Guys have resurrected a medieval technology. Why? Because it is a challenge. Because it is a timeless marvel of engineering. Because you can hurl a gol-durned piano the length of a football field.
By Richard E. Meyer, Los Angeles Times (Reprinted from the Washington Post, 6/30/96)
The big arm began to move. The sling tightened. The coffin, gunmetal gray with gold-painted handles, shot straight up, so fast that John Wayne could hardly see it. The arm and the sling tugged the coffin into an arc, then flung it into the blinding blue sky over Rattlesnake Lake, there in North Bend, Wash. It climbed 200 feet, end over end, tumbling and flashing like quicksilver. John Wayne heard the hint of a whistle. Otherwise there was no sound. The coffin traced a graceful curve against hemlocks and firs that march up the side of Rattlesnake Ledge. In a haunting frieze, it lingered for a moment at an outcropping of volcanic rock near the top.
Then slowly it began to fall. Plastic flowers and an American flag tore from the coffin and hung in the air like a rainbow. The coffin hit the lake with a crystal splash. It sank. John Wayne could see it on the bottom, among the ruins of a village called Cedar Falls, flooded by a water project after the turn of the century. "Awesome," he muttered to himself.
Finally, however, the lunacy overwhelmed him. "A force of 20 G's," he chuckled. Then he laughed. When that coffin came out of that catapult, any dearly departed would have been squashed like a comma. The coffin was, in fact, empty, the event staged for television.
John Wayne Cyra, or John Wayne, as he prefers to be called in honor of his hero, is a "catapulteer." Less vaingloriously, he is a flinger. His is a world of people who throw things, and not just dishes. It is a world of war weapons, of siege machines, of catapults of all sorts, the most popular being a seesaw kind called the trebuchet. John Wayne and his peers use them to fling bowling balls, commodes, pianos, even small cars. "I get choked up," he says, "thinking about it."
It is a world where the deadly and the daffy dance. Early flingers hurled horses into enemy castles, especially dead ones infected with plague. They also hurled the heads of prisoners, corpses, even negotiators, whole and alive, with their rejected terms hanging around their necks an early form of shuttle diplomacy. It is a world crowded with inspiring people. One is John Quincy, a Texas dentist whose fond hope is to build the biggest trebuchet in history. Still another is Hew Kennedy, a British landowner who uses a trebuchet to hurl dead pigs, because they are "nice and aerodynamic." And still another is Ron Toms, a New York computer engineer who constructed a trebuchet with a chair on it. He flung himself into a river three times.
"Every once in a while," says Quincy, you really want to do something that is really out of the norm, something really stupid - and, by damn, we have found it."
John Wayne Cyra, 49, comes to flinging naturally. "My whole life," he says, "has been like a Woody Allen movie." Nuns banished him from class for chewing gum, for writing X-rated limericks and for putting thumbtacks on their chairs. He finally got thrown out of school altogether. He joined the Air Force, trained as a paramedic, went to Navy diving school and volunteered for a top-secret 16-man spy satellite recovery team in the northern Pacific. He was a dead-on mimic, and he could imitate Walter Cronkite. After his Navy hitch, he got a job reading the news on a Honolulu radio station. He specialized in wacky stories. Finally he came home to Washington state. He drove trucks and bulldozers and built log houses, including one for himself.
One day four years ago, he heard gunshots. It was Skip, his neighbor, who had a bigger log house and, unlike John Wayne, a telephone. That was where John Wayne got his calls. Whenever the phone rang for him, Skip would fire a few rounds into the air, and John Wayne would hike over.
This time, however, there was a visitor waiting. He was a location scout for a television show about Alaska called "Northern Exposure," and he wanted to shoot some scenes at Skip's place. On John Wayne's advice, Skip agreed, for a hefty sum, and John Wayne got to know the TV people well. The writers of "Northern Exposure" had created a quirky show. One character was a disc jockey who was partial to rock-and-roll, Walt Whitman and performance art. After reading about Hew Kennedy and his pig-flinging trebuchet in Great Britain, the writers decided that their disc jockey ought to hurl a piano. The production office told John Wayne it needed a catapult. It wanted one that would fling an upright piano 150 yards, and it wanted the catapult up and operating in 10 days. That sounded about as possible as tattooing a bubble, but John Wayne was game.
