The uses for rubber bands

By Steve Estes

Strictly Drivel by Steve Estes

While I was busy trying to catch up on my mile-long honey-do list last weekend, our seven-year-old asked me about helping him build a boat.

Immediately what flashed through my mind was some kind of skiff he and his buddies could take out hunting bugs later in life…but then I shook the cobwebs out and realized he was looking for anything that would float in the water fountain, or the pool, or the remaining rain puddles.

I couldn’t help him at that particular time, but I will get around to it this weekend. (I’ll just have to ignore the honey-do list for a while and hope I don’t get caught).

And now that I have come to my senses and realize what kind of boat he was asking about, I can make some better plans.

So during one of my sales call drives this week I began to think about the kinds of boats I built when I was but a wee lad in the old country (southwest Ohio where they just think old) and realized there are a lot of options.

When I wasn’t allowed to handle knives, or sharp scissors, and wood wasn’t something you played with, my first boats were made of paper.

We would fold them into diamond shapes, overlapping the sides to maintain a little bit of watertight integrity, and set them adrift in the creek (pronounced crick where I’m from) and watch as they sailed off down the creek.

Back then, pollution wasn’t an awareness issue like it is today. Today, I’d retrieve the boat before it got out of sight.

Then I discovered glue and found that I could glue a sail onto the paper boat and it would travel farther and faster down the creek, and if the wind was just right might actually run against the current for a few seconds.

When I was allowed to play with knives and could go out and find my own wood, we began building wee little canoes, whittled from a tree branch. Often they crashed into the shore line before going very far, but we learned from our mistakes.

And then (drum roll please) we discovered rubber bands.

I always knew that rubber bands were amazing things, great for shooting one’s older sister in the back of the head from great distances, knocking the take-out cup of coffee off the table across the way to shut up the loud mouth sitting there telling his life story to no one who would listen, or just burning the nose on the class bully from angles he would never expect.

Rubber bands were also great for temporarily tying the cat’s feet together so he could be gathered up for the trip to the vet, and with a big enough rubber band, you could set the front door to automatically close—rapidly—in your older sister’s face.

Yes, rubber bands were indeed the versatile item in a young boy’s arsenal of useful things.

But for propulsion?

That opened up whole new vistas of boating without power.

With a tree branch and a whittling knife, you could arrowhead the bow of your boat, cut a notch in the stern, use a flat piece of bark and wind it up in the rubber band. Attach the rubber band to either side of the stern notch, give the mechanism a few good twists, and drop the boat in the creek.

It was gone.

But even rubber-band power had a learning curve.

Being young, we only twisted the rubber band a few times in the beginning, getting short, furious runs out of the boat before the current took over again.

Then we thought, hmmmmmmm, the further back you pull the rubber band while shooting it across the room, the more it stings the older sister when it smacks her in the back of the head.

Hence, the tighter the rubber band, the more force.

We were applying Physics 101 at the ripe old age of eight,we just didn’t know it was called Physics.

So we added a few turns to the rubber band. The boat shot off the line with a lot more power and traveled further than it had in early test runs.

So we added a few more twists. We got better performance, more hole shot, more distance, and were pleased with the results.

But we forgot that every rubber band has its breaking point, or for lack of a better term, its peak performance coefficient for optimal results.

When you tried to hit older sister in the back of the head from too great a distance, the rubber band simply fell short.

Pulling the rubber band further back usually wound up resulting in welts on one’s own face as the band snapped and clipped you across the mouth. You see, you have to raise the rubber-band gun to your eyes to properly aim. It was always the bottom of the band that broke. The one next to your lip.

Split lip. Lots of explaining to do to parental units, long runs away from older, faster, sister to avoid well-deserved beatings.

But we also discovered that over winding the rubber band when used for propulsion resulted in some not quite so serious unintended consequences.

When the rubber band was too tightly wound, the makeshift propeller would spin too fast, throwing water into your face and leaving the boat “spinning its wheels” going nowhere.

Of course, this is how we learned to smoke tires on cars later in life, but that’s fodder for another story in the future.

Thus we had to learn just the right amount of winding for the rubber band to make the boat shoot out of the hole and actually travel down the creek before the band ran out of winding and the current took over.

Of course, there was always the little kid in the neighborhood who was overjoyed to be “racing boats” with the bigger kids.

He was our guinea pig to test the winding. If something went wrong, it was he who got the face full of water, and occasionally it was he who got the split lip when the propeller came flying off the back of the boat from too much speed and smacked him in the face.

He thought it was great fun.

We just smiled.

But in return, we taught him how to fashion the most accurate rubber-band gun…and then sent him home with a good supply of rubber bands.

And didn’t tell his older sister.


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