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Location: Great Boreal Deciduous Hardwood Forest, New England, United States

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30 June 2005

We Gotta Get Outta This Place / If It's The Last Thing We Ever Do

Leo Wong of J4J / Java For Jesus was snooping through used book stores in the Hudson River Valley for one of my books, and ran into Dan W., a bookstore proprietor who

(a.) worked in a Washington DC bookstore with me in 1193 AD and

(b.) asked Leo if screwy Bob is still launching rockets into the atmosphere like he did a decade or two ago. Dan and a pal built some Estes and Centuri model rockets and drove about 80 miles one Sunday to take part in a whomp-ass rocket launch and barbecue party in Amherst, Massachusetts -- as Bob had commanded about fifty people to do.

Leo is now very politely inquiring why I seem always to be trying to get the hell off this planet.

I have Leo's permission to reprint this letter to him, and he will not cut my xnrqq off.

{ [ ( o ) ] }

A Brief History of the
Planet Mongo Rocket Forces

Leo! I am trying to write a perverse, wildly offensive, shocking, supercontroversial novel that will wind me up with an angry mob of townsfolk on my lawn with torches and tar and feathers. And you are distracting me from this important literary work by flooding my mind with Happy Memories.

I am Ming the Merciless, Emperor-for-Life (Kaiser Permanente) of the Planet Mongo Rocket Forces, originally -- hmmm maybe circa 1981 - 1987 -- a club for launching Estes and Centuri model rockets (electrically ignited, solid-fuel chemical engines, available in any good hobby shop, initial $20 investment -- this includes cheapest launcher rig -- gets you into Very Low Space Sub-Orbital Flight), followed by a raucous barbecue.

I took a trip to visit a friend in Marin County, California maybe in 1974, and one day he dragged me to a baseball field where a bunch of his musician friends were shooting off these model rockets. Okay, so it ain't Profound, and sheds very little light on the Ultimate Meaning of Life and the Universe. But boy was that Just Neat-o Kean-o Nifty ...


and that sucker is suddenly Out Of Sight, maybe as high as 1/2 to 3/4 miles -- get the right rocket and engines and 1 mile is pretty easy to achieve -- and then everybody has to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, screaming THERE IT IS! OVER THERE! while it wafts back to earth on an automatically opened parachute (you can also waft it back with fancier glider systems).

The experience seared my eyeballs and my brain -- have I mentioned? My Inner Child never grew an Outer Adult -- and I vowed to myself that sooner or later I would start my own model rocket club. When I married and we ended up here, I seemed settled enough to start the rocket club.

My newspaper buddies said they were interested, but when I tried to organize it democratically, with nominations for officers, committees, etc., absolutely nothing happened, no progress whatsoever toward building or launching a single rocket.

So I declared myself Emperor Ming the Merciless of Mongo, sent everyone specific commands, told them when and where to meet, everyone had to build and bring a rocket and give it a Silly Name (one of mine was called DEAD SMURF, and when an adult read it to a little girl, she burst into tears), everyone had to give me some money because There Is No Such Thing As A Free Launch, and whaddyaknow? About a dozen people showed up with about five rockets and we shot them up into the sky -- usually you can keep shooting the same rocket, with new engines, three or four times until it winds up hopelessly caught in a high tree or just plain lost. Then we had a raucous barbecue.

Some historians believe The Planet Mongo Rocket Forces Bulletins were better than the actual launchings. Some people wrote me that they couldn't possibly come to the launch, but would I please keep sending them the Mongo Bulletins? I always promised that we'd have musical guests at the party like Yma Sumac or Slim Whitman. (I am a liar. People suspected that.)

