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Monday, September 29, 2014

Rocket to the moon

Another tale of loss and affirmation

Phil Burpee

     Let me tell you about this man I know who's building a rocket to the Moon. He's not a physicist or a scientist or any goofy, grinning, billionaire Richard Branson type. He's a cattle producer and barley farmer about an hour and a half's drive outside of Medicine Hat, along a big bend of the Red Deer River. There's nothing much to suggest his place is anything like Cape Canaveral - just a slightly worn old house behind a green ash shelter belt, an old barn, several outbuildings and sheds, some corrals, some farming machinery of varying vintages, and a good size quonset with about a forty-year old Caterpillar bulldozer parked out front. His name is Henry Lafreniere, and he came out of Saskatchewan with his parents in 1953 when he was six years old. He stayed on the place when they died with his wife Ruth.

     They had no kids and she died of complications arising from an abdominal condition in 1994. Henry stayed on and kept the place running, making more or less of a living and largely minding his own affairs. He certainly wasn't getting rich, but he knew enough about what he was doing to stay in the marketplace and keep the money men from his door. Over the years he'd picked up the usual assortment of practical trades for keeping his operation ticking over. He was a good welder, not too bad a metal fabricator, understood most aspects of internal combustion motors, had a smattering of work with explosives under his belt, and could fairly accurately provide an overview of chemical reactivity as it applied to organo-phosphate fertilizers with high nitrogen composition. In short, he knew how to build metal contraptions and how to orchestrate explosive proclivities inherent in certain common agricultural compounds. He had a journeyman's grasp of a wide variety of applications for certain dynamic laws of physics. He also had a very vigorous imagination.

     I got to know Henry through a mutual friend, and I've been following his exploit for about the last four years. Whenever I get the chance I stop by for a coffee and to check in on progress for his planned foray into space. I was trained as a pipefitter and pressurized-gas engineer and I've worked quite a bit on pipelines and refineries and such like over the years. Me and Henry would have some fine jaw-wags over the niceties and details of various aspects of Bernoulli's Principle and the Venturi Effect, and the nature of heat stresses on joints, and the expansion/contraction ratios of certain types of metals. He was particularly interested in thrust co-efficients which I couldn't really help him on, but I did have enough background in applied physics and pressure nozzle characteristics to steer him in the general direction of information sources. There's no doubt that he had a genuine innate regard and intuitive capacity for mechanical interactivity. Fifty years of maintaining a wide array of complex machines had given him a solid respect for the power and persistence of the rule of malfunction. A readiness to conform to changing realities that altered the finest of theories underlay his view of the physical and mechanical world. He would often quote, with a wry smile, the old axiom of warfare - “Walt,” he would say (that's my name). “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” And then he'd chuckle in that wheezy way of his. The enemy here, of course, was entropy - the natural tendency of organized systems to become disorganized - a bad trend in any machine.

     One thing I never questioned was Henry's plan itself. I'd been around enough to know that calling a man out on his dream was a chump's game. I'd spent a little time at the coast over the years, and every once in a while I'd come across some guy tucked away somewhere within access to some little arm of the sea, toiling away with great patience on a boat. Sometimes it was a made-from-scratch affair, and sometimes it was some old tub in the process of loving refurbishment. Typically the project would have been going on for some years, but the dream was always the same. As soon as it was done that guy was going to climb in and sail away - simple as that. He was just going to slip it into the water, point it towards the open sea, and sail away. There was nothing you needed to say - except maybe, “Right on, man - she's lookin' good.”

     Well, Henry's plan was to fly a tobacco tin full of Ruth's ashes to the Moon. And he was planning to make the delivery in person. The funny thing was, he didn't have the slightest air of either foolery or madness about him. He was solid, sober, matter-of-fact, and pretty much always genial. He had set himself a chore, a chore very dear to his heart, and he was making his way methodically through the technical challenges associated with that process. He was going about it pretty much like a man who was tired of putting up stukes of grain by hand for thrashing and winnowing and had set about to make a combine harvester right out of the blue, and right from nothing. He took a good look at the requirements of the job at hand, and then set about bridging the gap between the here and the there. He needed to make a machine to carry him to the Moon, and that's what he'd been working on in his spare time now for the last twelve and a half years. The reason he was doing this was simple in the extreme. One June night just before Ruth had died, they'd been sitting on the porch. He had her propped up as comfortable as possible in a Lazy Boy chair and they were just gazing and gazing at a fine big three-quarter Moon.

