The Day The Homecoming Float Exploded
(With Me In It)
Fall in Kent, Ohio was mild in 1961. Trees were wearing bright colors, and the tart smell of burning leaves was in the air. John F. Kennedy was president, and gas was thirty-one cents a gallon at Marvinís Sonoco on the corner of Main and Depeyster. The walk down Main or Water Street from the Kent State campus to the Cove, the Stag, or Rayís was down a steep hill. The walk back could be excruciating, especially with 3.2 percent beer sloshing around in your belly on a freezing winter night. Many a scholar awoke supine on Marvinís coke machine, icicles hanging from nostrils.
Every fall brings the nostalgia and pageantry of homecoming. On that Sunday morning in October, cheering alumni, students and boosters line Water Street as florid floats entirely made of flowers, seeds and vegetables pass bearing shivering co-eds in formal gowns, waving at the crowds. These floats precede a fleet of flashy convertibles with dignitaries and the entire Golden Flashes football team. Behind, strutting drum majors with soaring headgear and majorettes with goose pimpled thighs sashay ahead of the marching band, sixty-five strong playing the fight song. It leaves one breathless, especially if itís raining.
From the end of September to homecoming, local tobacco chewing carpenters construct a reviewing stand where judges will inspect each float as it pauses in perfect synchrony to just allow the next one to catch up. Then pause itself. A gilded trophy, fame and honor go to the winning Fraternity and Sorority. The sound of hammering fills the chill air. Like a gallows, the structure must be strongly constructed because on this most important day, nothing must go wrong. Go wrong.
The theme that year was "Necessity is the Mother of Invention." For these events, I guess, just about any clichť would work. Somebody thought it up and tossed it to the Greeks to digest and regurgitate.
Just off Water Street on Lincoln stands the clapboard and concrete block Alpha House. Well, "Stands" is not quite accurate, because at that time, the house was condemned, declared "unfit for habitation." Thatís why I was living in the dormitory. The Alphas knew how to party. They just didnít know how to stop, and strangely, many of the brothers, err, most of the brothers never had dates. They just self-entertained until there was nothing left to do.
3.2% beer is about half as potent as regular beer, and in the Great State of Ohio, the idea was that an eighteen-year-old could never consume enough to become inebriated. This is an egregious underestimation of the subadult ability to engage in chugging until stupid. Since we couldnít meet at the fraternity house, we glowered at each other through prisms of multiple foaming pitchers overflowing with Strohís. It is by this preamble that I attempt to distance myself from the ugly truth: The Alpha float was my idea. I was further humiliated by having to explain the inventions of the famous cartoonist, Rube Goldberg. Either no one "got it," or they just didnít give a "Schlitz."
I donít think like a normal person. When a normal person thinks of "invention," she thinks of Thomas Edison or Robert Fulton. She sees the Wright Flyer and the sewing machine. Maybe even the McCormick Reaper. Has anyone ever actually seen one? I see Rube Goldberg. No Rube Goldberg machine was actually ever invented. It was an amusingly clever and hilarious cartoon. "Moved and Seconded, all in favor?"
Letís tour this proposed float. On the left, and roosting high on a post is an enormous, papier-m‚chť hen. Under her is a spiral chute made of sheet metal. A blast of CO2 announces the appearance of the egg (a softball). When the "egg" emerges from the chute, four rotating shoes, worn-out depression era high tops with a stretched out leather pull-up loops, rotating on a fan-like contraption, kick the egg down a slide to a spring-loaded teeter-totter. The egg continues down another chute to an enormous frying pan atop a garden shed sized stove with a flue that explodes with smoke and a bright flash as the egg cooks. This drawing on a napkin, around the legend "Hey Mabel, Black Label,." is the schematic and our only plan..
Float building is a coeducational social event where fraternities and sororities work together, gluing flowers, teasing and necking in dark corners. The local Plymouth dealership donates space for the activity. Our flatbed was rented from a farm supply, and Brother Mort, who had just acquired a Chrysler New Yorker convertible planned to have a hitch welded. For some reason, we did not have the assistance of a sorority. One of the brothers was able to enlist the girlís field hockey team. It was for the best, they were better with hammers and blowtorches.
