SEATTLE, 11/22/97 – This is the kind of arts event that drew me back home. By Seattle standards, it had it all – a lakeside urban industrial setting, bearded guys in lab coats playing with dangerous toys, and gray drizzly skies filled with all manner of flying machine.
I had learned of the event – the 27th launch of the water-jet-powered, life-sized mannequin known as Johnny Jetpack – from my new landlord, Lyle, whom I have quickly come to trust as an arbiter of leading-edge slacker culture (he also introduced me to the “Get a Life” club at the Trolleyman Pub and to the idea that lunch hours need not be squeezed into a finite amount of time).
To assure myself of a good viewing spot, I arrived early (at 2:53 p.m.) for the scheduled 3:00 p.m. launch. After cresting a small hillock at the edge of the parking lot, it took only a few seconds to find the launch site. There, amid the complex of rusting infrastructure that gives Gasworks Park its name, stood Johnny Jetpack. He looked to be about seven feet tall. Leaning against a metal guide rod, he wore on his back a frame resembling a sort of narrow vertical travois. Lashed to the frame were a dozen two-liter soda bottles and a stabilizer contraption which looked like it might have been cannibalized from a U.S. Air Force drone. Two guys in white lab coats attended to Mr. Jetpack, pressurizing his water bottles and making other preparations for his upcoming flight.
While it lacked the tropical cachet of Cape Canaveral, the launch site did present other Apollo 13-ish touches, including a vague feeling of impending mayhem and several spectators who might well have been wearing short-sleeved white shirts and skinny ties beneath their Gortex jackets and who would no doubt relish the challenge of fashioning an air conditioner out of an old vacuum cleaner and a box of paper clips. The only thing missing was a Mrs. Johnny Jetpack anxiously watching the proceedings with her tow-headed children from the hood of their 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser.
Inexplicably, of the several friends I had informed of the event, only fellow geek Evil Timmy showed up, along with another computer guy, Jeff (both of whom spent several hours later in the day wrestling with DOS drivers in a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to get the game Redneck Rampage running on a friend’s Win95 machine), but I digress. . .
As launch time approached, three planes trailing big banner ads flew over Gasworks Park – OK, they were actually buzzing nearby Husky stadium, where the home team was losing to the WSU Cougars in the Apple Cup football game, but the planes, along with various helicopters and the occasional police cruiser puttering by on Lake Union, lent an appropriate air of importance to the event.
The launch itself was tightly orchestrated and almost flawlessly executed. A guy waving a red flag traced a perimeter around the launch pad while one of the directors of the Johnny Jetpack Propulsion Lab put on a helmet and gave a brief safety lecture: “At the JJPL, we are proud of our safety procedures and back-up plans, so right now everyone please – back up.” His colleague made some last-minute preparations involving an air hose, and before you could say, “Hey, isn’t that the guy from down the street who was arc welding in his back yard until midnight last Sunday?” Johnny Jetpack took to the skies on a tail of blue vapor (food coloring in the propulsion water, we later learned). He shot straight up about 60 or 70 feet, flipped over, and dropped back to earth, his parachute deploying milliseconds before he hit the ground.
We stood around for a few minutes admiring the newly decapitated Johnny Jetpack, kicking at the effluvium of pink fluff which had exploded from him just before impact, and filling the hats which were being passed. Then, yanked back to reality by a muffled roar from the football game, and realizing that there were no further festivities at hand, the crowd dispersed. . .
This page created 11/22/97; last updated 11/21/03.