It was a science project about soil. Easy, just dig some out of your garden, bring it in, and pour chemicals over it, and if you’re lucky you might get some pretty brown bubbles. But that wasn’t good enough for Herbie, Johnny and Dave. They thought they could earn extra marks by comparing our top quality soil in Cambridge with that in St Ives, where Dave’s gran lived. Mr Wilkinson thought it was a good idea too, and looked forward to her posting a small envelope of the stuff to the school, something that would spark a full-scale security alert these days. But Herbie and co were, let’s put it tactfully, mental. Instead of just asking her for it, they decided to build a rocket that would fly eighty miles to St Ives, where Dave’s gran would fill it up with soil, and fire it back with the kind of accuracy that V-2 rocket engineers back in the War would have envied.
After a huge class-room bust-up in which Dave screamed and shouted at his “rank amateur” co-conspirators, there was an official divorce and Dave went off to work on his own top secret project. It was perhaps something to do with Herbie and Johnny’s initial design. It was a used Coke can with a cardboard nose-cone filled with gas from the science lab. With the top-level technology afforded to these geniuses, the gas was held in the can by a blob of plasticine. NASA had nothing on this lot. It flew thirty feet on its maiden flight – as far as Herbie could throw it. And he threw like a girl.
While the rest of the class worked on their presentations with huge quantities of local muck, the mad duo were forced to explain, in front of the entire class, what, exactly, was the point of all this messing about with Coke cans, and why they had produced exactly nothing. After open ridicule of the cardboard nose cone or “combustion chamber” as they insisted on calling it, Herbie committed the kind of social faux pas that you just cannot get away with at school. He ran away crying.
Dave pressed on. In his bedroom-cum-workshop-cum-pirate radio station, he built a two-staged whopper out of calor gas cartridges and aluminium tubing, and it looked seriously scary. His guidance system, he boasted, would be one of the local church bells which we all knew had been stuck in the “up” position for several decades. We didn’t doubt his technical prowess, we had spent many an evening in the past listening to Pirate Radio Dave, until Her Majesty’s Government kindly put us out of our misery by shutting him down.
By now, the entire project was strictly unofficial. It had been months since they had closed down Science Club after That Nitro-Glycerine Thing, and no-one had dared try something so wonderfully dangerous since then. Those of us in the know were given a time, date and location and met Dave at his “launch silo”, an old tunnel up in the woods near to school. We were amazed. He had rigged up a launch pad, and set up a control centre about fifty yards away, at the end of a very long wire in a ditch.
Dave gave a short speech on how he was the future of the British Space Industry, and how we were a “bunch of ponces” for not believing he could take the project so far. Solemnly we counted down, and he connected the wire to the terminals of the lorry battery that powered the whole thing.
“Fuck!” said Dave, as we all laughed at him.
He got up and followed the wires across the clearing to the launch pad. He was halfway to his target when the thing went off.
It was most impressive, the rocket took off with a WHOOOOOSH and flew a good fifty feet in the air. We applauded and whooped. All well and good but Dave hadn’t really worked out how to get the second stage going, and it was only a few seconds later that gravity took control of the whole affair, and it started tumbling back down to Earth. Towards us. St Ives’ loss was our … err … abject terror.
There were cries of “Oh shit!” and a general cacking of pants as we lurched out of the ditch in all directions. And good thing we did, too.
Brief chemistry lesson: There comes a time when setting fire to gas in an enclosed space, that quantities of fuel and oxygen reach the correct proportions. It’s called the flashpoint. When this happens, there is, to use the correct terminology, a fucking great explosion.
Dave’s throbbing monster hit the deck roughly where the six of us had been cowering just moments before. It lay there, glowering, a blue flame coming out of the nozzle getting smaller and smaller. Until….
The gas canister went off. It wasn’t a particularly big explosion, but it had the effect of rupturing the second stage canister, which went off about three quarters of a second later. My entire world went a beautiful shade of orangey-blue-yellow with added shrapnel.
Words cannot describe the noise it made, but I’ll give it a damn good try.
Take a deep breath and go THWOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSHHHHHH-BLAAAAAAANG-NG-NG-NG-eeeeeeeeeee!!!!”, the last bit being the ringing noise that haunts you for the next two weeks.
“Same time next week, lads?”
No thanks, mate, I think I’ll just slink home and drain the blood out of my ears, thank you very much.