Friday, September 4, 2015

How I Became A Mad Scientist -- Episode 17

“Um, I’ll be right out,” I said, choking on the words. I took a deep breath and stepped outside to face the agent. “Don’t I get a lawyer or something?”

The man chuckled. “Mr. Ramondi, lawyers are only for people who’ve done something wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you?”

“No sir,” I squeaked. This conversation was not going well. Come on, brain, I thought. Start working. I don’t want Frank to go to jail.

“I noticed that you seem to have constructed a hover board course in your garage. It looks like it was a lot of hard work. Did you have any help?”

“Most of the guys in the neighborhood. Except Frank. He wouldn’t even pound a nail or help with the wiring, because he says it would violate his parole. The other guys were kind of irritated at him. His parole terms are making him pretty unpopular.”

“I see.” The agent’s face remained expressionless.

“Could you, maybe, change them, sir? If he doesn’t get to do anything fun, he could revert to his life of crime.”

“I don’t think ‘reversion’ is likely to be a problem. We’ve heard reports of a strange creature in the Ohio. Did everyone but Frank make that too?”

“You found Bessie?” My stomach flipped a little. “She’s a good girl. Don’t hurt her, please.”

“So you admit that Frank was participating in ethically questionable genetics experiments?”

“No, that was all me. Frank didn’t participate. In fact, he freaked out when he saw how big she got.”

“I see. Thank you for your time, Mr. Ramondi. It appears your cousin’s bad tendencies run in the family. I’ll be watching you closely.”  The agent turned and walked towards my front yard.

“I haven’t broken any laws!” I yelled. “There’s no law against playing around with science!”

He stopped. “You haven’t broken any laws yet, Mr. Ramondi. But I fully expect that to change in the near future.”  He disappeared around the corner of the house. I heard a car door slam and an engine roar down the street. I slumped onto the ground, exhausted from our conversation.

“You handled that well,” a voice said. I looked up. The kid from the river was standing next to my garage. “You’re trying hard to protect your cousin. I’ll remember that.”  He hopped on a bike and rode away.

Chapter 4: The Best Science Fair Project Ever

Summer ended. School started. The power company’s new “Powering the future” educational center opened, and reporters came from all over the country to see the town where any visitor could ride a hover board.

 Between the technophiles coming through to try our invention and the cryptozoologists hanging around to study Bessie, the town was flooded with tourists. The mayor chalked it up to the visitor’s center she’d built a few years back, and local businessmen started planning a new hotel.

Frank and I had made Tell City famous, but we couldn’t tell the papers. It irritated me, but Frank was philosophical about the whole thing.

“We’re having fun and I’m not in jail,” he said as he helped me pack my supplies for the first day of school. “Who cares about being famous?”

I headed off to a new year at the Junior High while Frank was stuck at home. He seemed to be OK with it though. He said his work only took about 2 hours a day, and after that he could read or practice his skateboard or take walks.

Meanwhile, eighth grade science was going to kill me. Apparently, the school board had decided that we needed more STEM in our lives. Science went from ‘fun with science’ to actual problem sets involving math. We had lectures and labs, and we got marked down if we did the lab wrong. We even had weekly tests. I was pretty sure I was going to fail.

Then, at the beginning of September, the teacher announced the science fair. It would be a chance for struggling students to earn extra credit. Suddenly, I had hope. Frank was going to help me win the science fair so that I could pass this impossible class.

I explained my plan to Frank when I got home. “You’re going to help me build a nuclear reactor,” I said. “It’ll be amazing, I’ll win the science fair, and I’ll pass the class!”

Frank seemed skeptical. “You can’t just go and get some nuclear material and make a reactor,” he said. “There are laws…”

“No! I read an article once about a kid who did it. I mean, sure, he’s a genius, but so are you. He just wanders around the desert and finds chunks of uranium or something. We can do that.”

“George, we don’t have a desert. And your mom isn’t going to fly you out west for a uranium hunt. This is Indiana.”

“I’ll come up with something,” I said. “I just need your help on the details.”

