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About the Author
Jean Craighead George (b. 1919) has been writing since third grade. Her lifelong passion for nature has led her to foster more than 170 wild animals as pets in her backyard, and many of these animals have become characters in her novels. George has won several awards for her books, including a Newbery Honor for My Side of the Mountain and a Newbery Medal for Julie of the Wolves. She lives in Chappaqua, New York.
Read an Excerpt
By Jean Craighead George
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Jean Craighead George
All rights reserved.
"And now," said Steve Jungkatz, "it's T-minus sixty minutes and holding for the final countdown. Let's go home and eat."
Craig Sutton heard the excitement in his friend's voice and it sent a shiver down his own back. He glanced at the rocket gleaming above the launching pit and felt his heart shake his body. It was done, every detail was complete, and in one hour the months of work that the four boys—he and Steve, and Johnny Cooper and Phil Brundage—had put into the construction of the rocket would be rewarded by a roaring, fiery spectacle above the island in the marsh of Blue Springs, New York. The day, Saturday, September 24, was warm and green and filled with expectation.
Craig stepped out of the launch pit and followed Steve through the hemlocks and willows to the wharf at the south end of the island. Johnny hurried ahead of Steve, clicking his heels at every third step. Craig laughed and leaped for a limb. It dipped and crackled and its leaves, he thought, clanged and rang out. Suddenly he realized Phil was not close behind. He turned to see him dragging along in the moody silence that had taken hold of him for the past week.
"Come on!" Craig shouted exuberantly and swung his whole arm and body in a beckon.
Phil looked up, said, "Huh?" and plodded forward as if his legs were hard to move. "Yeah," he added and regained his outward enthusiasm. He joined the other boys at the wharf but sat silent when the swamp buggy, with its homemade paddle wheel and steering gear, moved laboriously out into the broad shallow lake. Craig ignored him and joined in the excited conversation with Johnny and Steve, who was fifteen—two years his senior.
At the second wharf, hidden in the reeds on the town side of the big marsh, Craig tied up the swamp buggy, then sprinted up the hill calling, "See ya in an hour." He heard his friends repeat his words like crows sending assembly calls through their ranks.
He chuckled to himself and climbed up the steep hill to his brown shingle house on the ridge. He passed the Olsens' house and called to Mr. Olsen who was doggedly using this Saturday to rake the first of the falling leaves from his wide green lawn. For a moment Craig felt an impulse to shout, "A rocket will be launched in one hour," but the secret had been kept too long to share it now.
He went up the stone steps and walked into the vestibule where the fountain his mother had made trickled softly over the rocks and plunged into a wide pool. He glanced at his sister's guitar on the piano, felt his excitement return, and went into the kitchen where his mother was making sandwiches.
"Hi!" he said, and his voice belled so loudly she turned and looked at him.
"Oh, hi," she said. "Hurry up and eat, I have to go to a meeting."
Craig paid no attention. Meetings and discussion groups and community activities were so much a part of his mother's life since she and his father had been divorced that he would have been surprised if she were not working on some plan to better the school and the social activities of the Blue Springs children.
His sister Ellen and his younger brother Pete scuffed to their chairs and sat down. They were arguing over whether Carl Mants was a "dope" or a "hero," and Craig quickly stopped listening because he didn't care. He turned his mind to the rocket, with its microclips and engines, waiting for the final countdown. He hoped the booster engines would glow red, as the catalogue said they would.
Suddenly the telephone rang. Craig's mother picked it up. "Yes, it is." she said. She sounded worried. A barrage of words from a male voice carried all the way across the table. "Yes, indeed, come right over," she said and hung up. She stared at Craig. "Mr. Brundage has reported to the police that you and Steve and Johnny and Phil have made a rocket. A policeman wants to talk to you."
Craig rose to his feet in shock. "Oh," he said. "I'll go get Steve." He swallowed a dry bite as he realized what had been bothering Phil. Apparently he had decided he had to tell his father about the rocket.
Craig took a few steps toward the door, then came back. "It's perfectly safe," he said to his mother.
Her eyes had widened with astonishment. "But," she stammered, "when have you had time to make a rocket?"