     “Henry,” she'd said. “When I'm gone I want you to take my ashes to the Moon.”
     “OK, honey,” he'd answered. “I will. I will”
     And that was that.

     By the time I got to know Henry he had advanced the project considerably. He had fabricated a long series of cradles out of steel strapping, angle-iron, I-beams and re-bar into which he had built the basic fuselage of the rocket. This consisted of a number of Twister grain silos, cut down, closed in and welded together to form a cylinder about eight feet in diameter and approximately sixty-five feet in length. At the head of this, not yet attached, was a command module and lunar lander assembly rather ingeniously formed around the body of a 1966 GMC HandiVan. He was, at that point, still grappling with suitable explosive clamps for effectively separating the booster from the command module and the lander from that. He'd had some reasonably good luck with clustered detonator caps, but there were still a few bugs to be ironed out. There was quite a bit of ready research on the structural requirements of maintaining an enclosed atmospheric pressure in a vacuum, and he had accordingly built some reinforcement ribbing into the van. He had also welded light steel plate over all but the necessary windows, and these he had replaced with half-inch plexiglass which he had found in the junk pile behind a defunct grain-mill in Moose Jaw one time. His seat was already in place, a nicely-upholstered bucket which I recognized to be out of a Ford Aerostar.

     “Henry,” I said. “Couldn't you have got a red one?”
     “It would've been nice, Walt,” he smiled. “But grey was all I could find at the wrecker's.”

     In another area of the quonset he had set up the basic infrastructure of the main thruster motors. These were truly marvellous contrivances to behold. He had taken for his chassis platform the manifold assembly of an old crop-sprayer and brought the various lines down to junction interfaces giving out into the throats of five 5/16th steel cones, about 18 inches in diameter each and maybe 30 inches tall, which I recognized as being salvaged reducers from high-pressure fluid lines, and each with a piped-in ignition port at the choke point. Inside the main body of the rocket he had prepared attachment cradles for two thirty-foot-long industrial propane cylinders which he planned to weld in-line and feed on down to the manifold. The propellant itself was still a work in progress. He had been experimenting with small batches of nitrogen fertilizer to find viable ways to get it to ignite and burn within the confines of a controlled chain-reaction. This had not as yet been entirely successful, and he had shown me some burn patches and scattered bits and pieces of his former lab set-ups. The damn stuff just seemed to have a real enthusiasm for going off all at once. But he knew it was just a matter of applied principles of carburetion in conjunction with the right mix, and felt sure he would get a handle on it in due course. He'd made a few roman candles which had worked not too bad, and even lobbed five or six little irrigation pipe rockets half way across the river. He'd also been in touch with some high-end rocketeers down in California who were doing some pretty spectacular weekend-warrior stuff, but they were typically semi-retired engineers and doctors with lots of money. Henry was operating in an entirely different league. Not only was his goal vastly more audacious than their little arcs of endeavour, but his means were decidedly more modest. And besides, he exercised a certain robust posture of pride and independence, and he was damned if he was going to hitch himself to the bumper of some over-designed Cadillac. He'd make his own way, or make no way at all.

     One day he had given me a call and asked me to drop by when I got the chance. There was something he wanted to show me, and I could tell by the way he was trying to sound so matter-of-fact that he was pretty excited about it. I hadn't been by for a good three months, and I knew he was working on his chemistry quite a bit. I suspected he might have made some advances in his propulsion regimen. Mind you, I was always prepared to get another kind of call - somebody saying they'd found my number by his phone and did I know that Henry had blown himself and his quonset into the next county in about a million pieces. But so far so good. He'd creased his skull once with a shard of exploded axle-housing that he'd been using as a stabilizer, and lost a few eyebrows here and there, but mostly he had arranged to limit collateral damage, including to his person, to an acceptable level.

