My father is a traveling salesman, that peculiar brand of Willy Loman that actually loves
the natural flight of American selling. When I was a boy, I thought of him as a man who
appeared on Fridays when we had a steak and ice cream for dessert. After dinner, my father
would watch whatever football game was on television and fall asleep with his mouth open,
tie loosened, hand over his brow as if he had just finished one hell of a race. I usually waited
until he woke to tell him of my latest achievement and show him my banana bike and
collection of baseball cards. This was just before he ran for his car, briefcase in hand, and
waved away another week.
But there was one time I remember where I had him all to myself. For Christmas, my
parents had given me an Estes Rocket Set. It was an amazing toy with a launcher, rocket
engines, and the giant Saturn V Rocket that had conquered the moon a decade before. I
stayed up late gluing the white fuselage together, packing the parachute, and inserting the
four D engines.
The day after Christmas, my father and I crunched through frozen mud to the middle of a
field painted by the low sun. He kept his hands in his pockets while I carried the rocket and
the launcher packed with batteries. Twilight simmered beyond the big pines and thin blue
snow dusted the ground.
I put the launcher down and stretched the wires to the control pad. My Saturn V rocket
was a beast. It took four D engines with two parachutes and four wadded sheets to keep the
ejection charge from burning the chute up.
"Looks like we are launching Apollo 11," my father murmured while I threaded the Saturn
V onto the launch wire.
I connected the igniter wires.. All four engines had to ignite or my Saturn V would go off
at a crazy angle and heave into the ground. I checked the igniters and made sure they were
shoved far up into the engines. My dad stamped his feet and kept his hands in his pockets.
"You think this thing will go, boy?"
I looked at him smoking a Pall Mall, his long Brooks Brothers coat waving.
"So this is what you do all week while I'm gone, boy?"
"Well, hurry up, boy. It's going to be dark soon."
I turned and walked back to the launch control and inserted the key. The light glowed
"You might move back, Dad."
He looked over and snuffed the cigarette out, crunching through the weeds He was
already looking at the distant cars on the highway, thinking about his next appointment,
gassing up, and pointing that company car back to the highway. He turned back and nodded
"Well, blast it off, boy."
I stared at my Saturn V, a colossus of white and black with USA going up the side in red
letters. I began to count down.
"Five, four, three, two, one…"
I pressed the button on my launcher as the ready light flickered out. There was the slight
hiss of the sulfur igniters, and for a moment the rocket didn't move. Then the four D engines
caught fire and whoosh! The fire bent out and burned the weeds below the launcher and
suddenly the Saturn V was gone. A fiery tail burned high up in the cold sky as the rocket
leaned over slightly and left a white vapor trail across the early stars.
My father continued staring up while I stamped out the weed fire. The ejection charge
fired, then the chutes blossomed, but I could see the Saturn V had gone too high for the wind
and the time of day. It was getting dark, and that rocket was sailing fast into the west, a white
satellite against a darkening blue palate.
"I'll be goddamned," he muttered, shaking his head. "Boy, that sonofabitch really flew."
I put my hand up and saw the Saturn V drifting away, a gold colossus hanging by four
"Aren't you going after it, boy?"
I shook my head solemnly.
"No, it's gone," I muttered, watching the rocket drift past the field. "There's too much
"You sure about that?"
My father kept his neck craned to the sky, then put his hands on my shoulders. And that's
what I remember. I think it was the only time we were really together, watching that rocket
disappear into the coal sky.