A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption, invention, device or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion, usually including a chain reaction. The expression is named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg (1883–1970). Over the years, the expression has expanded to mean any confusing or complicated system.
– from wikipedia.org
Me and Rube
Before I describe the Rube Goldberg mechanism I built today, let me explain the situation.
My clay target shooting this summer has been terrible. Abysmal. Targets that used to disappear in a cloud of black smoke go sailing on untouched. I fear this is more than a short-term slump. Proficiency in wing shooting is a perishable skill, and it has become evident that mine is perishing.
Sure, it’s only a hobby, like golf or tennis, and as we advance in years we become less adept at our recreational pastimes because our coordination and prowess diminish. I can accept, for example, that I have been soundly thumped 8-0 by my five-year-old grandson in a backyard soccer game. But accept the loss of my skeet shooting skills? No! This is not merely another annoyance of the aging process, this touches a nerve at the core of my being.
Foolish and inane as it must seem, the ability to break a clay target in flight is an integral part of my identity, my self-image, my persona. I may be regarded as a Crazy Old Coot at the gun club, but they acknowledge that I’m a skeet master coot. Over the past five years I shot the high-over-all score in the skeet league twice and finished as runner-up once. This summer I have not once run 25 targets. My high score for the season has been 23, and with the 18-target round I shot last week my average has probably plunged to 21.
This sorry state of affairs is primarily due to one frustrating station on the skeet course: Station 2. More than once this summer I have slunk away from that station from hell, head hanging in shame after missing three consecutive left-to-right crossing targets from the high house trap. Three zeros on the score sheet proclaim my utter inability to break the Station 2 high house single, the “option” single that immediately follows, and the high house half of the Station 2 high house – low house double.
It’s enough to make a man take up bowling.
A gracious and sophisticated person would admit, with poise and maturity, that his eyesight and dexterity are fading in his senior years. But I am not that sort of person. I rage, rage against the dying of the light, or in this case the eroding of the motor skills. I refuse to go down without a fight.
The answer, it seemed to me, was practice, practice, practice. I set up a manual clay target launcher in the north pasture of our farm and adjusted it to throw a reasonable approximation of the Station 2 high house target. After about 50 or 60 repetitions, I felt I was making progress, hitting two of every three. That’s not nearly good enough, of course; a good skeet shooter has to hit more than 90 of a hundred.
Unfortunately, I have had trouble shooting a sufficient number of 100-round practice sessions. My hunting companions will drive out to the farm every few weeks and shoot a couple dozen clay targets in preparation for the approaching bird seasons, but they are not skeet shooters. They do not understand the necessity of shooting 100 or 200 rounds at the exact same left-to-right target, or the need to swear like a sailor and throw an empty shotshell hull across the field when I miss.
My long-suffering wife has also placed limits on the time she will spend operating the manual target launcher for me. She has taken to calling them “practice obsessions” rather than “practice sessions.” I suggested that I could purchase an automatic, wireless-controlled target thrower for $1,600 and launch my own; that proposal died in committee and did not come up for a vote.
Consequently, I have had to improvise. Putting my engineering savvy and handyman experience to use, I found a way to convert the manual thrower to an auto-thrower, of sorts. The manual machine, a product of the R.L. Torresdal Co. of Ossian, Iowa, has a spring-powered arm that the operator cocks, sets a clay target in place, and pulls the release lever when the shooter calls “Pull!” Simple enough to modify using a “sand in the hourglass” device that I designed and built.
I attached a strap to the release lever, ran it to the rear of the machine, and hooked it to a plastic bucket. A bracket holding a large funnel was clamped to the frame of the thrower. Sand poured into the funnel slowly fills the bucket until its weight pulls down the strap and trips the release lever.
To operate: you dump a quart of sand in the funnel, walk to the shooting station, pick up your shotgun, load it, wait for the sand to weigh down the bucket, hear the “sprong!” sound of the thrower, and shoot the target as it flies by. Walk back to the thrower, re-cock it, place a target on the arm, dump the sand in the bucket back into the funnel, and return to station for the next shot. What could be more complicatedly simple? Clever as monkeys, those Old Coot garage workshop mechanics.
The only major problem was that the machine would tip over on each throw; it was designed to be held in place by the weight of the operator on the padded seat on the frame. In less than an hour I had constructed a T-shaped wooden base and strapped the machine to it with a ratchet-style strap that was formerly used to secure a bow-hunting stand to a tree. Now the thrower is solid as a rock. Well, solid enough.
Admittedly, I have been forced to adjust my shooting style. The release of the target comes five to 10 seconds after I reach the shooting station. Sometimes longer. Sometimes not at all. But I rationalize that this is excellent preparation for the annual October woodcock hunt, imitating the nerve-wracking wait for the cock to take flight from under my French spaniel’s nose.
This style may or may not be applicable to shooting on an official skeet range. I can imagine myself explaining my new technique to the trapper:
“When it’s my turn to shoot, I’ll walk onto station, but I won’t call ‘pull!’ Watch for me to close my gun, and then launch the bird in the next five or 10 seconds – whenever you want.”
If I break 25 straight next week, that should nail down my reputation as a Crazy Old Coot. I’ll let you know how it goes.
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.