      I went over there on a Saturday afternoon and found Henry taking a flat tire off his pick-up. He saw me come in and left off his job. I walked over.

     “Humble work for the rocket scientist,” I said.
     “A man's gotta roll before he can fly - first things first, I guess,” he said, as he wiped his hands on his coveralls. Then he pulled out a hankie and took off his glasses and gave them a thoughtful rub.
     “There's something I want you to see. C'mon.”

     We walked over to the front of the quonset where he had set up a three gallon propane bottle secured in a frame with what looked like a modified lawn-mower carburetor fixed on the business end behind a brass regulator valve. Issuing out of the carb was a cone made out of 14 or 15 mil galvanized steel. A six-volt ATV battery was strapped to the frame with leads running to a switch off to the side, and then to the point where the carburetor met the funnel. The whole thing was bolted to a six inch thick concrete slab about four feet on the square, set into a bay made up of old car tires stacked up and filled with concrete. It all looked very business-like. Henry directed me to stand off to the side behind an old stock truck from where I could just see the mouth of the funnel.

     “Watch,” said Henry.

      He walked over and twisted the valve. A slight hissing noise came out. He came back over to where I stood, trailing the switch on its leads and feeding out the wire as he came. A little tongue of vapour curled out from behind the barrier. Henry flicked the switch. There was a moment's pause, followed by a percussive voomp, and then a ripping sort of jet noise coming from behind the barrier.

     “Come look,” he said, with a big kid's grin like he just figured a special new way to shinny down off the barn roof.

     We stepped around to where we could see the action and there was a fine-looking yellow/white cone of high-velocity fire perched crisply at the mouth of the 'engine'. It had a throaty roar to it that belied it's modest presence, and the frame into which it was bolted juddered slightly under the propulsive stress. Clearly this was no mere tiger torch puffing out a few pounds of propane pressure, but something of an altogether different order of magnitude. This appeared to be the makings of true rocketry. Somehow Henry had managed to excite some sort of fuel into discharging a flame through a prescribed aperture at a velocity capable of delivering a truly significant thrust. I knew he had been working on this aspect for quite some time, and so understood his fool grin at the vision of it. The flame licked out about six feet before it morphed into wavy-aired turbulence and a little residual white smoke, scaring up a few dust-devils across the yard out to a distance of maybe seventy or eighty feet.

     “Jesus murphy, Henry,” I spluttered. “What are you burning in that goddamn thing?”

     “Well, Walt,” he rolled off slowly, savouring every morsel of the explanation. “You know I've been having a fair bit of trouble getting this diesel/fertilizer compound to behave. I'm no terrorist so I got no use at all for a straightforward explosion. I must've ruptured or disintegrated a good hundred and fifty containers of one sort or another trying to achieve a controlled combustion. I've tinkered with ratios, introduced inert additives, retardants of one type or another, throttled down, throttled up - everything I could think of - but it would either snuff the whole ignition process altogether, or do nothing at all, and pow! - there would go another canister 'cuz the spark would set off the whole shebang all at once - exponential chain reaction I believe is the term. So I got to thinking. What might inhibit that tendency just enough without altogether dampening the desire of that mixture to burn, and I mean burn hot!? I thought and I thought and I thought. And then I remembered something you had said a while back about the combustion characteristics of long chain sugar molecules - how they love to burn, but only when they have access to oxygen. And then it hit me - and do you know what I finally came up with?”

     “You got me, Henry.”

     “Barley malt! Barley bloody malt! I started mixing in some measures of barley malt, and I'll be goddamned if it didn't turn out that a seven percent admixture by volume of pure barley malt settled that stuff right down and made it altogether amenable to maintaining combustion only right at the throat, without, as far as I can see, showing any further sign of wanting to run away up into the tank, nor diminishing one whit the power of the thrust! Be goddamned, Walt! Waddya say about that!?”