An important element was the weight ratio: With 10,000 pounds of counterweight, he decided on a foot of flinging arm for every 10 pounds of piano. For the trebuchet frame, his men cut 12 logs. They tied them together with steel straps. For the flinging arm, they built a 45-foot beam. On top of the frame, they installed a chromium-steel axle, and they placed the arm across it. On the short end of the arm, they filled a metal box with five tons of lead ingots. On the long end, they tied a sling. With a cable and a bulldozer, they pulled down the long end of the arm. Like a teeter-totter, the short end, weighted with the ingots, went up. With time to spare, the flinger was cocked and ready. The director wanted to film the first fling, but John Wayne reserved it for himself and for his crew. Besides, if his trebuchet flew apart, he did not want a lot of people to be hurt.
He selected a 450-pound log. He topped off a jug with gasoline, and he strapped the jug to the log with duct tape. He soaked a rag and jammed it into the mouth of the jug. One of his men lit the rag. "And we shot that baby. I saw 10,000 pounds of lead come down, and that log took off like the space shuttle. It pulled so many G's that the force ripped the jug off the log. A gallon of gas went straight up. It was like the Fourth of July, man. It was great!"
Finally, with actors in place and cameras rolling, John Wayne flung a piano. "To see that piano go whoosh like a little pebble! It gets smaller in the distance, and the keys are flying off, dark keys and white keys.... The way they sprinkled through the air: Oh, it was beautiful! Then there was a humming, like a harmonica sound. Air was blowing through the piano... The best sound of all was when it hit: a piano just smashing to pieces all over the frozen ground... It's not a crash. It's a tinkly, air chime kind of taking!' sound. And then there's a little after-tinkle . . . a metallic clink-- clink. Then just dead silence."
John Wayne flung nine pianos in all; it took that many to satisfy the director's enthusiasm. All were uprights. Each weighed 450 pounds and sailed about 120 yards. From the nine flings, the director edited together a single flight. To Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube," it aired in an episode that ran Feb. 3, 1992.
Next the writers decided that a good friend of their disc jockey would die and that his body would be sent to Alaska to he enshrined in a Volkswagen Beetle and flung into a glacial lake. So it was that the location scouts chose Rattlesnake Lake; it was pristine, the essence of Alaska. But it supplied Seattle with drinking water, and the city ruled out the greasy car. The writers had to settle for a coffin. John Wayne flung five coffins in all, until the director had plenty of film. The drama aired on Oct. 19 1992, to "A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum.
THE REAL FLING
John Quincy is a Texan: He wants the biggest flinger in the world. Quincy, 47, is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where he majored in physics. He left the Air Force and went to dental school. At the same time, he got a master's degree in literature. Today he has a dental practice. He lives in the country, near the town of Aledo, 12 miles west of Fort Worth.
One day Quincy and a friend Richard Clifford, an engineer and an artist, watched a film, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." What impressed them was a scene in which a catapult flings a Holstein over a castle wall. Not long afterward, they, too, read about Kennedy and his trebuchet in Britain. On an impulse, they flew over to visit. Kennedy flung a piano for them. Quincy and Clifford came home hooked. They founded Projectile Throwing Engines, Texas Division, whose motto was: "Hurling Into the 21st Century." They built a trebuchet with a 24-foot throwing arm. It was powered by 2,000 pounds of scrap iron, and it flung things 100 yards, sometimes farther.
They cocked it with a hand winch, but to fire it, they did something special. They set in motion a mechanical man that kicked a support that disengaged a blade that cut a rope that fired a battering ram that hit a lever that dumped some cat litter that turned a wheel that wound another rope that tugged a lever that triggered a crossbow that shot a pipe that set off a tiny catapult that threw a ball at a garbage can lid that tripped a guillotine that sliced another rope that dropped a weight.
