The Methodist parsonage became Cape Kennedy that day because what launched from the garage had to look like a small rocket being launched down the alley.
We weren’t allowed to play with dangerous things like model rockets or beebee guns because mom was afraid we would get hurt. So I had the normal non-threatening stuff like toy trucks, plastic army men, and toy ships. Mom was very concerned that we would blow ourselves up or shoot our eyes out. We had to stick with “safe toys”…..
My dad had an odd assortment of tools, lumber, vehicle parts and machinery. Since dad was a Methodist Minister, we moved every few years, so the collection never got out of hand. There were some things that invariably went to the trash instead of the moving truck.
One summer afternoon my nephew Michael and I were out in the attached garage digging through dads stuff looking for something to do. I happened to spot an odd device in the bottom of the box that was old and dirty. It was some sort of electrical motor. It had a drive shaft sticking out of one end and a short electric wire, cut off about 4 inches long.
If memory served me correctly, it looked like the motor for an electric sewing machine. Mom had always sewed and there had been sewing machines at our house for as long as I’d been around. I was pretty sure that was what this was.
This was a great find! We had an engine, so all we had to do was make something go.
I will pause now, to point out a couple obvious points for everyone. We were not electricians. My only experience with electric devices had been decidedly negative.
There was the electric fencer at my sister Mary’s farm. On more than one occasion I had unintentionally touched it and received a considerable electric shock. I totally understood why cows had such respect for them. Then there was the time I stuck my tongue on the model electric train track to see if it was live………it was.
I’ve heard parents say that they worried most when things got quiet because that indicated their kids were up to no good. This was probably true at our house, but in my parents defense, dad was gone quite a bit. He was appointed with two congregations in Keats and Riley. The result was that he was kept busy with meetings, services, hospital visits, office business, and all the other various tasks of the church. Our mother, on the other hand, did everything father did, since he got her to help him with most things, plus she had the house and kids to deal with. Let’s just say their dance cards were full.
With all these children and now grandchildren you might say that Mom and Dad were sort of tired. They were old hands at this parenting and grand-parenting thing. By this time, the unspoken rule may have been to wait for the smoke to clear and see who’s left instead of running at every little sign of suspicious activity or silence.
In this case I didn’t really see how playing around with a little motor, no bigger than a pop can, could be dangerous. So the experiment commenced.
The first thing to do was to make sure the motor actually worked. I looked around dads workbench area in the garage and found the perfect test item. An old lamp cord cut off on one end and the plug end still attached at the other. I then cut the positive and negative wires apart and stripped off the plastic coating. Next, I twisted the two bare wires to the wires coming out of the motor.
We then did the countdown, 3,2,1, FIRE!.. I plugged the cord into the electric wall outlet. Much to our surprise… and delight, the motor screamed to life. I say it screamed because it was going at full power. It whirred loudly and jumped about on the workbench. It didn’t stop until it fell to the floor and disconnected.
The test had been a complete success! We were elated and excited! So the next thing to do was to make something move.
The thing about sewing machines, which I have since discovered, is that they usually have a foot pedal to operate them. The pedal controls the amount of power going to the motor. You push lightly and the sewing machine goes slowly. Push the pedal all the way down and it gets more juice, thus it sews quickly. In this case we had no controller to moderate the current, but were giving it full power when we plugged it into the wall.
My nephew, Michael, and I carefully scanned the yard for something that would be big enough to hold the motor, but light enough so that it would move. You see, I was concerned that a mere electric motor could move something like a large toy truck. Obviously, this was way before Tesla appeared.
I found a large metal toy dump truck in the back yard which looked like it would work. In order to attach the motor to the toy I used the universal attachment device, gray duct tape. At our house it was used for packing, window cracks, and the occasional automotive repair. Wonderous stuff!
I put the motor on the back of the truck and wrapped the gray tape completely around the motor and truck about a dozen times. I looked across the alley and nodded at the old man who lived next door. He seemed to have noticed our project in the open garage door. I like to think he was also a conisour of gray tape and was admiring our use of it.
