Friday, January 11, 2008

How We Put It There

The essential piece of equipment for getting the pumpkin up on the clock tower was the bamboo vehicle we called the Star Ship, pictured here.
I hope you can make sense of my primitive sketches of the thing, because it is even harder, and very tedious, for me to describe it in words... but:
The frame was of two opposite, intersecting triangles, formed just as any kid learns to draw a star. There was a bicycle wheel at each end of one rear of this flat bed , and a smaller one just inside the front point , as shown.
Between each of two pairs of cross bars, two bamboo baskets were suspended in nets having two rope attachments to the frame at each side so to be self-leveling.
The forward basket was for the pumpkin, the rear for the human, which - as it came down to the event - had to be me, although I was about the only one involved who didn't particularly want to pilot the thing, and I almost screwed up the mission.

The rails up which the vehicle would be hauled were bamboo sections assembled ( mostly on site) small end of each seven foot pole into the large end of the next, as their natural structure allowed. The first two poles were joined by a cross bar just behind the wheels, as in the sketch. These poles each had a small wheel like a furniture castor, so that they could run up the tower wall as they were pushed to the wall by a guy at the base of each, and hauled back on by a guy at each end of a rope which ran through a pully at the center of the cross bar.
To protect against the worst possibilities, it would have been a good idea to add diagonal braces to this cross bar, but in general the design was ingenious and contagious, even politically correct, and X's choice of bamboo for the material could not have been better, nor could anyone have been a better salesman for it. We all learned from X (X is not his name, but X is what he wanted us to call him) X showed us pictures of sky scrapers in Japan entirely scaffolded with bamboo. He explained that bamboo is actually a grass and the hollow stem with the bracing internodes makes any kind of grass stem many times stronger than solid wood, with the substantial advantage that, In three years of maturing after a bamboo stalk shoots , it takes up a lot of silica from the soil. It "lignifies" as X liked to say. X was obsessed with bamboo and had made a bamboo bicycle, on which he was sometimes seen riding around campus or to the farmers market. By virtue of his design, he would have been the presumptive pilot, but according to the final calculations of X himself, the pilot needed to be some one who weighed no more than one hundred pounds and anyway, well before we put it into use, he had already moved on to a. program for teaching Africans to make their own bicycles from local bamboo, instead of expensively importing assembled ones from China.

Eventually, because of my steep roofing experience and particularly because of my low weight and lack of encumbering leg;length Pike brought me into the conspiracy. It was also because he had long been as fond of me as he was of his labrador retrievers.
He insisted that I was made for the job.
I could have pointed out that I am also very well formed for use as a human cannon ball, and I hope that pumpkining Cornell was not the defining event in my life, but I don't really regret my involvement, and I agreed to do it, didn't I ?

So then, the pumpkin would ride in the front seat and I in the rear, with an disassembled, three-piece, twenty- foot bamboo rod in a tube clipped to the frame. The rod had no guides but was fitted with a a sapling crotch at the small end.
In a bag beside the rod would be a sixteen-inch, nylon, loop strap attached to a simple pully, and another short rope for tying up at the eave.
I would wear a two- way radio head phone, and carry a rigging knife with a marlin spike to handle the ropes and knots.

The roof surface of the Cornell clock tower is of tapered tern-steel panels joined by raised seams. Every other triangular section of the roof has many diagonal seams.
Hauling and pushing to flex the pole when it was a foot or so below the eave, the boys would shoot the pole ends up onto the roof, so that, spaced by the cross bar, the wheels would rest just inside of two clear runs of the panel steel. The smaller wheel at the apex would ride on the central clear panel. In place, the rail poles would be arched like a roller coaster,
Rails in place, the Star Ship would be set at the base of the poles with its frame, rather than the wheels, resting on the poles and one end of the rope would be attached to the a tie-bar at the up point of the star. The wheels would be set on the sliding axles to start off at their maximum distance apart.

Then the Star would be hauled in measured surges to the roof, its frame sliding on the poles.
The last heave would bring the Star over the eave and up onto its wheels on the roof.
I would use a short rope to tie the vehicle to the cross bar, and then remove the top end of the hositing rope, and tie it to my carabiner.

