The Rockets' Red Glare - Lake Erie Ride Part 3
Reunions make me anxious. In particular reunions with people I knew in high school and before make me nervous because they feel like a singles bar where you’re a piece of meat being sized up according to criteria you have no control over, only with reunions the criteria are purely historical and people are addled when you don’t act like you did at eighteen. And what’s the sense of connecting with people most of whom I didn’t like even when I was in high school? But today, in Lewiston, New York, I’m to meet a guy named Freddie and his wife Marilyn: Freddie was my best friend for the first twenty years of our lives, and Marilyn is Freddie’s high school sweetheart. John and Jill, our motorcycle companions on this circumnavigation of Lake Erie, and my wife Nell and I are to meet them at a Lewiston restaurant called Mangia run by women Freddie knows. I have had no contact with either Freddie or Marilyn these past fifty years.
The Village of Lewiston has 3,000 residents and is prosperous; the short main drag contains many yuppie cafes and coffee houses, restaurants and bakeries, with most of them, like Mangia, located in restored clapboard homes replete with mature shade trees, shutters, winding cobblestone paths, and flagstone patios. We arrived at Mangia early and pulled two round umbrella equipped patio tables together in anticipation of Freddie and Marilyn. A vivid sun in a cobalt sky declared mid-morning, but the air was dry and cool. We ordered coffee while waiting.
About four months ago I got a reach-out email from Freddie wanting to know how I was and what I was doing in life. Coincidentally several other former high school classmates had contacted me (I guess we understand we’re playing the back nine of life and find connecting with childhood acquaintances reassurance that we are not yet alone), and in the course of conversations they mentioned Freddie was alive and well, but that he was a politically dogmatic outspoken conservative.
I don’t usually get along with very conservative people — being myself quite liberal — but getting old, I don’t have the sophomoric zeal or patience to argue politics so I avoid people of the opposite ilk who irritate me, or I reserve my political expressions to Facebook snipes. Also, more and more, the “I don’t give a shit” factor is gaining ground within me. Besides, the rapid flow of information and events often overrun my political principles to the point that I have adopted Groucho Marx’s attitude: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.”
Not sure what I wanted to do, I waited a couple of weeks before I responded to Freddie’s email then decided what the hell, for twenty years we were best buddies and never needed political discussion to define who we were, so maybe we could repeat that for the final twenty or so. We exchanged emails, sticking to the small stuff, and mutually, cautiously, decided we had so much history that maybe, just maybe, we should meet and explore a basic, rekindled friendship. When I told Freddie about our planned Lake Erie trip, we set a meeting time and place. If it was anybody but Freddie and Marilyn, I wouldn’t have cared.
Jill was still on the hunt to find something to waterproof her raingear and said after brunch she was going to search nearby stores. I was about to suggest something to Jill but instead slipped into a reverie wondering how I would recognize Freddie, something I’d been thinking about for days. The Mangia front yard was delineated by a white picket fence running the width of the lot, anchored on each side by boxwood hedges. On the left side of the yard an abstract windmill with a double rotor of sickle blades turned erratically and lent the yard a contemporary ambiance; its unpredictable motion caught my eye and the late model Cadillac that slid into the parking spot directly in front of Mangia almost slipped my attention.
A man and a woman got out and I thought the man, who was my height and slim by senior standards, could possibly be Freddie, but I couldn’t clearly see his face. No way that the woman was Marilyn: she had red hair, not Lucille Ball Henna-bottle red but more chestnut red as befits an older gal. When a younger man joined the man and woman I decided this couldn’t be Freddie and Marilyn. But it was. The moment the man saw me and produced a big smile I knew it was Freddie: it was the way his smile pushed his cheeks up, forcing his eyes to squint; it was the way he wore his glasses high on the bridge of his nose, though thin metal rims had replaced black plastic ones; it was his father’s almost full head of hair combed straight back, the only concessions to baldness being widow’s peaks that had yet to fully assert themselves; it was the way he carried himself with unguarded confidence. Yeah he was old, but it was Freddie all right. He was tanned and wore a blue polo shirt that partially hid a gold necklace. He looked fit.
The redhead was Marilyn and the closer she got the more I knew it. She was thin, as usual, and almost frail looking, though I remembered how that frailness masked a tough interior and sharp intelligence that snuck up on the unsuspecting. Marilyn had on a dark blue, almost purple, cowl-neck knit sweater opened at the throat exposing a silver necklace of contemporary design set with small blue stones; a silver poodle pin was attached below her left shoulder complementing small silver earrings.