Eventually -- to my astonishment -- around 50 people would show up, some from hundreds of miles away, with dozens of rockets, to launches. We would hold them at the Mongo Secret Rocket Test Launch Facility, which was cleverly disguised as the University of Massachusetts athletic fields, in Amherst about 12 miles east of me. The contiguous soccer and baseball and whatever fields are one of the few public park-like treeless flat open spaces around here so most rockets don't get lost or trapped in trees. (The really ambitious high ones -- they can still end up goners in the campus buildings and dorms, and one wafted down into the Amherst Solid Waste Treatment Plant, and totally against my wishes, two frootloops climbed over the cyclone fence and tried to retrieve it.)

At the start of each launch, we'd wheel a car battery bunjied to a hand truck into the middle of the field and set up four or six launch rods on a sawhorse. I'd jury-rigged a handheld springloaded pushbutton launch button, which I usually let a kid (sometimes a kid named Me) push after we all screamed


And then off that sucker would go and everyone chicken head cut off etc. I also had a battery-operated bullhorn. I don't see how you can launch rockets or boss large numbers of people around without one.

Mongo is proud to report that in perhaps eight big launches, we had a 100% Perfect Safety Record, no lost fingers or eyes, not even a required Band-Aid. (For like $1 registering your club, Estes underwrites your launches for some astronomical amount of accident/liability insurance provided you can demonstrate that you fairly scrupulously followed the Estes Model Rocket Safety Code and Good Space Citizenship Pledge, and weren't drunk. The Emperor permitted no intoxicants until the launch was over.)

We had so many people and such a comfie excess in the badly mismanaged club treasury by the last launch that we hired the American Legion Hall and the Pajama Slave Dancers (actual nationally-known band, but from around here) as the musical talent, and the food we made was great, and the Legion had its bar open and was happy to sell drinks to any interested rocket club guests and musicians (we paid the musicians in cash, and they were very interested).

For some insane reason I associated the rocket club with my divorce -- well, it was a One-Emperor-Show, and the Emperor sort of just lost interest, and the PMRF died. Later I recycled Mongo as a Yahoo List for smart people to post about anything they felt like. The flavor was somewhat not unlike Vleeptron.

There's just something about Earth and everything I know about it (too much) that keeps my thoughts spending a lot of time in outer space and on other planets. Or trying to improve Mongo's rocket program to maybe get off of this sick, frustrating, ulcerative rock. (Our prime contractor was Central American Rockwell, our combined Secret Police and Chorus Line were the Tonton Rockettes.)

After the club got going pretty well, we introduced the Egg Scrambler -- a special rocket that you launch and try to recover a raw egg in its nose cone. If you don't break the egg, you are then Approved to launch a small Biological nose cone Package -- really cockroach or ant was as high up the Tree of Life the Emperor was willing to permit. (Some disturbed kids and Boy Scouts and junior high science teachers send up frogs.) We also successfully built and launched the Astro-Cam, which shoots up for a quarter mile, turns upside down at the zenith/apogee, and takes the photo of all the assembled Mongonians dumbly staring up into the sky at the rocket taking their picture down on the athletic field.

I just wanted to launch some dumb cheap rockets and then throw a loud party. I had no idea people would like it so much. Once I tried to abdicate, the work and details and responsibility of orderly bookkeeping were driving me nuts, but -- perhaps for the first and only time in history -- my subjects revolted and refused to let me resign from being their benevolent Emperor-for-Life. (So much for the instincts of democracy and freedom which beat deep in every human breast.)

I had forgotten Dan and his Squeeze drove about 70 miles for the launch.

I need to bring it back -- maybe I can use the Internet or Vleeptron to announce it.

The thing is, ever since then, people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed the launches and the rockets and ask me when Mongo will launch again.

The little kids who come -- their eyes just bug out when the damn things go


and disappear, and they see these dozens of Adults running around chickens heads screaming shrieking laughing, and I know of one kid who just got all screwed up on Science because of being dragged to a silly Mongo Launch like when he was nine, and now he's taking hard science and math at Cornell. He apparently has ever since that one Mongo Day looked on me as some kind of Divine Inspired Strange Neighborhood Being, spreading Very Odd But Very Interesting Things into the Communitosphere, or so his dad loves to tell me. He finds it very hard to categorize exactly what he remembers me and all these other people doing, but now he's studying to be a rocket scientist at Cornell. FWOOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!

