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The Dry Run

January 4, 2010

My 9 year old nephew got something called a ‘stunt kite’ for Christmas.

It is a really big kite with two strings that you manipulate to make the kite do, well, stunts.  The person who gave the gift claimed that they thought it was a good idea because with two strings, the two brothers could share and fly it together. A quick study of the kite, however, made it abundantly clear that flying the thing is totally beyond the skill level of the kids.  And the adults for that matter.  If Icarus had had one of these things, mythology would have been written differently.

Still, a sharable gift was a nice sentiment and it brought back memories of my childhood.  I am the middle of three, with an older sister and younger brother and if there is a single incident that defined the concept of sharing among us, it had to be the Dry Run.

One summer evening, my father came home from work with a “surprise” for us.  I was too small to read the box, but it looked very, very exciting.  It was the size of an elongated cigar box, jet black with a yellow and red airplane that looked as if it were going to fly right off the surface of the box.  The plane was trailing some magical substance that on closer inspection proved to be bubbles!  After dinner, we all gathered around the kitchen table to watch my father assemble this wonderful toy.

It was an amazing invention and I wonder why they don’t still make them.  The airplane body was yellow plastic and the wings were red and white checked cardboard.  There was a string attached to one of the wings so that you could swing the plane around and make it fly. 

But that wasn’t the magic of it. 

On the front of the plane was a propeller with an oversized plastic cowling.  The cowling was actually a vessel in which you put soapy water.  The propeller turned a little device that dipped a ring into the soapy water.  This had the effect of producing bubbles as the plane flew.  And guess what?  The faster the plane flew, the more bubbles you got.

We were beside ourselves with anticipation of the maiden voyage.  The rules of patriarchy demanded that my father do the first test flight.  After that, we had to adhere to the strict Darwinian rules by which my childhood was defined. 

My sister was at the top of the food chain.  If we had been reared in a jungle, she would have been a lion.  I would have been a hyena, scavenging for the scraps of parental largesse, and my younger brother would have been some sort of invertebrate, dimly aware of larger life forms and subsisting on their leftovers.  We lined up according to rank, waiting for our turns.

My father explained that such a complex device needed to be tested before being deemed battle (or in this case, child) ready.  Therefore, the first flight, which he would pilot, would be a “dry run.”  There would be no soap suds on board.  The absence of bubbles would enable us to observe the operation of the mechanism and the plane’s flight characteristics in order to identify any potential design flaws and correct them before the presumably more risky flight with a payload was undertaken. 

My brother and I exchanged (although we didn’t know that’s what they were at the time) knowing glances.  We’d seen this behaviour before.  Could we please just fly the plane?


The plane passed the dry run test and we anxiously awaited the true maiden voyage, which again my father would pilot.  It was so good!  The plane flew so realistically and we couldn’t believe the sheer volume of bubbles.  We loved it.

My father summoned my sister into the middle of the driveway and gave her a final briefing.  She flew the plane–not as expertly perhaps–but there was still a satisfying contrail of bubbles filling the sky around us.

Then it was my turn.  It was much better flying than just watching.  I was actually in control.  I could change the volume of bubbles by increasing or decreasing speed.  I could make the plane go high and low.  Until something went wrong.  No more bubbles!  What’s wrong?  Did I break it?  My father intervened, pointing out to us what our under developed frontal lobes hadn’t led us to expect—we had run out of bubble solution.

My brother, the youngest, was also the most even tempered and reasonable.  Early on he had reconciled himself to his position in the family taxonomy and usually demonstrated an almost saintly patience while waiting for my sister and I to take our rightful turns before him.  But the sudden cessation of the bubbles was too much for him.  The fun was over and he hadn’t had his share.

My father hastened to assure him that all was well.  He would be the next to fly the wonder plane.  All we needed to do was get more soap and we’d be airborne again in no time. 

And that’s when the seeds of tragedy were sown.  My father went into the house to secure some more soap solution and he left the plane out on the driveway.  With us. 

Of course there was no way my brother was going to touch it.  He hadn’t yet been told that he could.  I didn’t touch it either.  I’d like to make you think that I was actually honouring protocol—it wasn’t my turn and therefore I had no right to fly the plane again.  Or maybe I just figured there was no point flying it if there weren’t going to be any bubbles. 

But it was probably because my sister, demonstrating all of her leonine proclivities, pounced on the plane the minute my father’s back was turned.  In no time she was flying it. 

Without clearance or adult supervision. 

My brother, sensing that the forms were not being followed, began meekly importuning.  “But it’s my turn.”  He was wasting his breath.  My sister’s logic was that because there was no bubble soap in the plane, her hijacking did not constitute an actual turn. 

“It’s a dry run!” she informed my brother.

The louder my brother protested, the more crazed my sister became.  Her antiphonal response to his calm and reasonable, albeit repetitive, charge of “But it’s my turn,” was an increasingly shrill cry “It’s a dry run!!”  Her emotional state began to affect her piloting and the plane began to perform erratically.  We wanted her to stop.  Maybe she wanted to stop.  But she couldn’t and the plane developed a mind of its own.  Maybe it had been taken over by some divine force whose purpose was to teach children to share, because with Solomon-like finality, the plane swooped to a new height, paused, stalled and torpedoed nose first into the concrete of the driveway. 

Silence fell.  Maybe my brother emitted a whimper, but if he did, it was scarcely audible.

When my father returned with more soap, he found a poignant montage.  We stood there surveying the wreckage.  The propeller was shattered.  With no propeller there could be no bubbles.  We looked hopefully at my father, who with sorrow or relief, I’m still not sure which, declared it beyond his skill to fix. 

I kept the plane for a while.  It still flew, but with no bubbles, it was hardly worth the effort.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take the stunt kite for a dry run.  Wish me luck!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 5:43 am

    Ah, the big, big topic of birth order and psychology.

  2. January 6, 2010 10:37 pm

    Brilliant, brilliant. And that’s coming from a lion. SGx

  3. flamingo permalink
    January 7, 2010 11:28 am

    What a great article. Made me want a turn with the bubble plane!!

  4. Walter Kennamer permalink
    January 7, 2010 3:31 pm

    I remember one year when Santa brought me a model airplane with an alcohol-powered engine. It had a wire connecting back to a handle that let you control the flight to some extent. We had similar precedence rules in my family, so my Dad took the first turn flying it. Into a tree it went and it never flew again.

  5. January 7, 2010 8:20 pm

    As Mr. Crotchety once suggested to me (when I wrote a post on rockets), you should read Rocket Boys.

    • January 7, 2010 8:32 pm

      Funny you should mention rockets. Years after the bubble plane, my brother and I developed an arsenal of rocketry that could have been the subject of non-proliferation talks. Unfortunately, my interest was building them and his was blowing them up and when I went away to college they didn’t survive long. I haven’t read Rocket Boys but will look for it–thanks!

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