Freddie and Marilyn and I exchanged hugs and Freddie introduced the younger man with them (I guessed was in his early to mid-forties) as their son Eric. I introduced Nell and John and Jill and we sat. The relaxed conversation developed organically with my talking to Marilyn and Eric (whom I immediately liked because he too was a biker), and John and Jill and Nell talking to Freddie. We talked about our siblings, and kids and grandkids, sorting through ages and birth chronologies. When we talked about dead parents and when they died, and how they died, and what they were like when they died, and we did so with unspoken self-consciousness and deference to the fact that we were next in line.
During our email exchange I learned Freddie was a Corvette buff and recently purchased a new special-edition model. When I said to Marilyn that I expected they would show up in the Corvette, she said nothing but pained distress griped her face as if a family member had died; I was confused but dropped the subject, thinking maybe Freddie suffered from dementia, had fabricated a Corvette in his email, and today we just happened to catch him on a lucid day.
Just as I thought, Nell then brought up our seeing the beach on Grand Island where I lost my virginity. I couldn’t remember the name of the place and somebody said it was Beaver Island State Park. To which Marilyn said, “Well that’s an appropriate name.” The laughter made me finally relax.
The meal lasted for about an hour and a half and Freddie and I didn’t say much to each other until Freddie mentioned that he still had a the 8mm home movie that his dad had made of one of our rocket launches. I asked if he could make me a copy and he said he would. Then he said, “You know if we did today what we did back then, they would call us terrorists.”
Jill left to look for waterproofing and triggered the separation ritual that consisted of picture taking and John saying he was going to find Jill and meet us back at the motel. I didn’t want the reunion to end (I still wanted to know about the damn Corvette) and suggested they come to our motel to see Big Ruby. Freddie readily agreed and said he would drive us though it was only a couple of blocks walk to our motel. As soon as we were in his car Freddie said with gravitas, “I didn’t want to bring this up at the table, but a terrible thing happened.”
Oh, oh, I thought, somebody did die.
“I was in an accident with the Corvette. This lady ran a stop sign and I T-boned her.”
“Was anybody hurt?” I asked.
“No, but the Vette suffered around $30,000 damage.”
“Whoa,” I said, “you must have been moving.”
“Not really. I was going so slow the airbag didn’t even go off.”
Because of the low rates of speed the accident didn’t amount to much in terms of drama and injury, but what disturbed Freddie was that a “family member” had been injured and there was the possibility she (Marilyn had dubbed the Vette “The other woman”) would never be the same. Several times Freddie and Eric checked on the repair progress, and things were not going well. Freddie shook his head and talked about the possibility of retaining a lawyer (the crash would involve a big loss of vehicle value) and the apparent carelessness of some mechanics, and how some repair shops won’t deal with Corvettes because their owners are so picky.
I was not sure how to react: To me it was a car, but to Freddie it was something coveted and loved. Then we pulled into the motel parking lot and I looked at Big Ruby and immediately knew what Freddie was going through. Ruby may not be an $80,000+ Vette, but I love her like a mistress and won’t even let full-service Canadian gas station attendants (try finding a self-service station in Canada) fill Big Ruby for fear they will spill gas on her beautiful bosomy fuel tank.
No, I thought, Freddie is in the early stages of the grieving process — I put him moving from Stage One: Disbelief, to Stage Two: Anger — so I said, “That must be really hard to deal with. Tell me again how it happened.” And he did. And Eric seamlessly filled in information about the accident and repairs, and in the process provided his dad with support and advice and respect: it reminded me of times when I worked with my son Alex. For a lucky man this is the stretch in life when he and his son are most equal and their relationship easy and settled, when the caretaker and caregiver roles have not yet reversed to establish a new order of dependency and inequality.
About seven miles east of Lewiston, where the Niagara escarpment dwindles and the lower Niagara River finally slows and fills Lake Ontario, is the tiny town of Youngstown, New York. For fans of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, Youngstown is the place where Grace Marks, wanted in Toronto, Canada, for the 1851 murder of her employer, escaped to after crossing the Niagara River — the hotel where Grace was apprehended, The Ontario House, is still renting rooms. This area is known as the Niagara Frontier because of its strategic importance during the French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. Fort Niagara, which was built by the French, and later occupied by the British and finally the Americans, is located just outside Youngstown; its guns cover the mouth of the Niagara River and the southeastern corner of Lake Ontario, and on the other side of the river, Fort George, which was built by the British to check any American military adventurism into Canada. It’s no wonder Grace crossed here at the only safe crossing to the US from Toronto.
