03 September 2011

Three Good Days

You know, raising kids is a full time job for most responsible parents. For me, as I drive a truck over the road with just a three-day weekend at home every couple of weeks, it actually isn't as full-time as i would like. What happens is that it becomes more or less double-time for my long-suffering wife, what with five maniacal imps of chaos spending their time disassembling the house and wreaking havoc in various other ways that I won't go into. Sometimes it seems like the kids are growing up more like those wolf-changelings so common in Hindu folklore, like old Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli.
What in the world possessed Rudyard Kipling's parents to choose to name their son "Rudyard?"
Anyway, what this means is that generally when I do come home, it's to a skeptical group of self-aware and highly critical scary geniuses, ranging in age from six to fourteen. At that age, fathers often know very little about the real world, and are generally not competent to venture an opinion that a sub-adult offspring can respect. Golden, my youngest, puts his hands on his hips and speaks slowly and clearly to me when he decides that I need to be educated about how things really work, while my oldest just shakes his head and storms off in frustration. The three in the middle generally roll their eyes when I tell them something, the old "Oh no, here we go again. Don't be fooled . . . " My life at home is full of denunciations of what I know, including the memorable, "Well, when you were young cities weren't invented and everybody lived in grass huts."

So when I do achieve a measure of public validation at home, it's a red-letter day, one that I chalk up in my bank account of credibility that my kids will start withdrawing from in ten or twenty more years, by which time I will hopefully have learned a great deal. And recently, I had not only one good day, but three in a row—three good days in which grizzled old Kevin demonstrated a level of competence in urgent affairs in the life of mice and men that hopefully made an impression on my flinty-eyed brood. Maybe only a temporary impression, possibly, but it was very good while it lasted, and I'll take what I can get, you know.
The First Day: Broadband
The first good day was my first day at home. Since the invention of the internet, my household has remained separated from the dominant culture in a lot of ways, as a result of our choice to live off the beaten path. One of them has been the internet. We've actually had net access for several years, but not in the way that many people consider adequate. After all, we live in a ramshackle old farmhouse, for a hundred years the last house on our road, until Jim dragged an old mobile home down into the copperhead-infested bottom a mile below us and installed power. Not a lot of high-tech compatibility in a house built without running water or even anything thoughtful in the way of electrical wiring.
We had a telephone, although not much of one, so we could have dial-up. But our telephone lines are old, and solid copper. That means that with local dial-up net access, our data speeds are positively chelonian, and it gets worse whenever the wind blows and makes the wires bounce around, or when it rains. But we were used to pressing "enter," and then having to wait two or three minutes for the screen to paint. My kids used the net more or less sparingly, because it was always more exciting to go outside and watch the old trucks rust.
But now things were going to be different, because Kevin was bound and determined to Do Something. I had met another truck driver at a rolling mill in Cleveland, and he had a little gizmo that he took around with him that accessed the net through a cellular telephone connection, right out of his truck, and gave him WiFi broadband more or less wherever he went. What an excellent concept, I thought, and an improvement over the clunky air cards of several generations back (see, you're old, too, now). So when I arrived home, I visited the local telephone company and brought back a little thing about the size of pack of Lucky Strikes, with one button and a little light. A MiFi, they called it. It was even smaller than the little brochure that pretended to be the manual that came with it.
I took it back and plugged it in, which these days is essentially all you have to do with new hardware. After a bit, the little light started flashing purple, and a dialog box on the lap tops' computer screens suddenly inaugarated a new world of broadband net access to the family. We were connected.
"Wow," said my skeptical imps, one after the other. "Look, YouTube even works."
YouTube, of course, is inaccessible without broadband, as are many net features the dominant culture takes for granted, like utilities websites, or the abortive net-based home-schooling program offered by our state board of education. Before, one minute of YouTube took about one hour of download, so we just didn't bother. Now, however, the kids were exploring a world of internet trivia that they had never before thought possible. News, and games, and heavens forbid, FaceBook.
"You're on FaceBook? Since when?"
"We use the WiFi at the McDonald's."
I remember signing onto FaceBook, from about the first day it went online. But it quickly turned into more of an annoyance to me than it was worth, and I deleted my account. I haven't been back since, but my kids got on all by themselves.
