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From Mules to the Moon…
Recollections of a country boy who became a rocket scientist

by Lester Strickland as told to Roland D. Roberts

Down on the farm with horses,
 peaches, and molasses stories

     When I was growing up on the farm four miles from the mailbox and fifteen miles west of Red Bay, Alabama, farmers had open range for their cattle. All the farmland was fenced and any land outside the fences was open range. But the only livestock that had access to the open range were cattle.

     Grandpa Strickland had built fences on both sides of the road adjoining farmland for a distance of about a half-mile to allow his cattle to come to the barn. At the end of the lane was a gate at the turn off toward the barn. The turn off lane ended at the gate to his barn lot.

     Papa and his uncle, Bose Strickland, bought two large, beautiful horses. Papa’s horse was black and Uncle Bose’s horse was white. Papa and Uncle Bose were riding their horses down the half-mile lane for the first time. The horses ran as they were racing each other. The white horse was in the lead as they neared the end of the lane. Uncle Bose thought that his horse was going to hit the gate, so he jerked the horse’s head to the right. The pull was so drastic that the horse fell on its head breaking its neck and dying on the spot.

     At the end of the lane in front of Grandpa’s house, there was a right-hand turn through the gate that led into the lot in front of the barn. The barn had a large opening in the middle with stables on both sides; the back end of the barn opened.

     On the south side of the orchard was a row of horse-apple trees. These were the first apples to ripen. But they did not taste good I guess, because, due to our eagerness to have fresh apples, we started eating them each year before they were ripe. The rest of the orchard included apples, plums, blackberries, and other fruits, as well as peaches.

     When it was peach picking time, all the family members gathered at Grandpa’s house with their utensils for gathering and canning the peaches. We all worked together to do all that was required to wash, peel, and can peaches for all the family. When the peaches were canned, everyone took all that they needed for the coming year and went home.

     When I was about ten years old, Papa planted four acres of sorghum cane. Before it could be brought from the field, all the fodder had to be stripped from the stalk and bundled. And the seed head had to be removed from the top of the stalk.

     Papa bought a new sorghum mill to press the juice out of the cane. It had three wheels. The large wheel in the center was pulled by a mule that circled around and around the mill. The next wheel was close enough to the center wheel to pull the sorghum cane through the mill. And it was my job to feed the cane between the two wheels into the mill.

     The third wheel was adjacent to the second wheel. It ran close enough to the center wheel to squeeze the juice from the sorghum cane. The juice flowed into a 50 gallon barrel.

     A copper tube extended from the bottom of the barrel to the high end of the molasses pan. A faucet at the pan end of the tube controlled the flow of the juice into the pan. The pan was about five feet wide, about fourteen feet long and was divided into five sections.

     The pan was heated to boil the juice. The juice was moved down the slanted pan, section by section, until all the water was boiled out; so all that remained was molasses, which was collected into another 50 gallon barrel. The molasses was drained off through a spigot into one-gallon molasses buckets. That four acres of sorghum cane produced a lot more than 200 gallons of molasses. And they sure did taste good on Mama’s cat-eye biscuits on cold winter mornings.    

Editor’s Note: Lester safely rode his motorcycles for many years in spite of the accidents and incidents related above, but his numerous safe rides don’t make good stories.

Lester Strickland is a physicist, retired from the U.S. Army Propulsion Laboratory at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, who holds registered patents on rocket ignition systems and has traveled around the world to U.S. military bases as a rocket systems troubleshooter.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006