My Trebuchet

2011, May 13, 11:32 am

A personal tale of struggle and overcoming obstacles. "When only days remained I was no longer frantic. I was crazy."

catapualt1.jpgAfter graduating from high school I was admitted to a Talmudic college for moderately experienced students. At the time I had close to no Talmudic experience so I signed up for a summer program for people more at my level. The program was situated in the Catskill mountains. It had a nine hour day which by Talmud standards is pretty light. One time, while hiking I saw a large pipe in an abandoned cement cistern. As I looked at the pipe I was struck by the idea that with it, and some of the other pieces of trash that doted the mountainside, I could make a trebuchet.

As soon as the idea got in my head, I could not get it out. The first step I took was going to the library in town to find a book on catapult construction. The closest I could find was a short book for little nut throwing trebuchets. The li'l nut chuckers didn't scale up, at all. Most of my pertinent information came from the book's two historical drawings of french trebuchets: one from the 7th century and one from the 14th. Basically I was left almost entirely to my own ingenuity.

Being fiscally conservative, I didn't want to spend money on tools I would use only once and not be able to fly home due to weight restrictions. Borrowing turned out to be more difficult than one might guess. No one, not even maintenance staff, had any significant power tools to lend. Every time I realized I needed another tool it was another trip to the hardware store in town, five miles away. At first I tried finding rides from other students in the two hour lunch break. The difficulty in finding someone who was going eventually led me to another solution. Start walking and if someone driving by picks me up along the way, all the better. This tactic made me late sometimes and left me walking almost half way on a few occasions, but if I wanted it built, I had no choice.

Planning was a mix of material gathering and guess work. Find junk that might work for something and try it out. As my situation changed my plans where revised. First plan, nixed after the camp prematurely announced plans raise the lake, covering the only good spot to build. Second plan, ruined after maintenance noticed my flood relocated lumber pile and burned it. Third plan, accomplished, sort of.

Most of the parts that made it into the trebuchet and many that did not had their own harrowing tale acquisition. The pipe, being too heavy to drag along the steep slope to the crossing had to be dragged through the lake. Being I realized this only after fighting the pipe a bit, I was dressed wrong. I placed my wallet and camera in my breast pocket and waded in, shoes and all. As the water rose the pipe grew lighter. I was eying my chest with apprehension as the water neared the camera. Inches from ruin the water began dropping again.

Much of my initial the wood was up the river and some of the pieces where almost to heavy to be moved alone. My solution was to float them down stream to the build site on a little raft I found. Standing on top of my biggest piece, pushing along with a pole from the river bottom, I start off, lose my balance, and fall off, rendering my phone useless. I didn't have good reception up there anyway but it caused me problems later. After repositioning the raft to make the it wider I eventually manage to get all my wood down stream, dragging the raft in shallower areas.

The more I worked, the harder I realized finishing would be and the more determined I became not to let my previous work be in vain. With time running out before the end of summer I became obsessed. Ever second of free time I spent running, hauling, sawing, wading or what ever other ridiculous task I thought might bring me closer to completion. As the situation grew more hopeless I began self encouragement by repeating to myself sayings like, If there is a will there is a way, tracht gut vet zien gut, think good and it will be good, ain davar omed lifnay haratzon, nothing can stand in the way of will.

My determination endangered me on a few occasions. I needed sturdy stakes and I realized I could make them by sawing parts of some metal bed frames discarded in the woods. With only an hour break I decided to run the whole way. As I was running along a thin path on a steep slope ending in a ten foot drop to rocks and water I was constantly calculating the best way to catch my self should I slip. There where certain gaps with no trees where a fall could mean death. It was at one of these places that I felt the ground slip out from beneath me. My feet came up and my whole weight came down on a pointy little beaver stump hidden in the leaves. The pain took my breath away. In my mind I was both blessing and cursing the stump. On one, hand it may have saved my life, on the other hand, it may have broken a rib. Remembering broken ribs make breathing more painful I forced myself to breath. I gasped a massive inhale. No additional pain.