Sometimes the weight fired the trebuchet. Other times it rang a bell "alerting," Quincy says, "another idiot" to fire it. They called it Baby Thor. Like kids with a new puppy, Quincy and Clifford started the International Hurling Society. They published a journal, called Heave.
What Quincy wanted most, however, was to have the biggest trebuchet in existence. So he and Clifford set about engineering it. This trebuchet is still on the drawing board. Their basic plan calls for a 110-foot throwing arm on an axle 40 feet above the ground. The arm will be powered by a weight box of no less than 15 tons. The frame will be steel, covered with wood and vines to make it look medieval. They call it Thor. The cost is projected at $50,000, and money is scarce.
Undaunted, Quincy looks forward to seeing Thor throw "something the size of a cow about a quarter of a mile." Such talk has gotten him reported to animal rights advocates. It has not helped that he plans a scientific experiment: He wants to smear a cow with peanut butter and jelly, fling it 10 times and record how often it lands jelly-side down.
THE ARC OF TRIUMPH
In Britain, at Acton Round, 150 miles north of London, lives Hew Kennedy, the proud godfather of all this. He is in his late fifties, a landowner with a considerable estate, nearly 700 acres, most of it in woods and rolling hills. Kennedy went to Sandhurst, the West Point of Great Britain, where he learned that Napoleon III had built a trebuchet and that it had not worked very well. "The French had done something wrong." He adds: "Of course."
In time, he talked a neighbor, Richard Barr, into building a trebuchet that would be the envy of the French and everyone else. After some false starts, they built one 60 feet high, on two A-frames fashioned out of the logs from 24 trees. Between the A-frames was an axle. On the axle pivoted a three-ton beam powered by a six-ton counterweight. It was in a field where Kennedy grazed sheep. He and Barr invited other neighbors, properly tweedy. The sheep grew understandably nervous. "None have been killed," Kennedy says, "but we have had some near misses."
To date, Kennedy and Barr have flung:
- Sixty pianos, most of them uprights but several grand pianos as well. "They accelerate up to about 90 miles per hour in about 2 1/2 seconds," Barr says, "which is about 14 to 20 G's." Each was tuned and concert-ready.
- A half dozen motorcars: Morris Minors, Hillmans, Austin Minis, even an Italian Lancia. "We like to throw the whole car," Barr says. "It's got to have the engine in it and the wheels on it." If the car will not run, they will not throw it. "Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be any point."
- Several dead cows, a dead horse and a lot of dead pigs. "A pig makes a good missile," Kennedy says, "because it is nice and aerodynamic, you know." Barr adds: "It's very amusing seeing a pig in a parachute."
The parachute was part of an experiment conducted by the Royal Air Force in Kennedy's sheep pasture to see if it was possible to hurl a man. "Fascinating," Kennedy says. "They spent three days at it, but it wasn't any good. "It did establish that the man would have been dead when he landed."
THROWING HIS WEIGHT AROUND
A computer engineer, Ron Toms was, perhaps significantly, still a Texan when he decided to build a trebuchet in a friend's back yard in the town of Kyle.
Instead of a sling, he and the friend, whose name is Chris, attached a chair to one end of the throwing arm. The chair rotated and had a stabilizer to keep it upright. To the other end, they tied three 55 gallon drums of water, weighing 1,600 pounds altogether. Then he, Chris and another friend hauled the trebuchet down to the Blanco River.
After flinging some boulders into the water, Toms, 35, climbed into the chair. Chris fired the trebuchet. Toms flew 30 feet into the air. He arced out over the river. "The thing about being thrown is that it takes you twice as long, because you have to go up and then come down," he says.
"Once I left the catapult, I was decelerating. It sounds obvious, but at the top of the arc, when my acceleration went to zero, the experience was something I didn't expect. It lasted for an instant, but hanging there in midair, 30 feet up, looking down at everything, with nothing but air everywhere, was an ethereal experience. It's a mysterious feeling. You are hovering, weightless and motionless. You actually have a forward component to your motion, but you're not going either up or down."
Oddly, it was comforting to start falling. That was a feeling he knew. So was splashing into the water. He came up laughing.