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Fun with trebuchets

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The Observer frets about the teen-agers of this world, their eyeballs and fingers glued as they are to all kinds of electronics. The post-alphabet generation shuns talk for text, personal encounters for those of the Facebook kind.

So imagine our thrill when on the Fourth of July we saw three young men labor mightily, in the great outdoors of Murray Park, to launch a baseball with a weapon once used in the 13th century.

Until some years ago, we thought trebuchet was simply the name of the font that we are writing this column in. But, as was so often the case when our own teen-ager was young, we learned from a children's book that a trebuchet was a contraption that launched heavy stones and other dangerous items up and over castle walls.

The boys had built their trebuchet over a period of weeks in a backyard. The father of one suggested they might use it to storm that medieval stronghold being constructed up near Lead Hill (with tickets at $17 a pop, that might be a good way to see it). But first, the engineers of summer had to test it.

On the first launch, the counterweights — bags of concrete soaked in water — slid off their platform so quickly that the baseball just skittered out of its blue-jeans-and-duct-tape sling. Undaunted, the three put their heads together, secured the counterweights again, launched again. After three tries, they got the ball to fly forward. It didn't travel quite as far as any of the three could probably throw it, though the action was impressive.

As other children in the park began to gather around, the boys kept making adjustments to the device. Then, one of them did the 21st century thing: He pulled out his cellphone and called for backup. 

The Observer has been with the Arkansas Times for many a year now, and so the dispatch above couldn't help but remind us of a newsroom memory. We're chock full of 'em, and we've spent enough time hanging around here that we've pretty much got an inside-baseball recollection for every occasion at this point.

A few years back, The Observer, long a tinkerer, built our own trebuchet in the mad scientist laboratory that abuts The Observatory. It was a beaut: all quarter sawn white oak with brass fittings; maybe two-and-a-half feet tall when the throwing arm was at the top of its arc; just the right size to strike fear into the hearts of a battalion of green plastic army men. Even weighted with a sack full of BB's, it didn't seem all that powerful, but we were proud enough of it when finished that we brought it in to The Fortress of Employment one slow Thursday to share with others, partially to prove that our off-hours aren't filled solely with bad television and rum punch.

The trebuchet sat on The Observer's desk all day, and we got enough questions about it that we started demonstrating it in the newsroom, using jawbreakers from the gumball machine outside, which were just the right size and weight for its tiny, duct-tape sling. We'd all stand back, pull the brass pin with a long trigger string, and the trebuchet would lob the jawbreaker into the corner of the newsroom, where it would drop with a thump on the carpet near Leslie Peacock's door; an arcing, underhanded pitch that made us think of medieval sieges or yore. The kudos were thick.

A little after 1 p.m., the room mostly empty, Leslie and Max Brantley came in, full from lunch. While Max settled himself at his desk to blog, Leslie, always the curious sort, asked for an explanation/demonstration. We loaded up the jawbreaker we'd been using all day, stood back, and pulled the pin.

We don't really understand what happened next, and still don't. Possibly we had the sling situated just right for once, or else some God of War decided it was high time to teach us a lesson about getting our jollies tinkering with the pint-sized machinery of death. For whatever reason though, this time — instead of that gentle lob into the corner — the jawbreaker came out of the sling like it'd been shot from a rifle. The cannonball blurred into something like a brightly-colored laser beam as it flew 30 feet across the newsroom, then hit the brick wall next to Leslie's door hard enough that the jawbreaker literally exploded, showering Max and his nearby desk with sugary shrapnel. He was, in a word, displeased.

And so ended The Observer's miniature warmaking — at the office, anyway.

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