Kevin H. Posey
When I was a kid back in the ancient times before the internet and selfies ruled the Earth, a bunch of my classmates and I were transferred from Waddell Elementary School to Mathews Elementary. These schools were in a then-sleepy, southern mill town in west central Georgia known as Columbus. Because of the town’s name and my lack of a pronounced accent, I am forever cursed with the need to explain that, no, I didn’t grow up in Ohio. I should add a standard no-offense-to-anyone-from-Ohio statement here.
The transfer took place between first and second grade. When asked why this was happening, my parents were a little at a loss. How do you explain the complexities of civil rights and segregation to a 7-year-old?
Mathews was in rougher shape than all-white Waddell. The library was badly out-of-date, the interior was dimly-lit, and there was no air conditioning. Attending class in a school with no cooling in the Deep South is like climbing into an oven to see what a pizza feels like.
Our new classmates looked different from us, but at that age everyone looks different for a multitude of reasons. Girls were far more of a concern to my male buddies, but not for the reasons that would dawn on us much later. Girls at that age tend to be more mature, both physically and mentally, than boys. That means they were bigger, stronger, and…well, let’s just say you didn’t want to make some of them mad. As I vaguely recall, one of my buddies did this repeatedly, only to discover what a trash bin looked like from the inside.
This was a more primitive time, in terms of playground equipment. By primitive, I mean that trial lawyers hadn’t found playgrounds to be a lucrative revenue source. So, our swing sets were basically tall, steel pipes welded into a triangle with a fabric strap hanging from chains. I know there are those who claim it’s impossible to swing over the top bar in a complete 360 degree arc, but I SAW IT HAPPEN! More than once! No, I didn’t try it (obligatory denial in case my mom reads this).
In addition to the Swings of Doom we also had a Merry-Go-Round, which I will abbreviate as MGO because I went to Georgia Tech and that’s just what we do (or JWWD, if you prefer). This MGO was not anything like the silly things found on playgrounds today. Those are solid disks; this was more like a centrifuge.
Think of the whirling space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the absurdly-expensive spoke wheels on your kid’s tricked-out Honda Civic. This MGO sat on a barren hillside devoid of vegetation. It was just clay and bits of rock. The hub was anchored in concrete, with wooden planks forming the ring. The ring was attached to the spoke by several curved, metal pipes.
Technically, we were only supposed to push from the outside of the ring. We were not supposed to get inside the ring and push. “I repeat, do NOT get inside the ring and push!” That instruction was repeated more often than most of my math lessons.
Being clever, yet insanely reckless, kids, we figured out ways to get around this instruction. One way was to start off with a bunch of kids pushing along the outside of the ring, while three kids pushed inside. The ones on the outside obscured the view of the ones inside. Nothing to see here, teacher. Move along.
Now, here’s where the physics come in. Someone pushing inside the ring can exert much more force relative to someone outside. So, nine kids pushing outside would easily be overpowered by the three inside. This meant that those outside needed to hop on quick once we hit Warp 1, or get dragged when they lost their footing. Newbies learned that lesson the hard way. Plus, those inside the ring weren’t covering nearly as much distance, so they didn’t have to run as fast. But, they did have to push hard.
At this point you might ask, didn’t the teachers wonder what was going on when the MGO started spinning faster and faster with fewer and fewer kids pushing on the outside? Luckily, our teachers weren’t physics professors, so they didn’t notice this until things got really crazy (more on that in a second). Plus, the older kids were usually playing softball with aluminum bats, which they inevitably deployed on each other at some point during the game. That ranked far higher in the alert hierarchy than an MGO that was turning into a blur.
Now you wouldn’t guess that seven-year-olds would be an egalitarian bunch with a keenness for meritocracy. Maybe our class was weird, but we were very big on fairness. Extremely so. All were welcome on the MGO, as we didn’t comprehend the racial issues our elders were dealing with, but you had to push. But that mandate applied to the outside of the ring, not the inside. The inside was a place of honor. Only three of those willing to put in an extra effort, or were superhuman in strength, got to get in there.
Two kids who were regulars in the center were Elizabeth and Isabel. Both towered over everyone else in the class, especially the boys. Because they were so strong, they got to get in the center whenever they wanted. The meritocracy at play ensured that. Their frequent presence there, combined with the inherent prestige, meant that the MGO was their domain. I could go on about controlling the means of production, but that’s a Russian thing and I don’t really want to be President.
