It started innocently enough.
“Mister, what did you do for your 18th birthday?” one of my seniors asked.
“18th birthday…” I repeated. My mind did the necessary time travel: 18 would have been my senior year of high school, couldn’t party yet, senior year, birthday… It hit me and all the memories came flooding back.
“Oh!” I said. I was so excited that I chuckled. “This is going to be a long, stupid story.”
There is only one trophy in my house and it is mine. It does not bear my name or the name of a team. Ir reads:
ENGINEERING EXPO ’98
DESIGN OLYMPICS COMPETITION
4TH PLACE PENDULUM DESIGN
APRIL 9, 1998
I took physics during my senior year of high school and participated in the University of Hawaii-sponsored Engineering Expo, which featured various competitions including bridge building, egg drops, and pendulum design. My friends and I were entered in the last of these. The objective was to build a machine – using only the concept of a pendulum – to accurately hit golf balls 10 to 15 feet away. As of the end of school on April 8, 1998 (my 18th birthday) my group had not built our machine. In fact, we hadn’t started building it at all.
April is in the middle of the high school baseball season so my classmate/teammate and I left practice early to work on the machine. I mean, it was for school, so totally legit. But the machine wasn’t the thing that had excited me most that day. I was excited to show my friend Rutherford Jameson, my “pet” chameleon. Rutherford Chameleon was one of those green chameleons that were plentiful on this island before those dark brown ones took over. Rutherford Jameson was large; he was long, but especially fat. He resembled an alligator in this way: tiny arms protruding from a bloated body with head and tail on either end. He wasn’t really my pet. He was my friend. He liked to cruise on the slats of wood which were nailed across the stilts which propped up my house. He especially loved the area near the water hose. Rutherford Jameson was not flighty like other chameleons. He just lay on his slat like a miniature iguana. I’d come home from practice then head into the yard before going inside. Sure enough, he’d be there. It was the consistency that I valued most. It made no sense to me at all that a chameleon should be have this way, and yet he did – every day. “Sup, Rutherford,” I’d say to him and extend my fist. Of course he wasn’t going to bump it, but he didn’t run from it. I considered that tantamount to a fist bump.
So I had been telling my friends about Rutherford and his seemingly eccentric behavior (You’re right. In retrospect I don’t know how I had friends, either.). I was really excited to confirm his existence. When my teammate and I arrived at my house I dashed into the yard. Rutherford Jameson was not on his usual slats. I was surprised. I can’t remember if I called his name, but I am pretty sure I rhetorically asked where he was. He was going to make a liar out of me. A few minutes later I found him. He was crushed between coils of the wound water hose. I ran into the house to confront my father. What transpired next was the stupidest conversation he and I have ever had.
“Dad! You killed Rutherford Jameson!” I shouted.
“What?” my dad said.
“Rutherford Jameson! My pet chameleon!” I said.
“A chameleon?” he said.
“You crushed him in the water hose!” I said.
“Oh, the fat one?” my dad said.
“Yes!” I said.
“Oh. I tried to shoo him away, but he didn’t really like to move, yeah?” my dad said.
“That’s what I loved about him!” I said.
“Sorry!” he said.
“Ahh!” I said.
I was obviously exaggerating my emotions, but it’s amazing that my dad didn’t just punch me in the mouth at any point during that exchange. I always assumed he was playing along too, because he’s not the kind of man to care about his oldest and handsomest son’s emotional attachment to a chameleon. But I’ll never forget the tone of his voice when he said that part about trying to shoo Rutherford away. There was a kind of sincere emotion – something like a recognition of what had happened. Perhaps he didn’t believe my histrionics, but he knew I wasn’t lying about the existence of that plump reptilian source of joy.
And so it was under this cloud that my friends (some arrived later in the evening) built the pendulum. My dad was actually the one who suggested the basic concept, then somehow – and really, it’s still one of the most incredible-yet-halfassed things I’ve ever pulled off – we built this thing pretty well. We stood two 6-inch pieces of 2×4 as pillars mounted to a base connected only at the back end so the golf ball would fit between the pillars.We drilled holes for an axle and passed the axle through an empty spool of fishing line. We stabbed a screwdriver through the outside of the spool and fixed it in place. The handle of the screwdriver would strike the golf balls. At 11:30 at night we couldn’t believe how well it worked.
We brought the pendulum to UH the following day. I had written “In loving memory of Rutherford Jameson” on one of the two pillars. We finished in 4th place out of 30-something entries. The team from Saint Louis through staples onto the carpet (the competition surface) after their turn. It knocked one of our balls out off target. We reported it to the UH students running the event. They didn’t do anything.
I took the trophy home because I wanted to share it with my dad. No one objected. Somehow, it has survived two residence moves and 19 years.
“So yeah. That’s how I spent my 18th birthday,” I said.
My students were laughing as I had focused more on the Rutherford Jameson aspects of the story.
“Wooooow, Mister,” the student who started all of this said.
“I know, I’m an idiot,” I said. I turned away briefly. My eyes were a little wet.I hadn’t thought about those two days in years. It’s so easy to forget stuff when you’re caught up in everyday challenges. I’m so grateful that my student prompted the recollection of these ridiculous memories.
You were a good chameleon, Rutherford Jameson.