June 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Catapulting Into Lunacy Sometimes, ‘You Want To Do Something Really Stupid - And, By Damn, We Have Found It.’

Richard E. Meyer Los Angeles Times
 

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.

But the truth is that none of it was for real. He had staged the whole thing for the television show “Northern Exposure.” 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 see-saw 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.”

Flinging 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.”

One day four years ago, he heard gunshots. It was Skip, his neighbor, 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.

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.”

Bigger is better

John Quincy comes to flinging 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.

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 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. 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, 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.

A damned fine fling, what?

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.

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.”

After some false starts, Kennedy and a neighbor, Richard Barr, 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.

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.

A half-dozen motor cars: 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.”

Self-hurling

Ron Toms is also aerodynamic - but still alive.

A computer engineer, Toms, 35, was, perhaps significantly, still a Texan when he decided to build a trebuchet in a friend’s back yard in the town of Kyle, between Austin and San Marcos.

Instead of a sling, he and the friend, whose name was 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. “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.”

It chilled him. Oddly, it was comforting to start falling. That was a feeling he knew. So was splashing into the water.

He came up laughing.

xxxx Historical hurling This 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 corpses, the heads of prisoners, even negotiators, whole and alive, with their rejected terms hanging around their necks - an early form of shuttle diplomacy.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email