“It sounds like you hardly need me at all,” Frank groaned. “Look, why don’t you do something that’s simpler and less attention grabbing? You know, a little wind generator or a mini hydro-electric plant. You’re still generating power, and I won’t get arrested.”

“Nope. My grade is in the toilet. I have to go big or I’m doomed. I’ll figure out a way to get the Uranium. And I’ll do all the work. I just need you around to make sure I don’t accidentally blow everything up.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist -Episode 16

I dashed into the alley. If I could stop the truck before it got to the garage, maybe Frank could get away. I wasn’t worried about the other kids. They weren’t going to get in trouble. Frank was the only one of us with a court order that forbade him to mess around with science.

I banged on the door of the truck. The driver rolled down his window. It was Doug Werner from church. That was a relief. Doug was young. He’d only been working for the power company for a couple of years. I went to school with his little brothers. Doug wouldn’t call the cops on us.
“George, there’s something going on at your house. I need to check it out. There could be a wire down or a fire.”

“Or a hover board?” I asked, grinning widely. “Like in the movies, but in a garage?”  Frank had to be gone by now, and if he was around, Doug probably wouldn’t recognize him. “A bunch of us figured out how to made one.”

I led Doug to the garage. He watched, speechless, as one of the guys flew down a ramp, up the other side of the garage, and got far enough into the air to hit the roof top with his hand. The board stopped when its rider crashed into one of the air mattresses.

Doug pulled himself together. “Your mother is going to have a huge electric bill, George. Power isn’t free, and it’s summer. These are peak rates.”

“Told you we should have charged admission,” Joe interrupted. I scanned the garage. Frank was definitely long gone. Hopefully, when his parole officer came looking he’d be curled up on the couch with a book. And he hadn’t touched anything, so he wouldn’t have left a fingerprint on our hover board course.

Of course, if I played it right, maybe Frank’s parole officer wouldn’t even hear about the course.
“Before you make us shut it down, do you want to try it? I mean, not many guys can say they’ve gotten to ride a hover board.” I could tell Doug really wanted to give it a try. “And then, maybe… instead of just trashing it, we could sell it to the electric company? For educational demonstrations and stuff?”

Doug was really quiet. “I mean, if we gave it to you, maybe we could call it even, and mom wouldn’t have to see the electric bill? We worked really hard on it. And it taught us a lot about electricity and safety and stuff. Didn’t it, guys?”  Everyone obligingly nodded and murmured their assent.
Joe jumped in. “Heck, it could sort of become a tourist thing or something. People might come from all over the place to ride the Tell City Electric Company hover board!” Joe always had great ideas about how to put Tell City on the map. He planned on running for mayor as soon as he was old enough.

“Maybe I’d better try it out,” Doug said. “I mean, it would be silly to let all your hard work go to waste.” Someone slid the hover board toward him. He deftly stopped it with his foot, hopped on, and pushed off. All of the kids hooted and applauded as Doug shot off down a ramp, up the other, and into the air. He grabbed his board, did a 360, and came back down. On the next trip, he did a flip. He skated for about 10 minutes, which was more than his fair share, but who was going to kick him off?

 When he stopped, the garage erupted into applause. Doug grinned and wiped his face on his shirt. “I used to be pretty good, back in the day. Thought I was going to be the next Tony Hawk.” The other guys were so busy talking to Doug and congratulating him that I was the only person who heard the pounding on the back door of the shed.

I opened the door just a crack, praying that it was another kid, and not my mom. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses stood there. His arm shot inside before I could close the door again. His hand cradled a badge with the words “Federal Bureau of Investigation” on it. I froze.

 Behind me, Joe and Doug were discussing the best way to move the hover board setup to the electric company, and negotiating riding privileges for all of the kids who’d helped build the course. In front of me, a smooth voice said, “Mr. Ramondi, I have a few questions for you about your cousin Francis. Would you care to answer them now, or will I have to involve your mother in this…situation?”

Next Episode.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist - Episode 15

Within an hour, all the guys were at our house. Some of us built ramps and jumps out of wood scraps. A couple of guys cut the aluminum cans open with metal shears and smashed them flat with sledge hammers to create little sheets of aluminum. We used aluminum nails to attach the cans to the frames, so that we’d have an unbroken sheet for the hover board.

