BOSTON — I didn't know Junior very well, but he was kin. A cousin of some persuasion, second, third, third and a half. I was never sure exactly what. But I do remember him, and the rocket. Oh, yes! It came about this way:
Home for all of us was down in the hills of southern Missouri. Some of the more adventurous (and desperate) of the tribe had moved west all of 100 miles to eastern Kansas in search of opportunity. My father was one of the adventurous ones. Junior and his small family, on the other hand, had remained sheltered in the Dade County hills.
So it came as something of a surprise when Junior wrote that they would like to visit us over the Fourth of July. Even so, as the kinfolk code demanded, my parents responded they would be glad to have them and we would look forward to their arrival.
In due time they appeared -Junior, his wife, and two little boys - and soon made themselves right at home. Now, Junior was not much more than a boy himself, and it soon became obvious, even to a preteen like me, that he did not get out into the world very much. But he did seem to have some spending money, probably because we were going to be feeding him and his family for the next several days, and off he went to buy some fireworks for the Fourth.
I considered myself to be an old hand with fireworks, so most of what Junior brought back - various firecrackers and percussion bombs - did not particularly impress me. But there was one exception: a skyrocket. It was just about the most magnificent thing I'd ever seen. The body must have been 14 or 15 inches long and at least two inches in diameter. And it was red, that lethal dull red of a dynamite stick that fairly screamed its promise of fire, concussion, and great noise.
I was in awe. The others must have felt the same, because it was quickly agreed that the rocket must be saved for the Fourth. When launched from our house on the hill above town, it would be the most impressive display in the whole sky that night.
During the days preceding the big event, Junior made life quite interesting with his other explosives. Those percussion bombs were particularly obnoxious. They were silver spheres a bit smaller than a golf ball, and when thrown against a hard surface they exploded with great violence. Believe me when I say that nothing will shatter an outhouse reverie quite like a well-placed percussion bomb.
Even I, a hard-core fireworks afficionado, came to long for relief from Junior's attentions.
Finally, the Fourth arrived. We whiled away the long hours of daylight with our firecrackers, whistlers, and such, but it was all just a prelude to the evening's big event - the rocket!
At long last, as the poets would say, came the gloaming, and the light faded into a beautiful summer evening. The air was soft and warm, and the growing velvety darkness seemed almost tactile. The conditions were perfect for our magnificent aerial display.
I silently hoped to help fire the rocket, maybe even light the fuse, but my father and Junior declared that this was "man's work," far too dangerous to entrust to a mere boy. So I was relegated to a fetch-it support role.
Now, neither Dad nor Junior had any more experience with skyrockets than I, so as they prepared to fire it they debated the necessary mechanics. There was a sturdy wooden stick, about 24 to 30 inches long, attached to the rocket, and they eventually concluded this was intended to be implanted in the ground to hold the rocket erect while the fuse was lit and burned up to the main charge.
They sent me to fetch a hammer, and when I returned, they drove the stick firmly into the lawn.
The rocket now stood proudly in the middle of the yard, and we all gathered around it in a loose circle, each of us a few feet away. It was almost completely dark, and showtime was here. Junior knelt by the rocket to do the honors. He struck the match, applied it to the fuse, and, when it began to hiss, stepped back quickly.
A few seconds later, the burning fuse reached the main propellant charge and with a roar the rocket came to life. It belched a mighty column of fire from its tail and quivered and shook as it raged to free itself from the wooden tether and streak into the heavens. But all to no avail; the stick was too firmly attached and too deeply driven into the ground.
SEEING this, it occurred to me that I was a great deal closer to that rocket than I needed to be. I don't know what the others did, but I broke and ran for the cover of the house. I had just about reached full stride when there was a tremendous report and the air was suddenly filled with huge balls of green fire, about the size of a No. 3 washtub, all streaking at great velocity toward the horizon. And then just as suddenly, all was very quiet and very dark.
After our ears quit ringing and we could see again, we took stock and found that other than a collective case of mild shell shock, there were no injuries.
The rocket had lived up to its promise and delivered as spectacular a display as anyone could have possibly wished. Unfortunately, its audience was quite limited.
To this day, whenever I see a rocket explode high in the dark heavens, I remember Junior. And now that I've told his story, perhaps you will, too.