Even Shawna was impressed, which takes a lot as well. I tried to present it in its best light.
"Look, Shawna. Now you can pay all the bills online, twice as fast as before."
"Thank you. Very nice."
And so the day was a success. Dad had demonstrated himself competent on the cutting edge in the modern world of high tech, and introduced something previously unheard-of to the household electronics menagerie. Even if he couldn't figure out how to make the mean-faced little mercenary jump out of the attack boat in his son's murderous video game, at least he could install broadband. The kids disappeared to investigate the stimulating new world of intermittent high-speed internet, and Kevin retired to the couch.
And the evening and the morning were the first day. And it was good.
The Second Day: The High Board
The second day was clear and warm, with a blue sky that just invited a day outside for the whole family. And so, of course, we drove all the way to the local public swimming pool in town.
We have a perfectly good tree-shaded swimming hole just down the road from where we live, past the abandoned schoolhouse and the flat spot by the creek where the blacksmith used to be. But there's nothing like novelty to excite the kids, and the swimming pool in town has real diving boards, after all.
Now, diving is not something that one normally practices in the kinds of swimming holes that we have near the house, both because the only available places to dive from are generally the old bridges across the creek, and because the water under them is not usually deep enough to go into headfirst anyway without risking cervical readjustments of the type not normally recommended by the local chiropractor. But the pool in town has two diving boards, one about four feet up, and another way up in the sky.
"Kevin, you're going to dive off the high board," challenges Griffin, my Number One son, and the one most skeptical of my general abilities and wisdom.
"Okay," I say nonchalantly, looking up at the underside of the board, way, way up there in the clouds.
I looked it over while the kids got wet. Out here in Appalachia, the high boards are more or less considered crazy zones by everybody. Nobody ever goes off them headfirst, for two reasons. First, there simply isn't any good reason to go and do something as dumb as dive headlong off a little springy platform up in the altosphere, and second, there is no need for any other reason beyond the first.
But today, Kevin had a good reason, because the kids were watching, and gauging, and making conclusions.
"Have any of you kids ever dived off the high board before?"
"Low board?"
"Of course," says Griffin. "And I've jumped off the high board, too."
"I've jumped off the low board," says Devra.
"Me too," says Paoli.
"All right," I say, heading for the ladder. "You all watch."
Up on top, I look down into the cool water far below. It's really only twelve feet, but to leap off anything from twelve feet headfirst is not something that is instinctively attractive. But I step to the end of the board, give a big bounce, and do a test jump into space, feet-first.
Wham! The water hits my feet like a flat paddle and I'm instantly enveloped in the cool blue wetness. Not so bad, I think, surfacing and swimming to the side. Hauling myself over the edge, beard dripping, I get back in line for the high board, with the kids still watching critically. Nobody, ever, dives off the high board at this pool. My moment has come.
At the very top, I wait patiently until it's my turn to walk the plank. I pause halfway out, judge my distance, and with three quick steps and a jump, I launch my fat old fatherly figure into the air, arching into my best interpretation of a classic swan dive, heels together, toes extended, arms out and then swept into position in front of me, as the blue blue of the water rushed forward into my face as I descended.
Wham! Old dad hits the water in a vertical dive. Probably not something to score for at the Olympics, but the first dive off the high board this little pool has seen all week, I imagine. I arch up to miss the bottom, and break the surface in the middle of the deep end, flicking my head to clear my ears while I tread water.
To my great satisfaction, I am facing a row of open-mouthed astonishment, as my kids observe that once more, useless old Dad can accomplish something that nobody else dares. This is too good not to milk some more, I decide, and head up the ladder to the high board again. My triumph is reinforced again and again, as I repeat the performance under the eyes of my children, until I finally decide that even I have had enough accolades, and take a break.
And the evening and the morning were the second day. And it was good.
The Third Day: The Serpent
Out in the sticks, we have a lot of wildlife, of various kinds, sizes, and taxonomic affinities. Some of them are snakes. We have copperheads, the beautiful but poisonous pit vipers down in the bottom lands. We have a myriad of lined snakes, ribbon snakes, garter snakes, and so on, down in the grass and on the edges of the swimming hole, all Thamnophis, but beyond that beyond my remembering. We have the clownish black and brown hognose snakes, always ready for a bout of playing possum. And we have the elegant rat snakes, Elaphe obsoleta.
