Tension and Release

Mark Bradford built the world's biggest, coolest catapult. But could the unlucky artist make it work?

Mark Bradford is 35, but he dresses and sounds like a teenage snowboarder. He talks slow, even for someone born in Louisiana, and half of his syrup-thick words seem to be either "cool" or "fun." Operating a crane is fun, he says. Recycling is cool. And it's especially fun to hunt for cool stuff in scrap yards.

But on a Tuesday morning at the tail end of February, Mark was having no fun at all. The wind was blowing from the east, the worst direction, and he thought there was a 50 percent probability that his latest grand project, the Refrigerator Throwing Machine, would collapse into a giant heap of twisted metal. All the world would be watching -- or at least, all the Fox network audience -- and they would know that Mark Bradford had failed. That would not be cool, not cool at all.

Mark tried to focus on that other, more cheerful, possibility: That the throwing machine would successfully catapult a 170-pound fridge hundreds of feet down an empty road. That Guinness World Records: Primetime would broadcast his triumph across the nation, and afterward he'd land big sculpture commissions. That those gigs would make him some money before artistic poverty drove his girlfriend nuts.

Mark used a crane to lift the machine's humongous throwing arm atop its equally humongous base. The contraption stood 59 feet tall, and it rose from the empty land of an unbuilt subdivision like a cell phone antenna tower crossed with a giant asymmetrical seesaw. Except for the heavy-duty Grade 8 bolts, all of its parts were things Mark had scavenged from scrap yards: boat trailers, a lamppost, elevator cables, discarded metal and the like. It was the biggest thing Mark had ever built.

The machine, in fact, seemed likely to break a world's record. Mark wasn't sure which one -- longest refrigerator toss? biggest catapult? biggest freestanding trebuchet? -- but the important thing was that the Guinness show planned to film a flying fridge on Saturday.

Saturday. Four days away. Everything would be cool, Mark tried to tell himself. But every time he moved, he felt the failure of his last TV project.

Three weeks earlier, he and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Winningham, had entered a race of "super-modified" sleds made of snow shovels; the extreme sport has become a tradition in Angel Fire, New Mexico. For Elizabeth, the race's first female competitor, Mark had built a heavyweight sled, a stainless-steel dragster-on-skis that weighed more than 500 pounds. It had a seat belt and roll cage.

Mark was competing in the lightweight category, where a sled could weigh no more than 100 pounds. His stainless-steel creation wasn't much more than a metal T on skis, and he rode it lying with the steering column between his legs. No roll cage, no seat belt.

He was excited that Competition, an Arts & Entertainment sports show, filmed his preparations in Houston, including the tricky business of testing sleds without snow. To check a parachute-brake, for instance, he put Elizabeth's sled on a trailer and towed it down the street. His ten-year-old daughter hit the button that released the parachute. With the cameras rolling, the chute blossomed right on cue, and Mark tasted the sweet televised success.

The same A&E show filmed his test runs in Angel Fire. On the first run, Mark's lightweight sled zipped cleanly over the snow. But on the second, going 65 miles an hour, he braked before the hill gave way to a flat stretch. The sled rolled, and Mark flew out. The steering column hit him square in the crotch.

He thought he'd been split down the middle, that his intestines might be spilling onto the snow. He checked: Everything was still attached. Bloody, swollen and hurting, but attached.

At the hospital, someone photographed his battered testicles: big as avocados, and just as dark. Mark also had broken his sacrum, the bone at the tail end of his spinal column, and torn his urethra.

He spent four days in the New Mexico hospital, and another three weeks taking brain-fuzzing painkillers. Now, less than a week before the throwing machine's D day, he still walked with a limp and peed through a catheter.

When Mark looked down the road leading to his site, the east wind hit him in the face. The machine swayed, and Mark was scared. He could feel failure in his groin.

Technically, the throwing machine is a trebuchet, the kind of simple catapult that medieval warriors used to hurl stones at their enemies. When the machine is cocked, a heavy weight dangles from the short end of the seesaw. Down below, at the long end, the payload snuggles in a sling. When the trigger is released, the weight drops to the ground, and the payload arcs upward, goes alley-oop over the axle, then flies through the air.

Mark had seen trebuchets on a TV documentary, but he wasn't interested in historical accuracy. In high school, history was one of those subjects that left Mark cold. He says he has attention deficit disorder, and it's easy to imagine him at Lamar High School, daydreaming and wriggling in his seat. Reading and math came hard to him, but somehow, art was easy.

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