Perhaps the first time I ever saw a slingshot and how it was used was in an episode of the “Spanky and Our Gang” series. One of the kids carried a “Y” shaped, cut branch in his back pocket with a length of inner tubing tied to the two upper branches. Holding onto the bottom of the “Y,” he could put a pebble into the tubing and knock a fat man’s hat off twenty feet away. When we got a little older, the neighborhood kids and I all tried making these for ourselves. The first problem we encountered was the lack of proper hardwood trees. The branches from the local trees were either too sticky (pine), too flexible (willow), or too brittle (aspen). Then someone’s Dad showed his son how to use a coping saw – it’s like a hand-powered jigsaw – and we were able to cut scrap plywood into the proper shape. Old bicycle inner tubes were easy to find and cut up.
At this point we ran into the second obstacle. To get any distance, you have to pull back hard on the rubber. The harder you pull, the harder it is to keep the body of the slingshot perpendicular to your arm. At some point it tips back toward you until the chances of the pebble bouncing painfully off your hand instead of hitting the target become insurmountable.
So we put our slingshots away and began to concentrate on other wholesome fun like setting our model airplanes on fire or chasing Jeannie K, one of the neighborhood girls, down the street with a hypodermic-shaped stick, threatening to give her a shot.
Then one day Tommy N, from across the alley, showed us his newest acquisition. It was a slingshot, but what a slingshot it was. Made of a single piece of aluminum tubing that sinuously curved down through the grip, wrapped around your wrist, and came back up through the handle and attached to strong lengths of surgical rubber. It was called a Wrist Rocket because the padded loop around your wrist kept it sturdily vertical. This was not a toy, this was a weapon. A weapon that oozed danger and adventure and we all wanted one.
“Wow, where did you get that?”
“At the Bait and Tackle shop. It’s on the highway over on the West side. They’re a dollar seventy five.”
We followed him outside for a demonstration. With very little effort, he could shoot a pebble more than half a block away with remarkable accuracy. Enthralled, I went home and feverishly schemed ways to come up with the money. After three weeks of scrimping and saving, I had only accumulated seventy-five cents. I was no better at scrimping and saving then as I am now. But after scrounging under the cushions of the living room couch, I had enough to buy a dozen lemons and some sugar which I parlayed into a lemonade stand out by the street.
To this day, if I see a card table out next to the sidewalk with a pitcher on the table and a kid sitting on a stool behind it, I will always stop. The price for a lukewarm cup of lemonade may have gone up from a dime to a dollar, but the eager salesmanship is still well worth the time spent.
Near the end of the afternoon, the Ghicadis family, out for a walk, put me over the top. The next morning my friend George and I packed lunches in brown paper bags, got on our bikes, and headed West.
As we walked our bikes across the pedestrian bridge over the railroad yards, we saw a steam locomotive approaching and we stopped where it would pass underneath. At this time, many of these steam-powered engines had been retired in favor of the new diesels and by 1960 the transformation would be complete. But on that August day in 1956, we laughed and whooped as the smoke and steam billowed up around us.
We were back in our neighborhood late that afternoon. George had to go home to do his chores and I had to figure out where to hide my new Wrist Rocket where my mother wouldn’t find it. At some point Mom must have decided that if she were going to have to give birth to and raise four boys, they would all grow to manhood with use of both eyes. Any toy that could shoot a small or pointy projectile at enough speed to put someone’s eye out was absolutely forbidden. While my best friends Tommy N and Tommy D both had arsenals of BB guns, dart boards, and bows and arrows, I had to defend the vacant lot from the onrushing hordes of Chinese Commies with a squirt gun and a ping pong ball shooter.
Once the new slingshot had found a home under my chest of drawers and behind a row of old shoes, The next problem became what the hell to do with it. I could go rabbit hunting with Tommy D and his older brother. My brother Lewis and I had gone on such a trip with the two of them armed with their BB guns. After an hour of not seeing anything to shoot at, they decided to shoot at us. Those BB’s are small, but they sure can sting. At least with my Wrist Rocket I could give a good accounting of myself. But then there was that “shooting somebody’s eye out” thing.
A day or two later we realized that the Moores, who lived across the street, were growing ammunition for us. They had a decorative concrete and stucco fence around their property. Right up next to the fence they had planted three plum trees. For several weeks in the Spring, the trees were covered with beautiful violet-colored flowers. Then the petals would drop, leaves would appear, and the trees would set about their pre-ordained task of making plums. Which never ripened. Because of Wyoming’s short growing season, when plums in warmer climates were turning sweet and juicy in the last weeks of August, the Moore’s plums were still small, green, and inedible. But, we discovered, they were just the right size for shooting at cars. With a Wrist Rocket and a well-aimed plum, a kid could make the rear door panel on a ’52 Nash Rambler ring like a Temple gong.
Soon there were four or five of the neighbor kids who had Wrist Rockets. The technique was to fill your pockets with plums, have a round in the sling pouch ready to go, and hide behind something. When you heard a car approaching, you straightened up, took a quick shot, and jumped back into hiding. Almost invariably, when a car was hit the driver would slam on the brakes, jump out, yell curses and threats, and examine the car for damage. Seeing no culprits to chase, he would angrily get back in and drive away.
Sheridan Street, a fairly major East-West traffic artery in the Laramie Street System, ran right along the edge of our neighborhood. Every city block, at least in our end of town, had an alley running through it. Because of the vagaries of early city planning, between Sheridan Street and the parallel alley there was a long strip of land deemed too narrow to build on. In those days there were no Weed Control Laws and by August every summer this strip was thickly covered with three foot high ragweed plants.
To allergy sufferers, a stand of ragweed like this was an awful health hazard. But to a group of 10 and 11 year-old boys with slingshots, it was perfect cover. A boy could pop up out of the weeds with his Wrist Rocket already drawn, shoot a plum at an oncoming car, scrunch back down out of sight, and listen for the hoped-for THUMP when the target was hit. The only drawback was that you had to lay low in the weeds for the next twenty minutes whispering quietly to each other, “Is he gone?” “Do you think he might come back?” and “That was my plum that hit, I think yours went over the trunk.”
So there we were on a sunny, Saturday afternoon. After successfully drumming a Ford station wagon and a furniture delivery van, we were waiting in the weeds for our next victim.
“Car coming from the left!” Tommy N hissed. “Get ready…” I gripped the plum in the leather sling and pulled it back part way. “Now!”
Five of us jerked upright out of the weeds, simultaneously pulling back on our slingshots. There in the street was a Laramie City Police car with two cops inside looking directly at us. We were frozen with fear as the cruiser slammed on the brakes and the passenger side cop thumbed a microphone.
“You kids come over here, now! and bring those slingshots with you!”
All five of us turned around and ran like rabbits.
If you pit two of Laramie’s finest, in a powerful squad car with its lights flashing against a crew of kids running through their own neighborhood, who do you think will win? We knew every back yard, every gate that would open, every fence you could jump, and every hiding place. The cops, on the other hand, were confined to driving up and down the streets and alleys hoping to flush one of us out. I spent the next forty-five minutes in a narrow gap between a fence and a garage behind a pile of used tires. Periodically I would catch a glimpse of the police car barreling down a street or idling down the nearby alley.
I buried my Wrist Rocket in a far corner of the foxhole we had dug in the vacant lot. A few days later, after the much-feared house-to-house search never materialized, I dug it up and put it back under the chest of drawers in my bedroom. There it would gather dust. After Labor Day had passed, school started and we were on to other things like pick up football games in the park and rooting for the Dodgers to win the pennant and beat the Yankees again in the World Series.