The rat snakes are viewed with suspicion by the locals.
"Those black snakes are interbreeding with the copperheads, you know," Jim tells me.
"How do you know that?"
"Just look at 'em," he says. "You can tell."
I happen to love the Elaphes, and catch all that I can get hold of to let go around the house to keep the mice down. This often makes for amusing travel, as after I pick one off the road I have to drive home in the old one-ton, shifting the four speed while holding a struggling three or four-foot snake in my gear shift hand. Once I had to stop as one tried to escape down the ventilator duct on the floor of the truck. Not a good place for a snake to die, so I held tightly onto his tail and eventually coaxed the busy end back out of the hole. Elaphes are pretty docile, as snakes go, although they will happily bite you a good one if you introduce yourself to them too abruptly.
"Dad, there's a snake on the porch," announces Devra, my number one daughter.
"That's nice," I say. "Is it alive?" First things first. With cats and dogs in the house, we have lots of things show up on the porch that aren't alive, and in many cases aren't even anatomically complete. So I always ask.
"Yes. Come and see."
I get up from my lunch and step out onto the kitchen porch, where all five kids are staring intently at something half-concealed in the tall weeds that fringe the ancient concrete slabs I dragged there when we re-did the meeting house sidewalks. We're cheap, so I'll make a porch out of anything handy, and these old slabs of sidewalk work great, both for us, and as warm relaxing places for visiting snakes.
Resting calmly on the concrete is the head and a few coiled inches of a large snake. A good-looking black one. So far so good.
I step over to the snake and look down, making sure I know what I've got. We don't have cottonmouths this far north, but whip snakes and racers are sometimes dark, and they're nervous snakes, prone to bite. The hognose snakes won't bite, but this isn't one of them. It's a nice big rat snake, maybe even one of the ones I dropped off on the property a season or two before. No way to tell how big it is, as it's mostly hidden in the weeds.
Shawna stands inside the kitchen, watching through the screen door and trying not to look anxious. She's not scared of snakes, really, at least when she's inside and they're not, but she'd usually just as soon not have them surprise her by twisting and writhing under her bare feet when she steps onto the porch in the morning. Mice are another thing entirely, and will always cause her to scream as they scurry across the kitchen floor, tail straight up and diving for shelter. But the kids watch me and the snake closely, looking to see what I'll do with this interesting anomaly.
And I know just what to do with big snakes, which is always what I do: pick 'em up and see what they look like. I carefully reach down to grasp the rat snake behind the head, but as soon as I touch it, it jerks its head backwards and scrambles for safety, the weeds next to the slab suddenly coming alive as it boils and loops itself around to disappear.
But I'm prepared for this, and quick as I can I reach down grab the snake by the middle, and swing it up out of the grass, where it hangs reeling at both ends like a flexible black thunderbolt in the hands of Zeus.
And like Zeus, I triumph over nature. I spin, gently swirling the snake out like a rope, and then quickly swing it between my legs and clamp them shut on it, trapping its head behind me with its tail end still firmly in my hand. But my triumph is somewhat marred, as I inadvertently leave too much snake loose behind me, and the offended reptile lunges its snaky head around my leg and firmly bites down on my trousers, a bit too close to my trouser fly for comfort.
Shawna gasps and wrings her hands from behind the kitchen door. The kids stand and stare, and Dad carefully disengages the lovely four-foot snake's jaws from his unharmed leg and loops the body around his forearm, in the correct herpetological manner of holding a snake to both calm it down and keep it from harm. The snake becomes immediately docile, and I invite the kids over.
"You can tell it's a rat snake because it has a completely flat belly, with the body like a loaf of bread in cross section. See the white belly with the little dots?"
"Can I touch it?" asks Starbuck.
And so as the evening progresses into a gentle calm, and the lightning bugs venture out to illuminate the hilltop, I spend a few minutes basking in the warm glow of accomplishment. And I realize that this was the evening and the morning of the third day, and it was just as good as the two just preceding it. In a scant three days, I had demonstrated a practical grasp of modern high-tech computer science, physical bravery in the face of almost certain death, and a mastery of the mysterious things of biology heretofore only expected of nature gods and other fabulous characters.
And I also know enough to enjoy it while it lasted, because one of the things that grizzled old gray hairs know for sure is that the memories of the young are ephemeral things, and while I'm looking good today, tomorrow won't be building itself on any foundation older than its own sunrise.
But by gosh, it's good to look good, every now and then. And doing it three days in a row was a gift that doesn't come often.