Craig ignored her and ran out the front door. He paused on the steps and shoved his hands into his pockets. The tops of the trees were just beginning to change from green to gold, and the blackbirds were clustering aimlessly in the color as if the idea of migration were vaguely occurring to them. "Poor Phil," he said and jumped down the entire bank of stairs to the path. He ran. Halfway up the hill he took the path through the hedge of forsythia that led to Steve's house. Its steep gables, its white trim went unnoticed. All he saw was the second-floor window and Steve's head bent over, reading.
"Pheee!" Craig whistled. No answer. He moistened his lips and discovered his tongue was dry. He tried to whistle again. The window opened, and Steve, a dark-haired boy with strong cheekbones that shadowed his face, leaned out and grinned. "Whatdayawant?" he called. "It's still early. Is something wrong?"
"Why didn't you call on the transceiver?"
Steve yelled down. Craig gestured helplessly.
"Is it that bad?"
Craig nodded again. Steven slammed the window shut.
In moments Craig heard Steve's size-ten sneakers staccato down the steps and pound the kitchen floor. Craig watched him vault over the back porch railing and run toward him.
"A cop's on the way to the house to see about the rocket," Craig said. "Phil told his dad, and his dad reported it."
Steve whistled softly. "I guess we'd better get Johnny," he said.
"We can't. He's practicin' the piano now."
"Oh, yeah." Steve ran his fingers through his hair. "Well, this is a crisis!" he said. "He'll have to use the tape recorder."
Craig laughed, and the thought of using the tape recorder to get Johnny out of practicing lightened his mind. "He's even got a new reel. He made it last week." He grabbed Steve's arm and started down the hill to the road that bordered the marsh and wound northward toward Johnny's house.
Craig and Steve followed the road, edged with pokeweed and Queen Anne's lace, until they came to a path that wound through the red maples. They plunged between the water willows and viburnum and into the woods as they circled the marsh on the shortcut to Johnny's side of town. Craig picked a leaf and twirled it.
"That Johnny!" he said. "He recorded La Boheme all the way through last week. Didn't even stop for rests. Said his mother couldn't tell the difference as long as the music kept coming." Steve chuckled. Then plaintively, Craig added, "Mrs. Cooper really keeps Johnny busy with projects that are good for him, doesn't she?"
"Yep," Steve agreed. "But it doesn't bother Johnny. He's a thinker. Plans himself out of things." Steve jumped for a wild grape leaf. "The tape machine is great," he went on, "but, you know, he works harder making those tapes than all the practicing anyone could force on him."
"And he's got a stand-in for dancing class," Craig added. "Fred'll come take his place anytime Johnny wants to go fishin'!"
"Yeah," said Steve enviously, "and remember how he got out of the Togetherness Picnic? I was jealous of that for a month."
"Gee." Craig laughed at the memory. "He hid in that panel truck that brought the box lunches. We hadda run relay races with our folks." Steve broke into laughter. "And then," Craig went on, "the darn truck took off and drove on to Yankee Stadium, went in the service entrance, and Johnny saw the whole game from the back of the truck. And I was back at the picnic trying not to be embarrassed when my mother picked up the bat and played baseball." Craig thought about it. "It was awful. Ruined our 'togetherness' for a month."
"They shouldn't have those things," Steve said firmly. "I can't understand what they think we get out of it. A guy doesn't want to see his mother playing baseball like a kid. He wants her to be—" he hesitated, "an adult. Fathers too. When my father lived with us he always felt he had to hack around with me. It made me nervous. I always felt he was forcing himself to act like a boy."
They had circled the marsh and were making their way uphill through tulip poplars and gray birch when they heard the sounds of Johnny practicing. On hands and feet they stole across the Coopers' yard and crept into the rhododendron bushes that grew around the yellow clapboard house. Craig led the way to the windows of the "fun room." He peered under the bamboo blinds. Johnny was playing painfully.
"Psssssst," Craig called. The piano stopped almost immediately—as Craig knew it would—for Johnny was keenly attuned to outside diversions with every note he played. He came to the door and opened it.
"Hi!" he whispered. "I can't come yet. It's not one o'clock."
