In order to satisfy the school, she agreed to a science project, where she collected soil samples from each location, and then gave a talk to her class. She remembers Chesepeake Bay and these other places, but she mainly remembers packaging the soil samples: the red color of this one, the gravelly texture of that one.
My own science project shines clear in memory, because it wasn’t. It wasn’t actually my project. In fact, it wasn’t really a science project at all, but rather a fraud disguising a speaker cabinet.
Let me explain …
My cousin Bobby is a sharp guy. He’s younger, as are all my cousins. He tended to be rotund as a child, an earnest kid who took life seriously. In college he did something smart: he signed up for a “co-op” program with Conoco Oil Company. He’d attend engineering classes for one semester; then he’d work at Conoco for one semester.
It took longer to graduate, but he learned what engineering was all about, and already had a good job from which he rose rapidly, becoming a vice-president at such a young age that he took to wearing granny glasses and dressing in a stuffy manner so as to be taken seriously by the other vice presidents around the place.
He’d showed promise years earlier, winning the Wichita Falls science fair with his Electronic Level. It was very clever.
In a normal carpenter’s level is found a glass tube slightly curved, filled with a clear liquid and one bubble of air. Mounted onto a straight board, when the board is lying on a level surface, the bubble of air is nicely centered between two marks on the glass tube.
Bobby took this glass tube and shined a light through the bubble onto two tiny photo-receptor panels. Then, with a circuit that measured the light output from the two panels, he operated a needle on gauge to show the bubble’s position with extremely high accuracy. Presto! He’d created an electronic amplifier to make the common level more precise.
Nineteen miles away and a year later, in my school in Henrietta, I had to do a science project.
I didn’t want a science project.
Instead, I wanted to build a speaker cabinet shown in Mechanics Illustrated: Into a plywood box of a certain shape, you mounted an 8-inch speaker. Because of the odd shape and an adjustable lid placed at an angle, the sound from the back of the speaker wove its way all around and then emerged in such a way as to obtain surprising hi-fi sound from such a simple speaker, it said.
So I pulled a con.
First, I made arrangements to borrow Bobby’s Electronic Level to represent as my own. I confess that being a crook and a fraud bothered me not at all.
Next, I got permission to attend the Shop class in my high school during my normal study hall period.
Last, using the shop tools I designed and built a fancy wooden exhibit, with a back panel to display the sign explaining the device, and two side panels across the front edges of which I placed a board. Upon one side of this board was an off-center wooden wheel which you could turn with a knob. This raised and lowered one side of the Electronic Level so that you could watch the device working.
I won a ribbon at the Science Fair with my most excellent fraud. Hooray for science!
But more important to me, after the fair, I disassembled the display. The display had been designed so that the wooden parts just happened to be cut to the exact same sizes as were required for the speaker cabinet. I took the display apart, then screwed the pieces back together in a different way. Presto! A Mechanics Illustrated speaker cabinet!
My wonderful speaker cabinet found a home in our home’s refurbished basement, which I was rapidly converting into a beatnik dive. There, extracting wires from my old record player, I luxuriated in beatnik heaven listening to the sounds of the Miles Davis “Porgy and Bess” album, along with Jimmy Smith, Barney Kessel, and Dave Brubek.
Life was good. “Hooray for science!” said the beatnik. Oops. I mean-
“Cool, man,” said the beatnik.