23 April 2011

The Great Hot Air Balloon Failure

My kids are a curious lot, perpetually  interested in making things, destroying things, changing the shape and/or color of things that I would rather they have left alone, and so on. We give them a lot of freedom in this respect, as we consider experimentation an important part of a quality General Education. As part of this philosophy, we homeschooled them until we got too many to keep up with. I suppose lots of what we try to do with them still constitutes experimental education, from “Adventures in Rhetoric” with my Number One Daughter, to “Don’t Set That on Fire, It Will Explode” with my Number Two Son. But one of the things we do a lot of is just basic experimenting.
Experimentation is the best way to learn about the world, in my opinion, and is one of the things that make Quakerism significant to me. After all, one of the foundations of Christian Unprogrammed Quakerism is that personal experience lies at the base of all knowledge of God. Of course, most all interpreters of Christianity will say that, but they will usually add “. . . and this other person’s personal experience is the one you should listen to . . .” My lovely wife and I take a different approach to the matter, sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental. Rather than learn about the Creation from the hoary experts in their ivory towers, or from the hoary authorities in their cloistered rectories, I try to let my kids learn as much about the world as they can directly, from the hoary world itself. And of course, they always have their hoary father around to assist them in avoiding the incineration of their home and other such unintentional consequences.
Our kids are especially fond of bright colors, paper, defying gravity, cutting things up, destroying solid objects, and discovering new uses for fire. So one day last week, I considered that it was time to teach the children something useful about all of these things. How, I wondered, could I possibly fit all this into a single day? Fitting it into a single day is important, because driving a truck for a living means that my home time is extremely limited. We’re still waiting for the opportune moment to glue the masts onto the ships they built inside old whiskey bottles the time I was home before last. I didn’t quite ream out the holes in the wooden hulls big enough before we glued them inside the bottles. Manipulating the masts and sails into place at the end of long , slender drinking straws turned out to be more difficult than I expected, and we ran out of time before I could come up with an alternative technology. But not to worry, all I have to do is sneak a few more whiskey bottles past my wife, and we’re ready to try again.
Anyway, I hit onto the solution to the current problem while driving across Wisconsin, and immediately called Shawna to make the necessary arrangements.
“I need you to buy some stuff for me for when I get back.”
“What stuff?”
“Well, I need some long tissue paper, some tomato paste in the small cans, some glue sticks, and some 90 percent isopropyl alcohol.”
“Why should I help you build a bomb? We can’t afford insurance.”
“It’s not for a bomb. We’re all going to build a Hot Air Balloon. And I just want the cans for the burners.”
“You mean you’re going to throw away perfectly good tomato paste?”
“You can make spaghetti for dinner.”
And there you have it. A quick project that involves the exercise of solid geometry, convection, a bit of history, requires the uses paper, glue, an electric drill, perhaps, and would result in a spectacular and emotionally satisfying visual extravaganza to seal the lessons into the malleable and receptive minds of my five children. It would also show my lovely wife that I could actually do more during my 72 hours at home than just sit on the couch rolling lint out of my navel. Yes, such are the dreams of mice and men, but little did I realize how soundly my hopes would be dashed by the cold hard reality of nature and nature’s laws. But I digress.
I arrived home to discover a complication already waiting for me.
“Your son’s science teacher said to use Sterno for the heat source, so that’s what I got.”
“Sterno? That won’t work,” I said, hefting one of the heavy cans filled with an evil-smelling pink gel. “Why couldn’t you just buy the tomato paste and alcohol?”
“Stuff it.”
So we made another trip to the grocery store in the next town, my wife having washed her hands of this stage of the affair. At lunch at the McDonald’s, I grilled my Number One Daughter on her geometry skills, because at the age of 13, it would be her responsibility to supervise the design of the gas envelope.
“Devra, what is the value of pi, to eight decimal places?”
“Three point one four one five nine.”
“That’s only five,” I said. “What are the next three?”
“How should I know? I can’t remember. Two six nine, maybe.”
“Wrong! Two six five!”
I consider pi to be an important number for children to know, and make sure that its value is included in their education somewhere. After all, it’s a necessary number for making Hot Air Balloons, as well as for many other household tasks, such as determining the amount of cornbread batter to prepare for a round baking pan if you want the cornbread to be a certain thickness. You know, important stuff.
“Okay, if you want to make a round balloon about three feet in diameter, how many one-foot wide panels do you have to cut?”
“And if you want the balloon to have a one-foot hole in the bottom, how wide do the panels have to be at the bottom?”
“Um, three feet divided by nine? Four inches?”
“And what is the angle of the top of the panels, to make them fit together right?”
