Apr 192015

I remember a strange incident from my childhood which involved what might be called an improvised weapon.

This must have happened when I was in about the 8th grade, which would have been the mid 70’s. I recall it occurred in the springtime, as it was light out after dinner, but not summertime. I was at home, and I began to hear an unusual sound outside. It was strange “foomp” sound, a loud and occasional percussive noise. Eventually I went outside to investigate. I saw several boys I knew gathered at the corner. They had constructed a cannon of sorts, which could shoot tennis balls into the air.

It consisted of a number of steel soda pop cans, each ganged together in a vertical stack with tape. Back then pop cans were made of steel and not aluminium. The bottom can of the stack had its bottom intact, but its top was crudely punched out with a tool, probably a screwdriver, resulting in a plate of mangled metal. The bottom of the next can in the stack was similarly punched in both the bottom and top. The top can in the stack, which was probably 5 or 6 cans tall, had the very top carefully removed, I think with a can opener. The can at the bottom of the stack had a small hole punched in the side, just above the very bottom. A tennis ball was placed in the top can of the stack, which fit just perfectly.

The boys would squirt lighter fluid into the small touch hole at the bottom, insert a tennis ball at the top, and shake the stack. In retrospect, the use of the crude tool to mangle the tops and bottoms of the middle cans instead of using a can opener was rational, as it increased the surface area inside the cannon, enabling greater vaporization of the lighter fluid. The cannon would be placed vertically and a match or lighter would be brought to the touch hole. A great “whoomp” sound would be produced, and the tennis ball would be shot perhaps 50 feet into the air.

You would think that an activity like this would become insanely popular amongst boys back then, but I only saw it used the one time. Years later, I built one myself with my friend Tim Cridland. I’m not sure what sort of can I used, as this would have been the late 80’s, and steel cans were becoming harder to come by, but not impossible. As I recall, I got it to work, but the novelty of the creation was gone, and it wasn’t quite as amazing as seeing it for the first time.

The stimulus for writing down this recollection was drinking canned Asian coffee recently, which made me recall the days when soda pop was packaged in steel cans. I’m not even sure if tennis balls are packaged in steel cans anymore, or if they would provide a tight enough fit to make such a thing.

 Posted by on 04/19/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Tennis Ball Cannon