When of Gadgets
scent of wood smoke and barbecue lingered as the summer
evening cooled, and darkened the day. Great Grandpa Bill
gazed up at the sky. Before the developers built the
shopping mall, the stars scattered across the sky
gleamed like rhinestones on black velvet. Back then, the
moon resembled a polished silver dollar. Now the moon
was a pale white disk. He could barely find the Big
Dipper through the haze of all the lights.
Michael, the five-year-old grandson of the
son-he-didn’t-get-along-with, shared Bill’s porch swing.
thought unrolled in Great Grandpa’s mind like plans on a
drafting table. “I’m going to build a rocket ship,” he
announced, as much to himself as to Michael.
his head injury, Great Grandpa’s mind filled with plans
and drawings, all done on onion-skin paper in fine
pencil with hand-printed explanations. Fifty years
earlier he had designed rocket engines for a living with
a slide rule and T-square and the bible-thick engineer’s
new mental schematics and plans gave him a sense of
purpose again. He would be the project manager, chief
engineer, draftsman, machinist, and assembly crew.
fly the rocket ship sometime?” asked Michael.
don’t think so,” said Great Grandpa Bill. “But tell you
what. Let’s go look at some of my gadgets.”
built a second garage attached to the original, complete
with heating/air conditioning and a double-wide overhead
door. “Dad, are you sure?” asked the
son-he-didn’t-get-along-with. At the time, even Great
Grandpa had wondered why the double-wide garage had been
important, but now that he was building the rocket ship,
punched in the opening code--Ruth’s birthday--God how he
missed her--and the door rumbled upward. The lights
flickered, hummed, and filled the room with mock
dimensional mazes of electrical wire, circuit boxes,
vacuum tubes, and brass gears filled a wide workbench.
pulled a chair from against the wall and invited Michael
to climb up and take a look.
“Cool,” he said. “What do they do?”
not sure,” said Great Grandpa. He knew for certain they
were part of a greater work. Maybe it was the damned
was reluctant to start that project. With a time-machine
he’d be obligated to go back and make the world a better
place. He just didn’t have that much energy anymore.
would have to go back and save his buddies at
Guadalcanal, stop his little sister’s death from mumps.
Every day, he’d tell his wife Ruth how much he loved
her. He’d be more patient with his sons, especially the
heard a small voice outside of his reverie. “Grea’
thinking. Do you want to see a special trick? But you
can’t tell anybody. Promise?”
pulled his newest creation, a spider web of soldered
wiring and brass disks in a metal bird cage to the front
of the work bench. He slid a scrap of copper wire inside
and flicked the switch. The wire rippled like a mirage,
and disappeared, just like the steel screw had
“Where’d it go?” asked Michael.
not sure,” said Great Grandpa slowly. His mind was still
occupied with reasons to avoid building the time
Michael’s age ran beneath the garage door, brandishing a
disposable flashlight. “Mike! Get yours from Uncle
Paul! We’re playing tag!”
go?” Michael asked Great Grandpa Bill.
ahead. But remember our secret.”
“Thanks for showing me your stuff,” called Michael. He
leapt from the chair and disappeared into the summer
OK, thought Great Grandpa, looking out the door. If his
knees didn’t hurt all the time, he’d be running with
steel screw from yesterday appeared on the chair behind
after sheet of plans unrolled on the drafting table in
his mind, and projects came and went. The
son-he-didn’t-get-along-with visited every weekend to
keep an eye on him, bringing leftovers as an excuse.
Great Grandpa had survived Guadalcanal, a Jap bullet,
Iwo Jima and malaria. He didn’t need somebody checking
up on him, but it was nice to have a meal he didn’t have
slipped into autumn bringing warm days and chilly
nights, the time of year when the fingertips of Summer
and Winter touched. Trees turned gold and red and
orange, rustling in the same breeze that carried the
scent of dying flowers and changing seasons.
Grandpa’s neighbors called the police.
the police came, they called the bomb squad. The bomb
squad called the FBI.
back yard stood the rocket ship with pointed nose,
portholes, and sleek fins--a perfect rendition from the
cover of a 1950’s pulp magazine.
neighbors were evacuated and herded behind police
barricades. Great Grandpa stood in front of his house
with a cluster of official-looking men in dark suits.
sporting a G.I. haircut and a tiny radio stuck in his
ear was in charge. “That thing is loaded with explosive
chemicals. It will go easier if you tell us how to
disarm it,” he said.
Grandpa waved his arms. “It’s a rocket ship, you damned
fool. All that stuff is fuel.”
son-he-didn’t-get-along-with, pushed through the crowd
of neighbors and police, and introduced himself.
is a serious matter,” said the man in charge to the son.
“Explain it to him.”
“Damned right it’s serious,” warned Great Grandpa. “It
could take off without me.”
began his son, “Be reasonable.”
spent my whole life building rockets for other men to
ride. Now it’s my turn.”
Grandpa sensed rather than heard the egg timer’s
mechanical ding and the spark from the auto battery
igniting the engine.
roar from the engine bounced off the houses and flowed
down the street. The neighbors shouted or stood open
mouthed, craning their necks to watch the rocket ship
rise over the rooftops and straight into the sky, silver
fins flashing in the sunlight.
man in charge spoke into his walkie-talkie, then
demanded “What’s the target?”
“Target?” said Great Grandpa. “Without me steering it’ll
hit the moon.”
The man in charge scowled and
stared into the sky, his eyes following the thin, white
streak of exhaust. The roar lingered as a whisper.
Great Grandpa Bill could hear the sounds of automobiles
on the nearby street and the neighbors’ excited
conversations. The breeze carried a whiff of burning
grass. A fire engine’s siren wailed in the distance.
“We’re taking him into custody,” the man in charge said
to the closest uniformed policeman. He took out a set of
handcuffs from the back of his belt.
until Channel Two News gets ahold of this,” said the
son, thinking quickly. “He was a Marine in World War II.
Got a medal. He’s eighty-nine years old, for Christ’s
is a matter of national security.” The man in charge
placed his hand on Great Grandpa’s arm.
go with him. And no handcuffs.”
“You’re a good son,” said Great Grandpa Bill.
man in charge glanced at the crowd. They should have
confiscated the cell phones. Now, whatever he did would
be viewed by the world in minutes.
man in charge shook his head at the uniformed policeman.
can follow us to the station,” he said to the son.
men in suits escorted Great Grandpa to a black sedan,
and they slid inside. The driver turned the sedan
around with tires squealing and drove toward downtown.
Grandpa relaxed in the back seat. It was a nice sedan,
with a smooth engine, soft ride and even still had the
new-car smell. He watched the scenery for a few moments,
He absent mindedly put his hand to his shirt pocket
and noticed the piece of paper. “Build the time machine
before the rocket ship,” it said in his handwriting, but
he didn’t remember writing the note.