“How do you do that?”
“You take the number of degrees in a circle, and divide it by the number of panels.”
“Um, forty degrees?”
We were all set.
Constructing a hot air balloon is something everybody should do at some point in their lives. Building a lighter-than-air craft, even in miniature, is an interesting lesson in convection, in relative air density, in buoyancy, and in history too, for that matter, as well as being fun. After all, the first man-made vehicles to venture off the earth’s surface were the hot air balloons of those old Montgolfier brothers, and the technology has been fundamentally the same ever since. My own experiments as a teenager in England used lightweight tissue paper for the gas bag, but my wife explained that tissue only came in small sheets in America these days. Innocently, I chose to substitute longer gift-wrapping paper. This was my first mistake, but it would be a while before this one came to light, and in the meantime there was plenty of opportunity for making others.
Most immediate was my preoccupation with burner construction. To make a good burner for a hot air balloon, just take a small tomato paste can (or similar), stick it over the end of a piece of wood, and drill a whole bunch of quarter-inch holes in it. Leave enough non-perforated space at the bottom to hold some alcohol, and attach a loop of flame-proof bailing wire at the top to hang it from under the balloon. Voila! Instant burner! A bit heavy, though, I thought. In England, I had used aluminum pill bottles when I did it, but those are hard to come by in Appalachia. We set the tomato paste can on a flat rock on the dining room table, poured in some alcohol, and I dropped in a match.
“Is that all it does?” My Number One Son Griffin queried us skeptically from his position of safety behind the fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Griffin is fairly blasé about fire. In fact, he was the trigger man in the Great Hilltop Grassfire a few years ago that taught my city-slicker wife how unexpectedly exciting it can be to try to burn a dried-up old Christmas tree in a dried-up old hayfield next to your dried-up old house. Which is another story, but one that may never be told for diplomatic reasons. But truly, the burning rubbing alcohol was not a very impressive sight—a tall, cool, yellow flame that smoked and didn’t seem to put out much heat at all.
“Give it some time to warm up and start boiling the alcohol into a vapor, “I suggested hopefully. “I remember the flame making a tight cone of purple fire that really put out the BTUs when I did it.”
After a while it did get a little better, but not much. Another mistake. Puzzled, I thought about why it wasn’t burning like I remembered. Then I remembered that I had used methanol in my own attempts, years ago.
Methanol. Wait a minute—that was the answer. There had been no water in the fuel I had used, it had been pure wood alcohol. Thinking about it, I realized that a 91-percent isopropyl flame would never get really fierce, because boiling the water mixed into the rubbing alcohol was absorbing the heat produced by the combustion, making steam instead of hot air, and decreasing the heat available for raising the temperature of the air going into the balloon. Heat of vaporization and all that. Not good. A better fuel was necessary.
“We need some meth,” I said.
“Excuse me?” replied Shawna.
“Methyl alcohol, you know, methanol, methylated spirits. I need to get some at the apothecary.”
“The fact that you buy it at ‘the apothecary’ is an indicator that you aren’t likely to find what you need around here. This isn’t England anymore.”
But another trip to town netted a small can of pure wood alcohol from the paint section of the hardware store. Refueling the burner with the methanol brought a dramatic change, and a tight purple cone of hot, hot flame hissed gently above the top of the tomato paste cans, just as I remembered. We were in business.
In the meantime, my daughters were busily snipping out panels for the balloon, using a large pattern cut from a cardboard box we’d salvaged from behind the drugstore (not from the apothecary, note.)
“How many do we need?” asked Paoli. Daughter Number Two is likely to turn into an artist like her mother, and was instantly involved in the patterning and cutting of the panels. This was her element. She’s also a literary type, so I’m making plans for a future project to capitalize on that. In the meantime, a three foot balloon will need pi times 3 (or so) panels to get all the way around.
“Nine panels for each balloon. Let’s make just one first, and see how it goes.”
Fitting the panels together was sort of like building a giant paper fan, except that the glue sticks didn’t seem up to the task of holding the paper together, in the neat edge-to-edge match necessary to produce a clean, prolate spheroid when unfolded. Another mistake, I realized. But with a judicious application of packing tape and staples, we managed to produce something that looked like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and one of my grandmother’s cotton quilts. A ring of bailing wire at the bottom to suspend the burner was installed, a round paper cap at the top to seal the crown, and the balloon was done! A bit heavy, I thought innocently, not yet having perceived my technological humiliation rapidly approaching from the far distance.
“Hold this up, “I said to Shawna. “I need to see into it to center the hook so we don’t set it on fire when we light it.”
“On fire?” asked Griffin, still in control of the fire extinguisher. “Aren’t you going to take it outside to test it?”
“Nope. Too windy. We’ll just fill it a little and try it here in the dining room.”

