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Observer, Feb. 5



It's soon to be science fair time at Junior's elementary school, and The Observer is on high alert. We're a big fan of both tinkering and science, so it's taking every ounce of our meager resolve to avoid being one of those parents who just tells their Junior to go watch some TV while we make his project perfect: perfect fonts, perfect research, perfect layout on the big, tri-fold cardboard project panel he lugged home from school the other day. We will not. We must not. Only shame lies down that road.

Junior loves history — especially history in which somebody gets flattened with a rock — so we're toying with the idea of doing something about trebuchets. If you're ever even channel-surfed past the History Channel, you probably know something about them. Back in the old days, before Satan reached up from Hades and gave man the dubious miracle of gunpowder, trebuchets were the tactical nukes of the battlefield, able to hurl boulders big enough to break down thick castle walls and fortifications, using only the power of gravity. Watching one throw is a sweet little ballet of stored energy and centrifugal force — which is where the science comes in. Slightly dangerous AND geeky? Bonus!

Our trebuchet is gonna be quite a bit smaller, built from a kit and able to menace only your average cardboard box. Even so, given today's nanny-fied society, Junior and The Observer have agreed that it's probably best to play up the physics of the trebuchet while downplaying its street cred as a WMD (that would be: “Weapon of Medieval Destruction”). Even at that, we're seriously wondering whether the powers that be at his school will let a mechanical rock-chunker serve as an entry in an elementary science fair. If not, looks like it'll be the old standby: paper-mache volcano. 


The Observer is a lover of historical landmarks of all types, but he has never seen one quite like the Louisiana Purchase marker off of Highway 39, the road to Helena.

To get there, you turn onto a half-mile strip that stops at an end dead except for a wooden gangway sturdy enough only for pedestrians, not for automobiles. You traverse through a heavily wooded bog resonant with the chirps and caws of nature. Signs along the walkway describe the wildlife to be found and the history of the Purchase.

Then, after a walk of a few minutes, you come to the main attraction: a stone that marks the beginning of the Louisiana Purchase survey. The rock, clearly weathered over time by rising and falling water, is perhaps not all that impressive. But the stroll back through the murmurous bog is grand.

A word of advice: Don't drop your car keys. The terrain off the boardwalk does not look inviting. And be sure to leave before the posted closing time, or else an electric gate will lock you in. The place may be wonderful, but it sure would be creepy at night.


Speaking of swamps, we recently waded in the nearby gum and cypress swamp called the Bayou de View. The view is of many trees, their feet in water, looking very much the same. So when The Observer lost our GPS — you know, that device that keeps you from getting lost in a swamp with few distinguishing characteristics — we knew that going back to look for it might be silly. Right we were: After a slog of 45 minutes through identical tupelo gums we couldn't find it. We followed the bayou out. Few things have made us feel as foolish. Unless it was earlier pushing our kayak into the swamp and realizing that the reason it looked so still when we hastily pulled up and unloaded is that it was frozen, and that we couldn't go farther than a foot offshore. That murmur you hear? Thwarted paddlers.


Since 55 percent of all the teen-agers born in 1991 are named Emily, The Observer's girl child uses initials, nicknames, etc., to distinguish between her many Emily friends. The one she likes to watch vampire movies with she calls E.T. Can you call E.T. about such and such? we asked the other day. The Observer's daughter looked at her phone. She laughed. She'd typed her friend's cell number into her cell phone. Her friend's other number she'd labeled “E.T. home phone.”





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