To be clear, everyone else got a turn in the center. If you tried hard enough, any physical issues were overlooked, as they were in my case. At this age I suffered from debilitating asthma, in an era when asthma was looked upon as weakness about adults. So, it was a bit tough to be terribly effective when pushing, as I sometimes was getting about as much oxygen as Matt Damon in The Martian if he hadn’t gone back for his helmet.
Elizabeth and Isabel knew that, but they never made me think of myself as weak. On those rare days when I was breathing clearly, I was able to come close to matching their efforts with a hidden card up my sleeve: adrenalin. If you’re an asthmatic, you’ve probably gotten an emergency room treatment involving adrenalin. You also have probably noticed that when your natural adrenalin kicks in, and there’s no breathing issue in progress, you can juggle cars. Well, inside the ring of the MGO, that kicked in.
On those rare days, I easily understood why Elizabeth and Isabel coveted the inside of the ring. It was power. In this case, the power to make your classmates squeal with joy…and in some cases fling off into the distance. Here’s where things get crazy.
It was a bright, sunny day. Elizabeth and Isabel were in the center, along with a large boy whose name eludes my overcrammed brain. All three were an equal match, a genuine rarity. The MGO was a little over-capacity, which meant that handholds were tenuous. The teachers were distracted by a minor riot on the ballfield, and we knew it. Time for some speed.
My buddy Jimmy was next to me on the ring. As the spin velocity increased, I wrapped my arm around the bar in a deathgrip. The surrounding world was a blur. We were all pulling Gs that probably qualified us for the astronaut program. I glanced at Elizabeth and Isabel in the center. It was clear from their slightly evil grins that they were in the mood to see just what the max speed of the MGO really was. Suddenly, I see Jimmy go from a crouched position to a horizontal one. He’s still holding onto the bar, but his feet are straight out behind him.
This is my introduction to centrifugal force. Merriam-Webster defines this as the apparent force that is felt by an object moving in a curved path that acts outwardly away from the center of rotation. Don’t go confusing this with centripetal force, which is:
The force that is necessary to keep an object moving in a curved path and that is directed inward toward the center of rotation. A string on the end of which a stone is whirled about exerts centripetal force on the stone.
If you get these mixed up, gangs of physicists will come to your house and mock you. They’ll be wearing khakis and riding Segways.
I am astonished. How can Jimmy defy gravity like that? More importantly, how can I do that? The look on Jimmy’s face relays a somewhat different thought: “WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?!” And then he loses his grip.
Now at this point I must reassure you that no harm comes to Jimmy. He was possibly my most accident-prone friend, though another named Steven did manage to break both arms a few years later while riding a minibike (think of a Harley-Davidson for Mini-Me). After that, Steven looked like Robby the Robot and was mocked with cries of, “Danger, Will Robinson!” Don’t worry, he made us pay for that later.
Jimmy could fall off his bike, off a wall, out of a tree, and off the MGO without any problem. It’s probably a good thing I hadn’t seen M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable at that point, or I would have been suspicious.
Once Jimmy loses his grip, he becomes a slideshow:
Slide 1: Jimmy is just a couple of feet off the MGO, still with a surprised look on his face. Still horizontal.
Slide 2: Jimmy is now a teacher’s length away. Same look, same departure angle.
Slide 3: Jimmy’s getting kind of distant now. Looks like he’s coming in for a landing.
Slide 4: He BOUNCED? I can’t get my basketball to bounce that high.
I yell down at Elizabeth and Isabel that Jimmy just flew off.
It takes awhile to slow down to sub-light speeds after that. We all go over to Jimmy’s impact point, which resembles the skid marks on the end of a runway. Jimmy is surprisingly undamaged, though I think his pants had to be retired after that. As with any kid that age, he wants to do it again. Alas, the teachers had quelled the ballfield riot and arrived to investigate and question witnesses.
We didn’t get in (much) trouble. Plus, we were even able to replicate the centrifugal force experiment a few days later. Naturally, as a particularly scrawny, lightweight kid, I volunteered to see if I could match or exceed Jimmy’s flight. I am pleased to report success and can verify NASA’s good judgement in using water landings, as opposed to my clay-and-rock site.
Sadly, adults aren’t fond of kids having fun. The next year the Merry-Go-Round was removed, for safety reasons we were told. Years later I would hear rumors that some parents didn’t like their girls playing rough or didn’t like their kids mixing with those of other races.
You’ve probably noticed I didn’t identify anyone’s ethnicity in this story. That’s because it didn’t matter to those of us on the Merry-Go-Round, being pulled together by the centripetal force of teamwork, even as the centrifugal force of the spin and our elders’ biases tried to throw us apart. And it shouldn’t matter to you, either.