“Can you do that? Did you do that when you built yours?”
“Of course,” I explained, neglecting to mention how my own balloon had met its dramatic fiery end in the basement bathroom of my London high school.
“Can I have a can of Sterno?” asks Starbuck. He will soon be nine, and playing with matches is a wonderful way to anticipate a birthday. Playing with a can filled with napalm is even more interesting.
“You can’t take it away, but you can light it here if you want to watch.” I decide that gathering all the pyros into one place would concentrate the danger, and would likely make adequate response more timely.
“Can I have the other can?” asks six-year-old Golden.  I nod. Starbuck and Golden are close enough in age to plot together at acts of destruction. Luckily Golden’s attention span isn’t as long as Starbuck’s. When he catches up, I imagine that all the remaining screws holding the doorknobs to the doors will disappear to wherever Starbuck put the first ones. And the bolts holding the bunk beds together. And everything else he has taken apart since he discovered how to use a wrench and a screwdriver. Golden is still in the more direct hammer-and-hatchet phase, and has blazed every wooden object near the house with his signature series of gnawing rodent imitations, including the porch railings and the bench by the front door.
But now we’re ready for the big moment, the moment when I shine in front of wife and children, when obscure and mundane components unite in a miracle to vindicate my claim that Dad Really Does Know Something Interesting After All. My time had come.
“Shawna, stand on top of this milk crate and hold the balloon up, so I can light it from below.”
Obligingly, Shawna takes hold of our alcohol bomb and I get down on my hands and knees to light the burner hanging underneath. (She’s sort of short, even standing on the milk crate.) After a moment, I step back, and the little burner hisses out its little purple cone again, this time directing the heated air straight up into the one-foot wide basal orifice of the magnificent Hot Air Balloon.
And then we wait. And wait some more. A little too long, I think. It wasn’t going up.
“It’s not going up,” Shawna observes.
“Let me hold it a minute,” I suggested.
“I can feel the heat coming out of the holes in the top. It’s burning fine. And look at the ceiling.”
Holding the balloon by its crumpled crown, I can feel the heated air slipping out between the badly glued edges, past the many staples, and past the packing tape patches, then escaping to the ceiling. Looking up, I see ring after ring of concentric diffraction shadows rippling across the ceiling just above the balloon, proof that the hot air was pumping out of the burner. Just not enough to lift the leaky balloon, which by this time was getting pretty heavy, what with me having to hold it up in the air. Obviously, we had a weight problem, combined with excessive leakage.
“Okay. Let’s think about this.”
While I thought about it, Griffin returned the fire extinguisher and sat down in front of the computer to slaughter as many Third World mercenaries as he could in his new video game. Starbuck and Golden disappeared to burn up the Sterno in unsupervised privacy. I sat with the two girls looking at the failed balloon.
“Just not light enough, I think. The tissue paper version was lots lighter. And I used balsa wood to reinforce the opening in that one, not bailing wire.”
“Should we make another?” asks Paoli.
“No. Go get a garbage bag, and we’ll test whether the burner is up to the job.”
So there in the kitchen, we built another balloon, smaller and lighter, this time. I couldn’t help but think of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, laboriously building his first boat so large that he was unable to launch it, and had to build a smaller, lighter one, nearer to the sea. This new balloon was just a simple lightweight garbage bag, with a ring of wire at the bottom holding the same burner. I filled the burner, lit it, and held the bag up over the gently roaring flame.
“Look! It’s lifting!”
And it was, but that was all it did. The lightweight garbage bag filled into a satisfying balloon of heated lighter-than-air air, strained to the ends of its tether, and floated in mid-air over the burner, which still sat solidly on the wooden boards of the kitchen floor. We had fuel, we had ignition, we had containment, but we had no lift off.
And that is where we ran out of time.
So at this point, the Great Hot Balloon Project is still in stasis, as I write these words to the sound of the rumbling diesels alongside me in this small Oklahoma truck stop, ten days out from the house. The procedures have worked well enough to vindicate science, but not well enough yet to vindicate our interpretation of the technology. We have heat, probably enough, but we have too much weight, or we have too little volume, or both. Alternatively, perhaps what we need is a steeper density gradient. Perhaps if we had taken the balloon and tested it in the colder cellar, the difference in weight between the inflated balloon and the cold air it displaced would have been enough to generate sufficient lift to raise it, possibly to the point from which it could have ignited the kitchen floor from underneath. Perhaps it was all a combination of these things. Perhaps the stiffness of the wrapping paper envelope prevented it from expanding into a large enough volume to hold adequate heated air (it was open on the bottom, after all, and could only hold so much).
So, for the next iteration of this continuing project, we are first going to conduct a post mortem with the children, and enlist their help in the design of the Great Hot Air Balloon, Mark II. Probably we’ll return to the lighter and more flexible tissue paper, but if we do we’ll have to build the panels from multiple pieces. Probably we’ll make the balloon bigger, which will make it that much more impressive if it works. We seem to have reached a technological ceiling with the burners, except for further experimentation with the small aluminum prune juice cans that are much lighter than the tomato paste versions. Maybe we could use a better fuel, after all. I had briefly considered using nitromethane, but decided that race-car fuel would not be a safe heat source. But maybe being wise wasn’t so smart, after all. I'd also thought about generating hydrogen using water and an automotive battery charger, as the old method of dropping iron into sulfuric acid was likely too hazardous, even for us. And perhaps we’ll dispense with the bailing wire, except for the components directly in line with the flame.
In the end, there’s no telling what we’ll do. After all, this is Experimental Learning, and therefore a failure is just as informative as a success. It just doesn’t make Dad look as good, you know.
Maybe we should try making black gunpowder next.

