Radios and Rockets

Father Moran, our principal, was from Queens, so when the Mets won the World Series in 1969 we were excused from class and allowed to go into the cafeteria/auditorium to listen to the last few innings of the last game over the school PA system. I had already been following the game on my General Electric Six Transistor radio leaning my head against my hand to cover the earpiece in my ear. When I first got the radio, I took it apart to count the transistors. There were only five that I could find, and I wrote a letter to GE asking them why I could only find five of the six transistors they claimed were in there, but they never wrote back.

Even Father Moran called them the “miracle Mets” and in a Catholic high school we didn’t take the word “miracle” lightly. It was right up there with a visitation from the Holy Mother herself. This was before she began to appear on grilled cheese sandwiches, and went all eBay on us. It was a half-day holiday, even though some of the teachers complained that they needed to get us ready for exams. We had exams all the time, and piles of homework. Nobody died of overwork; car accidents were another matter altogether. That was the year four seniors died on prom night when their car rammed into a tree on a back road. No one knew it until the next morning when the kids never made it home.

I was a freshman, and didn’t know any seniors, or anyone else. I’d transferred from public school; everyone else in the class had gone through Catholic school from first grade. It was the year I met my buddy, Jimmy Argentina. We met at lunch.

“Sit down.” He motioned me to the seat across from him. “You’re walking around with that tray like you’re lost. You’re making me nervous.”

“Hi,” I said as I sat down.

“I’m Jimmy, Jimmy Argentina. This is Frank Nicholas.” He pointed to a boy sitting next to him, dark like Jimmy, with a round face.

“I’m Bob, Bob Francis.”

“Two first names like me.” Frank spoke up. “Do the nuns get them screwed up sometimes and call you by your last name instead of your first name?”

“I didn’t go to Catholic grammar school, but the teachers used to do that all the time. I think my third-grade teacher still thinks my name is Francis.”

“I know. I had an old nun in second grade who called me Nicky.” He laughed when he said that, dribbling macaroni and cheese on his plate. Jimmy was amused, smiling at us. He seemed to make up his mind that we were going to be friends. Jimmy usually did what he made his mind up to do, so we became friends, and I took the bus to his house that weekend with my model rockets.

When I got to Jimmy’s he was working on his mower. He’d promised his mom he’d mow the lawn, but the mower wouldn’t start.

“The gas is from last year. It might not be any good,” he said, so we walked over to the gas station with a coffee can to get some gas. The fresh gas did the trick, and Jimmy mowed the lawn pretty quickly. Their house was one of the giant Victorians on Elm Street in the heart of town, so the lawn wasn’t very large, and his mother had most of it taken up with a rose garden. We went over to the park to shoot off rockets. He’d brought his along, too. We had about six engines between us. The rockets needed a new engine for each launch; we ignited them with a battery pack. The first one we launched went pretty much straight up, and then landed about the middle of the park. We recovered it, and found that a tail fin had broken off because the parachute got tangled up. So we went back to the launcher and got one of my rockets ready. It had a payload in the nosecone. You unscrewed it, and there was a space about three inches deep that you could put something in. There was an optional camera that fit in the opening that cost a lot more than I could afford. So I usually sent it up empty. As we were getting it ready, Jimmy spotted a small frog. He quickly caught it, and stuffed it in the payload.

“First frog in space,” he said as he put the rocket on the launcher. We did a quick countdown and sent it up. The rocket went a lot higher than the first one, and we could barely see it when the chute came out. We watched it drift out of the park, across the main road, and land on the small field in back of the Historical Society. My dad called them the “Hysterical Society” whenever they sent us a brochure asking for donations. I ran across the road, and found the rocket in a low hanging branch of a maple tree. I climbed the tree and shook the branch until the rocket fell down. Jimmy was there and picked it up. He unscrewed the payload, and the frog crawled out onto his hand. He sat on Jimmy’s hand, looking him in the eye. After a while, he jumped off, and hopped into the brush.

“He’s going to tell his buddies all about it,” Jimmy said. “But they’ll think he’s crazy, and won’t listen. They’ll never believe him.” Then he smiled.

“What are you kids doing there?” An older man came down the back steps of the building.

“Nothing. We just had to get our rocket.” Jimmy held it up.

“I saw you in that tree.” He pointed to me. “You stay out of those trees. You could get hurt.”

“Sorry,” I said. Jimmy gave me a look.

“Well, go on. Get back to the park. This is private property here.” The man shooed us off.

“It’s not private property at all. It belongs to the city. My dad’s on the city council and told me,” Jimmy said to me as we crossed the road. “It used to belong to a couple of sisters. The last one died a few years ago, and left the place to the city because she owed about a hundred years in back taxes. So now we’re stuck with it.”

