It is a clear cold November 5th sometime in the late 1950’s. I stood with my father and mother watching with, frosty clouds of bated breath, my elder brother Willie von Braun proudly preparing his rocket for take-off.
Influenced by the famous schematic centre page drawings in the Eagle comic and recent news of Russian dogs and monkeys being sent into orbit, Willie had decided that he would design and build his very own rocket, a large one. Amongst other components propellant was required; a lot of it and he had persuaded our gang to donate the gunpowder from our fireworks as fuel for his projectile.
This was a big ask. We reveled in our seasonal activities which involved harassing the town’s population by lobbing penny bangers, our weapon of choice, at innocent bystanders, creating shock and awe; mostly shock. We roamed around like small Hamas suicide bombers with our pockets crammed with explosives, probably enough, in the event of an accident, to blow a leg off at the thigh.
Willie constructed the rocket with our proud father looking on in admiration. It was large tubular object with a pointy nose cone, fins and supported on four spindly legs. Based on my avid reading of comics featuring daring stories of the Second World War I saw a bomb; our father impressed by his eldest sons scientific endeavours, a Starship.
Over the weeks leading up to Guy Fawkes Night the body of Willie’s rocket was gradually filled up with gunpowder from our dismantled bangers and other fireworks. I suspect that other chemical substances had been added. The previous Christmas, to my brother’s manic glee a chemistry set had been his main present; a reckless gift in my opinion. Soon after strange smells and noises seeped from the utility room and odd events occurred. A hole of about two inches in diameter appeared in our garden bench, a church pew salvaged the demolished surplus village church. The hole with scorched edges had been blown clean through the two inch thick seat panel. My mother and father looked at the hole, scratched their heads and talked in hushed voices of Acts of God and meteor particles from outer space. But I knew; not how but who.
The launch day arrived and on a clear moonlight night Willie’s rocket stood proudly but precariously on a plywood board, placed there at my father’s insistence to protect the lawn. The rocket pointed menacingly at the stars; the centerpiece of the that year’s display.
After a paltry show of the fireworks bought by my dad, Willie advanced confidently across lawn and lit the slow burning fuse, a product of his chemistry experiments, and retreated. Precisely two minutes later the rocket burst into life; more fizz than roar. It jigged about like a demented Riverdance performer then, failing to defy gravity, slowly toppled over to lie facing our small family group, hissing threateningly. My father was now brought to his senses and, drawing on his wartime experience as a Master Gunner in the Royal Artillery he now, at last, saw a bomb not a rocket. and swiftly shepherded us down the garden away from the potential blast zone. Thankfully there was no explosion; the rocket, in it’s death throes finally roared into life and sped around the lawn in ever increasing circles before finally expiring in the rose bed.
My father commiserated with the young von Braun unaware of the intricate Celtic pattern scorched in the lawn which would only be revealed at sunrise.