were gonna ‘neuter’
one of the rockets so it wouldn’t make any noise. I took him into the closet
where I store the gardening tools and he saw these two huge cases of
fireworks standing there. The kid went nuts. He wanted to open BOTH
boxes so he could see what all 159 rockets looked like lined up next to each
other. This kid has promise… I told him: “Since mom only thinks I have
a few of these things lying around, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.
“He mulled that over for a few seconds, then gave me a real big smile in
agreement. We pulled one of the rockets out of the box and re-locked the
closet door. He and I both sat down on the driveway and proceeded to
take it apart.
It was a standard issue big-ass Chinese skyrocket. I bet they used these
to kill people 500 years ago. As I sat there taking layer after layer of
paper off, his brain was filling with the details of construction.
Tissue, cardboard, plastic, fuses… etc. Realizing that he was mentally
storing the design for some future project sorta made me shudder. All I
was thinking was the fact that this thing was probably put together by a
political prisoner in a hellhole somewhere who is probably gonna get
executed so they can sell his internal organs on the transplant market.
Probably not too far from the facts, but I managed to do a bit of
explaining to him from the standpoint of aerospace engineering regarding
how the thing worked. Doug is probably the only 4th grader in the U.S.
who can now describe the principle of thrust using a control volume
The rocket was pretty simple. It had a very large booster engine topped
with a warhead that contained the red sparkly things that exploded.
Removing the warhead was as simple as giving a quick twist, and I
assumed the neutered rocket would fly higher without the payload. I was correct.
Doug and I did a daylight ‘stealth’ test and were able to add about 50%
to the altitude attained the previous night. We decided to modify four
more rockets and put them aside in the closet for easy access.
When this was done, Doug had a jar full of stuff that came out of the
warheads including: 12 fuses about 3 inches long each, some paper, 4
plastic nose cones, and a big handful of these little black balls about
the size of 12-gauge buckshot that turned out to be the “red sparkly
popper things.” It appeared that the outer layer was a simple gunpowder
coating designed to quickly burn off as red shower of sparks. I surmised
that the inner core had some kind of magnesium thermite that gave off an
intense white light and a loud bang. Pretty cool if you ask me. Lots of
energy packed into one teeny little ball. I didn’t want to see the
popper thingies go to waste, so I told Doug we were gonna put them in a hole in
the ground and set them off. He gave me another big smile. It’s amazing
how kids think alike… even when separated by 30 years.
As I was digging a shallow hole with my hand, Doug asked if it would be
all right to put an army man next to these things so that “When they go
off, it would look like he was getting shot with a machinegun.” Damn…
exactly what I was thinking. I agreed and he ran off to his room to dig
something out of the mess. He returned in about 3 seconds, out of breath
and holding a cheap plastic imitation of Robert E. Lee on horseback and
a Civil War cannon. I pointed out that they didn’t have true machine guns
in the Civil War, but we would overlook this for the purpose of the
demonstration. He handed me the action figure and I placed it and the
cannon next to a rather large pile of black beads from which a few of
the fuses extended. I guessed or figured that three inches of fuse would
take 2 seconds to burn, so I had at least that amount of time to stand up and
take a few steps back. I neglected to recount the night before… when
the warhead ignited IMMEDIATELY upon reaching apogee. Tricky Chinese.
They had installed extremely fast-burning fuse in these things and that
fact totally escaped me. I squatted next to Robert Lee and gave a short
eulogy. Doug laughed. I took the trusty Bic lighter and placed it next
to the fuse.
One flick got the lighter going and THIS IMAGE IS ONE I WILL REMEMBER
FOR A LONG TIME?
My hand holding a lighter next to pile of explosives.
There is usually a short but noticeable mental pause that occurs
immediately before something bad or really stupid happens. It is where
that little voice in your head says: “You dumb-ass.”
The fuse burn-time was in the 1000ths of a second range. The pile of
little popper thingys immediately ignited into a tremendously brilliant
ball of fire. All I could think was… “Oh crap! Thermite!!”
Unfortunately, when they are viewed at ground level, these little popper
thingys become REALLY BIG POPPER THINGYS and have a tendency to jump up
to 15-feet in every direction from their point of ignition. I
instantaneously became engulfed in a ball of fire that sounded a lot
like being in a half-done bag of microwave popcorn.
It was all over about as fast as I could snap my fingers. After the
smoke cleared, Doug started laughing his butt off. That meant I was still in
one piece (Doug does not laugh at dismembered limbs). He said I jumped
about 10-feet, an action that I do not remember. I checked my clothes
for burn marks, and found plenty. He checked my back to make sure it was not
on fire. No combustion there. Just singed eyebrows and hair. And arm
hair. And ears. Also, the driveway was peppered with black holes where
the concrete had been scarred from these things. A close one. (Another)
REAL close one. My mind ran the tapes again to re-hash what it had seen.
All I remembered was being inside something akin to a 30-foot diameter
We examined Ol’ Robert E. at Ground Zero. Instead of a machine-gun
peppering, he got nuked. He and the horse he rode in on… and his
cannon too. One side was untouched, but the other side was arc-welded. Real
warfare! Doug examined it real quiet-like and then started laughing
again. I assume he will remember the finer points of the lesson as he
grows older. When I now speak of “almost being burned beyond
recognition” he will have a slightly better understanding of what I mean?
I hope that this vivid image tempers the knowledge he now has regarding
rocket construction. Oh well. After all, if your dad isn’t gonna teach
you how not to get your ass blown off, who will?!