We used up the rest of the engines; one rocket broke completely in half because the chute melted together. One of mine, a plastic model, slammed nose first into the parking lot; it had been expensive. Jimmy thought it was totally “far out” as he picked up the two pieces and stuck them together.

“No survivors,” he said.

“Shit. That cost me a lot of money.” Since I liked the effect, I again said “shit.” It made me feel grown up. My dad used it all the time.

“I can give you a dollar, just got my allowance. Maybe we can order some more stuff? I’ve got a catalogue in my room.” We had to mail-order the rockets and engines, since the local hobby shop only stocked toy trains and model airplanes, very expensive “adult” toys.

Jimmy had his own room. He had an older brother and sister who had bedrooms at the end of the hall, but both were away at college. My two brothers and I shared a room; we had one set of bunk beds, and a twin bed that my older brother got. Only my sister had her own room. Jimmy had model airplanes suspended from the ceiling, and a Beatles poster on the wall, the one Peter Max made for the Sgt. Pepper’s album. He saw me looking at it.

“My sister gave it to me just before she went to college last year. She loves Ringo. I think they made him a knight or something.”

“They still do that? Like King Arthur?”

“Yeah, except now it is usually if you make a lot of money. You don’t have to do anything hard, like kill a lot of enemies or anything,” Jimmy said as he went through a pile of papers on his desk. “Here it is.” He had the small catalogue published by the rocket company. We opened it on his bed and absorbed the contents. It was more recent than my catalogue, and had some new models. I could tell, because I had pretty much memorized the catalogue I had at home. He took out some paper, and we made a list. We ordered two new rockets, a lot of engines, and some tubes, nosecones, and balsa wood for fins.

“Should we get some of their glue?” Jimmy asked.

“No, I just use Elmer’s glue. It works fine.”

“OK.” I felt a little funny. The order was over $20, a lot more than I ever had to spend. I mumbled something under my breath.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have a total of about $2 to my name.”

“Oh. Don’t worry about it. I’ll just give it to Mom. She’ll send away for it.”

“Really?” My mom would have told me that she needed that much for grocery money. She wouldn’t have been lying either. He put the list on top of his desk.

“Sure. She’ll buy me anything that can be called “educational.” I’m supposed to go to college. You’re going too, right? They like to have all the seniors go to college even if it’s just the local community college.”

“Sure. Of course,” I said. Not having thought about it at all. “I have a couple of years to figure it out. We’re just freshmen.”

“Yeah.” He sat in the chair behind his desk. His schoolbooks were in one corner. “You have Father Duane for homeroom?”

“Yeah, that’s all I have him for.”

“Of course. He teaches the B-level history classes. You’re in all A-level, like me.”

“Yeah. We do share a lot of classes.” We shared all of our classes, but French. Jimmy took Spanish. Father Duane was a new priest, very young, so he was given the B and C level history students. The C level was pretty much the whole football team. Father Duane was reputed to have played college football, and the team liked him. He was the team chaplain and went to all the games.

“Jenny Gibbons is probably in your homeroom then.”

“Yeah, she sits behind me. Then Mike Grabbo. They seat us alphabetically.” Jenny was the girl with red-blonde hair and clear blue eyes that all the senior guys wanted to date. Those with cars were always offering her a ride home. She was also a cheerleader for the football team.

“It’s easier for them to take attendance. Jenny was in my class last year.”

“She’s in all my classes.”

“I meant homeroom.”


“Do you talk to her?”

“A little.” Sure. I had said “hi” to her once before I sat down. It took all my courage.

“Can you do me a favor?”


“Give her a note?”

“Sure.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a sealed envelope. “Give this to her on Monday.” The envelope sat on my dresser all day Sunday without either of my brothers bothering me about it, which in itself was a miracle. Even after church when they seemed to find stuff to do to bother me, they were outside playing ball. On Monday, just before the first bell rang, I saw Jenny in her seat.


“Hi, Bobby,” she said. She was one of those people who always seemed to smile, but her eyes seemed to also know a secret.

“I have a note for you from someone.” I handed her the envelope.

“Is it from Jimmy Argentina?” I nodded. Her blue eyes seemed to flare, and I swear her red hair got a little brighter. She handed it back to me. Then, changing her mind, took it from me, tore it up and threw it in the wastebasket near Father Duane’s desk.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s OK. He gave it to you because you wouldn’t know.” She looked at my face and laughed. I must have looked terrified. She gave me a pat on the shoulder. “I’m not mad at you, Bobby. You’re so funny, listening to a baseball game on your radio during history class.” Again my face was doing something completely out of my control. “You think no one knows? Sister Mary James might be old, but she’s not senile.”

