The Great Water Heater Launch of 1966

When I was a kid, Hawthorne (Aerospace Capital of the Nation or City of Good Neighbors, depending on which sign you read) was all recently subdivided farmland and county property, with abandoned farms, cow pastures and orchards still around. The South Bay was full of Okies, Arkies, Missourians and Texans, though even then there were exotic imports — Swiss and Italian kids at the corner, Cubans and Dutch Indonesians fleeing revolutions and coups d’état.

My world was a little green stucco house, a yard with grass, trees and flowers. We never went anywhere except Inglewood or downtown L.A. on the bus, which felt like going to Manhattan. Our neighborhood was dead quiet in the early ’60s except for the sound of mourning doves and a rare car in the distance, punctuated by whirring small planes from the nearby airport and, when the wind was right, the whistling roar of jet engines being tested at Northrop Aviation. It was peaceful and uneventful, a life spent with hand-me-down toys, books and chemistry sets. The end of that childhood more or less coincided with the Great Water Heater Launch of 1966.

The Beach Boys’ music was just part of the soundscape and seemed even less exotic than it might have, since it emanated from a house around the corner from us on 119th Street. Southern California in general and the South Bay in particular was drenched with music and cars, and music about cars. One summer the Mexican-American Rockwell engineer down the street brought home a brand-new, utterly breathtaking Mustang, and the next year, in ’65, one of the Wilsons bought a midnight-blue Corvette. We kids were impressed, but what did we know? We made toys from broken junk we found in the street while our neighbors were busy being famous.

The Wilsons had a poky little house like everyone else, but at least they had the chutzpah to build a small swimming pool, which no one remembers them finishing. They were all right, except for Dennis, who had been famous for pounding kids and taking their 15 cents lunch money. Brian was a good sort when you saw him at all. Carl was regarded as the “nice” one, probably because he was the youngest, and he had paid a fair price for my brother’s glow-in-the-dark eyeball from the Hawthorne Fair. This information, more than this or that song on the radio, formed my basic understanding of the Beach Boys. A few times we kids would stand on their porch, staring at them through the screen door while they fooled around with guitars.

“Hey kid,” one of them would say, “here’s a souvenir. It’s worth a lot of money.” He’d hand us a wad of chewing gum or a paper cup with a cigarette butt in it, then laugh like crazy. Being a kid, you accepted casual degradations.

The last time we stood at the door was the last Halloween we could go trick-or-treating. By the time we hit the Wilsons’ we were ready to hang it up. The lights were off but a black-and-white TV was on, visible through the curtains, so we knocked.

“Trick or treat!” we said to the dark figures inside who were watching The Fugitive.

“What is it,” came a voice from the couch. “‘Trick or treat?’”

“It’s Halloween,” another explained.

We were amazed: They didn’t even know what day it was.

“We didn’t buy any candy,” came the first voice. “What can we give them?”

“How about a beer,” called the voice from the couch. Laughter. We were thrilled to be included in this adult joke. Then they apologized and said good night.

We saw even less of them as time passed and we kept busy with kite-flying. Every season you’d spot three or four kites in the neighborhood, but by the sixth grade it was time for total immersion. I had decided that I was an aviation engineer like my old man, and would design new military attack kites that would revolutionize balsa-wood flight as we knew it. This would all take place in the garage, the skunk works and laboratory for all scientific research. After school, an inventory of materials was assembled and tested: leftover kite parts, scrap wood, bamboo stakes, various types of string, fishing line, paper, cloth and diabolic payloads. Large paper clips, partially unfolded and affixed to the compass points of a kite, proved devastating to rival kites during afternoon dogfights. This early success inspired bigger projects, but structural innovations proved more challenging. Two box kites, lashed together, rose effortlessly when flown by the neighbors; but if you tried something similar with four kites, on the scale of a small car, it didn’t catch much air. A kite with additional angles and panels wouldn’t stay upright and lunged in circles. A kite in the shape of a bow tie leaped sharply into the wind but immediately crashed straight down with surprising violence. This had possibilities if you could aim it at somebody, but the design was temporarily shelved due to funding.

(A similar ineffectual design sense had informed my homemade skateboard, which was a shoe skate attached to an L-shaped piece of wood spray-painted orange. I was teetering around on the thing one afternoon when I nearly smashed into Carl Wilson as he was exiting his back yard. “Hey kid, can I ride that?” he asked cheerfully. The thing instantly shot out from under him, but he caught himself from falling and laughed.)

All this aerial activity was starting to have a larger effect. People noticed, and bought their own kites. None of those Apollo and Surveyor engineer dads could resist getting into the act. I saw this guy straining with a heavy rope against a kite he’d built that was around 8 feet long. And then the Indonesian guy down the street, who never talked to anyone, stood serenely on his front porch, flying this delicate 10-inch number made from transparent tissue paper, held aloft by a single thread.

Our flight mania climaxed one afternoon with an astounding explosion from about a quarter mile east. Someone’s water heater had blown up, taking out the side of the house as well as the cement wall surrounding the yard. It had so much momentum, it took off like a missile and arced over the drainage channel — even crossing the boundary of Inglewood and Hawthorne — and came down through the roof of a house at the corner, coming to rest in a casually tragic fashion on their sofa. We all stood around as the fire department carried it out on a stretcher like an accident victim, bashed up but recognizable. The cool thing was, since everyone was outside flying kites, a lot of people got to actually witness this. Those aerospace guys were probably watching the whole thing, automatically calculating pounds of thrust per square inch required to achieve escape velocity. Just another episode in the ongoing drama of aviation history and American know-how.

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