Tension and Release

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

He practically vibrated with purpose. At his morning coffeehouse sessions, he sketched a zillion different versions of the throwing machine. Sometimes he dreamed of using a robot to release the machine's trigger. For maximum effect, he imagined placing an old trailer where he expected the fridge to land. The Guinness people would film him dressed as a deliveryman. He'd dial a phone and say, "Mrs. Jones, your fridge is ready for delivery." And then: KABLOOIE! Right through the roof! More twisted metal than you'd see after a tornado!

Those ideas never got off the ground, but Mark kept sketching. When he found a pair of boat trailers in a scrap yard, he changed the drawings to incorporate the trailers into his base. He'd been saving some old industrial driers discarded by a business. Those he traded to a scrap dealer, who in return hauled pieces of the throwing machine to and from the site. Other scrap dealers were happy to lend Mark refrigerators. If the throwing machine smashed them against the pavement, great. It would save the scrap yard the trouble of crushing them.

A friend of Elizabeth's dad arranged for Mark to use the site for free. The unbuilt subdivision, a west Houston stretch of nothing but road and pine trees, was perfect. He could set up the trebuchet where the road dead-ended, and the developer didn't seem worried that a flying fridge might crack the brand-new pavement.

Mark talked the Guinness people into paying for his crane rental, but they refused to pay him more than $500 for the appearance. Think of it this way, they told him. If you had to buy this time on national TV, it would cost you $500,000. You're not just getting $500. You're getting $500,000 of publicity.

When things were going well at the site, Mark envisioned a cool future for the throwing machine. If everything worked, he could perform at tractor pulls; a friend proposed an airline ad: The Refrigerator Throwing Machine would heave a crash-test dummy through the air; the dummy would splat spectacularly onto the pavement; a voice would say, "Yes, you could fly cheaper…"

Maybe everything would work. Maybe the future would be glorious. Maybe.

Tuesday afternoon, Mark and the crew attached Azaba to the short end of the seesaw. The short end sank, and the long end rose high in the air. The machine was complete.

On Wednesday, the crew began running tests. With the crane, they eased the throwing arm up and down. Nothing buckled, nothing twisted. So far, so good.

For the first real throw, they loaded a sandbag into the sling. If something went wrong, a sandbag would wreak less havoc than a fridge. To cock the machine -- that is, to pull the long arm down, so that Azaba rose in the air -- a cable had to be attached high on the long arm, at a spot roughly 35 feet in the air. The cable then could be attached to a truck, or the crane, or even pulled, tug-of-war-style, by a line of strong guys.

Elizabeth wasn't around to remind Mark that he was still weak, that he was still wearing a catheter, that he was supposed to take it easy. Carrying the cable, he climbed the machine, starting with Azaba, then finding handholds and footholds on the stainless-steel crossbars like a rock climber ascending a cliff.

After he clambered down, he and the crew gathered a couple of hundred feet to one side. The crane pulled the cable taut, and the long arm sank back toward the crane as Azaba rose in the air. Then, on signal, the cable was released. Just as planned, Azaba plummeted, and the long arm swung up -- but it hadn't yet risen, alley-oop, over the axle, when the sandbag escaped the sling. Instead of flying a hundred feet down the road, it hurtled 40 feet behind the machine.

Just a test run, Mark told himself.

He checked the machine for signs of weakness. He reassured himself that the parts that worried him most -- the axle and the skinny lamppost end of the throwing arm -- looked fine. Then he lengthened the sling so the payload wouldn't release prematurely. He tested more sandbags, and they flew, straight and true, down the road.

It was getting dark. Thursday's weather forecast called for rain, and Mark worried about falling another day behind schedule. He decided it was time for the moment of truth. He and the crew loaded a refrigerator into the sling.

Once again, he climbed the long arm to attach the cable, and once again, the crane pulled down the arm so that Azaba dangled in the air. Mark and the crew retreated to a tree a few hundred feet to the side. The machine might throw a fridge backward, or even sideways -- but it wouldn't throw it that far sideways. Mark hoped.

He was as tense as one of his cables. He set his video camera on night vision. The crew counted down: 3-2-1.

On cue, the long arm arced up through the air. Azaba sank and swung under the crossbar. When the seesaw stood almost perfectly vertical, the sling ejaculated the fridge into the night sky -- too early, too high, but magnificent. The white GE tumbled, end over end, in the right direction, until it splatted more than a hundred feet down the empty road. The fridge's innards spilled onto the pavement, and the crew erupted into cheers, jumping up and patting each other's backs like a high school football team that had won the playoffs.

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