I was deep in thought, trying to figure out the best angle for a jump, when Frank tapped me on the shoulder. “George, we have a problem.”
“Problem? What are you talking about? This is going to be great!”

“How many guys are expecting to ride the hover board?” Frank asked. 

I shrugged. “All of them, I guess. Why would they be helping if they didn’t want a ride?”

“So we’re going to be drawing power for at least… 2 or 3 hours today. Don’t you think the electric company will notice the sudden spike?” Frank glanced nervously at the wall socket.

“Why would they?” I asked. “I mean, power is power. It’s always there. It’s not like they notice when we charge a lawnmower battery.”

“They’re going to send someone out to investigate,” Frank said. “Look, I got the hover board set up. But after I try it, I’m out of here.”

“You’re being paranoid. No one’s going to get mad over some kids and their indoor skate park,” I said. “But sure. Go home. Miss the fun. Be a stereotypical isolated homeschooler.”

Frank sighed. “Fine. I’ll stay. But if the cops come, I’m gone.”

I pulled out my phone and pulled up an app. “Look, I’ll tune it to the scanner. No worries.” 

When the course was done, Frank stood on the board as I plugged it in. Slowly the board rose until floated about 3 inches above the aluminum. The other guys gasped. I started laughing like a madman. I couldn’t help it. I’d known Frank’s idea would work, but I hadn’t expected it to be so cool.

Even Frank was grinning. He pushed off as if he was on a regular skateboard, and flew across the garage. Kids dove out of his way. He slammed into the wall, and fell off the board. 

“Frank!” I shouted. “Are you OK?” Frank wobbled to his feet and gave us a shaky thumbs-up.
“I forgot,” he said. “No friction, so you barely need to push at all.”

I claimed second ride since it was my garage. I gently nudged my foot against the ground, and the board went zooming up a ramp and towards the roof of the garage. As it lost contact with the aluminum below, it started to act like a normal board. I hung on, rode it back onto the ramp, and went hurtling across the garage as the acceleration of gravity took over. I threw myself off the board and onto some handy 5th graders before I plowed into the garage wall.

Joe frowned. “This is going to land someone in the ER pretty fast,” he said. “Everyone, go home, get all the air mattresses you own, and meet back here in 15 minutes.”  Joe tends to take charge like that.
The other kids scattered and came back with uninflated air mattresses. When we blew them all up, we had enough to line the garage walls with them. Suddenly, crashing was a lot less dangerous.

 One by one, all of the kids who had helped build the ramp took a turn on the hover boards. I grabbed a couple to come inside with me to get drinks and food for everybody. “That garage is awesome!” One of the younger kids exclaimed as I loaded him up with chips and 2-liters to take outside. “We should totally charge admission!” 

“Shhh,” I hissed. “My Mom’s working. And I’m not sure she’d be OK if the whole neighborhood showed up.”

The house phone rang. I answered so that it wouldn’t lure my mom out of her office. “This is the Tell City Electric Company,” the voice said. “Your house is drawing an unusual amount of power and we….”

“Thanks! I’ll check it out!”  I hit the off button. The phone rang again. I answered.

“Young man, is your mother home? This is a potentially dangerous…”

“Yeah, I got it,” I said. I hung up again and flung myself out the back door. “Frank!” I screamed. “Beat it, they’re coming…”

Usually, I love living just a couple of blocks from the power company. They can practically see our house from their office. When there’s a bad storm, we’re usually the first street to get our power back. Today was not a good day to be close. As I ran across the yard, I saw the truck pulling into the end of the alley. There was no way to hide. We were busted.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How I became a Mad Scientist- Episode 14

I thought turning the iron into an electromagnet would be exciting, and maybe involve blowtorches or something. I was wrong. It turned out we just had to coil the copper wire around the iron. Frank handed me the needle-nosed pliers and told me to start wrapping. “No, closer together," he scolded. "You don’t want any gaps, or it won’t work." My fingers ached before I finished the first magnet.

“You can keep working on this tonight,” Frank said. “Let me know when you’ve finished all four.”