"We got a crisis," Steve whispered.
"Phil told his dad about the rocket, and his dad called the police. A cop is on his way to Craig's house now to see what we're doing."
"Wow!" whispered Johnny.
Steve rasped impatiently, "Put on the tape recorder and let's go. This is an emergency." Craig whirled through the door as Johnny glanced at his mother in the living room.
"She's still talking to that PTA woman about wholesome parties for the school," he whispered. "The tape's in the piano seat. Get it, Craig. I'll keep playing while you all set up the machine."
With the air of a man saved from the gallows Johnny went back to the piano and sprang upon the keys. The two women in the other room stopped talking. Johnny played louder. The voices started up again, and Craig deftly put the tape on the spindles and threaded it into the machine. Steve plugged in the cord and turned on the switch.
Two concerts bellowed out: Johnny on the tape and Johnny at the keys. Craig gasped, and Steve grabbed for the volume button. He adjusted the noise as Johnny lifted his fingers and let the tape play on. He peered once more at his mother and signaled his friends to ease out the door.
Craig did not glance back as he followed Steve and Johnny across the lawn and into the brush behind a hill of tumbled boulders.
"It's a good thing Mom's no musician," he heard Johnny say as he slid into the wild geraniums. "A four-handed solo and she never turns her head." Craig was under the ground cover now. A crane fly winged over the geraniums toward his face. The insect sensed his presence, veered to the left, and skimmed over the head of a motionless wood thrush. Without ceremony the bird reached up and swallowed the fly, then settled back, its bright eye focused on the boys. Craig watched the bird without thinking about it.
"Are we gonna get Phil?" Johnny asked.
"Aw, let's leave him alone," Craig said. "He must feel pretty awful."
"His dad never has liked rockets," Steve put in. "Phil told me once his father was on a committee to protect kids from certain fuel mixtures. It must be hard to be a minister's son."
Craig whistled softly to the wood thrush, then followed his friends downhill. He saw Steve struggling with the reeds and stepped ahead to help him. "Thanks, brother nature," Steve teased. "Go first, I can't find the durn trail."
Craig found it and let Steve pass. He waited for Johnny. Johnny wove with loose movements among the leathery alders and the grasping Phragmites reeds. Craig's admiration for him welled up. "Can'tcha get us out of this?" Craig pleaded as Johnny drew up. "You always get us out of messes." Mosquitoes whined as the boys knocked against the bushes, and Craig swung at them.
"There are times when you put your back to the music in order to face it," Johnny said. "There's no way out."
"Yeah," Craig took a deep breath, "but cops—gee, they spell trouble." He hiked his trousers to steady his nerves. Through the copper stems of the river birches he saw the gray softness of the marsh.
"Are we going to tell them about Batta?" he asked. Johnny and Steve slowed down, and the three boys looked at each other in distress. Steve's dark eyebrows puckered, then lifted. "No," he said firmly. "That's our secret. It's got nothing to do with the rocket."
"Right," echoed Johnny. "Let's shake." He shoved one hand into Craig's, the other into Steve's, and Craig felt better.
"What about the door from the launching pit to Batta?" Steve called as they hurried on. "If we have to show the cop the rocket and the launch pit, he'll surely ask about the door."
"We'd better cover it with mud bags," Johnny suggested.
"Good idea," Steve agreed. "But we'll have to move the command station. We'll have to move the ignition control panel and the intercom system from Batta."
"Put them in the fire control bunker," suggested Craig. "We'll make that the command center."
"Good," said Steve.
"Suppose the cop wants to see the rocket this afternoon?" Craig asked.
"Well, we'll have to stall him—till we change things," Johnny said. "There's always something we can say we have to do—scouts, orchestra, Little League, dancing, geezey, we've got enough to do without faking a single excuse."
They were almost to the road. Craig wasn't ready to see the policeman, and began to slow the pace. Finally he stopped.
"Whatya lookin' at?" Johnny asked.
"The muskrat den," Craig said. "The entrance's closed with leaves. Do you suppose they're all right?"
