Rocket man. Nope, no women

Strapped in, his arms shackled, his boots locked in, Sid prepared himself.

He wasn’t worried about the headache, the heat, the slam of the g-force — three times that of the colony.

He knew none of that would get to him. He was seasoned, and tough. He had endured Wormslam travel before.

But this cheap excuse for a Retroverve 4000 was different. It had been only used for freight. Not designed for soft human bodies. Sharp corners. Smelly. He couldn’t move his bum knee. Still harboring shrapnel from the XY Revolt, it hurt bad enough in normal circumstances, but here, strapped into this loud bag of bolts, he couldn’t flex it, or stretch it or loosen it up. He should have asked for more morphine.

Not that it would have worked. This Level II Nurse working Control, large and pink from artificial sun, prepped him for launch. She was the worst, going out of her way to administer the first injection into the tender underside of his left bicep, right through the spacesuit. She stood on the highest step of the orange-steel lift platform, far enough away from the small, coffin-sized rocket to avoid the black oil of its outer sheen but close enough to lean within a foot of Sid’s face. He could see the scoping aperture in her artificial left eyeball.

“The medications are prescribed down to the milligram, Mr. Scott,” she said as he winced under the shot. “It’s just enough to keep you from voiding those essential fluids, or as I like to say, pissing your pansy-ass pants like a newling. You should recover enough to be alert upon landing. That is …” She couldn’t hold back a snort “… if you really think there will be a landing.” Another snort and a laugh.

Her cackle bounced around the rocket as she joked about Sid’s chances to survive. Her assistant, a slender male silver cyborg with eyes as big and green as avocados, hung at her soft, fleshy hip. It’s job was to avoid human error, to record everything, to lift and clamp and adjust the ship as needed. The cyborg played the nurse’s little speech back immediately, as per protocol and complete with his best robotic imitation of cackling. He didn’t have the capacity to edit her words.

A freakin’ robot giggling at my possible immolation, Sid thought. He liked that word, immolation. Yes, he would be sacrificed. No, this was not a sentence, or a punishment. It was a sacrifice. He refused to accept their law, their trials, their legal mumbo jumbo. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He called it, if anything, civil disobedience.

Wasn’t it morally sound to break the law to save a life? No, the tribunal had said, predictably. Guilty. Capital punishment warranted.

Immolation. Yes, that’s a good word. The immolation of Sid Scott. Would make a good book.

Sid tried to recall some other long, odd words from his time at the university — pyrotechnautical, carbonzerocomical, hypochondriavatar. Anything to get that nurse’s cackle out of his ears. He played a mental game.

                                                                                                        Which was more aggravating? Her voice? Or the smell of rotting sorghum ethanol from the engine block. Couldn’t she just shut up?

But the Control Nurse had a job to do, and she enjoyed it. She puffed out her chest, took a deep breath and read the order from the tribunal, one more time, as per the law. She held the writ in one scrubbed-raw hand and kept the other on the hatch, ready to close it as soon as her declaration ended. She spoke very quickly; the words ran together and Sid had a hard time hearing them.

That’s because his helmet hung in place above his head, designed to lower automatically when the hatch was shut. It partially covered his good ear. He could hear enough, though, to tell himself that this lady wasn’t reading. She knew this by heart; she had done this way too many times before.  He memorized her face — just in case he got out of this jam — as the cyborg repeated her words.

“We the women of Galaxy Senecom the powers granted to us by the Intergalatic High Treaty of 3025, do hereby sentence one Sidney Oliver Scott to Experimental Transworld Relocation, as was his choice, in line with Universal Code C, Title 18, Sub-statute (b) 101, under the heading of High Treason.”

Ha, that accent on the first syllable of Galaxy makes a helluva lot of sense, Sid thought. The big Gal in charge certainly had control now. He tried to count in his head all his brothers-in-arms who had been caught and sentenced — wait, immolated — in this latest so-called “XY Re-education Process.”