Brother Murray and I made a late night excursion to Massillon where his uncle Abe operated a gutter, furnace and sheet metal business. Murray somehow misplaced the key he said Abe had mailed him in a matchbox. Fortunately, Murray had a crowbar in the trunk of his Mercury and he used it to spring Abeís back door. In this glistening cavern of sharp and silver metal glowing in the flashlight brilliance, we mined the nipples, elbows, doglegs and other body parts for our automated egg fryer.
The next day, I drove to Hudson, Ohio. What my mother said wasnít really fair to Hudson. She used to tell me that I was going to end up in Hudson at the "bad boyís school." The school for "incorrigible boys" was closed in the 1950ís, but she never mentioned that. Hudson is a quaint and genial village with rusty brick streets and arching trees. Slightly outside this gorgeous place is its next most famous industry: Hudson Fireworks. I bellied up to the wooden counter, supported by sawhorses as if, at a momentís notice it could be dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere. Piled up around the small office were cartons of crepe paper wrapped salutes, rockets, bombs, pinwheels and sparklers in red boxes. Behind the counter, the proprietor smiled cheerfully. "Ten pounds of flash powder, please," I said, and he turned wordlessly and opened a rear door with a right hand missing a ring finger. I followed.
As we walked slowly through that field of wild wheat, so that he could smoke a Lucky Strike, I noticed that there were five small, wooden sheds spaced widely apart within the fenced acre or so. We entered one of them where my host took a large tin can from a shelf and dipped it into a barrel of metallic powder. He tore a sheet of butcher paper from a wide roll and crunched it over the top of the can and secured it with several passes of friction tape which he tore with his teeth. He handed me the heavy can as we walked back toward the front office. I stopped him, "Oh, and thirty squibs." He nodded and wiped his nose. I was amazed that the his nose fit so perfectly within the space where his finger was missing. It was downright natural.
When we got to the office, the man settled into a creaky chair in front of a rolltop desk, and extracted a four-fifths handful of squibs from a drawer without counting them, and dropped them into a wrinkled sack that said "SS Kresge and Company" on the side. "Six bucks," the first and only words he said. Squibs are small electric detonators used to ignite explosives. They have a head the size of a Tylenol capsule with two wires emerging like spider legs.
I must note at this writing that fifty years have passed since I patronized Hudson Fireworks. Since 1902, there has been a fireworks factory in Hudson, Ohio, and it is still there. I donít know if this is the same one I visited on that day, so long ago, and I extend my hearty and astonished congratulations because, in all this time, the company is still in business and has not been blown off the face of the earth.
Frying eggs, Rube Goldberg style, requires electricity. My father had an olive drab war surplus gasoline generator. After seven or eight yanks on a hank of clothesline, the beast would come to life with a snarl that could deafen through an official set of airport ear protectors. Acrid, blue exhaust would soon envelope the jumping and vibrating devil. Four hockey players lifted it on to the flatbed.
Our crew worked through most of the night, visited by smirking, wisecracking gawkers who had no appreciation for the machine age. I sat on the edge of the "gadget" with my parts assembled: flash powder, tissues, rubber bands. Into each tissue, I poured a hand full of flash powder, closed the tissue around a squib, and tied the "bomb" with a rubber band. I placed all the completed assemblages in a cardboard box, climbed up into the "stove" where one end overlapped the edge of the flatbed, and placed the carton beneath the "flue," a six inch diameter chimney with a pressed-on cover on the bottom.
I ran an extension cord to the half-horsepower sewing machine motor that turned the "shoe fan." Another cable from the generator ran to a set of insulated battery clips that I would use to ignite the flash powder. To make use of the remaining generator current, I draped the float with GE twenty-five watt industrial Mazda lights dipped in Easter egg coloring, just to add a festive and appropriate touch.