"Oh, frogs eggs, Craig!" Steve said irritably when he saw the brown shapeless dome in the reeds. "Here you are worrying about a muskrat den when you should be planning the new layout of gear in the fire control station." His voice was sharp, but Craig noticed he stood a long time staring at the den and the sticks and leaves jutting from the waterline door.
They moved on, crossed Rushing Road, climbed Hobbs Drive, and turned down the lane that led to Craig's house. They stopped. A white police car, red light flashing ominously, sat in front of the brown shingle house.
"Well," Johnny said finally, "here goes nothin'."
As Craig plunged forward, he noticed his legs were stiff at the knees. But he climbed the steps resolutely and slowly pulled back the screen door.CHAPTER 2
Craig watched his mother introduce Steve and Johnny to Police Officer Ricardo. Then she gave his name—rather stiffly, he thought—and he realized she was nervous. He tried to sense what she was thinking, but the officer absorbed his interest. He had a broad thick chest, black hair graying at the edges, and heavy brows that shadowed his eyes. As he got up to meet them Craig wondered whether the man's head was going to bump the red ceiling his mother so prized. He had never seen so tall a man.
"Now!" The officer's voice was a boom on the bass drum. "What's all this about a rocket?"
The boys found chairs and sat down. Craig glanced at Steve who licked his lips but did not answer.
"What've ya made?" the officer asked. His smile seemed condescending. "One of those CO2 cartridges with match heads stuck in it?"
"No, sir." Steve was annoyed. "It's a three-stage booster." The officer laughed boyishly and Craig shifted his feet.
"Of course, you know there's a law against putting off rockets," the officer said.
"It's still pending. Hasn't been passed yet," Craig whispered.
"But there is a law against incendiaries." Johnny spoke up from the straight-backed chair in the comer.
The officer cleared his throat. "You seem to know the rules. Don't you know you're supposed to get permission to set off a rocket?"
"Yes, sir," Steve said.
"Why didn't you?"
"We didn't think anyone would know any more about them than we do, and so we didn't bother," Steve replied.
Craig glanced down at his shoes and then up to see how the officer was taking Steve's answer. Craig almost smiled when he saw the man's face—his eyebrows were trembling, and he seemed to be trying to decide whether to be shocked or angry.
"What makes you think the police staff hasn't had this kind of problem before?" the officer finally asked. "I took the Rogers boy to the police firing range to put off one he'd made. Now, we could've done this for you." His voice was firm. "Why didn't you call? You know the rules."
"This isn't exactly a rocket you can put off on a firing range," Steve answered. "It's a three-stage booster with a remote control launching panel. Rules set up by the rocket clubs say you have to launch it electrically from behind a foot-thick barricade. I don't think we could do that at a rifle range."
"I see," said the officer, but his tone did not sound as if he saw at all. He laughed. "You boys today are great ... launching panel. When I was a boy we had firecrackers. Put 'em under tin cans and sent them sky high." He twisted his head at pleasant but dangerous memories. "It's a wonder we weren't all killed. We didn't call them launching panels in our day. Didn't know the words. We just called them bombs."
Johnny said that must have been keen fun, and the conversation died.
Craig's mother came to the rescue. "It may be all right," she said brightly. "After all, they've made radios with little parts and pieces."
"Condensers and resistors," Steve explained.
Excerpted from Hold Zero! by Jean Craighead George. Copyright © 1966 Jean Craighead George. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 CRAIG,
Chapter 2 OFFICER RICARDO,
Chapter 3 THE MARSH,
Chapter 4 BOOSTER NUMBER ONE,
Chapter 5 THE INSPECTION,
Chapter 6 THE LARGE MEN,
Chapter 7 FOGGED IN,
Chapter 8 BATTA,
Chapter 9 SOS,
Chapter 10 THE PROTEST,
Chapter 11 THE SPIDERLINGS,
Chapter 12 THE DECISION,
Chapter 13 THE COMMITTEE,
Chapter 14 THE INTERVAL,
Chapter 15 THE TEACHER,
Chapter 16 THE ROAD OUT,
Chapter 17 HOLDING AT T-MINUS FOUR,
A BIOGRAPHY OF JEAN CRAIGHEAD GEORGE,