NATICK, Mass. — When he jabbed a nightstick into the geezer sleeping in the snow, the cop figured he was saving the old guy from freezing to death. Instead, he inadvertently disrupted an offbeat 1958 experiment involving polar explorer Hubert Wilkins and a heap of chicken feathers. Wilkins, then 69, was a researcher at one of the strangest science labs on the planet.
Over the last 50 years, he and his colleagues at the Natick Labs have walked through flames, tangled with radioactive cockroaches and devoured weird foods in the name of military science.
Employed by the Army, they work to develop futuristic gear for soldiers. But many of their technological leaps eventually invade civilian life--from chicken McNuggets and freeze-dried coffee to bulletproof vests and self-heating parkas.
Still on the drawing board: courage pills, spray-on clothing and a modified nicotine patch that delivers vitamins and nutrients to people who don't have time to eat. Perhaps the lab's most outlandish project is a uniform that would change colors like a chameleon and enable troops to leap over 20-foot walls.
At first glance, the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (as the lab is officially known) could pass for a sleepy college campus. Set on a grassy lakeside peninsula 20 miles west of Boston, it encompasses scattered buildings, tennis courts and a softball field.
But on closer inspection, things definitely get peculiar.
The air-conditioning can be set to 70 below zero. The chefs serve meals in toothpaste tubes. And the local church is an "instant chapel" that can be parachuted into war zones, complete with camouflage Jewish prayer shawls, compasses that point toward Mecca and a digital hymnal programmed to play hundreds of worship songs.
"There are all kinds of toys here," says Natick Lab spokesman Jerry Whitaker.
Standing in a cubbyhole full of blinking lights and whirring machinery, research physical scientist Thomas Endrusick outlines Natick's storied history. Wavy-haired and trim, Endrusick is one of the lab's few links to its past. When he signed on in 1973 as a boot tester, some of the original scientists were still around, recounting various exploits.
"World War II was the real impetus for this place," Endrusick says, hovering over a computer screen that flashes photos and charts to accompany his narrative. When U.S. forces plunged into combat in late 1941, their gear was absurdly out of date. The joke was that soldiers entered World War II with equipment left over from World War I, but the situation was actually much worse.
Because of isolationist sentiment between the wars, military planners assumed future combat would take place only on American soil. Thus, items designed to withstand the rigors of muddy trench warfare in France had been modified to handle little more than life on a military base in Georgia.
"We could fight in Minnesota in the winter and Florida in the summer, but that was it," says Army historian Steven Anders.
The results were near-disastrous. Tents in the south Pacific disintegrated after two weeks because their fire-resistant finish lacked a fungicide to stop mildew. Food shipments got dumped at sea after the cans rusted. And when U.S. troops invaded the icy Aleutian Islands wearing uninsulated boots, they suffered more injuries from trench foot and exposure than from the enemy, Endrusick says.
Alarmed Army officials hired Georges Doriot, a former Harvard business professor, to whip things into shape. In 1942, he opened the Army Quartermaster's first Research and Development branch, headquartered in Washington.
Before that, "it was unheard of to measure the width of foot space in a tank to see how much area a man's shoes might use," wrote Army historian Marcia L. Lightbody in a 1998 paper delivered to a conference of military historians.
Doriot recruited Ivy League professors, captains of industry, mountaineers, textile makers and jungle experts. To test cold-weather clothing, his team commandeered a frosty building in Lawrence, Mass., that was built to freeze-clean wool. For experiments on shoes, they trekked to a Virginia track rigged with gravel, concrete, mud, bricks, logs and a stream. Other researchers journeyed to Alaska, Indiana or Ohio to conduct work.
When the war ended, Doriot lobbied for a centralized research center. An "institute of man," he called it. After Congress ponied up $11 million for the project, Pentagon officials reviewed 278 proposals from 40 states and decided to build the lab in Natick, Mass.
Long before the Army arrived, Natick had a reputation for quirkiness. Founded by Puritan missionaries in 1651, the town was built as a "praying Indian" village where Native American converts could live in wigwams on suburban-style plots of land. The original residents helped draft the first Indian translation of the Bible. Other innovations followed.