     “I say Eureka!, Henry! Well done. Well done indeed. Old Werner von Braun got nothing on you, I would say. Looks like you just might get your Rocket Man credentials yet. When are you planning to scale this up to something a bit more beefy, though? You can't ride a three gallon propane bottle to the Moon. That HandiVan's gonna need a little punch to break it through the ionosphere, specially carrying you and some beef jerky, and a bottle of rye whisky no doubt.”

      “I'm getting there,” said Henry, as the little stationary rocket tore at the barnyard air with enthusiasm.

     “That thing will flame out in about four minutes. But I'm going to make a hundred gallon model with a closeable electric valve and a proportionately bigger throat and mouth to see if scaling up will alter the behaviour. Beyond that I plan to develop the full size unit which I pretty much won't be able to test before I go, 'cuz I figure I wouldn't be able to hold on to it once it got going. It's like those guys in that movie where they crash their plane in the desert and the toy plane maker builds them a full-size one out of the wreckage to fly out. Wing and a prayer, Walt - wing and a prayer. I'm gettin' old and it's time to move along with things - can't wait for that frosty Sunday. Time waits for no man. Eventually a man's got to strap in and go.”

     “Words to live by, Henry. Words to live by.”

----------------------o-------------------------

      Over the next little while I stopped by whenever I could to check on progress. He'd run his hundred gallon model and had excellent results, although he admitted he had a certain amount of difficulty getting the thing to stay in its cradle - set the “whole christly thing to rockin' and rollin' somethin' awful” he said. He was a little worried that the way it was pointed, if it came loose it might corkscrew itself the eleven miles to the nearest town and take out the Baptist church.

     “Might give them some pause to consider the nature of divine intervention,” was all he said. 

      But his electric valve had worked well, and the expanded size of the unit seemed to have no appreciable effect on the burn propensity of the system. He had a pretty good idea what the actual thrust ratio was, gleaned from securing his test frames with car springs attached to sensors which activated pressure feet on a digital weigh scale he normally used for weighing grain sacs. He had a strong sense that it had power to spare for the purpose at hand - which was, of course, to achieve the 17,000 miles per hour escape velocity necessary to break free of Earth's gravity. Taking a number of variables into account, he'd ascertained that if he could burn his big motor for seven minutes and forty-five seconds, he would crack through the roof of the world and be in a position to fire his secondaries and “get entirely the hell out of Dodge”, as he was fond of saying. You'd have to say it was more or less the shotgun approach to science - throw enough ammo into the system and you had a reasonable chance of hitting the target. But what is science if not a deeply codified expression of faith? If I step off the bridge, I will fall in the water. Action and consequence - the gateway to all mystery.

---------------------------o-----------------------------

     The last time I saw Henry was about the third week of September. He'd left me a message and wanted to show me his newest component. When I got there he was welding up some gantry supports on the big concrete apron outside the quonset. He greeted me with his usual courtly expansiveness and ushered me into the shop. There hanging on a rack was a fairly funky-looking suit with a steel helmet. It looked like a linear descendent of those old diving suits from the 1950s when men figured they should be able to walk around on the bottom of the ocean for one reason or another. These things had to be kept pressurized by pumps up on the support boat, or the water pressure would seek to neutralize the atmospheric pressure inside both the suit and the pressure supply line. I remember reading a story once where some poor schmuck was a couple thousand feet down when the pump quit. When they hauled him up there was a bunch of bones crunched up in the suit, and his flesh was squeezed up into the helmet and about six hundred feet up into the two-inch line - must have had a helluva headache just before everything popped.

      “Well, this is nice, Henry. Where'd you get a hold of it?”