After our reunion with Freddie and Marilyn we biked to Youngstown and Fort Niagara. Standing on the fort’s ramparts, puffy clouds moved like a herd of sheep grazing on an azure sky. Beneath the water was a stretch of river and lake bed slate that my Dad and I fished for blue pike, long thought to be extinct, but now occasionally again caught in what used to be a fishery that supplied every area bar, restaurant, and Roman Catholic Friday night fish dinner with all-you-can-eat meals.
Not much about the fort and its panorama had changed: a north wind still pushed waves countercurrent into the river’s yawning mouth; the fort’s three flagpoles, all with slapping halyards, still flew snapping French, and British, and American flags; the US Coast Guard station still stood sentinel where river met lake, though its buildings had been freshly painted candent white. Our reunion, like this fort is a reminder of things past and of what people have done and endured.
I leaned against an eighteenth-century cannon pointed toward Canada and thought about Freddie’s remark about our youthful rocket experiments. We were in junior high school at the time and the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union was ratcheting up. Freddie and I were obsessed with space and rockets and we read everything available on making and firing rockets.
We talked our dads and other neighborhood fathers who worked in nearby chemical plants into bringing home a list of chemical components, but didn’t let any one person see the entire list. We knew that solid rocket propellant was nothing more than a controlled explosion, so we reckoned we could experiment by making gun powder (amazingly easy to do) and mixing it with less flammable substances to make it burn slower. We designed a rocket engine and milled it from a cylinder of solid steel in our school machine shop. Teachers were ecstatic to be helping budding rocket engineers. Friends and relatives asked us about our work and used words such as “genius” and “brilliant.”
Our lab and workshop was the basement of my house. We mixed chemicals and filled tubes made of various materials (cardboard, aluminum, steel) with propellant. Neither of us wanted the dangerous task of lighting a fuse, so we got model airplane glow plugs and stuffed gun cotton in the bottom of a tube and into the glow plug, hooked wires to the glow plug, and from a safe distance used a battery to heat the glow plugs and ignite the rocket fuel. It worked swell except the tubes would explode instead of burn evenly. By the way, we made the gun cotton by mixing industrial strength sulfuric and hydrochloric acids together with ordinary cotton for a set amount of time, then removing the cotton before it dissolved, and dried it in glass dishes.
We tried launching a rocket made of lighter aluminum (the launch recorded by Freddie’s Dad) but it exploded on the launch pad we had also constructed. Then we got a neighbor who worked in a welding shop to fabricate a heavy steel rocket body with welded fins and steel hinges with which to mount the motor. During the Cold War Niagara Falls was home to a battery of Nike Hercules antiaircraft missiles and we took our rocket to the military base to show the engineers what we had done. The base commander met us and said our rocket was a thing of beauty and we were true patriots and we got our picture with the Commander and our rocket in the Niagara Falls Gazette. We were hot shit.
Wisely we decided to test our latest fuel mixture in a small version of our rocket strapped to a board and nailed into the ground in my parent’s back yard — in rocketry this is called a static test because the rocket is not supposed to go anywhere. We hid behind my garage out of sight of the rocket and went through our usual dramatic countdown of 10, 9, 8…3, 2, 1, and touched the wires to the battery.
There was the expected momentary silence while the glow plug heated, then an immense window-rattling bang that produced a huge chemical smoke cloud that drifted slowly through the neighborhood and took what seemed an eternity to disperse. Freddie and I were stunned, then scared shitless when we heard fire trucks and police sirens racing our way. We lived only a quarter mile form many chemical plants and there were occasional explosions. Wives waited by phones for news that their husbands were okay, maimed, or dead.
Freddie and I looked for our test rocket but there was nothing left. We had no idea where it went. The emergency vehicles sped past our neighborhood toward the chemical plants. My Mother said we couldn’t test rockets in the backyard any more. About the same time my uncle, who also worked in a chemical factory, called my parents and asked, “What the hell are those kids doing?”
My uncle explained I had asked him to get us some boron (we read that boron made a great propellant) and he went to one of the chemists at his plant and was told boron is so unstable that they kept it under lockdown at all times. Alarmed, my parents finally decided that their homeowners insurance was at risk if anyone knew what we were doing in their basement. That was the end of our careers as rocket scientists, which was okay: we were at the age where we were starting to smell perfume and gasoline anyway.
But God damn that was a great time!