The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy
Where Do You Stop?
Chapter 3: The Real Value of Junk
by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy



  THEREFORE, IT IS NOT SURPRISING that when I found myself bored, when I didn’t know what to do with myself, when I was a little on edge and needed to find or devise a way to relax, or even when I was just looking for a way to pass the time, I sought inspiration in junk.
    Most of the time, I found it there.  The ready availability of intriguing materials is, I think, a spur to creation more often than the arrogance of artists allows us to admit.  Fortunately for me, I lived in a family where there was plenty of intriguing stuff around.  My father and Guppa not only held on to a great deal of what most people would have discarded but scavenged and accumulated bits and pieces of what other people actually had discarded.  They regarded any useless thing with the attitude that its true, deep, hidden, or overlooked utility would be revealed—eventually.  This attitude was summed up in the words they muttered when they tossed the thing into a corner of the cellar instead of tossing it into a trash can: “Never can tell—might come in handy someday.”
    For me, these things already had their uses, since they were fodder for my browsing.  I know that my mother understood the value of browsing through junk, because whenever she noticed that I was bored, didn’t seem to know what to do with myself, was fidgety and at loose ends, or seemed to find time hanging heavy on my hands, she would suggest that I pass the time by browsing through junk.  Oh, sure, she might begin more conventionally by suggesting games or puzzles, but if I showed no interest in that sort of thing she would say, “Well, then, if you have nothing better to do, why don’t you straighten up the cellar,” and I knew that “straighten up” was her way of saying “poke around in.”

I HAVE SAID IT BEFORE: so much depends on chance.  At my mother’s suggestion, there I was, down in the cellar, poking around in the junk, when I came upon something intriguing: the remains of an old windup record player.  I don’t know where it came from, but whatever the source, it had, fortunately, reached our cellar in a state that made it completely useless as a record player but ideal as a diversion.  Thank goodness, it had no amplifying horn, no pickup arm, no needles.  If it had, I would never have seen it as raw material; I would have seen it as a record player, and I would have been blinded by that perception of it.  I might have tried to fix it, and I might have filled the afternoon with the effort, but I would probably have failed and emerged from the experience frustrated, diminished by failure, possibly scarred for life.  Instead, thanks to the providence that had dictated the evisceration and amputation of certain record-playing essentials, I saw only an engine, just something that would make something else rotate.  Happy accidents had presented me with the ding an sich and a tacit invitation to make of it whatever I would.  Its life as a record player was over, but there was a vital spark in the old gadget yet.  All I had to do was discover its true, deep, hidden, or overlooked utility.

THE THING AS I FOUND IT was, essentially, this: a motor driven by a spring that the operator wound with a large crank (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