Women loved Mongo as much as men, girls as much as boys. It turned out to be a perfect thing adults and kids could just go apeshit fun doing together, everybody on precisely the same wavelength, no concepts too complicated to explain to kids even of very young ages. And it was a very good introduction to kids to show them the Adult Sense of Humor and Adult Idea of Fun.

Giggle one Sunday -- Sunday is always a pathetically slow news day for the local TV stations -- we lured Channel 40, the ABC affiliate, to the Mongo Launch and made the 6 and 11 pm news. Mongo is nothing if not Photogenic. I always wore one of those big old 1950s-style telephone headsets which was not plugged into anything, I looked like a NASA engineer circa 1958.

My advice, if you do nothing else, is to go to the hobby shop like this month and just stockpile some of the DOT-approved Estes and Centuri rocket engines while Homeland Security still allows them to be sold -- the bigger the engine the better. Also buy a couple of packages of electrical ignitors. These things are Much Too Much Fun not to be banned and outlawed any day now. The rest of the rocket and launch rig you can always make from screatch out of cardboard paper towel tubes, mailing cylinders, balsa wood, glue, etc. Some people (former Boy Scouts, that type) go nuts with fancy painting and decaling. I hang mine outside on a string and spray-paint them in 25 seconds, unbelievably crude, dangerous, suspicious looking things.

Would you stay on Earth all the time if you had a way off? I'm trying. Ad Astra Per Aspera.



Blogger pat's pub said...

Reminded me of a book I read a few years ago. It's called "Rocket Boys" by Homer H. Hickam. Not the higest literature I ever read, but not bad for a Sunday afternoon. Should bring back some memories for you. But don't watch the movie, that stinks

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

In the USA the movie was released as October Sky. Even here you get a lot of mixed reviews, it's wonderful, it changed my life, it sucks, etc. I haven't seen it but I'd like to.

Why do the Cantons of Geneva and Vaud have their own movie Censorship Ratings? Does this have something to do with Jean Chauvin? Is he still alive?


October Sky (1999)
cover Directed by
Joe Johnston

Writing credits (WGA)
Homer H. Hickam Jr. (book)
Lewis Colick (screenplay)

Genre: Drama (more)

Tagline: Sometimes one dream is enough to light up the whole sky. (more)

Plot Outline: The true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner's son who was inspired by the first Sputnik launch to take up rocketry against his father's wishes. (more) (view trailer)

User Comments: Aim for the stars (more)

User Rating: ********__ 7.7/10 (13,225 votes) Vote Here

Cast overview, first billed only:

Jake Gyllenhaal .... Homer Hickam
Chris Cooper .... John Hickam
Laura Dern .... Miss Frieda Riley
Chris Owen .... Quentin Wilson
William Lee Scott .... Roy Lee Cook
Chad Lindberg .... Sherman O'Dell
Natalie Canerday .... Elsie Hickam
Scott Miles .... Jim Hickam
Randy Stripling .... Leon Bolden
Chris Ellis .... Principal Turner
Elya Baskin .... Ike Bykovsky
Courtney Cole-Fendley .... Dorothy Platt (as Courtney Fendley)
David Dwyer .... Jake Mosby
Terry Loughlin .... Mr. Dantzler
Kailie Hollister .... Valentina Carmina (as Kaili Hollister)

Also Known As:
Rocket Boys (USA) (working title)

MPAA: Rated PG for language, brief teen sensuality and alcohol use, and for some thematic elements.

