By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Scott LaForge, who heads Tripoli's Kansas division and who has wandered by to assist Lamothe, picks one up. "Shit," he says, grinning uncontrollably. "Shit." Lamothe acknowledges the compliment. "I build good toys," he says.
As Lamothe finishes sliding the giant explosive tubes into the rocket frame, a shimmering mirage materializes from the north. It moves closer, and it soon becomes apparent that it is a man, staggering across the plowed fields, which look like lumpy chocolate pudding and are about as easy to walk in. He is waving his arms over his head. "Water!" he yells hoarsely. "Water!"
He arrives and staggers against Lamothe's truck, nearly falling. "God!" he pants. "I got lost looking for my rocket. Christ, I need some water."
Saturday, 5:45 a.m. and already 80 degrees. The Weather Channel reports that yesterday's temperature reached 105 again and that today will be even hotter.
Still, today turns out to be the busiest of the launch. Almost from the moment the range opens, at 8, the sky is full of rockets.
A three-foot rocket stokes off the pad with a shower of fire. It hits its apogee, tips and deploys a red parachute perfectly. "Ohhh," says the announcer. "That's cuter than a speckled pup under a red wagon."
Next up is the Astroblaster, a glider model with winglike tail fins sporting an oversize motor and radio-controlled parachute deployment. It launches with a WHOOSH. About 15 feet off the rod, it explodes, almost as if it were designed specifically for total self-destruction. The owner just stares, stunned. "That was hundreds of hours of work," he says in a monotone. "Hundreds of hours."
One of the safety officers spots a small airplane on the horizon; launches are halted for a few minutes while it putters out of range. "We don't want to shoot down a Piper Cub," the announcer notes. "The FAA frowns on that."
A bit later, Reid Williams walks by, carrying his 38 Special under his arm. I ask him how the flight went. "Oh, it was worth it all," he says in wonderment, still in a blissful state. "It just had the most unbelievable sound." He opens his mouth wide and screeches like a banshee: "EEEEEEEEEE! It was great!"
Jim Balliro, too, is almost religiously satisfied with his rocket's performance. "Did you see it?" he asks, whispering. "The launch? I told you all you'd see was a speck disappearing." His rocket has a radio transmitter in the cone that emits a 'beep' for tracking it down. Headphoned and holding an old TV antenna, Balliro wanders off to find it.
About midmorning the head of the Colorado Tripoli group, Mike Kunetka, arrives. He has brought his young son who, to his dismay, appears totally uninterested in rockets. "Here, look at this one," Mike says, excitedly, pointing to a ten-foot model. Instead, the boy wanders off to look at bugs and to complete his project of taking pictures of all the different license plates parked in the field. Mike is disgusted. "We drive 11 hours to see rockets, and he wants to look at bugs."
But today's main event belongs to Lamothe. Over in his private field, he already has begun prepping his massive missile. This morning he has been joined by his wife, Terri, who shows up just as Dennis plows a drill bit into his finger.
"Ow!" he says.
His wife is unmoved. "Put some masking tape on it. Wimp."
Terri is in a foul mood. Two nights ago someone swiped a crucial part of her rocket from the trailer behind Dennis' truck, which was parked outside a Wichita hotel. Although no one says it directly, the feeling is that it has to do with politics. Dennis is on Tripoli's board of directors, an unpopular body these days among the membership. It has something to do with bylaws, and it's resulted in a nasty spat that has consumed conversation here and the Letters to the Editor page of High Power Rocketry.
"If I ever catch who did it," Terri vows, "I'll use my N motor in a new way. It'll bring a whole new meaning to 'fire in the hole.'"
Somehow, it comes as no surprise that Terri's father raced dragsters and that she is ex-Air Force. "I considered the Marines," she says. "But I didn't like their blue uniforms. They didn't go with my hair."
She is wearing a stylish straw hat and lipstick. Her shirt has a picture of a monkey pondering two buttons. One shows a rocket and is labeled "launch." The other depicts a banana with the word "lunch." The caption: "An understandable error." She points to it. "This is what I think of the men who fly rockets."
Later, she softens and explains her philosophy. "If it goes on the ground or goes in the air and it's fast, then I'm all for it," she says. Recently, she has attempted to win a position on the Tripoli board. But she has lost three years in a row, something she attributes to the hobby's traditional testosterone requirement.
As the day passes, Dennis assembles his rocket with the help of two local farmers. It seems to be made mostly of wood, fiber-glass tubing, PVC plumbing pipe and duct tape. Close to 6 p.m. it is eased onto a 30-foot-tall launch pad that Dennis has made himself. The process takes 20 men and looks like a Great Plains version of the Iwo Jima flag-raising.