Star Ship anchored, the haul rope attached to my beaner, I would climb up the cross bars and, moving carefully over the pumpkin, come standing to the top cross bars. From that position, I would assemble the forked rod, run the end and twenty feet of of the hoisting rope through the pully on the sixteen inch loop strap, and I would use the fork to place the loop over the spire.

Then put the rod still assembled in the clip provided, back down to the base of the vehicle, tie the end of the rope to the tow handle, yank as a signal to get tension on it from the boys below, untie the temporary holding rope, and then signal the boys to haul me on the rest of the way.

The lower base of the star, with the wheels at each end was a steel tube with two half-length axle rods which were free to telescope in the housing as the wheels inclined them to.
Steel disks were welded at the required pitch on the ends of the axle rods with projecting bolts on which the wheels were free to turn, though the axles themselves did not need to. The wheels, set to spin freely on the same angle as the roof taper, would telescope the axel and draw the wheels inward as it tracked up the roof, being guided by its set, by the friction, and by the raised seams. X. was very proud of this feature which he had designed
using some new topographical mapping software which calculated the distances, and angles based on views from two points below and the math of perspective to get the true measurements and proportions of the roof. This allowed the wheels to land, align, and move precisely on the non-parallel tracks.
With the Star at its maximum height, I would climb to the lower cross bar of the pumpkin basket, then lift and, leaning slightly on the spire as necessary, raise the pumpkin far enough to settle it carefully down on the spire.
We had been forward thinking enough to plan on pre-boring a core hole through the pumpkin so that it would be easy to settle it on the spire without force, and without splitting it.
But we did not quite visualize everything, and of course, not everything went as planned.

The attempt was scheduled for the dark of the moon, and the moon cooperated.
We assembled at midnight in T's barn where the Star had been built and stored . Half an hour before we left , I put on sunglasses so that I would be accustomed to the dark when I started the climb, and so would not need to have a head lamp in order to see.
At two-thirty in the morning, the seven of us set out in a Cornell Outing Club van with a canoe rack carrying the Star and the poles.

We off- loaded the equipment in front of the library, with no witnesses that I know of, then one of us took and parked the van at the base of the library slope while we assembled and raised the rails just as planed.
We set the Star at the bottom, and l went aboard along with my equipment and the pumpkin.
The boys hauled away and up it went, with pumpkin and me.
How did it feel?
Did you ever sail on a star?
More beautiful than I are.
Moonbeams in a jar: all of that..... though we had barely begun.

One factor we hadn't much considered was the illumination provided by the clock face and how conspicuous I would be when I passed in front of it, looking like E.T. on a bicycle passing in front of the moon...

But it was quick. Bump up over and onto the eve we go.

I tied up with the short rope, called for a release of tension on the haul rope, removed and tied to my belt.
I climbed up over the pumpkin and, standibng at the top, ran ten feet of the rope through the looped pully, and tied it back to carabener on my belt, then I used my fly pole to hang the loop over the spire, and tied the rope back to my belt.
Check. Roger Over, Continue.

I backed down over the pumpkin, removed the haul rope from my belt an tied it back to the pull bar. Check. Called for tension and undid the temporary rope anchor.

I signaled and the boys hauled the Star up to the top pulley.
I climbed up the cross bars and then, more rolling than lifting the pumpkin, pushed and slidi it up and over the spire, and brought it gently down.

I moved back to my seat, and they lowered the Star back to the eve.

I took up the rod again, then looked skywards, ready to fork off the loop.

Shit!, is what I said then.

Shit What? said Pike in my ear.

Shit, there was a pumpkin in the way.

Obviously now, I would not be able to lift the sixteen inch loop over the twenty-four inch pumpkin.
Somehow, it had occurred to none of us that when I went to remove the loop, the pumpkin would be in the way.
I stood there in deep silent space while those below discussed the problem.

A piece of rope larger than the nylon strap would not work with the particular pulley hardware, so we would not be able to change it on this attempt, and anyway, it was not clear that I would be able to lift a larger loop - a loop not being a hoop- over the pumpkin, and a larger loop might have hung the star so low I that I could not reach high enough to place the pumpkin.

