Monday, August 24th, 2009
What the Intergalactic Flying Saucer Trials taught me about being a good parent
Let’s build a flying saucer and throw it from off a bridge! My 5-year-old daughter loved the idea.
A month ago we decided to build a UFO based on the contest’s simple rules:
- Be disc shaped.
- Have an accessible cabin containing crew members that resemble you.
- Contain an operations manual.
- Be bigger than 4 inches and smaller than 24 inches in diameter.
- Weigh no more than 2 ounces for each inch in diameter.
- Contain no parts commercially manufactured as toys or sporting equipment.
- Derive forward momentum by hand.
Easy! Except, we never got around to building the ship. Or rather, I never got around to building it with my daughter.
Cue Cat’s in the Cradle.
I wanted to build a cool saucer, but I didn’t have a cool idea, or the time, and daily concerns quickly swept aliens from memory.
As the event day approached, our revised plan was to attend Bridgefest just to observe the quirkiness of what is commonly billed as a UFO festival.
My parents were coming too, although really just to visit our family. My mother (Grandma) was not keen on the event. “I’m not totally sure that’s the best place to be on a beautiful day in redwood country,” she wrote in an e-mail two weeks earlier.
Caption: That’s Grandma and my daughter inspecting a large UFO at the entrance to the event. An animated alien in the cockpit is coaxed into speaking when you stand in front of the saucer’s forward-mounted motion detector.
Bridgeville is located in the middle of redwood forests and river canyons, but on a map it’s nowhere, a speck in a long winding road 90 minutes from home. You may know it as the town that made headlines being auctioned on eBay… twice. It’s still for sale, by the way.
My parents arrived the day before the event. Surprise… Grandma brought with her a few paper plates and bowls with the intention of building a flying saucer that afternoon.
It was precisely the type of idea that makes me wince… too little planning, too little time spent on design, just all around an amateurish attempt. But there we were on a Friday afternoon, applying glitter glue and cheesy plastic gems to the outside of paper bowls and plates.
Did I say we? I meant my daughter. We each made a craft, but hers was to be the only one in the contest. The adult-made saucers all had serious structural problems.
My daughter’s saucer was created with no assistance from us. She also crafted head-mounted antenna out of pipe cleaners, which is another competition requirement (antenna, not specifically pipe cleaners).
Day of the Event
Bridgefest is held on an old, now-abandoned bridge. Not-alien-inspired vendor booths lined the bridge and local bands played at the far end near a food booth and a bouncy house for kids.
The alien aspect was embodied almost exclusively by the competition participants — 10 teams in all. A few additional people dressed the part of aliens and a contingent of spectators wore pipe cleaner antennas.
Wait, only 10 teams? And here my daughter was, on one of those teams because of Grandma’s 1-hour craft project.
Caption: That’s my daughter’s saucer. A plate, bowl, glitter and plastic gems. Pipe cleaner crew members are hidden inside, secured under a plastic dome-shaped Slushee-like lid I nabbed at K-Mart’s food cafe where truly alien food is served.
At the registration table, a fellow went down a checklist confirming our spacecraft was up to specifications. Then we moved to the art judges who assess not just the craft, but our operations manual (a scrap of paper my daughter wrote her ship name and crew names upon).
Everything about our contest entry was sub-par. A paper saucer won’t fly far (it weighed less than 1 ounce, but could have been 15 ounces per the rules). Other peoples’ ops manuals were elaborately written and funny.
And our crew didn’t have a catchy name, which is actually a requirement. They used their real names. For propriety’s sake an official dubbed them the “Cicpat” team (combining parts of their real first names).
But you know, everyone was cool about it. My daughter had a blast, and she was absolutely the only kid present who made her own saucer without parental help.
We scored 72 points out of 100 for style, as recorded on a giant chalkboard grid before the contest began. Ours was not the lowest score among the teams.
As Grandma and my daughter walked away from the scoreboard, this exchange took place:
Scorekeeper: “I like your tails.”
Grandma: “Oh, I don’t think the art judges noticed our tails.”
Scorekeeper: “Five points for tails. [His eyes drifted up as if in deep contemplation.] Yeah, I can do five points.”
The five points were recorded in a column dedicated for bribes. They later scored another 5 points for bribes; I’m not sure how.
Feeling good about things, we scarfed some hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob from a food booth and returned for the launch.
