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Aviation Camp: An Intergenerational Blast-Off

A summer science camp helped 'men of science' — a boy and his grandfather — bond and form an ongoing connection

By Lisa B. Samalonis

On the day of the science camp rocket launch, my seventy-year-old father's and my eight-year-old son's boyish enthusiasm for all things mechanical bubbled over. Earlier in the year, Dad had told Zach: "We are men of science."

"Yeah, and I like to do experiments and build stuff," Zach said with a nod.

A young boy holding a small handmade rocket. Next Avenue
The campers flew model planes and rockets on launch day.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Samalonis

It was true. Legos delighted, as did colorful K'Nex that turned into roller coasters and Ferris wheels after a few hours of work on the floor. Robotics and rocketry enthralled. Not to mention empty boxes, staples, dead batteries, dirt, broken clocks, paper clips, glue, tape, Mentos and Coke, and any liquid that could be frozen on the porch when the temperature dipped below freezing.

"Yeah, and I like to do experiments and build stuff."

"And I like to figure things out and make things fly," he added, just like his grandfather.

As a girl, I grew up listening to stories across the dinner table about various projects from Dad, a project manager with an aerospace company. Pictures of rockets slicing through the sky hung in our basement, and prototypes, models and placards took their places on bookshelves throughout the house.

A Week at Camp

One summer, my two sisters and I squished into the back of the sticky Pontiac sedan for nearly two days when my family drove to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to see a launch. We spent another hot day walking around Kennedy Space Center before going to the beach.

Years later, I stood watching miniature model rocket after rocket arc through the August air. This time two dozen campers, aged 8 to 13, bustled around the "launch area," preparing their aircraft for flight as part of a weeklong local aviation summer camp.

When Zach came home from the first day's activities, information flowed from him like lava from an active volcano. Each night after dinner, he called his grandfather to discuss how the instructor shared stories of flight history, the space program and planes from World War I and II.


He recited tales of the Wright Brothers, Sputnik, the Apollo flights, and B-52 bombers. "The talks and the videos were good, but the coolest part was making the planes and rockets," Zach said. He relayed details of the parts, hot glue, rubber bands, rocket launchers, engines and the vital placement of wings and parachutes.

This didn't sound very easy. I interrupted his phone call: "You mean the teachers are building one rocket for the group, right?"

A young boy and his grandfather talking outside. Next Avenue
Zach and his grandfather William.  |  Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Samalonis

"No, Mom," he said with a huff and a roll of his eyes. "We are building two rockets each and a light plane." He returned to the phone and spoke about specifications and flight distances. The names and numbers jumbled in my mind. "The Alpha A-8 can go 300 feet, but the C6-7 can go way farther, to like 1,200 feet," he reported. 1,200 feet?

After he hung up, he looked incandescent. "Pop-Pop used to make model airplanes and bottle rockets when he was a boy, too!" he said.

We awoke early on the last day of the week to arrive at the field on time. My parents met us there. Despite being one of the youngest campers, Zach helped a few others ready their devices.

A Shared Passion for Science

My father looked on, smiling. As the kids counted down to blast off, some models flew high toward the clouds, released a blue parachute and floated to the grass. One exploded in mid-air, and several others fizzled before take-off. Yet, the real thrill came from seeing my father and son.

That week, Dad shared his life's passion with his grandson. As my son tinkered with rockets and planes, he grew to understand aviation is more than a show on The History Channel. Best of all, he started a conversation with his grandfather that continued long after summer camp ended.
Those phone calls bonded them through the next decade.

Best of all, he started a conversation with his grandfather than continued long after summer camp ended.

Their discussions included more aviation and tech innovations like smartphones, iPads, computers, and other gadgets. Zach shared his school experiences with Dad as he grew older, including building and testing a submarine with his middle school science club or describing his high school technology class projects. They discussed the details, leaning in toward one another and nodding alike.

Although Dad died a few years before Zach went to college, his influence remained. "Your grandfather would be so proud," I said each time I saw one of Zach's final student design projects.

Zach now works as an industrial designer and credits his grandfather's enthusiasm for science and technology as one of the biggest inspirations for his career. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the following months, Zach and I shared a home office, each working remote jobs.

Sometimes throughout the day, I heard him on a conference call discussing technical specifications for a new design with his co-workers or whistling casually as he worked his way through a project — just like Dad used to.

For a moment, I would pause, a mix of memories and pride passing through me. Then a realization: Dad is still here.

Lisa B. Samalonis
Lisa B. Samalonis is a writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about health, parenting, books and personal finance. Read More
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