Eventually ground control seemed to be forming the high-minded consensus that there was only one right and impecable course of action: I should go back up, take the pumpkin off, remove the loop and pully and back down so that we could try again with a technical solution. That would be the right thing to do,

But I am low-minded, lazy, and impatient , not a team player, and I didn't do the right thing.

I had already noticed that the diagonal, raised seams of the alternate vertical runs, which you see on the drawiing and in the photo, would make decent foot and hand holds. Others had commented on that, but we had gone for the technical solution.

The holds were good enough, as long as I was not carrying a pumpkin..... Without announcing it, and while it was still being discussed below, I climbed up , knife in mouth and cut the strap. It was more difficult than cutting rope, but no problem. The talk below had stopped as the boys realized what I was doing,
I pulled the strap ends through my carabiner and moved down the roof onto the Star.
Still, nobody was saying anything I heard.

I called for tension from below, and when the pressure was off the
anchoring rope, I moved to untie it, The hitches were tight so I had to get out my marlin spike, but just as I finished, the weight of the pulley, which I should have put into the rope bag, dragged the loose strap out of my carabiner. It clunked to the roof, and slid off into the darkness.

Fuck What?
Fuck it's falling!

I admit to not being clear with that Fuck, so I guess they thought the whole Star was coming down, because the two rope handlers were startled into letting go and running.

The first section of that arched rail was the steepest.
By the time one of the boys had overcome his startlement and darted back to grab the rope, I and the falling Star
had achieved maximum acceleration.
The result was that the crossbar holding the pully broke , which freed the star from the rope, and, though the speed of the descent was momentarily slowed, it picked up again, and I plumetted down the arching poles and was launched, in twenty foot bounds, out over the library slope.

I had done a lot of sliding on the library slope as a kid on toboggans, and sleds, and cafeteria trays, though it was dangerous like many things still allowed in the fifties on campus, when dogs ran free and so did we, By the sixties, before sledding there was banned, the trees and fire hydrants at the base of the slope had been barracaded with hay bales , though when you are going sixty miles an hour, it is cold comfort to hit a frozen bale of hay instead of a tree. In the shooting Star I was probably going about seventy miles an hour when I hit the slope at the top, and the slope is steep.
I knew from steep experience there that if I stayed with the vehicle, the best I could hope for was to miss all these killer obstacles and pass through the arch of Founders Hall, and would then, at best, be hurtled off the terraced slope on which the old freshman dorms were built, right onto, or clear over Stewart Avenue, into the East Hill Cemetery.
As a kid, I had been required to wear a football helmet when sliding, after having hit a tombstone head on while sledding in the cemetery...and I was no longer allowed to go sledding in the cemetery.
I was not about to go sledding in the cemetery now, but , it seems now that anyway, I should have been wearing a helmet for this sport.
Halfway down the slope, I bowled off the Star at an angle to the slope with my head tucked and knees drawn up. My short legs and years of falling experience were an advantage here.
At first I bounced, more than rolled, then, as I slowed somewhat I gradually unbent and extended my legs to steer my momentum into a slight hook up hill, which took me a big part of the way to the great oak at the South bound of the slope.
I wasn't watching, of course, but the pigeon-toed wheels did little to slow the falling Star, which had missed the fire hydrant, the trees, and the Van, then gone right through the Founders Hall Arch and beyond.
I was pretty banged up, but was standing, more muddy and green-stained than bloody when Pike and two others got to me.
I convinced them that I was essentially uninjured and all right. As a matter of fact, everything seemed somehow suffused with light.

I realized much later that everything seemed brighter after my fall, because I had forgotten to remove my sunglasses once we had reached the was just one of those things we had left off the check list, and had worn then right through the job, until they were thrown off as I bowled down the hill. Also I think that, as able as I was to move on from that fall, it probably did something somewhere along my spine because it was soon after that I began to experience a mounting sciatica in my left leg and a diminishing ability to endure lowered body temperatures and live the animal life I had known, though maybe it was just age. I was already around fifty years old.

We helped the others bring the poles down the hill, then we drove down to search for the cemetery for the Star.

But walking through with flashlights that night, and again by light of the following day, and down into the cemetery's little gorge,we never found any sign of it.
So maybe someone else snatched it up before us. It's a mystery to me. It would make a good hang glider if you covered it with a skin, but get someone else to fly it.

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