Authors: Jean Craighead George
ND NOW,” SAID
Steve Jungkatz, “it’s T-minus sixty minutes and holding for the final countdown. Let’s go home and eat.”
Craig Sutton heard the excitement in his friend’s voice and it sent a shiver down his own back. He glanced at the rocket gleaming above the launching pit and felt his heart shake his body. It was done, every detail was complete, and in one hour the months of work that the four boys—he and Steve, and Johnny Cooper and Phil Brundage—had put into the construction of the rocket would be rewarded by a roaring, fiery spectacle above the island in the marsh of Blue Springs, New York. The day, Saturday, September 24, was warm and green and filled with expectation.
Craig stepped out of the launch pit and followed Steve through the hemlocks and willows to the wharf at the south end of the island. Johnny hurried ahead of Steve, clicking his heels at every third step. Craig laughed and leaped for a limb. It dipped and crackled and its leaves, he thought, clanged and rang out. Suddenly he realized Phil was not close behind. He turned to see him dragging along in the moody silence that had taken hold of him for the past week.
“Come on!” Craig shouted exuberantly and swung his whole arm and body in a beckon.
Phil looked up, said, “Huh?” and plodded forward as if his legs were hard to move. “Yeah,” he added and regained his outward enthusiasm. He joined the other boys at the wharf but sat silent when the swamp buggy, with its homemade paddle wheel and steering gear, moved laboriously out into the broad shallow lake. Craig ignored him and joined in the excited conversation with Johnny and Steve, who was fifteen—two years his senior.
At the second wharf, hidden in the reeds on the town side of the big marsh, Craig tied up the swamp buggy, then sprinted up the hill calling, “See ya in an hour.” He heard his friends repeat his words like crows sending assembly calls through their ranks.
He chuckled to himself and climbed up the steep hill to his brown shingle house on the ridge. He passed the Olsens’ house and called to Mr. Olsen who was doggedly using this Saturday to rake the first of the falling leaves from his wide green lawn. For a moment Craig felt an impulse to shout, “A rocket will be launched in one hour,” but the secret had been kept too long to share it now.
He went up the stone steps and walked into the vestibule where the fountain his mother had made trickled softly over the rocks and plunged into a wide pool. He glanced at his sister’s guitar on the piano, felt his excitement return, and went into the kitchen where his mother was making sandwiches.
“Hi!” he said, and his voice belled so loudly she turned and looked at him.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “Hurry up and eat, I have to go to a meeting.”
Craig paid no attention. Meetings and discussion groups and community activities were so much a part of his mother’s life since she and his father had been divorced that he would have been surprised if she were
working on some plan to better the school and the social activities of the Blue Springs children.
His sister Ellen and his younger brother Pete scuffed to their chairs and sat down. They were arguing over whether Carl Mants was a “dope” or a “hero,” and Craig quickly stopped listening because he didn’t care. He turned his mind to the rocket, with its microclips and engines, waiting for the final countdown. He hoped the booster engines would glow red, as the catalogue said they would.
Suddenly the telephone rang. Craig’s mother picked it up. “Yes, it is.” she said. She sounded worried. A barrage of words from a male voice carried all the way across the table. “Yes, indeed, come right over,” she said and hung up. She stared at Craig. “Mr. Brundage has reported to the police that you and Steve and Johnny and Phil have made a rocket. A policeman wants to talk to you.”
Craig rose to his feet in shock. “Oh,” he said. “I’ll go get Steve.” He swallowed a dry bite as he realized what had been bothering Phil. Apparently he had decided he had to tell his father about the rocket.
Craig took a few steps toward the door, then came back. “It’s perfectly safe,” he said to his mother.
Her eyes had widened with astonishment. “But,” she stammered, “when have you had time to make a rocket?”
Craig ignored her and ran out the front door. He paused on the steps and shoved his hands into his pockets. The tops of the trees were just beginning to change from green to gold, and the blackbirds were clustering aimlessly in the color as if the idea of migration were vaguely occurring to them. “Poor Phil,” he said and jumped down the entire bank of stairs to the path. He ran. Halfway up the hill he took the path through the hedge of forsythia that led to Steve’s house. Its steep gables, its white trim went unnoticed. All he saw was the second-floor window and Steve’s head bent over, reading.
“Pheee!” Craig whistled. No answer. He moistened his lips and discovered his tongue was dry. He tried to whistle again. The window opened, and Steve, a dark-haired boy with strong cheekbones that shadowed his face, leaned out and grinned. “Whatdayawant?” he called. “It’s still early. Is something wrong?”
“Why didn’t you call on the transceiver?”
Steve yelled down. Craig gestured helplessly.
Craig nodded again. Steven slammed the window shut.
In moments Craig heard Steve’s size-ten sneakers staccato down the steps and pound the kitchen floor. Craig watched him vault over the back porch railing and run toward him.
“A cop’s on the way to the house to see about the rocket,” Craig said. “Phil told his dad, and his dad reported it.”
Steve whistled softly. “I guess we’d better get Johnny,” he said.
