Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Adventures of the Reed Rocket

When I came back to Austin from Nepal, waiting for me was a dusty old broken Sears Silvertone organ that my parents had found for free. I tried to turn it on a couple of times and nothing happened so I kind of forgot about it until December when my good friends John, James, and Jonathan decided to fix it up.

We took it out of its crumbling, bulky formica case and were surprised to find how small the actual musical part was: the reed and keyboard structure resembled a giant harmonica a couple feet long, and  most of the wiring went to a simple electronic beatbox.

You can actually almost play it like a harmonica by blowing into the bottom, but I wouldn't recommend it.

We took off the air pump and separated the ancient broken Italian motor, replacing it with a better one that we found from discarded vacuum cleaners behind a vacuum supply shop (we also replaced the crumbled hose with a vacuum cleaner hose). 

We went to a battery store and weeded through their discarded non-lithium chargeable batteries and hooked them up to our new contraption, and then put the whole thing onto an old external frame backpack. It looked like this:

can't... reach... the 'on' button

It was finished on December 31st, and the stroke of midnight found me strapped into that contraption. We walked up and down Burnet with a banjo and serenaded the partygoers, and up into Billy's Bar where we played Auld Lang Syne in front of the revelers. ("Wooo!" they said. Also: "Play Metallica!") When we first switched it on and the air pump started purring, the bartender nervously asked me if I was about to take off. Because of that and because of the giant motor on the back, we decided to call it a reed rocket. 

A few weeks later Jonathan and John and I took a road trip up to Washington DC to stay in for an indeterminate amount of time John's apartment above a Mexican restaurant in Adams Morgan. I was there for a good chunk of January. My motivations were to check out job prospects and to learn about punk music. We saw Trophy Wife in Baltimore and rented some practice rooms in DC. It was a lot of fun. I also got to visit Casey from Pomona and Nepal Fulbrighters Kent, Hattie, Mikaela, Marissa, and Hannah. They do seem to cluster around DC, these people I know who do interesting things. 

As a member of Occupy Austin, one of Jonathan's main motivations was the January 17th Occupy Congress Rally, and he was excited about the prospect of using the reed rocket as a tool of democratic discourse. The night before the rally we were at HacDC, a DC Hackerspace. They were all involved in crazy interesting projects, but they very kindly helped us out by putting connectors onto the wiring of the reed rocket and building a battery charger. They also gave us some twine and helped us paint and heat-dry a giant canvas Texas flag for the rally. 

While Jonathan stayed at the Occupy camp, I spent the night soldering connections and charging batteries.

The day of the rally I spent the morning researching awesome protest songs like this, this, and this (with minor lyric changes). Meanwhile, Jonathan was at the rally, livestreaming through his phone to Giant Pipewrench Media and generally protesting and being like a stinging fly on the donkey of society and all that good stuff. Neither of us took pictures, though, so here are few I found on the Internet:

I eventually made it down there and played some songs from within the contraption. Unfortunately, battery and motor troubles caused a premature end to the music (to be honest, I probably could have used some more practice and, er, voice lessons). As I packed the now useless reed organ into the trunk with the keyboard on the bottom, a policeman wandered over and asked me what exactly I was loading into the car:

This doesn't look suspicious, right?
But we were able to convince him that we were musicians and that we were unlikely to cause an (intentional) explosion. We spent the next week wandering around the monuments of DC and getting research passes to check out books at the Library of Congress (this is where Jonathan found Legions of Babel). 

It took me a day to cut a donated bicycle box down to size so that it was small enough to pack on a plane, determine that everything on the organ could legally be placed in checked luggage, and slap large labels on everything that looked suspicious. The reed rocket is now in Austin and after some minor repairs will soon be put back into the service of agitating for democracy. 

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