In the Beginning

Or, How I Got Started in Rocketry
Freshman Paul  

Not to get too "Rocket Boys" here, but my first memory of Rockets and Space is as a child of three in Palo Alto, California, 1960. My father had woken me at 3 A.M. for some stupid reason to go out and look up into the sky. A group of ten or twelve neighbors had gathered and all eyes of course were straight up. My dad called it a Sputnik, but much later (like last year) I found out it was the Lunik satellite, I think it was the third or fourth Russian SAT, actually. Later my mother and father allowed me to skip Catholic school on the days that all the Mercury launchs took place. We were very space-knowledgeable, living in Palo Alto and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Fast forward to 1966: while reading a Fantastic Four comic book, I spied an ad for Estes Rockets (you boomers know the one I'm talking about!) and was instantly amazed and enchanted, emotions that still overwhelm me when I see even the littlest rocket at a launch today! Of course I eagerly sent away for what turned out to be a black-and-white catalog and a thick pack of letters. The letters told a story of very restrictive regulations for the hobby, and although my dad (a former Navy and then private pilot) was game to almost all my aerospace endeavors (which up to this time was basically static plastic model kits), he was very concerned that California and the state Fire Marshall was at that time Totally Against Any And ALL Model Rockets in the state. This scared my father, and so he put an end to my first dreams of achieving rocketry. I was crushed and very resentful towards California for being so restrictive.

In 1967 we moved to Saratoga in Santa Clara County, and at the time I thought this was a huge loss to leave Palo Alto and move to the "country"--actually only about 20 miles away! In late summer of 1968, space fever was gripping the whole nation and was soon to reach its apogee, and I received another letter from Estes. The letter said that the California State Fire Marshall had lightened up somewhat on rocketry, and in retrospect this is not surprising with the development of the Apollo program going full blast in reality and in the public's mind. It must have seemed damned unpatriotic to ban any form of Aerospace and Rocketry--and California, of course, was the prime state that produced the U.S. space program.

The letter said that kids could fly Estes motors and rockets if they did so as part of an organized group. And just such a group had formed in San Jose. They flew in a large abandoned farm at the corner of Story Road and Highway 101. This area is now practically ground zero for Silicon Valley, and the idea of it operating once upon a time as a large open expanse for flying rockets is almost laughable (or sad). Ah, those were delectable times in the Santa Clara Valley.

The launches themselves were organized by two families (I hope I remember their names right, I will research this with Ed Armanni of AeroPac). The first family was named Rush, and they actually owned the land at Story Road. They were somewhat wealthy and lived in the best part of Saratoga/Los Gatos in a very giant house in the land of giant houses. When I visited the son Chris, I quickly found out he was obsessed with rocketry, owning all of the currently available rockets made by Estes. The family of his best friend, whose last name was (I think) Cox, sold the motors and the kits. So: one family owned the land and one family sold the stuff. When I grew up, I realized that this was a spectacular conflict of interest, and later I will tell you some of the slimy stuff these guys did to control and stifle the hobby--the sort of stuff that is still sometimes all too common today. At the time nobody else in California would agree to or allow any flying, what with all the perceived liability and hassle involved.

I dutifully built and painted my Alpha, and on the Monday afternoon/evening of Labor Day 1968, I "certified" on a C-6-3. Many kits were flown on that afternoon/evening launch, and my Dad was very proud of me and relieved that the club had assumed all of the hassle.

Tuesday morning, my first day at Monte Vista High School as a freshman, I was no longer a rocket virgin. I was babbling about motors and numbers as I entered my homeoom class, "C63 B145 B66." The other kids must have thought I was whacky. Many of them were the older agricultural children of the Santa Clara Valley, only recently being displaced. (We would eventually end up calling them the Apple Knockers.) They laughed and thought I was goofy to talk numbers.

A few kids, as I found out, were already into rocketry. One, Jeff Knirck, a recent transfer from Cupertino High School, ran a whole mafia of rocket guys, including one notorious fellow named Ed Armani (Tripoli 4376). These guys had apparently been shooting on their own, as well as with the rich kid on Story Road. They were far advanced in comparison with all others then on the scene. I hooked up with them as an outsider.

I had years of pent-up rocketry in my veins, causing a major displacement in the hobby universe. Pushed away were all my plastic aircraft model kits (I had been a junior member of IPMS). I ordered practically every rocket the Estes catalog had and started scratch designing almost immediately. My little hobby desk was inches deep in fine sanded balsa, and I had numerous kits in states of construction--a rocket orgasm.

