Scientific research was one of the main ways we passed our time in the days before cable television. Our laboratory was a dairy farm with lots of outbuildings where young scientists could concentrate on their work without answering lots of irrelevant questions from parents who were glad as hell you weren’t in the house watching re-runs of “The Partridge Family.”
Like most males of the species, my brothers were very interested in manned flight. The first experiment I remember was my brother John climbing the clothesline pole and jumping off with an umbrella in his hand. It turned inside out and stretched his arm a little, too, I think.
The next attempt at manned flight was made the following winter by my brother Jim who noticed that the roof of the hog shed had about a foot of snow on it. The hog shed was the most gently-sloping roof we had, pointing skyward at about a thirty-degree angle. There was also a nice drift of snow off the south eave. Jim formulated the hypothesis that if he went all the way to the peak and rode the Flexible Flyer off the eave, he would float gently to Earth and land softly in the snow drift twelve feet below. At first, we started to argue with him that it wouldn’t work. Then Steve made us all shut up. Jim tossed the sled up onto the tin roof and scrambled up to the peak. The ride to the eave was as smooth as the winter olympics. But Jim had overlooked any mechanism to provide lift for his craft. The sled took a nose dive at the eave and stuck in the drift directly below. Jim continued some feet farther before his trajectory also arrived on Earth at a much thinner part of the drift. His red stocking cap with the white and green puff ball went the farthest and landed in the water trough which was kept thawed by an electric de-cier.
In the after-action report, we described to Jim how he looked just like Jesus when his arms went out to the sides while his feet pointed straight down. He told us to shut the fuck up. He said all he needed was a ramp at the eave and he would have, like, gone up like Evel Knievel. So, well, that was the next step in the experiment.
That was a helluva winter for snow. We spent entirely too much time on Rattlesnake Hill about four hundred yards behind the house, well out of sight of concerned parents. Rattlesnake Hill is very nearly a one-to-one slope, nearly a 45-degree angle. It was a mother to climb, but we did it over and over. There was so much snow that year, that we built the proposed ramp that Jim would use to prodvide lift for his next flight. We were using ten-foot lengths of corrugated tin for sleds on Rattlesnake Hill. It was the best way to get over the long prairie grass that still stuck up through the foot-deep snow.
The snow ramp we built was not much more than an immense snowball with extra snow packed around the base. It jutted away from the hill at another nearly forty-five degree angle so that a sled would hit it at nearly a ninety-degree angle. Not one of us considered what a change of vector by ninety degrees in that short space and that velocity might do to the human body. I think we were doing about fifty miles an hour when we hit the fucker. Oh, yes. We all had to ride on this historic occasion. I had to sit in front because I was most aerodynamic. All I remember is my chest caving in, then this ten-foot blade of sharp tin flying away from me toward Kansas City. Somehow I must have done a complete flip because I saw each of my brothers in full view Jim, John, and Steve who had been sitting behind me at the beginning of the flight.
We looked like this. I’m the one flying highest.
After we landed, Steve took charge, lying in the snow and groaning. At last he spoke in a trembling voice, “Is ev—-ry—body . . . . all . . . right ?” I was sure I was dead. I may still be. It goes without saying that we were too scared to replicate the results as all true scientists must do. So, thirty-five years later, I publish the only conclusion possible from the data we collected that day: Spending quality time with family can kill you.
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