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Backyard Ballistics: Father and son tales

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More like a pair of feet-weary mailmen than a retired drummer and a high-school freshman, Henry and his son, Michael, came into the bar and sat down. They waved hello.


“Hey, boys!” I went over to greet them. “What are you guys up to?”


“Makin’ magic,” Henry said. He took in the room a bit more closely than he normally would if he were on his own.


“Hey,” came the disinterested younger version of the same gene pool.


“What’ll it be, Mike? Coke on the rocks?”


“And a menu,” he grumbled.


“Coming right up. Henry?”


“A beer would be great.”


I slid a Sierra Nevada into his out-stretched hand.


Adopting the voice of a cartoon professor, I said, “So far at ‘Camp Dad’ you’ve covered the finer points of ‘How to be a Gentleman,’ ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll: A – Z,’ and ‘Writing Effective Topic Sentences’…what does your syllabus include for the next few days?”


“Science projects,” Henry snickered. He ribbed Michael, who, smiled through his straw.


“What then? Baking soda volcanoes? Dissecting animals? Alchemy?”


“No, more like the laws of physics, you know.” Stifling a knowing chuckle, he continued, “What goes up, must come down … that kind of thing.”


“Bottle rockets? Model airplanes?” I was genuinely curious.


“Tell him, Michael….”


Feigning disinterest, Michael rumbled, “The Cincinnati Fire Kite and Matchstick Rocket.”


“The what?”


“The Cincinnati Fire Kite and Matchstick Rocket,” he repeated louder.


“And, please, distinguished sirs, what are the Cincinnati Fire Kite and Matchstick Rocket?” Leaning against the back bar with a toothpick, I awaited their discourse.


“Well,” Henry began, “the two experiments my colleague was talking about should only be conducted in a very safe, controlled environment. What he and I experimented with today during our preliminary round of tests was the two-liter bottle launcher.”


“I see.”


“To perform this operation, one needs to attach a rubber stopper, one that fits in the end of a two-liter soda bottle, to a wooden platform. Any 4×4 would do. Fill the plastic bottle close to full with water, attach a bicycle pump to the rubber stopper, and then, holding the platform upside down (so you don’t spill too much water), connect the bottle to the stopper by gently turning it back around until it’s resting on the ground. Take a step back. To launch, work the pump until the pressure builds to satisfy one’s desired trajectory, and….”


Michael laughed. “Make sure you have an umbrella. It flew, like, a hundred feet high.”


“Sounds like fun,” I said.


Ding, ding!


The chef’s bell jerked my attention to the kitchen like a dog of Pavlov, and I excused myself. Behind me, in his mock game show voice, Henry announced, “Ding ding ding! Yes, Bob, the correct answer is—photosynthesis! We’ll take plant processes for $200!”


His son laughed warmly.


Back in the kitchen, the chef was having it out with the dishwasher in Spanish. I could tell by the way he was using the words “leche” and “juevos” that he didn’t mean milk and eggs in the usual sense.


“How’s it going back here, boys?” I asked, noticing the absence of steaming plates of food to deliver to tables.


“We need drinks for the kitchen,” he replied


“OK, I’ll be right back,” I said. “Fire one mussels marinara.”


Walking back with bread and butter, I watched Henry and Michael alone in the bar, joking back and forth about something. Michael looked up at his father’s arms outstretched above his head, describing the wingspan of an infant pterodactyl. Not wanting to impose on the mood, I stopped, crept out of sight, and spent a long minute or so staring about the empty restaurant—the folded napkins, polished silverware and flowers. I overheard Henry and his son play a game called ‘Wouldn’t it be great if….”


“We had a car with retro rockets,” Michael said.


“Yeah, what about if it had a flux capacitor that could take us back in time?” Henry added.


“Yeah, and we had shoes with springs that let us jump to the tops of big buildings….”


At Henry’s next turn, there was a pause, the kind preceding a meaningful story, like the one he once told a few of us about the night he carried his young son on his shoulders for over a mile through an ice storm because it was his night. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “If you could spend more time with dad?”


Not catching on, Michael said, “No, Dad, it has to be something cool!”


Trying hard not to laugh, I went back into the kitchen and rang the bell. It was Michael’s turn. Imitating of Howard Cosell, he announced loudly, “OK Bob, what is backyard ballistics?”


His father roared with laughter.


“And that’s my final answer!”


Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.

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