How Far Can a Piano Fly?
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. 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 marched 1,500 feet 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 Gs,” he chuckled. Then he laughed. When that coffin came out of the catapult, any dearly departed would have been squashed like a comma. “Kind of uncomfortable in there for eternity.” To this day, he laughs aloud when he remembers what he thought. “If that guy had rigor mortis, he was going to be 2 feet tall forever.”
But the truth is that none of it was for real. He had staged the whole thing for television. The coffin was, in fact, empty. What John Wayne Cyra did, however, has made a big difference. At the moment when he first fired his catapult, John Wayne, as he prefers to be called in honor of his hero, entered an exclusive, even distinguished, world. He became a “catapulteer.” Less vaingloriously, John Wayne is a flinger.
His is a world of people who throw things, and not just dishes when they get upset, or even knives when they grow particularly angry. 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 hurled baskets of snakes and scorpions and casks of Greek fire, a kind of napalm made of oil and sulfur. They also hurled corpses, the heads of prisoners, 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 Allen Gross, an Oakland inventor who baited a catapult to fling rodents into a cage so he could release them in the wild. He called the device a Ratapult and offered it for sale for $350. Another is Maj. Stephen Ressler, a West Point engineer who assigned his students to build trebuchets. Then he turned modern and analyzed their work with a computer.
Another 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; his dog; his cat; his 200 handcrafted knives, stabbed into a pole in his living room; and his shelf of whaling ships, carved from walrus ivory by an Eskimo known as Three Fingered Arnold, once known as Nine Fingered Arnold.
One day four years ago, he heard gunshots. It was Skip, his neighbor, who had a bigger log house with a hand-carved spiral staircase, $1 million worth of antiques 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, it was a visitor. 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. What cinched their appreciation for him were toilet bowls.
“I walked into the production office one day,” John Wayne says, “and this guy is on the phone, and he’s going, ‘Yeah, yeah. Yeah, we need prison toilet bowls. Yeah. Stainless steel. Yeah, OK. $1,200 apiece? OK. We’ll take three of ‘em. Put ‘em on a Learjet.’
“And I’m going, ‘Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!’
“It just so happened that a buddy of mine was doing reconstruction work over at the state prison in Monroe, and I knew where there was a pile of old stainless steel toilet bowls. They were putting in new ones.
“So I said, ‘Listen, I can get you toilet bowls from the prison for a lot less than $1,200 apiece.’
“He said, ‘Don’t mess with me. We need ‘em this afternoon!’
“I said, ‘Well, my minimum charge for breaking a toilet out of prison is $200 a bowl.’
“ ‘Get ‘em! Get ‘em!’ ”
The writers of “Northern Exposure” had created a quirky show. One character was a disc jockey who was partial to rock ‘n’ roll, Walt Whitman and performance art. After reading about Hew Kennedy and his pig-flinging trebuchet in Britain, the writers decided that their disc jockey ought to hurl a piano.
This time 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. He agreed to build it, and he said he would finish it in time. “Guaranballbearingteed.”
The producers hired Kennedy and flew him in. Based on what he described, a studio draftsman drew a trebuchet at quarter-inch scale. John Wayne threw out some of the blueprint, but he kept parts of it. 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.
It was early January and colder than a cheap funeral. Equipment fell through ice and disappeared in mud. Hands and feet froze. John Wayne burned up three hair dryers thawing out oil lines. 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 lay the arm across it.
On the short end of the arm, they filled a metal box with 10,000 pounds 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 Gs 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!”
“It went high,” John Wayne says, with a hush in his voice. “I don’t know really how to describe it. It was awesome.”
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. . . . But 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--'ta-king!'--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’ “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 be 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 was aired on Oct. 19, 1992, to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” by Procol Harum.
Two of the five coffins were made of wood. They shattered when they hit the water.
The show, John Wayne says, “had to hire 20 people with those little mesh nets for cleaning out the fish poo-poo in your aquarium, and they had these bags, and they walked all around the lake cleaning up toothpicks.”
Three of the coffins were metal. John Wayne could see them, torn open by the impact and stacked on the bottom of the lake like tuna cans.
He dove for them.
On a jagged edge, he cut one of his hands. He was taken to a hospital, where an attendant filled out a form.
“ ‘Was this an industrial accident?’ she asked.
“ ‘Yes, yes.’
“ ‘Was this a piece of machinery?’
“ ‘It was a coffin.’
“ ‘A coffin?’ ”
If John Wayne Cyra comes to flinging naturally, then John Quincy comes to it as 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 flew for a while and chased electrons around circuit diagrams until it bored him. 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 kitty 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--usually a knuckle ball, but sometimes a slider or a curve 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. It offered acknowledgments. “We would like to thank Mr. Pearson of Weatherford, Tex., for the donation of five toilets for hurling, Mr. Armstrong of Tulsa, Okla., for his donation of a typewriter (hurled 89 yards), Brian Lewis for the cash register (awaiting hurling), and the Burgett family, who donated two toilets and currently hold the toilet-hurling record of 123 yards.”