     “Damned e-bay,” he said. “This guy down in Florida somewhere was selling it. He'd been contracting doing underwater welding jobs of one type or another but he said he was getting too old and thought he might try his hand at something a little less strenuous - figured he'd try walking the high steel for a while - 'A more sedate pursuit for a man of my advancing years.' - is how he put it.” Henry cackled. “Anyway, nine hundred bucks and I figure a bargain at the price. I can easy hook into it with my tanks and alls I gotta keep it at is one atmospheric pressure, which is nothing compared to the bottom of the goddamn Gulf of Mexico.”
Henry beamed like a nine-year old with a new bike. I looked around at the looming mass of the project as it lay like a great galvanized steel whale along the length of the shop. The GMC was beautifully tucked into a finely-tapering cone of stainless steel from a sheet I remember Henry had got from a milk-tanker manufacturer. On the side of the main body he had painted a rather lovely portrait of an angel with rainbow flowing robes and golden, streaming hair, her right arm outstretched towards a yellow crescent moon, and the other clutching a nicely-rendered Sweet Caporal tobacco tin. Various stars were scattered around the scene, and around the skirt just above the rocket assembly he had painted the black and white, checkerboard Purina Dog Chow markings so beloved of the old 1960s Saturn '5' rocketeers.

     “I think that checker-line gives the whole thing a certain professional look, don't you, Walt?”

      “It surely does, Henry. It surely does. And I've brought you a little something else to add to your kit. I hope it won't upset your weight considerations, but it only weighs about nine or ten ounces.” I pulled a small industrial laser unit out of my pocket. “We use these for line-up when we're setting pieces of pipe over a long visual line. It's a bright little sonofabitch, about a thousand times brighter than those little dealies people use for power point lectures and such, and you don't want to ever look right at it. But it'll hold a dot a long, long way out. I figure by the time it would hit the upper atmosphere from the Moon it would still only have about the diameter of a dime. If somebody's looking with a telescope to where you're at at the right time when you fire this thing, they're going to see a red flash. After you go I'll check the Net to find out if anybody got it. If it's seen, I'll know.”

      I handed the thing to Henry. He turned it over in his hands a few times and a wide grin stretched itself over his face. He looked me in the eye and gave a slight nod, a warm twinkle dancing in his eyes. Then he got up and went over and tucked the thing in a utility pocket in his suit, velcroed it down snug. And there I remember him standing, a slight, ageing man with a boney face and thinning grey hair, his coveralls suitably tattered and speckled with welding burns, and all around him the thundering physical manifestation of a dream born of a lightly-tossed comment, offered out that warm night so long ago, from a Lazy Boy chair, beneath a Summer Moon, offered out with the easy expectation of assured fulfilment, as though it were a request to pick some sunflowers for a morning bouquet - “........take my ashes to the Moon.”

     “Walt, I suppose you know I haven't made any arrangements to get myself back up if I get there. I'm planning to use compressed air jets air to slow me down enough to maybe hit with a rolling tumble. I got twenty-six air-bags set into that GMC all wired in parallel that I'm hoping will go off when I hit. I figure if it's not more than about sixty or seventy miles an hour, and I come in at a pretty good angle, and I don't smack into a boulder or the wall of a crater, I just might make it to a stop in one piece. But I'll be down when I'm down. I'll bury Ruth's ashes with a nice view of the Earth, then I'll pull out my folding patio chair, set it up, and set myself down to enjoy the show. I won't forget to shine your laser light either. But I figure the cold's gonna get me before too long - or I'm gonna run out of air - whichever. So you'll have to take it on good account that I did the best I could in the best way I could determine to be the man I was asked to be. Beyond that, as far as I can see, the rules don't even apply.”

      “I know, Henry. I have never questioned either your plan or your intent. It is what it is, and I have enjoyed every moment of the journey so far. I suppose you're about the sanest person I know, and you're certainly living your life at about a hundred and fourteen percent. And hell - some men decide to go to the mountains so they can piss in the woods - and some men go to the Moon, so they can honour their loving bonds. There's lots of guys out there falling asleep in front of Jeopardy. So hit the switch, my friend. Let the glory blaze.”

     So, you might ask, why would I not call somebody about this crazy, old fool? Surely some form of intervention might be called for before a man climbs into an old GMC van on top of a massive fertilizer bomb and flicks a little piezo-electric switch to blast the whole thing to kingdom come. Surely the decent thing to do would be to alert the appropriate authorities to firmly curtail such foolery and get this man the drugs he so clearly needs to bring him to his senses. Surely getting Henry busted would be the right thing to do. And surely the whimpering demise of a man's love and honour is preferable to starry-eyed conflagration. Surely, surely, surely.