All guilty. All sentenced. Never heard from again.

Before the roundup, which the men knew was coming, they had made the joint decision to opt for the Transworld travel, but Sid figured some — especially the older ones — just gave up and took the needle. If he were older, he might have to. A little easier than burning to death in rotting ethanol.

                                                                                                          Still, he held on to hope. Maybe some of the other launches made it past the tri-uranium rings that circled this godforsaken planet …  through the asteroid clouds … past the Oscillating Westerly  Wormhole … to the landing. But, where?

The men had no idea. The cyborg defense attorneys had revealed little except the chance at survival. Why not relocate to a habitable place? They asked. Again and again and again. Yes, it supported life. The cyborgs were not programmed to say anything more.

And, of course, the women never reported back on the outcome of launches, how many succeeded, if any.

Of course, Sid told himself, success is in the eye of the beholder, eh? What was a successful launch? Immolation? Why had the women offered this travel plea bargain? It couldn’t be just to kill the XY Movement. It wasn’t just capital punishment. There were cheaper ways to do that.

Maybe they needed data on how well these recycled ships carried a pilot? Maybe the ships’ recorders reported back radiation readings just before these guys turned into bacon? Maybe the Geek Gals needed more brain data on the Wormslam Rebound Effect?

Did they really want these rockets to land?

It was worth the chance, the men had decided. As for Sid, at 33, he was too young to roll over and give up, though his knee felt decades older. The clamps around his upper thigh made the throbbing worse.

Over soon, he thought. Everything, including the pain. He wondered if he’d be alive long enough to see his flesh and bone melt away to expose that shrapnel. He wanted to see it.

At least — he turned his mind from the macabre — the launch would give him one final chance to feel that surge in his spine, to see that moonfire on the horizon, to … the creak of the hatch interrupted his fantasy. It was time.

He began to panic, but he forced himself to think positive. Maybe the other guys made it. Maybe they learned to live wherever the heck this tin can was headed. Maybe, just maybe, they learned to hunt.

He wished the cyborg would talk again. At least it had a male voice. It had been months since he even saw another XY.

Jeez, wouldn’t it be something if Hoghead survived, or Rundown or Caliph … the hatch squeezed closed, loosing a spray of palm oil as rotten as the sorghum.

Sid’s helmet lowered as planned. That’s something at least. Scratches marred its visor. There was a date from 2031 and — huh? — a crude penis cartoon. The largest word scribbled, Resist, made Sid laugh out loud.

He saw the nurse through the porthole. As the heavy fire door to the elevator closed, she smiled and waved. Then she quickly flipped her hand to give Sid the finger.

The cyborg, giant eyes closing in a lazy blink, wasn’t programmed to insult.

As the ship quaked with ignition, Sid saw him wave.

Is your kid too fat? Call the police on him.

There sure are a lot of chubby kids in America today.

You’ve probably read some of the attempts to explain the phenomenon. Too much time sitting around with electronic devices. Parents too protective to let the kids play outside. Big Gulp soft drinks.  

Well, I have my own theory: Too many playgrounds, and they are too nice.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. But hear me out. Yes I happen to live in Denver right now but I’m not stoned.

My point will make sense after I recount a little history.

Anyone over 50 will remember, maybe even 40.

We spent a lot of time playing outside as kids but that’s not the main reason we stayed lean. It wasn’t that we were allowed to play unsupervised in playgrounds. We also had to build them.

No, I’m not kidding. Tree branches trimmed like monkey bars and ladders in the sky. Holes in backstops mended with old garden fences. Batting cages improvised in grocery store parking lots.

I’ll bet at least one of our sloppily painted rectangular strike zones is still visible on one of those walls in the old neighborhood where we played “Rubber Ball Fast Pitch.” One pitcher. One batter. A $1 hard rubber ball and you had hours of one-on-one competition. So what if you had to chase foul balls to beat them to the sewer grate. Just made us faster; kept us from putting on the pounds.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I grew up without any parks at all nearby. There were some, but they didn’t get much tender loving care. We had to maintain them, soften some of the sharp edges, keep them from falling apart.