Now I had to figure out how to make the truck wheels connect to the electric motor. This was done thanks to the church. In the church office dad had these very wide and extra thick rubber bands that he used to bundle church newsletters together when they were taken to the post office.
I made my way over to the office and innocently asked to borrow a rubber band. Dad said sure and before he could ask why I needed them, I grabbed a half dozen and ran out.
I placed all six rubberbands onto the drive shaft of the electric motor and the wide back wheel of the toy truck. They had to be stretched out pretty tight to get them all on so I was hopeful they would stay on long enough to make the wheels turn before breaking or flying off.
Next we reconnected the motor wires to the lamp cord. The cord wasn’t really long enough for the truck to sit on the ground while plugged in. I looked around the house and managed to find 3 outdoor extension cords that were each 50 foot long and plugged them all together.
At this point it was a quiet evening in the Methodist parsonage. Mom and Dad were in the house and I think mom was working on supper. Dad was finishing his preparation for the next mornings church services. It was a tranquil scene in a peaceful small town……
I told Michael to plug the extension cord into the wall. I would set the truck on the ground and we’d see if it moved. Like I said, the concept of an electric motor being able to move this large metal truck just didn’t seem likely. I figured it’d go a few feet slowly and the rubber bands would come off.
Michael plugged in the cord when I said I was ready…. As I set the truck on the ground …..POW!! I got an electric shock beyond belief as I dropped the truck! The current went up my arms and down my legs!… I couldn’t think anything except…GOOD GOD!… THAT HURTS!…while falling backwards.
The electric motor instantly screamed to full speed as the truck wheels spun wildly. The truck hit the ground and flew out the door like a missile,… straight toward the old man who lived next door. As it spun across the drive, it bounced off the side of the car parked nearby, made a hard right turn and shot down the ally like a rocket!! It looked like someone had fired a bazooka down the road! At that point there was a BANG and the truck slid to a stop in a cloud of dust.
And then the lights went out in the house…
As I picked myself up off the ground, the old man across the alley just stared. He had a sort of surprised and terrified look on his face. He was still deciding what he had just witnessed. I don’t think he had processed what it was that had just flown across the drive toward him and turned at the last moment.
I looked down the alley and the truck had made it nearly to the street intersection before the bare wires crossed and blew the house fuses.
Mom arrived just in time to see something plugged into the wall, a freaked out old man, me shaking off the after-effects of electrocution and a dust cloud beginning to disperse at the end of the alley. My sidekick, Michael, was standing there wide-eyed.
Pilots famously like to say any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. I was thinking along the same lines, until mom arrived.
As she flew out the back door she yelled “OK, What did you do?” There was this assumption that whatever had just happened was caused by one of her own. I think the lights in the house suddenly going out, the bang, and cloud of dust told her this wasn’t a natural phenomena.
Mom just stood there with her stern look and hands on her hips as she noticed the old man standing in stunned disbelief with his mouth still stuck open. She immediately apologized for whatever it was that we had done. She was a smart woman and knew that it was best to cut directly to the apologies.
Shortly after that dad walked up and surveyed the scene. He didn’t yell at us. That wasn’t his style, in fact, I’d like to think he was secretly impressed that we’d pulled it off. Of course he wouldn’t say so in front of mom because she was ready to flip out at this point.
I would like to have heard the conversation she had with the neighbor. I’m sorry my kids nearly killed you. She probably wanted to be able to tell him that this sort of reckless behavior wasn’t normal, but the man lived next door, so he knew better. That ship had already sailed.
Had they investigated later that evening, the authorities would have determined that the near fatal crash was related to the fact that the operator had forgotten to tape the bare ends of the electric cord on the metal truck.They also would have decided that since the neighbor didn’t actually have a heart attack, they wouldn’t detain the operator.
Mom lectured me that she hoped I learned a lesson from getting shocked. I said you are absolutely right. Always tape the wires up first. That reply didn’t go over well. It was probably best that bed time was coming, because I probably wouldn’t be able to sit for a while.
We still weren’t allowed to play with dangerous things like model rockets or beebee guns.
We were still just limited to “safe” things like toy trucks.