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Red Thunder — Excerpt

Inspiration is where you find it. You can’t force it, and you can’t predict when and where it will come. I had nothing to do with the inspiration that made our great adventure possible. But the inspiration that made it practical came to me while I was walking with my friend Dak through a railroad freight yard in my home town of Daytona.

Dak is a string bean, well over six feet and could hide behind a flagpole. African-American, though he doesn’t use the term, and fairly dark. Dak is short for Daktari, which is Swahili for doctor, “A hell of a thing to wish on a newborn baby,” he once said. He’s my age, from the same graduating class but different high schools. We often took these long walks, often on the tracks. Here we sorted out the big questions of life. Is there a God? Are we alone in the universe? Is Britney Spears too old to stay on the Top Ten Babe of All Time list? Would Al Johnson switch to Team Chevy before the next 500?

“Does it look like rain?”

I looked around and sniffed the air.

“Sure does.” Thunderheads were towering in the east, and what else is new? This was Florida, it rained every day. Today the temperature was only about eighty, but the humidity was two hundred and ten percent.

Two minutes later it started to pour.

We ran to a line of a dozen rusting black tank cars that had been parked on a siding for as long as I could remember, and ducked under one. No trains came through this part of the yard anymore, and the grass was thick where spilled oil hadn’t killed it. I wondered if the EPA had heard of this place. You probably should have had a hazmat suit and a gas mask to even come here.

There wasn’t enough room to stand under the tank car, so we sat on the gravel and listened to the rain pelting on it. I think rain is harder in Florida than anywhere else. I don’t mean it comes down harder, I mean the water is harder. We didn’t say anything for a while, just picked out suitable golfball-sized rocks and chunked them at a rusty old 55-gallon drum about twenty yards away. My arm was better than Dak’s, I was getting two hits to his one.

Not the worst way in the world to waste time. But we hadn’t made any progress on the big question of the day.

“So, how do we go about building a spaceship on pocket change?”

That was the big one. Some question.

We had been round and round it over the last few days. We weren’t going to get any help, we had been specifically told we were on our own. Neither of us had ever designed a canoe, much less a spaceship. My experience with rocketry was limited to a few illegal broomstraw-tailed squibs on the Fourth of July. Dak’s was no better.

We had what we thought were some pretty good ideas on many aspects of the problem, all helped considerably by the fact that the central, toughest problem of space travel, propulsion, was pretty much solved. But now we had to build something, and what we kept coming back to was, Where do you begin?

“Pressure,” Dak said, for maybe the five hundredth time in the last few days. “It’s gonna be tough to build something that can stand up to thirty psi for two months.”

It really only had to stand up to fifteen psi, but everything about the ship had to meet double the necessary tolerances.

We listened to the rain some more, and Dak tossed another rock, which made the drum ring like a gong.

“We can’t start from square one,” I said. “Too much welding, and every weld we make is a place for trouble to begin.”

Dak sighed. He’d heard it before.

“We need components. Things we can slap together quick.”

“Where we gonna get them? Go to the NASA junkyard, patch up an old ship?”

“A pressure hull,” I said. Something was tickling the edge of my awareness.

“A globe,” Dak said. “Or a …”

“A cylinder. A metal cylinder.”

I jumped up so fast I hit my head on the bottom of the tank car.

I ran out and stood in the downpour, looking back at the old, rust-streaked, greasy, flaky paint, birdpoop-spattered tank car.

“Knock off the wheels,” I said. “Stand it on its end …”

“… and there’s your spaceship,” Dak whispered.

Then we were laughing and actually dancing in the driving rain.