We didn’t just spend hours playing sports, we spent hours doing the pre-game work just to have somewhere to play.

We fixed bent basketball hoops. We shoveled snow off courts. We swept up broken RC Cola bottles.

A self-appointed municipal repair crew, we had to get creative.

We used wire and old metal signs or rusty backyard gates to repair holes in chain-link fences, to block off those ball-gobbling sewer drains or to mend — at least while the game went on — that pesky hole that could cost us so much time with every high throw to first base.

Fences,  oh so many fences.

We were always crawling under them, climbing over them to retrieve lost balls or wrestling with them when they came loose.


With time and weather, sections of chain link would tear free of their galvanized-wire bonds and spring upward like scoops of giant backhoes interfering with anyone trying to shoot from the corner. Or, they would curl away like frozen surfer waves or cartoon octopuses trying to squish Olive Oyl and Popeye. They grabbed at your feet, your pants, your bike spokes, your rubber-coated hardball, your football, your bright orange smooth Spalding basketball that, after five years of sanding by the asphalt, really didn’t need any more challenges.

In our constant battle with chain link, we armed ourselves with Converse shoelaces, coils of wire, ripped shirts or used inner tubes.

You might think this exaggeration. Ask your dad or your grandpa, especially if they grew up in the city. I’m sure rural folks had their challenges, too, because some of them endured even tougher economic times.

It was not like today. Everywhere you look seems to reveal another perfectly groomed grass field, crater-free tennis court or castle-sized playground with — we can’t forget! — those protective ground surfaces, the soft interlocking tiles, the rubber mulch, the spongy turf.

We played on asphalt, a lot.

Closest to our house was the old tar field — it was notched into a hill and had high fences, high concrete walls, a baseball diamond (more like a trapezoid because of the very short right field) and two full basketball courts (usually with only two working rims and backboards). We had no grass fields within 10-or-so blocks and going to one was risky. That meant crossing into very different neighborhoods — different bullies, different mean dogs and old people whose demeanor you could only determine after your basketball rolled on to their front lawn.

Sometimes the trip to those more popular fields would be fruitless anyway. Far too often, some kind of organized finicky group had a permit to use those grass fields, and — we found out the hard way — strangers weren’t allowed to squeeze in alongside them.

Sometimes even the tar field was unavailable, either too crowded with older kids or used as a temporary parking lot by the nearby school.

Did we go home to watch cartoons? Play board games? Ogle Mary Tyler Moore on the Dick Van Dyke show? Nope, if it wasn’t sleeting, snowing or freezing, we moved our games to our  backyards or the streets. The street where I grew up, about 20 feet wide, with one long curve straightening out just long enough in a couple stretches, became the field for touch football, rundown, freeze tag and all kinds of chase games.

 It’s been more than 50 years ago, but I still remember seeing — and smelling — the city put the first tar on that street. It was just about the time the street became one-way. It was like a miracle, like Jesus himself had delivered a coal-black swatch of playground to our doorsteps. We only had to worry about cars coming at us from one direction and those slippery old uneven gray bricks were history.

It was like a holiday. For everyone on the street. Bicycles came out of nowhere.  Skateboards. Old people tried out those collapsible metal shopping carts with two wheels.

Who cared if some errant tar, still bubbling in the heat of the day, stuck to your bike tires, your shoes or your ankles. It came off, eventually, or you could always grab an old rag and siphon a little gas from the lawnmower to do some cleanup.

If we wanted more Olympics-like competitions, we headed to the trees in the yard. We climbed with bull rope to hang swings and build Robinson Crusoe tree houses. We used old refrigerator boxes, broken down to flat, as sliding boards on sloping hills.

