Some ideas are like trails of standing dominoes; once you knock the first into action, they can quickly turn into a series of unintended consequences that are impossible to stop. This is the story of once such idea. Hold on! This is quite a ride…
Behind Grant Elementary School in Petaluma, Calif. was a wonderful steep hill that we actually had permission to use. I believe the owner only considered our tree climbing and box sliding plans which, for those of you younger than say 35, were not considered life-threatening as they are today. However, these relatively safe activities were not on our agenda today.
I was a student at Grant the day this great adventure unfolded. You can still visit this hill today, but some clod built a neighborhood right where this adventure happened, so the evidence is all gone and I think the statute of limitations has expired anyway.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew this place simply as “The Hill.” It had a magnificent view from the top and almost everything a group of boys (and a few hardy girls) needed for many types of adventures.
This particular adventure however was not repeated for reasons you’ll understand shortly. First, you need to understand some details of the topology. Starting from the top of the hill, there was a steep but walk-able grassy slope for about 60 yards and most of this was crisscrossed with cow paths.
Then the slope got much steeper and was covered with a thick copse of ancient oak trees for about 15 yards. At the bottom, the trees stopped at a wide level path for another 5 yards where there was a heavy wire fence which was almost as old as those trees. After the fence was a level field which had to be close to 15 empty flat acres.
Important point: from any of those cow paths, above the steep grove, you could see over the oak trees down to the field beyond the fence.
Okay, here’s what happened. And I promise you that I’m not making this up. We really did this.
My friend, Mike, and his younger brother, Jimmy, had a huge aircraft inner tube that we used for all kinds of fun. His father got it from what used to be Hamilton Field Air Force base where he worked.
Today, we had a great idea that would horrify any rational parent- even back then, but somehow it made sense at the time, and no rational parents were nearby anyway.
Near the top of the hill we talked Jimmy into standing the tube on its round edge, scrunching into the center hole so he had an arm and a leg sticking out of each side and riding the tube down the hill. We often did this on flat ground, and from the hilltop, it would be a thrilling ride. Mike and I were smart enough to test it first on Jimmy to see if would be safe enough for us. What could possibly go wrong….?
We made Jimmy promise to stop before the steep tree-covered slope. But just in case, Mike stood about 20 feet uphill from the slope with the deadly trees to catch Jimmy if he didn’t stop in time. As a third layer of protection, I stood about 10 feet uphill from the slope. “Safety first,” we always said. Jimmy would never make it to the trees – right…?
Kids, don’t try this at home! We actually did this. It was not a good idea then. It’s no better now.
Everyone got into position and Mike yelled to Jimmy to, “LET’R ROLL!” And wow! It was amazing how fast he accelerated. In seconds, all we could see was the tube rolling wildly with a set of arms and legs wildly waving out of each side.
For some reason, Jimmy started to scream – loudly – with multiple lung-full’s of panic laced with certain favorite swear words. Mike and I both quickly realized that there was a problem with the physics. Jimmy was moving much too fast to stop himself.
Mike yelled, “WE HAVE TO STOP THAT TUBE!”. We both knew that if Jimmy got hurt, his parents would redefine punishment right to the edge of homicide. I watched Mike run uphill to catch the tube before it gained even more speed. Mike met and engaged the tube in earnest. With a muffled thump, the tube simply ate him and left him mashed into the hillside – conforming his spine to the ridges of the cow paths. Ouch! That had to hurt!
This left only me between Jimmy and the slope of tree-covered death. I took off running, thinking as I closed the gap between me and the murderous tube. Mike tried to hit it head-on and that didn’t work at all. What could I do differently? I decided to body-block it from an angle, destabilizing its roll cycle which would surely slow it enough for Jimmy to stop it. In short, the tube ate me too, giving me a face-first taste of those cow paths. So much for my instincts for physics.
Quickly pealing my face out of that cow trail, I rolled over in time to watch as tube and Jimmy dropped over the edge and “oh God, no…”, into the trees. He disappeared but we could hear branches violently snapping as Jimmy hit them.
“This is it,” I thought. “He’s dead – and so are we…” There was no way he could miss all those trees. . .
But he did. We knew he did because suddenly we heard the awful sound of Jimmy hitting that old fence. It was a violent sound of straining rusty wire mesh and tearing of old wood posts. So he was going to die when his body passed through the wire fence mess. We would find him in bloody cubic noodles like from a giant play dough fun factory. His parents would not be pleased.
But this time physics (or perhaps the God of small boys) saved him. That rotten old fence actually yielded and bent over about 50 degrees – forming a ramp that (yes) launched Jimmy and that insane tube high into the air just like a ski jump – scary high.
He went high enough, in fact, for Mike and I way up the hill to see him take flight from above the trees. I began to wonder if he was still alive and if he would ever stop.
Surreal – but there he went with arms and legs still spinning wildly out of each side of the tube. I think he must have made peace with his fate because he was no longer screaming. Maybe he was already dead from a heart attack? His arms and legs did look pretty floppy. No matter – because now Mike was screaming hysterically.
It was obvious that, from that height, Jimmy was going to die (or die again…?) when he eventually crashed back to earth. But, he didn’t. He bounced – once.
On the up-bounce, Jimmy finally separated from the tube; fortunately, from a relatively safe altitude, and landed in the soft tall grass of that lower field. After what felt like the longest train crash ever, Jimmy had finally stopped moving and laid still.
The tube bounced a few more times before stopping. The final site of Jimmy’s death looked suddenly peaceful and quiet. Mike and I ran down to verify the results.
Jimmy was still breathing – remarkable – amazing, and his eyes were huge – frozen open with panic. Incredibly – his pants weren’t even soiled. . .
When his panic dissipated and he could blink again, Jimmy was pretty angry at us, but he calmed down in a week or so. He always did and would soon be ready for our next bright idea, but it was a long time before Jimmy got near that tube again.
Mike and I, on the other hand continued to love that old tube – but, we decided that this experiment need not be repeated or reported to any parental-type person until the applicable statutes of limitations expired – which they have – I hope.
We pushed the fence back up where it at least looked like a fence again, picked up the tube and headed for home. Our test pilot had survived, so we would too and it was time to find some other way to entertain ourselves.
Maybe a good book this time. . .