Runtime: 108 min
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color (DeLuxe)
Sound Mix: DTS / Dolby Digital / SDDS

Certification: Argentina:Atp / Australia:PG / Canada:14A / France:U / Germany:6 / Hong Kong:II / Mexico:A / New Zealand:PG / Norway:7 / Portugal:M/12 (video premiere) / Singapore:PG / South Korea:12 / Sweden:7 (re-rating) / Sweden:Btl (original rating) / Switzerland:7 (canton of Geneva) / Switzerland:7 (canton of Vaud) / UK:PG / USA:PG

Trivia: The school exterior was actually two different schools - the football scene was shot in the soccer field of Gresham Middle School, Knoxville, Tennessee, and the other exterior scene, right before Homer and his friends are arrested, is the exterior of Fountain City Elementary school in Knoxville. The actual schools are directly across the street from each other. (more)

Goofs: Continuity: At the end of the movie when they show the space shuttle launch, the first shot shows a launch stack with a white painted external tank. The second shot shows a later, unpainted rust colored tank. (more)

Quotes: Homer: You know, it, uh, won't fly unless somebody pushes the button. It's yours, if you want it. (more)

Awards: 3 wins & 9 nominations (more)

User Comments:

1 out of 1 people found the following comment useful:-

Aim for the stars, 4 June 2005
Author: DutchECK from Enschede, NL

I loved October Sky. The thing I loved most had to be the music. It worked two ways: in the first hour of the film, it gives the viewer a time-frame. This is done by playing songs from the late Fifties. In the second hour, an instrumental score takes over. The music now fits the mood of the film perfectly.

I did not only enjoy the music, I also quite enjoyed the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer Hickam was especially a surprise for me. He gave off a first-class performance, as did Chris Owen (Quentin) and Chris Cooper (John Hickam).

I've seen this movie about escaping the life already laid out for you twice now, and both times I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

This film sucks Mhjm6
WOW!!! bluegenie2
What's with Gyllenhaal? Didsbury08
first song DuffStarRome_Is_BaCk
I'm from the same county Grey_Night_Hollow
Masterpiece sergioactor

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Blogger pat's pub said...

Apparelntly they do have their own censorship Boards, I wasn't aware of that. Who cares about these ratings anyway.. And Calvin is still dead, thankfully . He was a stupid git anyway.
Ever been to Cape Kennedy ? Taken the tour where they give you the History of NASA ? Apparently they used to sit in a bunker at the beach and fire rockets into the sky. If you get there on a good day you can even talk to some eye witnesses (my guide claimed that he named one of the monkeys they shot into space).
(I think it's time for an episode of X Minus One for me now....)

Blogger SteveHeath said...

Count me in on the next Mongo Launch. And the post party.

But make it in summer. I ain't coming up there during Nov-March (aka WINTER) even though it might be cool to see the colorful rockets land in the mountains of snow.


Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Hmmmm ... many people are unaware that there are two more seasons besides Summer and Winter. One of them is called Autumn or Fall. I forget what the other one is called.

What do you think of an Autumn Launch -- Octoberish? Autumn is New England's totally Superspectacular Fantastamagoric Colorific Tourist Season. The mountain forests explode in brilliant (or subtle and subdued -- even more gorgeous) colors, and farmers can sell Big-City Tourists ANYTHING from roadside farm stands. (I will be on hand to make sure Mongo Visitors do not buy Farmer Lem's Original Pickled Belly-Button Lint, or at least don't pay too much for it.)

Like I said above, go to the hobby shop NOW and start buying the rocket ENGINES and the Solar IGNITORS now. These are the Fun Thingies that Homeland Security could make vanish from Free American Life at any instant. Engine Guide: The higher the letter (A, B, C, D, E etc.), the more raw, scarey, loud power. So get E F and if you see some strange off-brand selling G H or bigger, BUY THEM ALL! (I'll buy 'em back from you.)

Mongo permits the use only of DOT (US Department of Transportation) Approved engines. God only knows how the US DOT got into the Amateur Outer-Space Rocket business, but that's just one of those mysteries of bureaucracies and governments. But if it ain't DOT-Approved, Ming the Merciless don't want to mess with it. Those Basement Specials will blow some kid's xnrqq off.


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