Duane Sherrill

I’ve always been a prankster. Even when I was a kid, I enjoyed getting one over on my friends. And, just like most pranksters, I was the butt of many practical jokes, often made to look like an idiot. But that’s how it goes in the prankster department. You have to take as good as you give and I think, for the most part, I’ve stayed within the spirit of that unwritten rule.

While most practical jokes have a big reveal at some point where the prank is revealed to the pranked, there are some where the patsy doesn’t know they’ve been played – even 40 years after the fact. This was brought to mind this past week when I was taking a road trip with some of my friends. Things were getting slow and, as often happens being a storyteller, I was asked to break the boredom by droning on about some past incident.

“Tell my wife the Rocket Man story,” one of my friends urged seeing it was around the Fourth and rockets were on the mind.

“Ah, the Rocket Man,” I grinned. “I haven’t thought about that in years.”

In actuality, it was one of my best and, in hindsight, cruelest pranks ever. Hey, with friends like me you have no need for enemies.

I pulled it in ninth grade on one of my best friends. Yeah, I’m such a pal. Anyway, this friend was big into model rocketry and he’d let you know about it. He was so accomplished that some folks called him the Rocket Man. Myself, I dabbled in the craft and knew just enough to be dangerous. My greatest achievement in model rocketry was a spectacular explosion on the pad when I failed to let the model glue dry sufficiently before I tried to launch. And there were always the botched recoveries. There’s a part of one of my rockets from 40 years ago atop a business across the street from my mom’s house.

So, given my friend’s reputation, he got the call to do an exhibition in front of the physical science classes.

“I’m going to launch one of my rockets at the football field in front of Ms. Simpson’s entire class, I mean, every class she teaches. It’s going to be big,” he excitedly revealed, obviously starved for attention. “There’s going to be a couple of hundred out there to watch. Practically the whole school.”

“That’s nice,” I rolled my eyes, the word ‘nerd’ going through my mind, although I didn’t vocalize it. “At least you get out of class for it.”

As the days clicked down for the launch, it was all I heard from him. He was like a parrot – rocket this, rocket that. He wouldn’t shut up about launching that stupid rocket. That was his big mistake. He dangled the carrot in front of my very long nose for too long. He gave me time to think and then he made a fatal mistake – in his excitement on the eve of the big day he invited me over for a sleep over. And, he then gave me opportunity by falling asleep early. I mean come on, it’s taking candy from a baby. What was I to do? Be happy for my friend getting his 15 minutes of fame? Please.

So, like the Grinch, I slithered to the room where he had assembled his rocketry gear. I paused to take in the majesty of the large Saturn V rocket which was to launch into the wild blue yonder in just a few hours. Like the Watergate burglars, I used a pen light to locate his pack of igniters that were in a small plastic bag. For those who haven’t dabbled in the craft, the igniters fit into a hole at the bottom of the engine. These igniters are basically the consistency of a paper clip to which you connect alligator clips to each end and then energized it with the launcher. However, key to the system is a flammable material on the igniters. Without that material, well, there’s no boom.

You see where this is going, I assume. With cunning and stealth I carefully scraped off the flammable material from each igniter and then placed them back in the bag and resealed it. I then went and slept like a baby.

The next day it was almost time for the launch. I faked a bathroom trip to get a hall pass. Come on, I couldn’t miss the action, or lack thereof. As luck would have it, I made it to the field just in time to hear the countdown begin. My friend was in the middle of the field, launcher in hand, his rocket ready to sail majestically into the blue sky.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six,” I began to snicker.

“Five, four, three, two,” here goes nothing.

“ONE!” he pushed the button, his eyes wide with anticipation. And absolutely nothing happened. I could hear crickets for a moment before the silence smashed by some kid yelled out “Isn’t it supposed to go boom?”

While I was over 100 yards from my friend, I could see him begin to sweat from where I was standing at the top of the football stadium. He took out the launch key, for safety, and walked up to the rocket and checked the connections. He then hurried back to a safe distance and began the countdown again.

“ONE!” he exclaimed as he pushed the button. Again, silence aside from a growing murmur from the unimpressed crowd.

He pulls out a new igniter and places it in the engine.

“Maybe it’s out of gas,” some loud-mouthed kid called out from the stands, bringing forth a chorus of laughter.

My determined friend again assumes his position, this time beginning his countdown at five. However, by this point the kids had ceased counting down with him. I guess they were tired of doing the math.

“ONE!” he yelled, this time his voice cracking. Nothing.

Okay, I do have a conscience and after a couple more attempts and wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes, I begin to feel bad.

“Come on, Rocket Man,” another kid called out. “Make it fly.”

My friend dropped his head as the teacher walked over and said the show had been cancelled due to technical difficulties. I had to get back to class since I was way overdue but I still remember him standing alone in the middle of the field, scratching his head, looking at the Saturn V.

As you can guess, the joke got way too far out of hand so I decided against the big reveal. I don’t think he would have taken that very well while echoes of “Rocket Man” were still in his head.

So, here we are 40 years later and he still doesn’t know what really happened when he failed to launch that day back in ninth grade.

“Are you going to tell him?” they asked after I told the story.

“I think I’ll wait another couple of years,” I said, wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes. I’m sorry, but it’s still funny to me.