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Authors: Ray Bradbury

R is for Rocket

BOOK: R is for Rocket
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When I was a boy in the Midwest I used to go out and look at the stars at night and wonder about them.

    I guess every boy has done that.

    When I wasn't looking at the stars, I was running in my old or my brand-new tennis shoes, on my way to swing in a tree, swim in a lake, or delve in the town library to read about dinosaurs or Time Machines.

    I guess every boy has done that, too.

    This is a book about those stars and those tennis shoes. Mainly about the stars, because that is the way I grew up, getting more and more involved with rockets and space as I moved toward my twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth years.

    Not that I have forgotten the tennis shoes and their powerful magic, as you will see in the last story here, which I have included not because it concerns the Future, but because it gives you some sort of idea of the kind of boy I was when I was looking at the stars and thinking of the Years Ahead.

    Nor have I forgotten the dinosaurs that all boys love; they are here, too, along with a Machine that travels back in Time to step on a butterfly.

    This is a book then by a boy who grew up in a small Illinois town and lived to see the Space Age arrive, as he hoped and dreamt it would.

    I dedicate these stories to all boys who wonder about the Past, run swiftly in the Present, and have high hopes for our Future.

    The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.

 

Ray Bradbury

Los Angeles

March 28,
1962

 

 

 

R IS FOR ROCKET

 

 

There was this fence where we pressed our faces and felt the wind turn warm and held to the fence and forgot who we were or where we came from but dreamed of who we might be and where we might go. . . .

    Yet we were boys and liked being boys and lived in a Florida town and liked the town and went to school and fairly liked the school and climbed trees and played football and liked our mothers and fathers. . . .

    But some time every hour of every day of every week for a minute or a second when we thought on fire and stars and the fence beyond which they waited . . . we liked the rockets more.

    The fence. The rockets.

    Every Saturday morning . . .

    The guys met at my house.

    With the sun hardly up, they yelled until the neighbors were moved to brandish paralysis guns out their ventilators I commanding the guys to shut up or they'd be frozen statues ifor the next hour and
then
where would they be?

    Aw, climb a rocket, stick your head in the main-jet! the kids always yelled back, but yelled this safe behind our garden I fence. Old Man Wickard, next door, is a great shot with the para-gun.

    This one dim cool Saturday morning I was lying in bed thinking about how I had flunked my semantics exam the day before at formula-school, when I heard the gang yelling below. It was hardly 7
a.m.
and there was still a lot of fog roaming in off the Atlantic, and only now were the weather-control vibrators at each corner starting to hum and shoot out rays to get rid of the stuff; I heard them moaning soft and nice.

    I padded to the window and stuck my head out.

    "Okay, space-pirates! Motors off!"

    "Hey!" shouted Ralph Priory. "We just heard, there's a new schedule today! The Moon Job, the one with the new XL3 motor, is cutting gravity in an
hour!"

    "Buddha, Muhammad, Allah, and other real and semi-mythological figures," I said, and went away from the window so fast the concussion laid all the boys out on my lawn.

    I zippered myself into a jumper, yanked on my boots, clipped my food-capsules to my hip-pocket, for I knew there'd be no food or even thought of food today, we'd just stuff with pills when our stomachs barked, and fell down the two-story vacuum elevator.

    On the lawn, all five of the guys were chewing their lips, bouncing around, scowling.

    "Last one," said I, passing them at 5000 mph, "to the monorail is a bug-eyed Martian!"

    On the monorail, with the cylinder hissing us along to Rocket Port, twenty miles from town — a few minutes ride  — I had bugs in my stomach. A guy fifteen doesn't get to see the big stuff often enough, mostly every week it was the small continental cargo rockets coming and going on schedule. But this was big, among the biggest . . . the Moon and beyond. . . .

    "I'm sick," said Priory, and hit me on the arm.

    I hit him back. "Me, too. Boy, ain't Saturday the best day in the week!?"

    Priory and I traded wide, understanding grins. We got along all Condition Go. The other pirates were okay. Sid Rossen, Mac Leslyn, Earl Marnee, they knew how to jump around like all the kids, and they loved the rockets, too, but I had the feeling they wouldn't be doing what Ralph and I would do some day. Ralph and I wanted the stars for each of us, more than we would want a fistful of clear-cut blue-white diamonds.

    We yelled with the yellers, we laughed with the laughers, but at the middle of it all, we were still, Ralph and I, and the cylinder whispered to a stop and we were outside yelling, laughing, running, but quiet and almost in slow motion, Ralph ahead of me, and all of us pointed one way, at the observation fence and grabbing hold, yelling for the slowpokes to catch up, but not looking back for them, and then we were all there together and the big rocket came out of its plastic work canopy like a great interstellar circus tent and moved along its gleaming track out toward the fire point, accompanied by the gigantic gantry like a gathering of prehistoric reptile birds which kept and preened and fed this one big fire monster and led it toward its seizure and birth into a suddenly blast-furnace sky.

    I quit breathing. I didn't even suck another breath it seemed until the rocket was way out on the concrete meadow, followed by water-beetle tractors and great cylinders bearing hidden men, and all around, in asbestos suits, praying-mantis mechanics fiddled with machines and buzzed and cawwed and gibbered to each other on invisible, unhearable radiophones, but we could hear it all, in our heads, our minds, our hearts.

    "Lord," I said at last.

    "The very good Lord," said Ralph Priory at my elbow.

    The others said this, too, over and over.