Back in these days, Silicon Valley was mostly cherry orchard, with then-pricey subdivisions springing up in clusters. Near my house, there were probably fifty acres of orchards to fly rockets in. It dawned on me quickly that I didn't have to wait for the monthly Story Road rocket shoot to test a design--so I ended up testing a design every afternoon. Somedays, I wouldn't even go to the orchard. I'd just let them off in the big street in front of my house. I gained confidence and even tried to form a rocket club at the high school. The club had one launch before being disbanded by the hated vice-principal, Jackson.

Of the few rocket boys at Monte Vista, one was particularly copacetic. His name was Gary Schumacher. He was a one-year transfer student from Fremont High School, which had burned down the summer before (probably not Gary's fault). He and I started comparing projects and working together on kits to fly at Story Road. In February of 1970, Gary and I became very excited about a California NAR sectional meet being held in Southern California, in West Covina. We wanted to go and see what the bigger world of rocketry was all about. To our surprise, both our parents agreed that this would be an excellent reward for good behavior--or, make that reward on his part and bribe for me: Gary's family was Mormon, so no bribe necessary for him. Gary's church set us up with a nice host family in West Covina, and we feverishly started working toward the day (which must have been sometime in mid-March).

We knew they'd hold various dumb NAR events at the meet: 1/4 A parachute duration, etc. But one category stood out. This was the use of the new Estes D motor, not even yet on the market. The event we lusted after was the two-stage D motor altitude competition. All we had were blank casings, sent by Estes to size motor blocks and mounts. Gary and I split the project up: we designed it together, keeping some of the best from Estes and making up some stuff on our own; I built the booster; he built the sustainer. Perfect fit. The D motors themselves would arrive at the event in West Covina, for security (i.e., marketing).

About ten other rocketeers from our area were also planning on attending the meet. One, of course, was the rich kid from Story Road. Gary and I didn't compare notes with the other rocketeers--just followed our own notions. One bright idea we had was to paint the rocket in contrasting orange and black, realizing that tracking was so poor in those days that we would have an edge if the trackers could easily spot our rocket. Another design plus was the event itself: we were required to carry 1 oz. lead weights in our payload compartment, hence we had a rocket you could see easily with a perfectly placed center of gravity for stability.

We flew down to Southern California on PSA airlines after school on Friday. I think the fare was $16 dollars round trip--ridiculously cheap. The Mormon family picked us up at the airport and were some of the nicest people I have ever met in my whole life. When we got to their house, it looked like it was from Leave It to Beaver--with one exception: there were five blonde teenage daughters, aged twelve to nineteen, living there, and they were giggling that they would be glad to let us share a room. Ha ha! But of course, we didn't . . . being too excited about rocketry and clueless about all else.

The West Covina NAR section was perhaps the most organized local club I've even seen (except LUNAR, of course). They flew at the dump in an abandoned Little League baseball diamond, the baseball team having moved on to brand-new fields by city hall. The dump itself was magnificent, being situated in a large canyon with dumping only just beginning on the canyon's sides. The diamond occupied the middle of the floor of the canyon. Launch control was in one dugout, and flyer prep was in the other dugout. They supplied us benches and folding tables and chairs. They even supplied us masking tape. What luxury!

We schlepped our range boxes and rockets to our prep area. We had plenty of motors--except for the all-important D motors, which we were told would arrive at 11:00 A.M.

The launch director had the look of a middle school science teacher. Promptly at 9:00 A.M., rockets started to fly. There were perhaps a hundred flyers. They must have been very young--I remember them being mostly my age (just turned fourteen). With dual pads, they were blowing off twenty rockets in a rack.

In my excitement and stupidity, I had left behind on my desk in Saratoga a historical report I had written on the Honest John that was to match Gary's Honest John model for the historical scale model competition--so we couldn't enter that competition. But Gary decided that he would enter the rocket in the scale altitude competition, so this bummer was less harsh.

Gary went off to do something, then reappeared with a fiendish grin on his face and a three-pack tube of D12-0 and D12-5 motors in his fists. We silently began prepping our two-stage rocket, similar to the Estes Delta Clipper.

We flew a bunch of other rockets, and finally they announced what we were all waiting for, the two-stage D competition. The rich kid was there, with an entourage. Gary and I tried to say hi, but he seemed too self-absorbed. No matter. We were there to fly.

Gary and I weren't the first to fly, and we weren't the last. We noticed that in the bright sunlight many tracks were getting lost. Our launch came approximately at 2:00 P.M, and we had a perfect flight. Our rocket was one of the few that the theodolite workers shouted over the walky-talkys that they had an apogee on. Mission accomplished!

No results were posted, because all computations needed to be checked and double-checked. Winners would be announced that night at 9:00 in the West Covina City Hall. Our Mormon hosts picked us up at 6:00, we had a big homemade fried chicken dinner, and then we went to city hall (less than five minutes from their house). City hall was a modern slap-up facility with the local recreational department attached to its back.

