Typically on late summer afternoons, Wilson Street in Stratton, Connecticut is quiet and still. It’s lined on both sides by solid two-story homes fronted by plain but well-tended lawns; since it doesn’t run to Main or Center Streets, the only car traffic is local. Most of the men are on the day shift at Queensbury Precision Machine and Tool, and the housewives have finished their shopping and are back home preparing dinner and watching their soap operas.
This afternoon, however, hours of relative silence were suddenly broken by the barking of a dog from someone’s backyard. The sound grew louder and sharper as the source of the noise, a big Golden Retriever, bounded eagerly over a side fence and ran up the sidewalk. The dog ran in the direction of two boys who were walking down the sidewalk toward him. One of the boys bent down and spread his arms wide in welcome. The dog let out a yelp of joy and picked up speed.
The boy reached down and picked up a stick, then whistled. As the dog approached, he stopped in front of the boys, eagerly waving his tail. The boy waved the stick in time with the dog’s tail. “Go get it, Rex!” The boy threw the stick and the dog took off across the street, making a bounding leap over a hedge.
“He never brings it back,” the boy confided to his taller companion with a shrug, and they continued walking.
The taller boy reached into the cavernous Army knapsack he had been carrying over one shoulder. “I found six cans this morning,” he said, pulling out a choice sample of an empty tin can. “And they all had lids too.”
The shorter boy whistled again, this time low and appreciatively. “Way better than me. I lost my best source. Mrs. Gabinsky stopped eating beans because her doctor said they were bad for her. So now I need to find another treasure trove.”
“That’s too bad,” the boy with the knapsack said. “Say, what time is it?”
The shorter boy made a show of pulling out a silver pocket watch from the front pocket of his shorts and opening the lid. The other boy rolled his eyes. “You carry a pocket watch even when you’re not dressed up?”
“Naturally,” he said disdainfully as he snapped the lid shut and slid it back into his pocket. “It’s quarter to three. We have plenty of time before the launch. But why are we watching it at Dominic and Debbie’s? We usually go to Throttle’s. His TV set is bigger.”
“Dominic and Debbie’s parents got a color TV last week.” The eyes of the boy with the pocket watch grew wide, and he whistled again. “They’re the first ones on the block. Maybe even the first in Stratton.”
“That’s a much better way to watch a Gemini launch,” he said. Both boys nodded.
* * *
The two boys crossed the yard of a red-and-white house at the end of the block. The screen door was unlocked, and they walked inside. “We’re here!”
“Hi, Ham. Hi, Rod. We’re in the living room.”
The two boys ambled inside, past the polished wooden bannister and into the carpeted living room. Three boys and a girl were already inside, seated on the floor in an arc in front of the TV. One of the boys wore a space helmet that was several sizes too large, with the visor pulled down over the front. The screen showed a live shot of a Gemini rocket as it stood poised on its launch pad. A news announcer could be heard in the background intoning facts and figures about the upcoming flight.
The oldest boy stood up. “Right. Now that you guys are here, we can have a quick meeting.” He reached down to the TV set to turn the volume down, and then he rapped his knuckles on top of the set. “I hereby call this abbreviated meeting of the Tin Can Society to order. Dominic Belanger, president, presiding. All members are in attendance. The members will take turns reporting on their recent collections. Our new secretary, Debbie Belanger, will record the numbers.”
On the couch, the girl — Dominic’s twin sister — picked up a battered school notebook and a pencil, ready to write down their reports.
Ham, the tall boy with the knapsack, raised his bag. “I have six here, and another ten at home.”
Rod, the boy with the pocket watch, shook his head. “Only three this week.”
“Throttle, how about you?”
The boy wearing the wobbly space helmet flipped his visor up. “Five cans,” he said, his voice muffled by the cavernous helmet. Then he quickly snapped the visor back down.
“Phillip? How did the Tin Can Society’s chief engineer do this week?”
“Five cans,” Philip responded. “And guess what? Two of them were coffee cans. Perfect combustion chambers for our Mark Two design. We just need one more.”
“I found some old spark plugs that we can use for fuel igniters,” added Throttle.
“Great,” said Dominic. “And how about you, Rod?”
Rod cleared his throat dramatically. “I’m pleased to report that I have become, shall we say, friends with Elise Grimwald on West Street. As you know, the Grimwalds own the grocery store over on Third. I’ve explained our need for tin cans to build rockets for exploring space, and Elise has promised that she’ll talk to her father about letting us take their canned foods when they expire, rather than throwing them out.”