Dawn was approaching. Light was breaking through the high industrial windows of the dealership. Luxurious automobiles were backing through the doors and hitching to the fragrant floats. I stood outside the doors waiting for Brother Mort and his Chrysler. I yawned and rubbed my weary eyes. It was cold. I was exhausted. Brother Milt showed up, and we waited together, looking up and down the street. Slender and not too intense, Milt was studying parasites, and he had an inerasable blue shadow across his face. Milt had a fire extinguisher with him. Neither Milt nor I were fraternity officers, empowered with decision-making ability, but this was an emergency, and Milt ran down to Marvinís Sonoco. A few moments later, the cavernous room where all the floats were assembled was echoey, empty, save for this garish contraption that resembled a truckload of chopped-up clock towers and outhouse parts.
It first appeared in the blinding morning sunlight, backing through the garage doors like a monstrous bride, gliding on the discarded flower petals on the floor. It was an ancient tow truck. "Marvinís Sonoco," painted in red and yellow drop-shadow on the battered black doors. Marvin was wearing his blue pinstriped coveralls, never washed. He had a black smudge on his forehead where he must have slapped his head listening to Miltís urgent story. Milt jumped out of the passenger seat and guided Marvinís iron tow hook to the ring on the front of the flat bed. The only way Marvin could tow effectively was to tighten his chain, removing any slack, which lifted the front tires of the float slightly off the ground, which in turn caused the rear end to shimmy in a seasick rump dance.
We barely made it through the doors and out onto Depeyster street. Before we could get to the right turn on Water street where the parade was forming up, we jerked to a rattling stop. Marvin jumped out of the truck with an enormous screwdriver in hand and crawled under the motor. A small crowd began to gather, pointing and shaking their noggins. Several clean and well-rested Alpha brothers joined the crowd, and wanted a demonstration. I guess they were entitled, but I wondered where they had been when the work was being done.
I gave the generator a yank, then another, then another, and finally it coughed to life. The entire street was vibrating, and observers tried to cover both their noses and ears. The lights strung around the machine dimmed and brightened with the uneven undulations of the generator. Milt, wiry and proud to be part of this project, jumped behind a screen and triggered the CO2 while he placed a softball in the chute at the rear of the chicken. It thumped around the spiral. With no time to waste, I ran to the float and climbed up into the stove. I heard the shoe kick the ball. I reached down into the box, took a flash bomb, and placed it inside the cover, sealing it carefully on the bottom of the chimney. I put one electrode on one leg of the squib. I heard the "egg" hit the teeter-totter and catapult into the fiberglass frying pan directly above my head. At that instant, I touched the battery clip to the other wire and heard the crack of the powder igniting. In the next moment all I heard was the generator and several backfires from the tow truck, then a chorus of screams, cheers and a smattering of applause.
I could only look out through a few small moth holes in the painted muslin sides of the stove. The vibration blurred my vision. I could see the trailing cloud of exhaust behind us and the jarring noise loosened my molars. We jerked forward, Marvin was back in his seat, sitting on exposed springs and padding. We reached Water street, and we were assigned the last float position. The parade moved ahead as we waited to swing into line.
I could see colors flowing, fancy chromed ragtops, perky co-eds wearing coats over their pastel gowns. Proudly passing: "A Tribute to the 45 RPM record," "The Safety Match Through The Ages," "The Heroic Vacuum Cleaner." All done in Autumn hues, perennials, hot house blooms. Next to these creations, we looked like a gigantic, rusty Erector Set.
Marvin towed us into a wide, fishtailing turn, and the motorcade fell in behind us. The celebrities sitting on the folded convertible tops were coughing and waving their arms as the blue smoke swirled around them. They were yelling something, but I couldnít hear them. Just as well.
I caught a glimpse of the crowd, watching from the curb, laughing, pointing and shouting. I could almost hear the band cranking out the fight song, trying to be heard. Ahead, the heroic vacuum cleaner paused at the reviewing stand, receiving approving head nods and cheers. As it swept away, we swayed to a stop. Marvinís motor burped to a vacuous stall, and the audience and judges stood transfixed, eyes bulging. Show time!