“We’d get done faster if you helped,” I grumbled.

“No can do. I touch the pliers, I go to Juvie and break my mother’s heart,” Frank said. The house phone rang. Frank’s mother wanted him to come home. It was time for his probation officer meeting. He dashed out the door and up the street. I fixed myself a snack, wiggled my fingers for a while to loosen them up, and then got back to wrapping.

Frank came over after lunch on the next day and inspected my work. “Not bad”, he said. “Now we’ll need to attach them to a board and wire them up to the power source.”   

“Are we going to attach the lawnmower battery to the board?” I asked. "That would make it awfully heavy.” 

Frank stared at the wall for a moment. “You’re right. And anything powerful enough to create the kind of magnetic field we want but light enough to attach to the board would get us in trouble.”

“Us in trouble?” I asked.

“My probation officer asked some weird questions,” Frank said. “About sudden dips in the fish population, and weird sightings by boaters. Someone must have seen something, and clued the FBI in.”

“The FBI?” I choked on the popcorn I’d been tossing into my mouth. "Your probation officer works for the FBI?” 

Frank shrugged. “Well, I told you I made the feds mad,” he said. “Anyway, I think we might have to be more careful. The hover board will need to stay under cover anyway. Which means we’ll have to set up its course in your garage. On the other hand, that means we can skip using the lawnmower battery and just plug it right into the outlet. We’ll just have to be careful of the wires while we skate.”

I grimaced. “But the FBI, Frank. My mom will kill me if they confiscate our garage or something.”

“They’re not going to find out, George,” Frank said. “They’re not watching you, just me. Bessie was just a little too big and a little too weird. No one’s going to get upset about a couple of kids building a hover board. That’s just plain old fun.”

I nodded. He was right. Why would the FBI care what a couple of skater kids did to juice up their boards? It’s not like we’d be bothering anything. I mean, who cared what we did in our own garage? “So, what do we need to make this happen?”

“I told you before,” Frank said. “It’s only going to work on aluminum. So we’d need to build a skate park covered in aluminum in your garage.”

“Then it’s time to bring Joe in on the project,” I said. “If we let his little brother in on the deal, we can have this ready to go by tomorrow.” I texted Joe. “Big plans. Come over. Need to discuss off-grid.” He texted right back and said he was on his way.

I was afraid Joe would be skeptical, but after a quick explanation from Frank, he was totally on board. “You’ll have to help me haul the cans over,” he said. “You have a sledge hammer to smash them with, right?  And we’ll need some lumber to make the jumps and stuff. This will go faster if we get some of the other guys to help.” He grinned. “Man, this is going to be awesome. If it works, we should let the other kids know and charge admission! We’ll be rich.”

Frank grimaced. “I don’t know. We could get in trouble if…” 

Joe shrugged. “They’re all good guys. They know how to keep stuff on the down-low. And with more help, we can build a more awesome course. A hover board deserves something awesome.”

Frank was still hesitating, so I stepped in. “You’re right. Have the rest of the guys here in 2 hours. Tell them to bring any scrap wood they have laying around.”

Joe headed off to get the rest of the guys. Frank and I headed inside for some lemonade and a snack. “I don’t know,” Frank said. “This might be getting out of hand. If the FBI gets involved…”

“You said it yourself, Frank. Why would they care about some kids building a skate park in their garage?”

My mom happened to be walking by right at that moment. She paused, and came into the kitchen. “What’s this about a skate park in the garage?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said, “Some of the guys are going to help us build one. Since the one in the park is closed, and this way we’ll be in the shade and out of the rain.” She looked skeptical. “No permanent changes, I promise,” I said. “Just something temporary and fun for the summer.”

“Well, I guess that can’t hurt,” Mom replied. “Though maybe we should type up some waivers or something, so I don’t get sued if one of your friends breaks something.” She poured herself a cup of coffee and wandered off to her office.

“Waivers?” Frank asked. “See, even you mom thinks it’s getting out of hand.”

“Naah,” I chugged the rest of my lemonade. “She’s just working for lawyers this week, so her mind’s on that stuff. Let’s get outside and organize the tools. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be flying.”