     One cool and rainy Sunday in the first week of October I was home for the weekend. I hadn't talked to Henry since the day I'd left him the laser. We'd shared a glass or two of Wiser's that day, and had spoken of small things in a warm and convivial atmosphere of whisky vapours and good cheer. He had had a great calm about him, and seemed oddly beatific in his self-effacing way - the little cat who had just had his cream.
We had spent the last half hour of our visit in easy silence. Words had settled with the gathering dusk. He had subsequently left me a message this previous week asking me to stop by after lunch that Sunday. I'd headed over a little early as I was keen to see his progress. And I was feeling the long chain of our friendship was near to being broken.

      I was driving along through a light drizzle. The weather channel had showed a big, lazy bag of stratus cloud all across the southern prairie - hardly a breath of wind and a steady rain soaking down the whole country. This stuff was typically only six or seven thousand feet thick and more or less flat on top. In a light plane the weather would be glorious up above, the blanket of shining, roiling cloud stretching out to the horizon. It was just at the spot where the road comes up out of a big coulee about three miles from Henry's place when I felt a funny kind of rattling in the back of my teeth. I went along a couple hundred more yards, then started to feel it in my ass too. I pulled over, thinking maybe my timing belt was letting go or something, but the motor seemed to be running okay. Then the sound worked its way up from my butt through my spine and finally made its way into my ears. Except it was a sound so big you could scarcely even call it a sound - more just this thundering presence pervading the whole space of the world and everything in it. The car was dancing like a penny on a washing machine, and the air all around seemed to want to split open under the pressure of it all. My brain went briefly into disconnect until I beheld a vision through my windshield. Three miles ahead, directly over Henry's farm, a great, ripping tongue of yellow/white flame was just entering the lower deck of that vast, grey canopy of welcoming cloud. And then it was gone - but not the sound. The monstrous, abiding, symphonic crescendo of Henry Lafreniere's barley malt rocket ship rising grandly into the sky consumed all other realities across the landscape as it made its way up and up and up into the waiting fastness. I stepped out into the rain and stood transfixed, mute with awe, as the droplets trickled down my collar and soaked my shirt. The roar continued, beautifully consistent and ever-rising. I finally came around enough to hitch up my collar and reach inside for my hat. After about three or four minutes the sound tapered off and was replaced by the light patter of raindrops on the roof of the car. I became aware of my heart racing in my chest, and of a sense of thrill and exultation suffusing every corpuscle of my being. My breathing began to slow as I took stock of the situation. And suddenly I needed a smoke real bad. I jumped back in the car, lit one up, and spit some rocks as I swerved down the road towards Henry's place.

     As I entered the farm yard I could see right away that the quonset was toast - stripped back like a filleted fish into a charred relic of it's former self. A few bits and pieces were burning in the falling rain, and a big, drifting cloud of dirty ignition smoke was still rolling around the area. The gantry was tumbled over on its side, so Henry's decoupling detonators must have worked just fine. Maybe they'd work on his booster too. A huge, radiating circle of charred ground stretched out to a radius of about a hundred and fifty feet or so, and the chicken house was just a smudge with a few flickering yellow flames licking up out of the debris. I knew Henry hadn't had any birds in there for quite a while - ever thoughtful. His house was a good two hundred yards back and was untouched, except for maybe a little blistered paint. I headed over.

     Pinned to the screen door was a short note - “Walt – check the kitchen table.”

     I went in and went to the kitchen. There on the table was a little child's toy telescope, Henry's gold pocket watch, and an old copy of Jules Verne's 'From the Earth to the Moon'. Beside them lay a note from Henry with date and time - three hours earlier this morning. Here's what it said....

     Well, Walt. It's time to go. This rain will make sure I don't burn down the country with either my exhaust or my fireball. I feel good. I thank you for your companionship. It has meant a great deal. I am setting off for the Moon. Whether or not I get there does not much matter. I hold up my Ruth, and if you'll forgive me a bit of poetry, I likewise hold up my Truth. No man can be more content than I am. I am without regret and filled with singular purpose. Be well.

