Going Ballistic

Going Ballistic

From Monday Magazine, August 1990

At one point I thought, You know, if I had to turn around right now and leave this party at Lake Cecebe, it would have been worth the drive from Toronto just to have crossed paths with this guy Brantz.

Five minutes after we arrived, we heard a sound like a wine cork popping at the bottom of a well. Down on the lawn was Brantz, and he was holding something that looked like a leaf blower. A three-foot length of four-inch black ABS tubing that fed into a little cylinder with a spark plug attached. It was a potato bazooka. He’d made it himself. And he’d carried in a giant box of potatoes to supply it.

How the device works is, you jam a potato into the mouth of the barrel. If the potato’s too big you shave it down with a paring knife until it just fits. To demonstrate, Brantz fitted a potato into the aperture and snugged it right to the hilt with a piece of rebar.

He then readied the propulsion. He’d brought a can of Tame hairspray, which he discharged for about a second into the chamber before quickly screwing the end on tight. In warmer temps you have to use more – maybe two seconds of spray. If it’s too warm the gun won’t work at all. “A computer does it for you now, in your car engine, but in the old days you had to mix the gas to get the right richness through the carburetor, it was a science, just as this is a science,” Brantz said. He shouldered the device, pointed it straight up and depressed a button to create an ignition spark. Thoomp. The potato flashed from the barrel, a quick smudge, and it was suddenly a couple hundred feet in the air, like a fireworks shell, and everyone braced to scatter until it became clear that the potato was headed out over the lake. It landed with a faint plunk.

“Do you make these guys for sale?” someone asked. Brantz allowed that he had made a couple, but he didn’t really want that getting out. “We’re not sure if it’s a firearm.” People lined up for their turn to try. Mostly the guys. In fact, from the moment he heard the first dull boom, and saw what was happening, virtuallly every guy at this party was on his feet and coming over to investigate, before his rational mind had a say in the matter.

The first few customers fired their potatoes out into the lake, tracking the trajectory. Then Brantz loaded the gun and pointed it at a boulder about ten feet away. He fired. The sound of the gun and the sound of the potato hitting the rock were almost instantaneous. The potato was vaporized. Anyone within fifteen feet of the rock was covered with juice and fine pulp and bits of peel. I thought of the O. Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” where a potato baked in the first is dropped down the shirt of a camper. You don’t often think of potatoes as weapons, but anything can be.

Brantz has blown things up all his life. At age five he was caught just in time before putting a bowl of gunpowder in the oven.

Folks should have been scared of Brantz’s gun, but many people were emboldened by liquor and the tests became riskier. Terry, a Toronto software distributor who had earlier humiliated me by exposing my ignorance of the cow-tipping myth (“It’s a joke. Oh, man!”) put on a ball glove an stood fifty metres away on the lawn, pumping the mitt and asking for heat. Branz must have felt this was a safe proposition as long as he was the one firing the gun. He’d had quite a lot to drink himself. He leveled the weapon at Terry, then put it down and went to get his video camera, “in case I need it in court.”

The first shot sailed over Terry’s head by about three feet. Terry didn’t even react. I don’t think he saw it. The potato vanished into the trees behind. A few people grew rightly concerned at this point. Brantz loaed again and passed someone the video camera. They got behind Brantz like a serious cinematographer, crouching there, and Brantz fired again. The potato zipped out of the barrel.

Terry saw it coming this time and tried to move his glove into position. The potato hit him – it wasn’t clear where at first – and it atomized, just as it had on the rock. He remained standing, stunned. It had struck his thigh. Had it been eight inches to the West the weekend would have turned out very differently, and Brantz and Terry’s lives would have wound together into a future probably involving the medical, legal and carceral systems. As it was, Terry – either the most fearless man I’ve ever seen or an exceptionally high-functioning drunk – walked back to the barbecuing area and carried on with the rest of the day’s events. He didn’t even limp. He’d grimaced and swallowed the pain and just walked it off, like Pete Rose. By the next morning he had a bruise the size of a pancake there. “If you hit someone from close range you’d kill ‘em for sure,” Brantz said, “even if you only hit them in the belly.”

We were left to speculate about Brantz’s fascination with this weapon, which never left his side all weekend. No one mentioned Freud by name.

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