“We can’t. He’s practicin’ the piano now.”
“Oh, yeah.” Steve ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, this is a crisis!” he said. “He’ll have to use the tape recorder.”
Craig laughed, and the thought of using the tape recorder to get Johnny out of practicing lightened his mind. “He’s even got a new reel. He made it last week.” He grabbed Steve’s arm and started down the hill to the road that bordered the marsh and wound northward toward Johnny’s house.
Craig and Steve followed the road, edged with pokeweed and Queen Anne’s lace, until they came to a path that wound through the red maples. They plunged between the water willows and viburnum and into the woods as they circled the marsh on the shortcut to Johnny’s side of town. Craig picked a leaf and twirled it.
“That Johnny!” he said. “He recorded
all the way through last week. Didn’t even stop for rests. Said his mother couldn’t tell the difference as long as the music kept coming.” Steve chuckled. Then plaintively, Craig added, “Mrs. Cooper really keeps Johnny busy with projects that are good for him, doesn’t she?”
“Yep,” Steve agreed. “But it doesn’t bother Johnny. He’s a thinker. Plans himself out of things.” Steve jumped for a wild grape leaf. “The tape machine is great,” he went on, “but, you know, he works harder making those tapes than all the practicing anyone could force on him.”
“And he’s got a stand-in for dancing class,” Craig added. “Fred’ll come take his place anytime Johnny wants to go fishin’!”
“Yeah,” said Steve enviously, “and remember how he got out of the Togetherness Picnic? I was jealous of that for a month.”
“Gee.” Craig laughed at the memory. “He hid in that panel truck that brought the box lunches. We hadda run relay races with our folks.” Steve broke into laughter. “And then,” Craig went on, “the darn truck took off and drove on to Yankee Stadium, went in the service entrance, and Johnny saw the whole game from the back of the truck. And I was back at the picnic trying not to be embarrassed when my mother picked up the bat and played baseball.” Craig thought about it. “It was awful. Ruined our ‘togetherness’ for a month.”
“They shouldn’t have those things,” Steve said firmly. “I can’t understand what they think we get out of it. A guy doesn’t want to see his mother playing baseball like a kid. He wants her to be—” he hesitated, “an adult. Fathers too. When my father lived with us he always felt he had to hack around with me. It made me nervous. I always felt he was forcing himself to act like a boy.”
They had circled the marsh and were making their way uphill through tulip poplars and gray birch when they heard the sounds of Johnny practicing. On hands and feet they stole across the Coopers’ yard and crept into the rhododendron bushes that grew around the yellow clapboard house. Craig led the way to the windows of the “fun room.” He peered under the bamboo blinds. Johnny was playing painfully.
“Psssssst,” Craig called. The piano stopped almost immediately—as Craig knew it would—for Johnny was keenly attuned to outside diversions with every note he played. He came to the door and opened it.
“Hi!” he whispered. “I can’t come yet. It’s not one o’clock.”
“We got a crisis,” Steve whispered.
“Phil told his dad about the rocket, and his dad called the police. A cop is on his way to Craig’s house now to see what we’re doing.”
“Wow!” whispered Johnny.
Steve rasped impatiently, “Put on the tape recorder and let’s go. This is an emergency.” Craig whirled through the door as Johnny glanced at his mother in the living room.
“She’s still talking to that PTA woman about wholesome parties for the school,” he whispered. “The tape’s in the piano seat. Get it, Craig. I’ll keep playing while you all set up the machine.”
With the air of a man saved from the gallows Johnny went back to the piano and sprang upon the keys. The two women in the other room stopped talking. Johnny played louder. The voices started up again, and Craig deftly put the tape on the spindles and threaded it into the machine. Steve plugged in the cord and turned on the switch.
Two concerts bellowed out: Johnny on the tape and Johnny at the keys. Craig gasped, and Steve grabbed for the volume button. He adjusted the noise as Johnny lifted his fingers and let the tape play on. He peered once more at his mother and signaled his friends to ease out the door.
Craig did not glance back as he followed Steve and Johnny across the lawn and into the brush behind a hill of tumbled boulders.
“It’s a good thing Mom’s no musician,” he heard Johnny say as he slid into the wild geraniums. “A four-handed solo and she never turns her head.” Craig was under the ground cover now. A crane fly winged over the geraniums toward his face. The insect sensed his presence, veered to the left, and skimmed over the head of a motionless wood thrush. Without ceremony the bird reached up and swallowed the fly, then settled back, its bright eye focused on the boys. Craig watched the bird without thinking about it.
“Are we gonna get Phil?” Johnny asked.
“Aw, let’s leave him alone,” Craig said. “He must feel pretty awful.”
“His dad never has liked rockets,” Steve put in. “Phil told me once his father was on a committee to protect kids from certain fuel mixtures. It must be hard to be a minister’s son.”
Craig whistled softly to the wood thrush, then followed his friends downhill. He saw Steve struggling with the reeds and stepped ahead to help him. “Thanks, brother nature,” Steve teased. “Go first, I can’t find the durn trail.”