Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Papier Mache + Halloween = Dinosaur Overpopulation

What do bloggers do when not huddled over a keyboard? On Halloween, they could be operating dinosaurs.

This year will be the 20th anniversary of our family's dinosaur display. The star of the show has always been Bronte', a dinosaur neck about fourteen feet long that cantilevers out from an upper window. To a kid, this suggests that the rest of him is inside the house, probably sitting in front of a fireplace. His neck is a Kelly green. In conjunction with a four-way swivel and a hundred-pound counterweight, I can have him raise up and eat leaves off the maple tree, look from side to side, and lean down to greet the kiddies. There's a speaker in his throat connected to a microphone at my side, and his jaw moves when I yank on a wire. There's nothing high tech in the rig; his eyes are painted wide open in a gesture of perpetual surprise.

After two decades of manhandling, storage among the rafters, and snowy evenings, Bronte's paper-mache skin has a well-aged, wrinkly look. When it's snowy, we add a gray scarf. One year a steady drizzle weakened the papier mache (which acts like the fuselage of a monocoque airplane) and his neck broke in half. We finished out the evening by propping him on a ladder. We patched him the following year, adding to his air of longevity.

We began playing with papier while in Texas. Construction of a living fossil starts with a skeleton built up from joists, bolts, and two by fours. Then I give the bones a body with more boards, dowel rods, and stiff wire. I add a skin of chicken wire and strips of gluey newspaper.

Tip: if there are any special effects, install those _before_ installing the skin. Cutting a hole in chicken wire and thrusting one's hands in to for elective surgery is a scarifying experience.

Because such creatures don't look particularly big at the early stages, it's easy to overdo it. Our first attempt was a papier mache claw with dripping red fingernails. Because I wanted it to emerge out of one window and extend to the front porch, it measured the size of a small car upon completion. That's impossible to store from year to year. After moving to Minnesota, we set a size limit of 16 feet in the longest dimension.

... But not a population limit. At its Jurassic peak, besides Bronte', our house had a smoking volcano about five feet high, a cave covering the front door, a large T-Rex in one window, a smaller long-neck dino called Bronte' Junior in another window, a Stegosaurus, and a pterosaur hanging from the entrance.

We found the volcano among the most labor-intensive of the displays, because it had no internal structure but rather was a series of flats that leaned on a central foundation, something like a tepee. We built it in four sections so the flats could be stored during the off-season on racks in the garage above the cars.

Volcanoes are pallid things without smoke. We tried dry ice and various fog and smoke generators, but nothing worked quite so well as a stockpile of highway hazard flares, because they generated a lurid red smoke.  This remained popular until the final year, when one of the magnesium flares melted through the steel bucket we used for a firebox, and came rather close to burning down our volcano. It would have been hard to explain to the firefighters.

Around 2000 the menagerie was cramping our style, at least in the garage, attic, and basement. The great extinction began. After I dropped off Bronte' Junior at the landfill, I looked back in the rearview mirror to see that one landfill guy was holding it up and using it like a big puppet to talk to his co-worker. So I like to think Junior's still in action somewhere.

So now we are one: Bronte' Senior. While running the controls upstairs, I depend on a relative to shill for me in the front yard to listen and call out the kids' first names, so I can strike up a conversation. It's dark on the lawn and there are red and yellow spotlights shining in my eyes between the blackout curtains. Without help I can't tell if the kid in question is dressed as a pirate or a turtle or a Toy Story Army Man.

Yes, our dinosaur is a big fraud, only a paper moon, but otherwise worldly-wise teenagers of the neighborhood still drop by to say hello.

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