22 March 2011

Quakers in the Country: Spring Chickens

A few days ago was a holy day for our family. Not holy in the religious sense, which as Quakers we tend not to spend a lot of time over, but holy in the old Hebrew sense of being “special.” Today was the day we went over and took a look at the Spring Chickens.

They’re not really chickens, at least not yet. So far they’re just chicks, just baby chickens. Chickens tend to reproduce according to a schedule fixed by the increasing day length of the approaching vernal equinox, which means that they tend to show up in the spring. That makes a lot of sense for a bird that has to be able to find enough tender young plants and hatched-out insects to grow and take on the world before very many days have gone by, and so young chickens tend to show up in the springtime. I have heard it said that the term “Spring Chicken” once had a specific economic implication, in that the fryers and broilers that people brought to market were distinguished by being “Spring Chickens,” (hatched that year), versus “Something Else Sneaked Into the Crate,” (like last year’s left-over chickens, which were not quite so desirable). Whether this is true, or whether “Spring Chicken” just meant one that’s pretty young is beyond me. But I do know that newly hatched Spring Chickens are adorable, inexpensive, useful projects for five juvenile Quakers, and make great food for Burmese Pythons. And springtime comes just once per year.

When chickens get ready to break out of the egg, they finish up the last of their development and absorb the last bit of yolk from outside their body. This little bit of moist nourishment is what gives precocial birds like the Galliformes the wherewithal to jump up and run after momma just a few minutes after hatching, like quail, and ducks, and other ground-nesting birds. And if you think about it, getting up and taking off is a pretty important thing to do if you hatch out at eye-level with rat snakes and possums and such. That last little bit of yolk is also what makes it possible to hatch out a bunch of baby birds, drop them into a cardboard box, and then take them to the Post Office to be mailed around the country, like so many Christmas presents, or Valentine’s day cards, or all those other things that non-Quakers associate with the holy days we don’t observe, or at least didn’t used to, or maybe just sort of don’t pay as much attention to now. Something like that, anyway. A box of chicks can be shipped through the mail with a reasonable expectation of profitable survival at the other end, so that’s how it’s done.

The significance of all this to us is that this is the year That We Are Going to Have Chickens Again. Before we had a lot of kids, Shawna and I lived on the edge of a canal bank out in California’s Central Valley, and we had chickens. Lots of chickens. We moved into a trailer in the middle of nowhere and inherited a lot of culture from the previous residents, who were from way in the middle of another nowhere in south Mexico. Among these left-over items were a hand-made clothesline, laboriously braided from many pieces of bailing twine, an industrious stack of concrete slabs upon which to beat our laundry clean, and chickens. They were not ordinary chickens, either, but were Mexican fighting chickens, the kind that were bred specifically for chicken-to-chicken combat in the arena.

These were amazing birds, beautiful dark roosters with golden collars, high combs, terrific spurs, and terrific attitude. They spent their time crowing, herding their personal harems of brown, tan, and orange hens, and engaging in spectacular bloody and often fatal fights with each other. The fights were inevitable, and served to keep the population of chickens down somewhat. I say only somewhat, because these Mexican birds were spectacular not only in their abilities to die, but also in their abilities to raise chicks. The hens were all broody, all of them, seemingly all the time, and would successfully hatch out clutches as large as ten or eleven chicks, over and over. Some hens would disappear for a few weeks, and then reappear with more than a dozen yellow chicks trailing behind them. These hens were mostly wild, and along with the roosters would spend the nights up in the eucalyptus trees, out of reach of the striped skunks and coyotes that otherwise did their best to limit the numbers of chickens too. But the little chicks couldn’t get up into the trees, so their mothers would gather them up in the tall grass in the evenings and spread their wings over them all, doing their besto keep them dry in the spring rainstorms that added hypothermia to the hazards of being a Spring Chicken.