Quincy also hurled computers, outboard motors, kitchen sinks and bowling balls. He longed to hurl a case of Spam, but his wife, a vegetarian, said this would be littering.
What he 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. Indeed, HEAVE recently announced that Clifford has decided to “pull back to a consultant position due to work demands.”
“I was sorry,” Quincy says sadly, “to see him get rational on us.”
Undaunted, he 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.
Nor has it helped that he has published: 1. A photo of a flying pig, courtesy of Kennedy. 2. An article about trap-shooting armadillos. 3. A recipe noting that “the meat of the armadillo is quite tasty and is often compared with spotted owl.”
If he cannot hurl a cow, Quincy wants to throw a 1962 Buick. Not a Ford or a Chevy or anything as humble as a Honda; a 1962 Buick, he says, “seems bigger and sturdier, and some friends I know have had some problems with Buicks.” It might be harder to fling than a cow, he says. “We won’t get quite the distance out of it, unless we roll up the windows.”
He has bought 80 acres next to his property so the Buick will have someplace to land. The site is away from his house, “thereby reducing the strain of hundreds of curious people on a heretofore tranquil marriage,” he says, and back from the road, because “my neighbors certainly have been tolerant of commodes sailing past their homes, but. . . .”
Failing a 1962 Buick, Quincy would like to fling a human being. “We have looked into that,” he says, especially the possibility of throwing a mime. “Silent, night hurling,” he says, “in appreciation and respect for the neighbors.
“If the mime were tied up,” he muses quietly, " . . . or if his arms were akimbo--would it affect the distance?”
In Britain, at Acton Round, 150 miles north of London, lives Hew Kennedy, the proud godfather of all this.
He is in his late 50s. He is a landowner and holds a considerable estate, nearly 700 acres, most of it in woods and rolling hills. At the heart of it is a three-story brown brick manor house in the style of Queen Anne.
From the dining room chandelier swings a stuffed baboon. He shot it in Africa. Scattered about are coats of mail and horse armor. He restores it. At one point he had a coat of elephant armor, fitted over an iron frame in the shape of an elephant. It came from India in the days of the Raj.
Kennedy went to Sandhurst, the West Point of 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 returned to his estate and 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 a trebuchet 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 3-ton beam powered by a 6-ton counterweight. At one point, one of the logs knocked Barr off a ladder. He landed face down in several inches of mud. The log fell on top of him.
“It forced me right into the mud,” he says, “and Hew Kennedy, being so calm, cool and collected, having been trained at Sandhurst as an army officer, leaped out of a tractor, forgetting to put the hand brake on. In total panic, he leaped out of this huge farm machine, which had four large wheels on it, and it rolled forward on top of the log. I was sort of conducting him from underneath all this, telling him not to panic.
“There was another chap helping, and they sort of managed to lever it off of me, enough to sort of drag me out from underneath it, and I was put into Hew Kennedy’s wife’s car, because she was just sort of sitting up there watching with a picnic ready for us, and they took me off to hospital. I ought to have died. . . .”
The picnic, needless to say, was ruined. “We wasted a chocolate cake.”
Finally the catapult stood tall and ready, like a praying mantis, sling attached and cocked to fire. It was in a field where Kennedy grazed sheep. He and Barr invited other neighbors, properly tweedy. Some arrived in Rolls-Royces, but most came by Land Rover. 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 mph in about 2 1/2 seconds,” Barr says, “which is about 14 to 20 Gs.” Each was tuned and concert-ready.
* Half a 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.”
Ron Toms, however, lived.
A computer engineer, Toms, 35, was, perhaps significantly, still a Texan when he decided to build a trebuchet in a friend’s backyard in the town of Kyle, between Austin and San Marcos.
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 climbed into the chair. Chris fired the trebuchet. Toms flew 30 feet into the air. He arced out over the river. All the while, he stayed in a sitting position. He spread his arms, like wings. “A lot of people have jumped out of trees or off of cliffs,” he says. “The thing about being thrown is that it takes you twice as long, because you have to go up and then come down.
“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.”
It chilled him, like a quiet stranger. Oddly, it was comforting to start falling. That was a feeling he knew. So was splashing into the water.
He came up laughing.
Toms did it again, twice. He flung his friends two times each. Then he climbed into the chair a fourth time, but the trebuchet disintegrated.
In time, Ron Toms left Texas to work in New York City. Now he plans to move to Los Angeles.
He will fit right in.
Researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Lianne Hart in Houston contributed to this story.