Your friend,

Henry

P.S. Remember Mr. Morse

     I sat at the table and held the note. I listened to my own breathing as I contemplated the man in the van, piercing the roof of the sky. What, indeed, is a man's life? And what truly is the nature of regret? But who the hell was Mr. Morse?


------------------------o-----------------------------


     The only off-site physical evidence of Henry's departure had been the sudden arrival from above of a big cylinder of Twister grain silos with a huge empty propane tank inside and a charred chemical-sprayer manifold and five blackened steel cones at the bottom. They had implanted themselves about four feet into a canola field just east of Lloydminster. Several airliners had observed an undocumented contrail rising at an approximately eighty-five degree angle in a northeasterly direction. And several thousand people along a trajectory between Henry's farm and a point close to the Saskatchewan border had reported hearing a series of sonic booms trailing off into the distant sky. The Space Station similarly reported an unusual sighting of an apparent non-scheduled rocket event emanating from the direction of western Canada. And I can only suppose that the Ruskies were scrambling around in some throwback Cold War consternation at the alarming vision of an unannounced launch event moving in a vaguely north-polar arc. Apart from that it got a few “Here's a funny one for ya” thirty second slots on various news shows, and one query in Question Period to the Minister of Defence concerning the apparently cavalier regard exhibited by Suffield Canadian Forces Base for environmental considerations, not to mention public safety.

     About a week later I went on-line to look for any evidence of unusual visual phenomena on the Moon. It was a kind of dread compulsion to do so. Unless I had somehow quietly entered Wonderland, I could not conceive of any other reasonable outcome for Henry's escapade other than catastrophic immolation. Mind you, having said that, I pretty much figured he'd disassemble his molecules right there in his farm yard and damned if he didn't manage to not do that very thing. So I had come to feel that the game was, after all, and very weirdly, quite open. I knew Henry could hit the planet with that laser, even if he was a bit clumsy in his big welder's gauntlets. It had good sights and it would only take the beam a second and a half to get here. But I also knew it would only be visible in direct line of sight and that the diameter of the beam when it hit the ground would be challengingly small. Nonetheless...........

     Late Sunday night of that following week, fully one week after Henry's departure, and near, I knew, to his oxygen storage limit, I was surfing the Net for any of a variety of potential indicators - lunar oddities, flash on Moon, Moon laser, strange light on Moon, red light from Moon, moonbeam, lunar signal - when all of a sudden, through all the gibberish and wacko junk, there came a link triggered from my query moonflashes? It came from a fourteen-year-old boy in Slovakia. He had been studying the brilliant display of rays emanating from the crater Tycho for a school science project with a six inch scope when he had seen flashes from deep inside the floor of the crater. He had excitedly posted in somewhat shaky English - I am see moonflashes from crater Tycho in red lights. These are signal I witness - short flash, long flash, long flash - short flash, long flash - short flash, long flash, short flash, short flash - long flash. These repeat sometime several minute then gone. Is anyone see these?

     “Jeezus,” I said. “Jeezus, jeezus!”

     I went over to the box of books Henry had given me. There. 'Morse Code, Hand Signals and Semaphore for Boys Scouts.' Mr. Morse! I flipped it open, my heart in my throat - dot dash dash – dot dash – dot dash dot dot – dash .......... W – A – L – T.

     I slumped at the kitchen table and cradled my head in my arms. Outside the Autumn wind blew high and wild. I could not form words in my brain - only a bright image. I saw Henry, in his folding patio chair, with a little mound of lunar dirt piled up beside him, pointing his light at the big, beautiful blue and white ball up in his inky, black sky. And then I could hear him just as plain as day - “Can't wait for that frosty Sunday, Walt. Eventually a man's just got to strap in and go.”

Words to live by, Henry. Words to live by.

1 comment:

  1. Trent29/9/14

    Phil;
    That was as entertaining, interesting and well-written a short story as anything I've read recently. Great story with a wonderful turn of phrase -- you paint with words, man!

    ReplyDelete

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