Everyone cheered and clapped. Rod stood up and bowed with a fourish.
“Congratulations, Rod,” Dominic said, turning to his sister on the couch. “Debbie, as the newest full member of the Tin Can Society, you’re not expected to have collected any cans yet, but if you have anything to report . . .”
Debbie held up her left hand, fingers splayed. “Five cans.”
Rod whistled, and everyone clapped again. “Congratulations, Debbie. That’s a full month’s quota at your very first meeting! You’re the first member of the Tin Can Society to accomplish that feat.” Debbie beamed.
“Right,” Dominic continued. “You know the rules. Give your cans to Throttle, and give your lids to Debbie. And make sure you write your names on the lids so we can keep track of everybody’s counts. And remember: the lids are our treasury. We must guard them with our lives and our sacred honor.” Dominic crossed his heart with great solemnity, and everyone else followed suit.
“The Tin Can Society forever!” they shouted in unison.
Suddenly, Debbie pointed to the TV excitedly. “I think something’s happening!”
“I hereby adjourn this meeting of the Tin Can Society!” said Dominic as he sat down in front of the TV to watch. The final countdown was just beginning, and at zero a cloud of white smoke emerged from the base of the silver pencil-like rocket. As the Gemini spacecraft took off, it climbed a trail of flame as the Tin Can Society cheered its progress.
As the rocket climbed higher and quickly shrank to a dot arcing out over the Atlantic, Throttle leaned over to Rod and said with conviction, “Pretty soon that’s going to be us, you know.” Rod nodded with excitement, his eyes glued to the TV screen.
* * *
After the Gemini launch, the members of the Tin Can Society clambered down the back porch steps of the Belanger house and trooped across their neighbors’ backyards to Stonegood Park, where they would work off their excitement pretending the swings were space capsules and the slides were splashdowns. Stonegood Park’s baseball diamond is also where they launched their ever-bigger model rockets. They called these outings their training sessions, because they were part of the Tin Can Society’s grand plans to eventually build a full-scale rocket that would carry them into orbit just like the astronauts.
They had just organized an expedition to explore the thicket of trees at the park’s far end (to learn survival techniques should they ever be stranded on a hostile alien world) when they heard the sound of heavy trucks driving down Chestnut Street alongside the park. Then they heard squealing brakes and men shouting. They stopped their mission to see if they could spot anything through the trees.
“Fan out! Cover the park! Second squad, secure the trees!”
“They’re after us!” said Ham. “I didn’t steal those fuel pumps! I swear! They were just lying there.”
“Come on!” said Dominic. The six members of the TIn Can Society ran to a crop of boulders and crouched behind them together. Throttle snapped his helmet’s visor down and squeezed his eyes shut.
Through the trees, Phillip could see one of the trucks. In front of the truck, though, was a long black sedan with a familiar bright blue circular logo on the door. A red “V” slashed through the circle, with four blocky letters in white: “NASA.”
Phillip pointed. “They’re from NASA! What’s NASA doing here?” he whispered.
Suddenly, they saw several men in green Army uniforms and carrying sinister black rifles trudging through the woods in their general direction. They were followed by two men in business suits, who seemed unfazed by the hubbub.
“Over here!” a voice from deeper in the trees called. “We found it!”
“Don’t touch it!” one of the men in suits called back. “It could be radioactive!”
The members of the Tin Can Society looked at one another in surprise and puzzlement.
“Freeze!” shouted a voice behind them, and the six scared kids turned at once to look. A young soldier had his rifle trained on them. The soldier was as pale as they were, and looked just as scared. “Sarge! Over here! Kids!”
A burly soldier with rolled-up sleeves came over to see, then took his helmet off and scratched his buzz-cut gray hair. “Kids, huh? I don’t suppose you saw anything unusual here, did you?”
“No, sir,” Dominic was finally able to squeak out. “Nothing. We’re just playing.”
“Well, you’d better come with us. You could be in danger here.” He looked at the soldier standing behind the knot of kids. “Smith!” he barked. “Put your rifle away.”
The members of the Tin Can Society warily stood up. “What’s happening?” Dominic asked the sergeant.
“It seems that your park has just had a visit from outer space,” the sergeant said, replacing his helmet. “Come on, maybe you can help.”
The six friends looked at each other in surprise, excitement suddenly replacing their fear. Outer space?
Together, the Tin Can Society scrambled to follow the sergeant into the woods.
* * *
What will the Tin Can Society find deep in the woods of Stonegood Park? Find out when their first adventure continues!