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Paper Airplanes

April 17, 2019
By Chuck Clegg - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

If you read my columns you know I am inclined to reminisce about my past. And usually it's my history here in Wetzel County. I sometimes see something, and it makes me remember a simpler life before cell phones and electronic games. But when I stop to think about it, in many ways we had our own early technology revolution way back in the 60s.

Recently, Mary and I were sitting in a restaurant when I saw two young boys talking on their cell phones. Finally, their parents must have told them to turn their phones off and eat their food. I then realized the two boys must have been talking to each other while sitting at the same table.

In today's world, that does not surprise me. Later after I got home, I realized 60 years ago that could have been me and a friend from my past. The only difference, we would have been using two metal cans with a string stretched between the cans. My friend would talk into his, and I would listen to mine. I remember, we tested how far we could stretch the string and still hear the other person. Now, two cans and a string are far from today's cell phones, but still we chose to use the technology of the day to communicate with someone just a few feet away. Just the same as the two boys in the restaurant were doing.

In grade school, my teacher taught us about gyroscopes and centrifugal force. He did not have advanced scientific devices left over from a rocket guidance system. He simply used a large wooden disk on a string. He placed the disk in the middle of the string and looped it between his fingers. He began spinning the disk around until the string was spun tight. Next, he began moving his hands back and forth causing the disk to spin. The string began unwinding, spinning the disk faster and faster. He continued moving his hands back and forth as the disk spun, making a humming sound. The teacher then explained how force and motion were used to create guidance systems. One day, the same teacher instructed one of his students to repeat this experiment while sitting on a piano stool that rotated. As the student spun the disk faster and faster the teacher instructed him to tip the spinning disk. The forced motion of the tipped disk began slowly moving the student in the direction of the spinning disk. A simple wooden disk taught us the fundamentals of centrifugal force and motion. You can't do that with a cell phone. Well, maybe you could if you drilled two holes in the middle of the screen and put a string through it like the wooden disk.

Have you ever seen the movie October Sky? It's a movie about a group of boys from Coalwood, West Virginia, who dreamed about rockets. The year was 1957. The movie tells the true story of how the boys, with encouragement from their teacher, began to design and engineer rockets that eventually flew high above the state's southern coal fields. Odds were against them, but in the end they realized their dream.

Now I will tell you a story of two boys a couple years later in 1959, who had a goal of building the very best paper airplanes ever created in Steelton Elementary School. Maybe not as ambitious as building a rocket, but just as important to the two young boys. You probably realize that I am one of the boys with that paper airplane building ambition. The other was my classmate, Joe Tuttle. Now, if you think two boys with aspirations of building paper airplanes was just kid's play, well I'll have to correct you and explain we engineered each plane to fly higher and longer than the ones we built just the day before.

Being young, we could have built the planes to fly like the other kids on the playground. But they had no vision and made inferior airplanes. Why, many of those kids' planes could not even fly over the merry-go-round. But Joe and I, for whatever reason, had made up our minds if we worked at our mission, we could make a difference in the paper airplanes of the future. Just think, we may have changed the basic design and how people looked at a simple paper airplane. Why, we could have ended up in the paper airplane Hall of Fame.

As I remember it, after each test flight at recess on the playground, we modified our next design. We sometimes changed the shape of the wing while adding a paper clip weight to the nose of the plane to increase flying distance. Sometimes, we even changed the entire shape of the plane's length. We also gave our planes numbers to be officially classified as true test paper planes. We must have gotten our inspiration from the test plane that Chuck Yeager flew. We probably read about his plane's name in our Weekly Reader. In big letters, it must have proclaimed how in 1947, Yeager flew the X-1 faster than the speed of sound. Our planes also carried the designated classification of X-1. You see, we put all our energy into the planes design and not the complicated process of naming our high flying paper creations. If it was good enough for Chuck Yeager, it was good enough for Joe and me.

Joe and my experimentation took place 60 years ago, but when I pass by the school's playground I sometimes think about those days when two young boys created paper airplanes. And if you are wondering, my memory tells me that by the end of the school year we came up with a design that flew straight and high over the sand and gravel-covered playground. Higher than any other kid's paper planes. Why, our creation passed over the swing set, teeter totter and merry-go-round with ease as the unknowing kids below did not realize history flew just over head. You may be wondering if any of our experimental planes ended up in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Not likely. The playground teacher gathered up the history-making paper plane and wadded it into a ball and threw it away. Next she pointed her sharp index finger of authority directly at us and probably said something like, "If you two boys would put as much attention into your classroom studies as you did at making paper airplanes, you would be better off." Today, I realize teachers were paid to say stuff like that to kids with a high-flying dream 60 years ago. She didn't realize we could have someday become aeronautical engineers with a little encouragement from our playground monitor. But, I think even after all the years have passed, Joe and I know that we engineered the very best paper airplanes to ever fly over the gravel-covered Steelton Elementary School playground, as we remember, back Through the Lens.

 
 
 

 

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