Mission to Next Door

Summer, 1978, my big brother and I built a rocket and took the neighborhood boys to Mars. That summer is a jewel in my memory, a time of industry, invention and adventure. It was a Ray Bradbury summer. The best summer ever. I wish there were photos of the ship, but, I am sad to say, not one remains. I’ll do my best to paint the picture.

My brother, Michael, was always building something; as far back as I can remember he had blueprints in his eyes and a mind made of erector set parts. He even had a secret super-scientist alter ego: Art Formula. What a fantastic name! Always moving, tearing apart, modifying, scheming, testing, meshing. In kindergarten, no one could match his prowess in imaginary robotics. By the time he was ten, Michael was Nikolai Tesla and Doc Savage combined in one skinny suburban blond kid, or at least that’s how I saw him.

We rented a house in Redondo Beach, CA, that came with a detached garage full of construction materials belonging to the elderly landlord. There was a yard lined with citrus trees between the house and garage. I’ll bet you the vision of the rocket was born the moment my brother looked at the yard and at the wood and the nails and aluminum bits scattered in the shadowy storage space. I bet Michael claimed it all as Dr. Formula’s very own inventor’s workshop and laboratory before we’d so much as unloaded a box.

My role in the Art Formula workshop was pretty much what you’d expect. I was Igor. I was the mule. So what? I’ve never claimed any great mechanical aptitude. I was happy to help. The other kids in the neighborhood would get involved in Michael’s projects, now and then, but none of them shared our zeal for it. He and I were unmatched in sheer, intrinsic nerdity.

We would scour the garage for hours, finding screws and bolts and unidentifiable parts, and I could never be sure if Michael conceived an invention because of the parts, or we found the parts because of the concept. I dared not ask him. Art Formula dealt in certainty, and brooked no little brotherly nonsense.

One afternoon in early summer—I know it was early, because post-scholastic ennui had begun to sink in but we were not yet perpetually shirtless—behind the garage, Michael and I were drinking Coke and choking on unfiltered Camels we stole from our dad. “We can use the wavy fiberglass stuff for the rocket ship,” he said. Simple as that.

Since when are we building a rocket ship? I wondered. But the idea caught on quickly. As my brother mused about other materials, I drifted in and out of the conversation and the cosmos. A rocket ship! I thought. Man, nobody on Ralston Lane has ever built one of those! We could totally go to those planets with green ladies on them. Michael went on about using bicycle reflectors to protect against the heat of atmospheric re-entry or something, but I’d sold myself on the project already. Green ladies. Oh yes.

Then it was on. We cleared a space in the yard, beside our citrus trees (which has left the strange impression in my mind that space ship interiors should smell like tangerines) and brought out several tarps, an old door, the aforementioned wavy fiberglass stuff, a gang of aluminum rods, some dry wall, various doorknobs and hinges. You know, rocket parts.

We enlisted the help of the neighborhood kids. Lackluster as ever, in the beginning, their enthusiasm grew to Tom Sawyer proportions once we convinced them they did not really want to play on a slip-n-slide; hauling cinderblocks in the noonday sun was much more fun.

We labored for many kid-years. Perhaps as long as two weeks. Michael, if I recall correctly, oversaw the construction and hundred redesigns and adjustments, and never lifted a damn thing. I’m sure he’d remember it differently.

We named it…wait, what did we name it? Ah! We never settled on a name. We argued in the driveway over the name for many an hour. Michael favored something with Star in it. Starstrike, Starburst, Silver Stardancer. I wanted to give it a name more along the lines of Skullkill Smasher or Doomship Blood. One of us briefly suggested Disco Volante, from Thunderball, but it didn’t fly, so to speak.

Whatever the name, I can picture it now, very clearly, both in its physical reality and its symbolic value. It sat four kids; five if David from down the street was there. He was small. The ship was roughly the size and shape of a tall person’s coffin, a corrugated, door-hulled, knobby, reflectorized rectangle thingie with multiple antennae. But so much more than that. It was the sleekest, most bitchen ship ever. We could totally have made the Kessel Run in less than eleven parsecs, OK?

Our next-door neighbors yard was all torn up for new landscaping. Nothing but dirt and potholes and exposed pipes. Mars, pretty much. For our maiden voyage—a funny phrase for a box full of boys—we set course for that rough, dangerous landscape. We checked the necessary knobs, flipped all the important flippy stuff, grabbed the wavy fiberglass thing on the side. At last, Art Formula, sitting in front (of course) counted down with great authority. “Five! Four! Three! Damn it, David, sit down! Two! One!” And then a chorus of Pschew! Whoooo! Scheeekow! Hurtling through the ripe tangerines of space, the very fabric of time and the backyard.

Mars had but one woman, my next-door neighbor, who was neither green nor particularly alluring. But she didn’t mind us exploring the planet, so cheers to her. Later, the intrepid crew had Otter Pops and Nammalaters and the day was perfect.

Michael and I took many more trips on the USS um, Starkillsilversmash, until one day the cinderblocks collapsed, destroying the warp-plate drive capacitation. Fortunately, none of the crew was harmed.

That was more than 30 years ago, and it’s still with me. One does not return from Mars unchanged, after all. These days, I don’t see my big brother as often as I’d like, and his old desire to create mechanized marvels and explore strange realms generally happens at Burning Man. But Art Formula is still part of him, and if he ever wants to rebuild the ship, his co-pilot, assistant and dogsbody little brother stands ready.


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA. His brother is a bad ass fire hoop performer in the Bay Area. 

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