The motor was mounted vertically inside an oak box, with the shaft emerging from the top of the box.  Mounted on the end of the shaft, outside the box, was a platter, covered with green felt.  The record was supposed to spin on this platter, of course.  A small lever beside the platter moved a brake into position to keep the platter from spinning while the spring was being wound, or to release it to allow it to turn.  Mounted farther down the shaft, inside the box, was an intriguing trio of metal balls.  Attached to each ball were two strips of thin, springy metal.  The opposite end of each of these springs fitted into a slot in the rim of a metal collar that fitted over the shaft, one collar above and one below the arrangement of balls.  These collars kept the balls in orbit around the shaft, suspended by their leaf springs.  The lower collar was fixed in position, and the upper one slid on the shaft; however, its movement was restricted by a screw that projected downward from the top of the cabinet, its end against the upper collar.  By turning a knob, I could move this screw in its threaded fitting and vary the location of the movable top collar.  When the screw was at its lowest setting, the top collar was pushed closer to the fixed bottom collar, and the springy bands were extended outward, pushing the balls into an orbit more distant from the shaft, where their greater angle of momentum slowed its spin and, therefore, the rotation of the platter.  When the screw was at its highest setting, the springiness of the metal bands brought the balls inward to a closer orbit and allowed the shaft to spin more quickly, rotating the platter more quickly, just as spinning skaters spin faster with their arms at their sides than with their arms extended.  The adjustable orbiting balls acted as a governor, a limiting device.  Their original purpose had been to allow the operator to keep the platter spinning at the 78 rpm of old shellac records, so the range of adjustment was kept short, just a narrow band at the center of the machine’s possible range of speeds.  The original purpose didn’t interest me, though.  I wanted to see the machine spin at its extremes, so I began dismantling the governor.
    By removing the adjusting screw entirely, I could make the platter spin much faster than it was ever intended to spin, and by doing away with the trio of balls I could make it spin faster still, quickly enough to catapult small objects from its rim.  I tried this for a while, shooting things across the cellar and marking record distances on the floor, but I quickly reached the catapult’s practical limits, and the record player vibrated so violently that it seemed likely to shake itself to death, so I gave that up.
    More intriguing was the opposite extreme.  With longer screws I could slow the machine down.  When I’d inserted the longest screw that would fit, driving the top collar down against the bottom one, I thought for a moment that I’d slowed it as much as could be done, but a little thinking showed me the next step: longer arms, bigger balls.  The balls didn’t have to be mounted on the shaft, I learned; they could be mounted on the platter and they’d accomplish the same thing!  It was the work of a happy hour to attach three dowels to the platter, each with a rubber ball at its far end.  The system wasn’t very well balanced, but it turned with majestic slowness, the balls bobbing gently as they orbited the center.  The whole arrangement reminded me of the electrified model of the solar system kept in a glass case in the hallway of the oldest of the elementary schools in town.  The school board had spent quite a lot of money to buy this model solar system and, fearing that use would wear it out, limited its public appearances to an annual demonstration before an assembly of students in the school auditorium, when we actually got to see the creaking mechanism turn.  At the center, symbolizing the sun, was a naked light bulb.  That, I saw, was what my gadget needed—a light.
    I thought of trying a small table lamp, but my mother spotted me sneaking it out of the living room, so I had to settle for a flashlight.  I taped the flashlight to the platter, wound the motor, and released the brake.  Watching the spot of light moving around the walls of the darkened cellar, I realized that I had here the essentials of a lighthouse.  I had wanted a lighthouse of my own for years.  Now I was halfway there.  I had the mechanism.  All I needed was the shell, the housing, the lighthouse equivalent of the record player’s cabinet.  That couldn’t be hard to come up with.  Next to what I had already accomplished, it ought to be a snap.  I didn’t see any reason why, with some help, I couldn’t build a lighthouse in the back yard in a couple of days.  Of course, I would need my father’s permission.

I HAD LEARNED that the best time to bring such things up was over dinner, preferably late in the meal.  I knew, too, that I had to be careful not to give the whole plan away at once, since my father had noticed—and on occasion had pointed out to me—the fact that some of the projects I undertook didn’t turn out quite as I had advertised them before I began.  It would be best, I reasoned, not to announce my intention to build a lighthouse, especially since lighthouses were a touchy subject in my family.  I’d once hoped that my father would build one for me, right through the center of our house.  He’d started, but in the middle of the project he’d thought better of it—though I certainly wouldn’t have put it that way—and abandoned the project.  It would be best, then, to claim that I had something else in mind, something more modest.  I asked permission to build a shack.
    “A shack?” said my father.
    From something in his voice, and from the way he stopped his fork on its way to his mouth and looked at me over it, I realized that I had chosen the wrong word.
    “Well,” I said, “not a shack, a hut.”
    “A hut?”
    Wrong again, apparently.  “A fort,” I tried.
    “A fort?  What kind of fort?”
    Apparently, that wasn’t going to work either.  “More like a clubhouse,” I said.
    “Oh!” he said.  “A clubhouse.  Sure.  Why not?”
    At last.  “Great,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I SUSPECT that my father didn't have much faith in my ability to build a clubhouse or a fort or a hut, or even a shack for that matter, and that he expected me to build, no matter what I called it, an eyesore, because he allowed me to build it only if I built it at the top of the hill, where my failure would be hidden by the grove of bamboo.


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Where Do You Stop? is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

Copyright © 1992 by Eric Kraft.  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Where Do You Stop? was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.


For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.

The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.

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