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How Far Can a Piano Fly?

Catapult devotees get high on hurling coffins, commodes, even small cars. 'Every once in a while,' one aficionado says, 'you really want to do something that is . . . really stupid.'

June 09, 1996|RICHARD E. MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH BEND, Wash. — 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.

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