It seemed like Milt was frozen, without guidance, but then I heard the "Whooooosh" of the extinguisher and the softball thumping down the chute. I fetched a tissue grenade and laid it on the flat cover, making sure to seal it properly against the bottom of the chimney. Like a piranha snaring an unfortunate dinner, I clamped on a squib leg, holding the other energized lead ready. The softball hit the pan over my head, and I touched the other squib leg. The flash powder ignited with a "Thump" and burned in a thousandth of a second. I heard cheers, screams, booís and applause from outside my painted muslin box. I had the egocentric thought that we just might be a success. Maybe a prize winner. A fleeting thought, like a fly in the ear. Was there time for another demonstration? I pulled the cover off the bottom of the chimney and removed what was left of the squib. At that moment, I saw a small piece of tissue, burning orange, float out of the chimney.
In slow motion I watched the flame float lazily down. It took forever to drop those three feet or so, and I remember thinking: This could be bad. The shard wafted into the cardboard box at my feet, seeking a resting place atop ten pounds of powder and thirty blasting caps.
From the curb on Water Street, that brisk fall day, fortunate spectators witnessed an incredible sight: a cube of painted cloth bulging in the epicenter of a pyrotechnic supernova. Silhouetted in the blast of lightening, the figure of a contorted body, arms and legs askew, a doomsday outline. Smoke poured from every opening and out the bottom of the "stove."
Inside, I closed my eyes, but the flash was as bright through my eyelids as if they werenít there, and for a moment, I feared they werenít. I smelled the odor of burning chicken feathers which I deduced, came from me. I reached up and touched my eyebrows and felt a hot and sandy texture. My hairline was the same, up to center scalp. Which was on fire. I imagined that I looked like Bette Davis in the role of Elizabeth the First. I slapped at the top of my head, trying to put out the flames, and in the process, fell backwards out of the slot beneath me. I arose from the macadam, singed, roasted, fried and smoking. Our infernal machine had actually laid an egg: Me.
As I walked purposefully toward the campus, I caught sight of Marvinís greasy and dented behind as he leaned over his malfunctioning engine. Milt was frozen, probably wondering what to do next as he watched the sooty creature trail smoke as the crowd parted.
I stepped on the Great Seal and continued past the library, thinking of those drills not so long ago in the hallways of Moreland elementary school: Kids and teachers squatting, face to the wall. I felt the cold, polished floor under my knees, the yellow brick against my forehead. What would the school look like and where would I go after the initial flash of the A-bomb?
I continued across the commons, not looking back, and directly to room 203, Dunbar Hall. In the mirror, I saw a red, hairless face. I must have grimaced at the crucial moment, because garish, white lines crisscrossed my kisser, forming highways between blotches of soot. I securely locked the door and slid into the lower bunk, pulling up on the covers, covering my eyes stinging from the light through the window. I tried hard to sleep, there was some muffled knocking at the door, and voices were heard.
Meanwhile, I was later told, Marvin got the float going, the blue exhaust covered the reviewing stand. Thick, black oil gushed from beneath the backfiring tow truck. The parade of celebrities was completely consumed by the smokescreen. Behind them, the fight song grew louder and prouder, the marching band approached in their blue and gold, gleaming, starched uniforms.
The Majorettes hit the grease slick first, sliding and windmilling like geese out of control on a slippery lake. The Band went into a crazy random marching formation of unbalanced dissonance, instruments flying every which way, bass drum rolling and chasing the crowd down Water Street. The high-hatted drum major sat in a puddle of glossy green anti-freeze.
As the grease slick oozed under the supports of the reviewing stand, it became a tall ship, slowly floating down the Water Street incline, toward downtown, eventually to pass Marvinís Sonoco, and if not stopped, tack directly to Rayís.
Nights became days and vice-versa. As my eyebrows and lashes slowly returned and my burns paled, I wondered what happened to the object of so many hours of labor, probably rusting in a field somewhere. Stories like these should have morals. Damned if I can think of any.
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