We learned how difficult it can be to pole vault. But we tried using any old pipe we could scavenge, or bamboo poles or the trunks of smooth Sumac trees, once they got thick enough.

In nearby woods, we dug underground forts. Talk about exercise.

As you might expect, we could not always find materials for our fix-up work. Sometimes, yes I can admit this now that the statute of limitations has passed, we had to resort to illegal means. It never felt like out-and-out theft, more like liberating supplies not being used.

Rope, pipe, steel signs, wire, lumber … all could be found unsecured in piles that were, technically, the property of our neighbors, the city municipal crews or businesses. The town dump offered limitless opportunities.

We also scouted playgrounds in richer parts of town for — well — unused supplies, or those not being used to their full potential.

Like basketball nets.

Getting them involved real exercise, shimmying the poles to reach the nets,  holding on with just your thighs and calves to untie them, escaping when chased.

That led to the challenging and exciting game we played too often than I’d like to admit: Running from the cops.

Seems like someone was always ratting us out for something, especially when we had to stay close to home and create games. Touch football upset some neighbors if we happened to veer off course and run even a foot on to their front lawns. Playing with any kind of baseball in the street could lead to a broken pansy or two. And some traffic interruption inevitably came with the popular and rowdy after-dark game of Prisoner Release.

The corner, where our street curved in front of my house, was lit by a street lamp. It usually served as the jail, the center of the action. Everyone who was chased down and caught had to be forced into that area, with their already-captured teammates forming a chain to try to pull the captors inside. If any “captor” got pulled over the line, all “prisoners” went free and had to be chased down again.

It wasn’t the tamest game to play after the streetlights came on. But hey, we were kids.

Who knew the neighbors had such maniacal devotion to peace and quiet — or to keeping their Ford Falcons, Buick Skylarks and Pontiac Grand Ams totally ding-free? 

We usually could see the cops long before they saw us. With kids living all along the now-one-way street, the warning would start almost two blocks away and filter down to the offending kids quickly, we were like outlaw cowboys lining a canyon to watch for the sheriff’s posse, or Indian scouts hiding in the rocks to whoop those tricky animal noises when they spotted the cavalry.

With all the study, money and energy being spent on how to make today’s kids healthier, maybe we ought to consider using the chubbiest little ones for police training.

Tell that sinewy cadet hoping to be a homicide detective that he or she has to catch Big Joey. He just ran through Mrs. Pack’s tulips, bumped into her car to trigger the alarm and gave her the finger while running away.

See if Joey loses a few pounds before his arrest.

Hey, this obesity crisis calls for extreme measures, right?

Given a little challenge, kids today would rise to the occasion, I think. What kid, even the chubbiest of today’s crowd, wouldn’t like to figure out how to make backyard javelins out of old PVC drain pipe or sharpened curtain rod?

Parents would have to stop hovering, though. And they’d have to prepare themselves for some injuries.

We did not escape our vigilante playground building without injury.

Trolling the dump, a hill of broken glass, old lumber, asphalt shingles and rusting metal, held its challenges. Seems like somebody was always getting a Tetanus shot after stepping on a nail or ripping a thigh on corrugated metal siding. Asphalt is not forgiving either, especially if you’re tripped by a Cyclone fence while going for a lay-up.

Trial-and-error construction of those backyard obstacle courses, forts and tree houses also led to some stitches.

Did you know that you cannot jump on a seesaw made of concrete block and a plank of old scaffolding without the free end flying up to hit you square in the face? Me either.

All in all, the payoff outweighed the risks. We were lean, lithe and quick, even if a bit hobbled from time to time. Stitches, though, were a badge of honor.

Of course, on second thought, our parents also had health insurance. A trip to the emergency room didn’t mean foreclosure on the family homestead.

Today’s kids? Who the heck knows? Maybe my idea here needs a bit more thought.

Rest easy, chubby little Charlie. At least for now, your Sony Playstation Pro 4 is safe.

Play on.

At least until you’re too fat to flex your fingers.