We started out with seven of those birds in the first winter, and by the next fall they had ballooned into a noisy flock of over 60 birds, of which more than half were beautiful roosters, ornate, loud, and vicious in their interpersonal relationships. The coyotes, skunks, chicken hawks, and rainy weather took them down to about a dozen by the following spring, but then they blossomed back up into another flock, this time over 70 birds. The population booms and busts were distinctly tuned to the seasons, to the hazards of being a chicken in the country, and were at best only somewhat under our fairly hands-off control. Under a philosophy of benign neglect, we tended to let the chickens do what they did best, which was to live out their lives in our company mostly as picturesque companions out on the canal bank, along with a vast menagerie of other neighbors. We provided feed, grit, and nominal protection from the skunks. The dogs kept the coyotes away on a part-time basis. We couldn’t do much about the hawks, but they had trouble lifting more than the smallest of the birds, anyway..

But these elegant fowl provided us with an endless supply of eggs, and a source of fresh meat for our neighbors and for some of the members of our meeting who didn’t mind being handed a headless, half-plucked dead bird a few minutes before worship. So there were advantages to sharing our canal bank with chickens, after all, besides the entertainment value, or the novelty of returning home to find a freshly-laid egg on the bedroom pillow, or on the kitchen table.

And this is where we return to the current story. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t eat chickens any more, even the unhatched kind. But there are five growing primates in my house now, most of whom are quite happy to eat a chicken. Two are teetering on the edge of vegetarianism, but haven’t yet made the leap into grass-eating that I committed to years ago. So I think along with my practical and lovely wife, there are enough mouths interested in eating chickens in my house that we decided to go ahead and finally get some more.

And so we gathered up our own brood off to the farm supply store, and looked down into the yellow mass of baby chicks scrambling about under the heat lamps inside the watering troughs that the store personnel use in preference to the more universal but less sturdy Cardboard Box. The kids all peer into the tanks, ogling the babies, like looking into the middle of a glass-bottomed boat, except with less water. There are a several different kinds, mostly about a week old, I judge, with developing pin feathers in the wings. That’s good—if chicks are going to die from the stress of handling, they’ll do it sooner rather than later. These older birds will be strong stock and hardy.

“What kind of chickens are these, exactly?” I ask because I know that there are more different kinds of interesting chickens than there are stars in the sky, but I’m looking for cold-hardy free-range breeds, with hens that go broody and love to roost in the trees. No need to reinvent the wheel, after all.

“Farm supply store chickens, mixed, Reds, Bantams, Cornish, you know, whatever was left over at the hatchery that was cheap that day,” says Shawna. “These are the sexed pullets, and those over there are straight-run, pullets and cockerels mixed. The straight-run is cheaper, so that’s what we’re getting. But not today. We’re just looking, today.”

This sounds good to me, because I know from years of experience with smaller animals that they love to die, and that chickens are as bad as hogs in terms of dying in immense numbers, just not with as much devastating financial costs per animal. And right now we don’t have as much as a wire pen to put them in. So if we’re just looking at chickens, then that’s the best of both worlds, all the benefits without the long term commitment.

“I want you to build me a moveable pen that I can pull around the property,” says Shawna.

Uh oh.

“What kind of pen,” I ask, carefully. “And how big?”

“Just something about eight feet long that I can put the chicks into until they’re big enough to fend off the cats.”

“I can do that. You want a little hoop-house made of poultry netting, right?”

“I’ll show you when we get home.”

And so I’ll leave the rest of the visit for discussion at another time, the debates about wood versus metal fence posts, and which garden vegetables, and whether to fence the donkey in or the goat out, if we should begin construction on the giant bat house this year, and all the other various discussions that naturally come about in the spring time at the farm supply store, including my observations upon chicks and Burmese Pythons. Because it’s more important to live life than to plan it, sometimes, and I know that by the time we get home the peepers will be calling down by the creek, in the clear and chilly water tumbling down the evening-shaded channels from the springs on the western ridge. I love to walk down to the water to hear the peepers in the spring, the smallest and the loudest of the amphibian heralds of the new year.

And springtime comes only per year.