Boisterous rocketeers (mostly boys) crammed one meeting room and watched the latest NASA propaganda 16 mm films, most assuredly supplied by one of the fathers working at nearby Lockheed. Then the launch director came to the front of the room and, with great fanfare, started announcing the winners of the day's events.

Near the back of the room, the rich kid and his entourage, who had competed in nearly every category, eagerly awaited the results. Gary and I were having fun, just sitting in the front, being there. What seemed like thirty or forty names were read off for different events, with the cheers of the boys electrifying the moment. The rich kid may have gotten a third or a fourth in 1/4 A parachute duration--I really don't remember. But the Big Kahuna was the two-stage D altitude event, the last event announced.

Fourth place. Third place. Second place . . . And then, very clearly, I remember the launch director saying that this team had won the event in one of the best flights he had ever seen in West Covina, and that we should all take the time to look at how they had built their rocket and flown it, because this was the way to do it. And to a cheering crowd, they announced, "Paul Lane and Gary Schumacher!" I don't even remember the altitude, but I think it was something like 3200 feet. We couldn't believe it. We knew we had a good flight, but thought we would make fourth place, or third. We jumped up together to accept the award, shook hands, and received the trophy (a small bowling trophy, with the bowler twisted off and replaced with an orb that represented the Earth or something).

As we basked in our glory, I saw the rich kid run out of the room, crying, and then stand near the bathrooms, stamping his feet in a fit. He was yelling, "It's not fair! It's not fair!" For better or worse, this would later become a template of my life--knocking down little tin god rich people (I work at the stock exchange).

There was some more flying on Sunday, but I can't really remember it. Later on, this rich kid would make big trouble for me rocket-wise . . . but that's another story.




Big Trouble

Or, The End of the Beginning


After I got back from the West Covina meet, I became fascinated with boost gliders. My father and some of the airline pilots who lived in our housing development were all ex-Navy pilots from WWII. They were very interested in flying (obviously) and were into building balsa wood airplanes with small motors that they would free fly. I watched them and talked to them, and they taught me how to fly and trim a glider.

I had noticed that although rocketeers built excellently strong gliders from kits, none of the rockets were trimmed right (still happens today). So most of the rockets would spiral, crash, or stall. I spent considerable time hand-tossing my gliders until they were trimmed correctly. When I flew boost gliders at Story Road, I would use a C6-3 or a C6-5, due to superior building techniques. On one flight, I had a perfect boost to a very high altitude, then a glide of tight ovals at about the length of our field, finally landing in front of the crowd. The rich kid's father came to me and said, "That's one of the best boost glides I've ever seen. You really can fly."

Around this same time (May 1970), my uncle, Frankie Laine, the great Italian-American western movie singer, was the opening act for the International Hotel in Las Vegas, one of the first off-strip hotels. My mother and father took me to the opening of what was then the largest hotel in the world (you can see it as Blofeld's headquarters in Diamonds Are Forever). During our week in Vegas, my dad said, "Let's go to the hobby store. I don't think we're going to have to deal with any of that California bullshit here." We went to Las Vegas Hobbies, a very large store off the strip somewhere. My dad said, "Get anything you want." To my amazement, they had kits I had never seen, like Centauri, and I immediately grabbed a Black Widow two-stage and a bunch of Estes motors. The guy behind the counter, in that sort of Rat Pack way people spoke in Vegas then, said, "Why don't you get an F engine and cram it up that fucker?" They apparently had FSI motors. I said, "I don't think they'd let me fly an F engine in Story Road" and chickened out on buying the F.

Hauling my hobby booty back to California, I used most of the motors flying in the orchards near my house, as God and Estes intended. I also flew some of my Vegas motors at Story Road. Meanwhile, there had been talk that half the Story Road land would be sold off for development because the rich guy wasn't getting any richer. Then all of a sudden, the guy who sold the motors and the rich guy proclaimed, "You can only fly on this field if you buy Estes motors from us." They claimed this was a safety requirement. But with the growing availability of Estes motors elsewhere, this seemed to be a scam.

So one day in July I'm flying my Vegas Estes motors at Story Road, and the motor guy and the rich guy come up to me and say, "We don't want you flying here on those motors. Why don't you give us all your motors for safekeeping and we'll let you have them when you need to fly a rocket out here." I told them, "No way." So they said, "Well, you ain't flying here anymore." And I said, "You guys think you're the only rocketeers around, don't you?" and walked away. I went home pretty pissed off, thinking, "Hey, I beat that rich kid's candy ass anyway."

That August, I kicked around a few building projects, including the clustering of D motors, which I never actually flew. School started again: it was my sophmore year, and I discovered girls.

From start to finish, I was into and then out of the hobby in less than one year.