    It was something to "good Lord" about. It was a hundred years of dreaming all sorted out and chosen and put together Ito make the hardest, prettiest, swiftest dream of all. Every line was fire solidified and made perfect, it was flame frozen, and lice waiting to thaw there in the middle of a concrete prairie, ready to wake with a roar, jump high and knock its silly fine great head against the Milky Way and knock the stars down in a full return of firefall meteors. You felt it could kick the Coal Sack Nebula square in the midriff and make it stand out of the way.

    It got me in the midriff, too — it gripped me in such a way I knew the special sickness of longing and envy and grief for lack of accomplishment. And when the astronauts patrolled the field in the final silent mobile-van, my body went with them in their strange white armor, in their bubble-helmets and insouciant pride, looking as if they were team-parading to a magnetic football game at one of the local mag-fields, for mere practice. But they were going to the Moon, they went every month now, and the crowds that used to come to watch were no longer there, there was just us kids to worry them up and worry them off.

    "Gosh," I said. "What wouldn't I give to go with them. What wouldn't I give."

    "Me," said Mac, "I'd give my one-year monorail privileges."

    "Yeah. Oh, very much yeah."

    It was a big feeling for us kids caught half between this morning's toys and this afternoon's very real and powerful fireworks.

    And then the preliminaries got over with. The fuel was in the rocket and the men ran away from it on the ground like ants running lickety from a metal god — and the Dream woke up and gave a yell and jumped into the sky. And then it was gone, all the vacuum shouting of it, leaving nothing but a hot trembling in the air, through the ground, and up our legs to our hearts. Where it had been was a blazed, seared pock and a fog of rocket smoke like a cumulus cloud banked low.

    "It's gone!" yelled Priory.

    And we all began to breathe fast again, frozen there on the ground as if stunned by the passing of a gigantic paralysis gun.

    "I want to grow up quick," I said, then. "I want to grow up quick so I can take that rocket."

    I bit my lips. I was so darned young, and you cannot apply for space work. You have to be
chosen.
Chosen.

    Finally somebody, I guess it was Sidney, said:

    "Let's go to the tele-show now."

    Everyone said yeah, except Priory and myself. We said no, and the other kids went off laughing breathlessly, talking, and left Priory and me there to look at the spot where the ship had been.

    It spoiled everything else for us — that takeoff.

    Because of it, I flunked my semantics test on Monday.

    I didn't care.

    At times like that I thanked Providence for concentrates. When your stomach is nothing but a coiled mass of excitement, you hardly feel like drawing a chair to a full hot dinner. A few concen-tabs swallowed, did wonderfully well as substitution, without the urge of appetite.

    I got to thinking about it, tough and hard, all day long and late at night. It got so bad I had to use sleep-massage mechs every night, coupled with some of Tschaikovsky's quieter music to get my eyes shut.

    "Good Lord, young man," said my teacher, that Monday at class. "If this keeps up I'll have you reclassified at the next psych-board meeting."

    "I'm sorry," I replied.

    He looked hard at me. "What sort of block have you got? I It must be a very simple, and also a  conscious,  one."

    I winced. "It's conscious, sir; but it's not simple. It's multi-tentacular. In brief, though — it's rockets."

    He smiled. "R is for Rocket, eh?"

    "I guess that's it, sir."

    "We can't let it interfere with your scholastic record, though, young man."

    "Do you think I need hypnotic suggestion, sir?"

    "No, no." He flipped through a small tab of records with my name blocked on it. I had a funny stone in my stomach, just lying there. He looked at me. "You know, Christopher, you're king-of-the-hill here; head of the class." He closed his eyes and mused over it. "We'll have to see about a lot of other things," he concluded. Then he patted me on the shoulder.

    "Well — get on with your work. Nothing to worry about."

    He walked away.

    I tried to get back to work, but I couldn't. During the rest of the day the teacher kept watching me and looking at my tab-record and chewing his lip. About two in the afternoon he dialed a number on his desk-audio and discussed something with somebody for about five minutes.

    I couldn't hear what was said.

    But when he set the audio into its cradle, he stared straight at me with the funniest light in his eyes.

    It was envy and admiration and pity all in one. It was a little sad and it was much of happiness. It had a lot in it, just in his eyes. The rest of his face said nothing.

    It made me feel like a saint and a devil sitting there.

 

    Ralph Priory and I slid home from formula-school together early that afternoon. I told Ralph what had happened and he frowned in the dark way he always frowns.

    I began to worry. And between the two of us we doubled and tripled the worry.

    "You don't think you'll be sent away, do you, Chris?"

    Our monorail car hissed. We stopped at our station. We got out. We walked slow. "I don't know," I said.

    "That would be plain dirty," said Ralph.

    "Maybe I need a good psychiatric laundering, Ralph. I can't go on flubbing my studies this way."

    We stopped outside my house and looked at the sky for a long moment. Ralph said something funny.

    "The stars aren't out in the daytime, but we can see 'em, can't we, Chris?"

    "Yeah," I said. "Darn rights."

    "Well stick it together, huh, Chris? Blast them, they can't take you away now. We're pals. It wouldn't be fair."

    I didn't say anything because there was no room in my throat for anything but a hectagonal lump.

    "What's the matter with your eyes?" asked Priory.

    "Aw, I looked at the sun too long. Come on inside, Ralph."

    We yelled under the shower spray in the bath-cubicle, but our yells weren't especially convincing, even when we turned on the ice-water.

    While we were standing in the warm-air dryer, I did a lot of thinking. Literature, I figured, was full of people who fought battles against hard, razor-edged opponents. They pitted brain and muscle against obstacles until they won out or were themselves defeated. But here I was with hardly a sign of any outward conflict. It was all running around in spiked boots inside my head, making cuts and bruises where no one could see them except me and a psychologist. But it was just as bad.

BOOK: R is for Rocket
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