The bell rang and we sat in our assigned seats. Father Duane came in a little late, smelling of cigarettes, scanned the room, and made out the attendance sheet for the day. He then opened a book and began reading. It was entirely likely that if you sat in the wrong seat you would have been marked absent by Father Duane. Jimmy pounced on me during lunch. I had just set my tray down, and hadn’t even pulled out my chair to sit.


“She tore up the note.”


“Yes. She tore it up, and didn’t even read it. I’m a little pissed off that you gave it to me.”

“Oooh, what he just said.” Frank said in a low voice.

“Stay out of it, Frankie.” I said. “Jimmy, I don’t want to get in the middle of anything here. I’m the new kid, remember?”

“Yeah.” He smiled a little. “She tore it up?”


“The bitch.”

“Oooh, what you just said,” Frank almost crooned.

“Shut up, Frank,” Jimmy said. He picked at his lunch, and then made a joke out of it, piling his mashed potatoes on the plate, and setting his hamburger on top, calling it flying saucer. One of the lunchroom attendants gave him a ten-demerit slip for throwing out his food. You got a detention for every fifty demerits. We went outside to get some air before the afternoon classes. Father Moran made it mandatory for us to go outside unless the weather was really bad. He referred to us as “hormones with feet,” and felt we needed to run off some energy before going back to school. We hung out near the parking lot, and some of the older boys smoked cigarettes. I had tried smoking a couple of times, but they made me sick. Jenny was with one of her cheerleader friends in the parking lot, hanging out with some of the senior guys. She made sure she was in Jimmy’s line of sight. After school was dismissed for the day, she got into Tony D’Amato’s Plymouth Roadrunner; his dad owned the local dealership, and he got a new car each year so long as he passed all his classes. She turned her head just as they left the parking lot to make sure Jimmy was looking.

“I think you’d better forget about her,” I said, trying to be helpful. Jimmy was standing next to the school, and his face was tight; he looked a little pale, and then he punched the brick wall of the school. He must have broken his hand. It certainly was bleeding, but he just shoved it into the pocket of his coat, and waited for his bus. He was out of school for a couple of days, came back with his hand bandaged, and never again mentioned Jenny.

We all made it to our senior year and I stayed at Catholic high even though we could barely afford it. That year, my mom got a job on the early shift at a grocery store, and she would drop me off early at school. If it was any compensation to Jimmy, Jenny Gibbons didn’t end up going out with Tony, or anyone. The only thing she seemed to be passionate about was cheerleading, and she never missed a football game. Her parents bought her a little red VW when she turned sixteen, probably as a way to cut down on all the rides she was getting from the older boys. One Monday morning, my mom had inventory duty, so I got there extra early, and the school was open. Usually the doors were locked this early and I had to wait for one of the janitors to let me in. I went to my locker, and then went to my homeroom; we all still had Father Duane for homeroom, figuring I could review my English book for the sample Regents exam this afternoon. Finals were in a couple of weeks. I had been accepted at two colleges, and had chosen the one we could afford.

The classroom lights were out, so I turned them on, and saw Jenny and Father Duane. Actually, Jenny was underneath Father Duane on his desk. They both looked at me, and I looked back; no one said a word; I shut off the lights and went outside, and then I noticed her red VW in the parking lot. For the next two weeks of school when either Jenny or Father Duane caught my eye, I was always the first to look away, as if I had done something terrible. At graduation, she sat next to me, and she chatted with me as if we were old friends, talking more with me than she had in the four years we sat next to each other in homeroom, but certainly not mentioning her love affair with our homeroom teacher.

That summer, Jimmy and I hung out together. We would drift apart after that. He was going to his father’s alma mater, an expensive school out of state. I was going about seventy miles away to a state college.

One day we were sitting on his porch; his mom had made us iced tea. For a couple of months I had wondered if I should tell him what I saw, but he beat me to the punch, as usual.

“Did you hear?” he asked.


“Jenny Gibbons and Father Duane got married. He dropped out of the priesthood.”

“Wow!” I said, genuinely surprised. “I had no idea you could leave the priesthood.”

“You can’t,” Jimmy said. “It’s got to be the biggest sin you can commit.”

“No, but it certainly is one of the biggest,” I said, sipping my iced tea.

Joseph Zeppetello is the author of the forthcoming title, Daring to Eat a Peach, a novel to be published by Atticus Books in November of 2010. He is the Director of Writing at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and lives in the Catskill Mountains.


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