You could feel the excitement in the air! The cafeteria at Robert E. Lee
Jr. High School was crammed to maximum capacity. This was the weekend of the
Seventh Grade Nature and Science Fair. We were given eight weeks to plan,
build, and carry out either a science or nature project. I always thought
eight weeks was a long time to do a science project. I liked to shrink the
window down a bit. I usually waited 'til the last night and used about five
or six hours tops to knock off a real crowd pleaser.
My project this year was called "Florida Weeds, Food or Foe?" I
took a sheet of notebook paper and placed it on the kitchen table. Next I
went out in the back yard and snapped off a fresh Sand Spur stalk. I Scotch
taped the Sand Spurs to the notebook paper. Then in my best printing, I
lettered "EAT ME" under the Sand Spurs. I didn't expect the gold
medal this year, but a podium finish wasn't out of the question.
At the fair, my project was placed right between Crazy Norman and Tommy
Joe's. Crazy Norman had taken two panes of glass, threw some dirt between
them, then poured in about seven or eight million red ants. He ran silicone
around the edges of the two windowpanes. Norm called his project
"NATURE'S NEIGHBORHOOD." A better name might have been Escape from
New York. Norman wasn't real proficient with a caulking gun.
Tommy Joe was so good with wood working tools he was selling chairs and
tables he made when he was eleven years old. TJ's project was titled
"WOOD, NATURE'S NEVER ENDING GIFT." Tommy could walk out in the
back yard, drag in a branch that had blown down, and then plane, route,
turn, mill, sand, and polish it until he had hammered out a small rendering
of the Ft. Lauderdale skyline.
Most of the attention at the fair was over on the science projects side.
It was here that Tommy Joe's dad was watching Sammy The Slide Rule Morgan's
project with immeasurable interest. Sammy had a little HO scale flatbed car
with a tiny metal weight in the front. It sat on two sections of track
running up a slight incline. At the top of the incline, Sammy had a dry cell
battery and a magnet wrapped with electric wire. When Sammy would touch the
wires together the little railroad car would feel the magnetic field and
chug up to the top of the hill. It would run into a little switch and turn
off the electro magnet and coast back to the bottom. Tommy's dad winked and
said "We could incorporate some of this technology into the derby cars
We already had more technology hidden in our cars than Jim Hall was
sneaking into the Chaparrals. So, after a disappointing last place finish at
the fair, I decided to go all out and win the Soapbox Derby. We laid our
plans to become the first magnetic drag racers in history. Zeke's dad had a
big wrecker. We were told to never even sit in it after the rock pit
episode. We would use it again. Zeke's Uncle Thurmon owned a junkyard and he
had our future power plant hanging right inside. There was a crane that
picked up the wrecks and dropped them into the crusher.
It used an electro magnet bigger than a Pontiac to pick them up. The
magnet had also sucked up at least two of my Boy Scout knives and numerous
other treasures I had carelessly brought into the magnetic field.
"Mr. C." as we called Tommy's dad, met us at the rock pit on
Saturday. He had the big magnet and its power supply loaded on a giant
trailer pulled by the wrecker. He said "Gonz, go fetch a shopping cart
and take it up the road a piece." I was stationed next to the cart
about a hundred yards up the road. He signaled to let it roll down towards
them. Now Mr. C. would fit right in with the Wayne County Boys. He waited
'til the cart got pretty close then just blipped the switch a couple times.
This made the cart bolt forward about a hundred percent faster than it was
going, then settle back into a more leisurely pace. Brilliant!
Unfortunately for Tommy Joe, he wasn't going to be cruising the dairy
aisle in his shopping cart. Mr. C. laminated a sheet of metal between two
layers of wood and made the racer's body from it. This would attract the
magnetic field onto the clandestine derby car. When Tommy rolled about half
way down the bridge, Sammy would blip the magnet at the bottom a couple of
times and pull TJ along. I think if we had just left it at that Tommy Joe
might still be allowed to coast down the Seventeenth Street bridge now and
Uncle Thurmon had a friend down at Port Everglades. His friend told him
they were just getting ready to change out the giant magnets at the port.
They used these magnets to haul cargo out of the freighters. They made our
magnet look like the one you have on your refrigerator door. We didn't have
time to test the "Monster Magnet," as most of the local papers
would later refer to it. Uncle Thurmon and a bunch of guys from the port
brought a giant tractor and trailer to the parking lot at the bottom of the
bridge. On the trailer was the title, "Big Maggie."
All the racers and their drivers reported to the top of the bridge. We
were all lined up in the staging lanes on the top and back down the other
side of the bridge. I was about four rows behind Tommy Joe so I would
witness his last Derby ride from a crystal clear vantage point.
Tommy was up against Debbie Stilwell, the Shirley Muldowney of the
neighborhood. Debbie was a fierce competitor, I could tell she was gritting
her teeth because the morning sun was reflecting off her braces. What
happened next would look like something Sam Peckinpaw edited from a couple
"Americas Funniest Home Videos" and the best of "And They
Walked Away." The starting flaps dropped and they coasted off dead
even. Tommy kept his Cauldwell Special straight as an arrow; Debbie was
leaning forward, her blonde hair billowing behind her.
About 9: 37 A. M., Sammy threw the switch. I'm pretty sure of the time
'cause the clock on the bank just froze right then. All of a sudden the P A
system went dead, there was this weird hum in the air. Tommy's car was
blasting along now! Debbie kept right along side. I thought it must be kinda
painful for her though. The powerful magnet was about to pull her retainer
right out of her mouth! Tommy's car was being coaxed along by the metal in
its body. Debbie was using only her winning smile, so to speak. The sky
turned that ominous Alfred Hitchcock black. Everything made of metal that
wasn't welded to something was chasing Tommy and Debbie down the bridge.
Spectators on the bottom of the track were getting peppered with bobby pins,
lighters, ballpoint pens, you name it, and it was raining down on them.
Sammy was flipping the switch up and down like a mad man now. Finally, Uncle
Thurmon unplugged the big magnet.
I wanted to see Debbie get her trophy, but it was gonna take a pretty
good sized pry bar to yank it off the side of the trailer. The Rules
Committee told Tommy when they could find the poles for their tent, he and
his dad were to pay them a visit. We were getting tired of Soapbox Derby
Copyright, Ralph Crosby 1997
Impress your friends, visit Banana Land.