I walked the rest of the way, pulled out my hacksaw, plugged in my headphones, and started sawing like mad. Dusk was settling and the mosquitoes began swarming to my hot body and heavy breathing. Every five minutes or so I swatted the the ones covering my sweaty arms, neck, and face. When I got back, to my amazement, besides my shirt being torn, all I had was a big red welt and a pulled muscle. And a million bites of course.

At the start I would hesitate before getting my shoes or clothes wet. By the end I had no regard for my dignity or comfort. Working in the rain and swimming to get what I needed became obvious. My roommate didn't let me keep my shoes in the room after they started to smell like rotting seaweed, but that was the least of my concerns.

The feedback I got from others was disheartening. No one was interested in helping me when they realized that it involved hard work and quite a few people where sufficiently insensitive to ask me why I was wasting my time, especially considering it will never work. Their doubts just added to my determination and insanity. Even the Ecuadorian worker gave me a hard time. He told me “hard work is for people like me, not smart Jews, your job is to learn.”or “Why you take wood? I need to go to the store to get more. Do you know how much it cost?”Of course it was nonsense. Anybody can work as they please and I was in no way stealing their wood. They burnt vast quantities of excess wood and most of my second batch of wood was from down stream.

When only days remained I was no longer frantic. I was crazy. I started begging God to help me finish on time. Everything that happened seems distant and blurred now. Running through the grass I felt a sharp pain in my thumb. After I yelled, jumped, and flailed my arm wildly. I took a peek at my thumb to see what could have possibly caused the pain. A wasp, bigger than I've ever seen sat calmly on my thumb, injecting it's poison. How it had remained on as I flicked my wrist, I can only guess. I watched it fly away. I was too defeated to seek revenge. Defeat lasted only a moment. I was back to running to my next task. Cutting branches the saw jumped. Large metal teeth sank deep into my already swollen thumb and nail. I cursed liberally as I found a doctor to bandage it. I got two guys, both stronger than I, to hold the arm in position as I inserted the hinge pipe through the holes in the uprights and the arm. They struggled with the arm that I alone moved without thought. It was not strength they lacked, it was determination.

It was the morning, a few hours before my ride. Everything was set. All I needed to do was pull down the arm and load a stone into the sling. I grasped the two ropes tied to the tip of the arm and pulled. As the arm creaked downward it became harder and harder to pull. I can climb a thick rope but thin rope is a completely different story. I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. I couldn't accept failure. In the biggest feat of exertion in my life, I slowly pulled the last bit down till I could reach the arm. Finally grasping the arm itself I pulled it down, swung my leg over, sat on it, and latched the hook. Success was mine! And it was at that happy moment the unthinkable occurred. I heard a crack and a thunk. To my horror I saw the counterweight ropes snapped. Sitting in the dirt dejected my friend giving me my ride to the city comes over to ask if I'm ready. Looking as if I may cry, I told him what happened. He thought for a minute, then mentioned that he can delay for a day. Hope fills me. “That would be great” I say. He even offers to help.

With renewed energy we made a new rope cradle and reloaded the counterweight. This time we pulled down the arm together. He didn't even seem to mind that we were squelching in the mud from the septic tank runoff. (I had picked the location before I knew the source of the mud) We loaded and adjusted the sling.

With a stick I carefully leaned in and knocked the hook lose. The arm flew up sling following in a majestic elliptic circle. As the sling crested it released the rock into a high arc. We watched with awe as the rock spun heavenwards, eventually coming down with a kurclunk into the lake. We spontaneously jumped up, singing and dancing together. I set up for another launch while he tried to get every one he could to see. We were skipping class at that point so only three people came. I was happy to shoot it again anyway.

I was soon thrown into the hard learning schedule of my new school. The trebuchet had redefined my definition of effort. For the next year I often thought back to how hard I had worked and asked my self, “are you working that hard now?””How badly do you want to succeed?”This enabled me to make it through to do another two years of Talmudic study.


Raizy 2011, Nov 28, 10:41 am

Ben this story is tragic and beautiful. It's like the opposite of Shakespeare. I'm so glad you got to see it work in the end and that you learned so much from your crazed project. You write brilliantly.

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