Other Saucers at the Judging Table
Caption: Although the Lego spacemen inside the above saucer are commercial toys, the applicable contest rule is really about contestants not showing up with a Frisbee or other devices manufactured for flight. That green disc is an upside-down planter pan used to catch excess water below your indoor plant.
Caption: I’m not sure what the above saucer is all about, but several people said it was organic.
Caption: That’s tree moss and leaves on her space helmet. And no, her team did not make the organic saucer.
While I was off hunting for an ice cream cone for my daughter, Grandma noticed a newspaper reporter interviewing one of the other teams. She walked over with my daughter and listened to the interview.
Afterward, Grandma beamed at the reporter and said, “This is the youngest entrant in the contest!”
The reporter seemed genuinely interested, interviewed both of them and shot some photos.
Lots of teams performed elaborate pre-flight rituals — making noises, dancing and such. To the judges this seemed as important as the actual flight of your saucer.
Some teammates both hold their saucer when throwing. For the teams that included one adult and one child I noticed the adult always threw the saucer.
When our turn came, Grandma lifted my daughter up over the bridge railing and away little hands sent the UFO on its journey.
Imagine a bridge lined with people, cheering and gasping as your handiwork takes flight, sharing your enthusiasm pretty much no matter how the flight goes.
My 17-month-old son even captured some excitement, pointing and grunting.
Caption: There’s my daughter’s saucer! The overview photo looks impressive, but the ship fell really close to the bridge.
Other Pre-flight Rituals and Launches
Caption: Those two are a single alien that speaks to itself in squeaks. The event organizer is at right. He was a nice guy, like the funky-cool science teacher you had in high school.
Caption: The moss aliens poured green liquid on their saucer before taking flight, calling it fuel.
Caption: These two put on a good show. The adult had two small toilet plungers on his head, adorned by speared CDs.
Caption: That’s green crepe paper on the saucer.
Caption: The forecast temperature was only 78 degrees, but I don’t know how this guy endured his body suit for several hours.
The river below the bridge is small at the end of summer, leaving a wide, dry field of rocks. A few saucers land in the water — an immediate disqualification. “At least it floats!” can be heard from the onlookers.
A few saucers break apart on their hard landing. If the miniature crew is ejected, it’s certain death — immediate disqualification. And, landing in poison ivy means you don’t get your saucer back.
Most ships survive, if a little dented.
Booyah! My daughter’s surly paper craft landed intact on the rocks. It flew less than 10 feet from the bridge, but hurrah! We were still in the competition.
See, everyone throws their saucer twice.
The next 15 minutes is spent watching judges measure landing spots in relation to a 60 foot yellow cable lying at a 90 degree angle from the bridge.
You score positive points for the number of feet your saucer flies and negative points for the number of feet the saucer lies away from the cable. In other words, a great throw sends your saucer in a straight path along that yellow line.
Both of our throws netted us negative points because we traveled less than 10 feet and landed far from the cable. Many saucers were in the 30 foot range.
In the second round of throws, the judges enacted a rule forcing the second person on each team — who hadn’t thrown their team’s saucer — to do it this time.
My daughter got to throw both times. I suppose Grandma was exempted because the act of lifting her teammate was assistance with the launch.
Caption: Judges on the river bed just past the 20-foot mark. It might have been a 20-yard mark.
Caption: But at least the crowd really enjoyed seeing it bust in two with a nice crinkly sound.
Caption: At least it floats!
Caption: The saucers are hoisted up to the bridge by a rope and cardboard box.
Caption: There’s the crowd watching the judges after the end of the second round of launches.
The moss ship wasn’t looking so hot after two flights.
Final Tally and Awards
I had prepared my daughter for other people winning because they’ve been competing for many years and know a lot more. We’re here to watch, enjoy ourselves and learn so we make a better saucer next year.
And hey, she had already been given a Bridgefest button just for participating.
The winners had a good idea who they were by looking at the chalk scoreboard. When the informal issuing of awards took place, only the top-scoring teams were present in a small semi-circle around the event organizer. Oh, except for Grandma and Granddaughter standing right there at the front.
My daughter was excited to see who would win. We’re glad she exhibited good sportsmanship to cheer on the best competitors.
There was no loud speaker, no throng of onlookers. It was like a chat among friends.
The first three awards were Bridgefest pinback buttons with silicone noodly appendages dangling from them. The buttons said things like, “Most points,” “Longest Flight” and “Best looking rig,” with two of each so that both teammates would receive one.
Three other awards for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place were present and it became clear that the same teams that received the buttons would be receiving the other prizes as well.
And so it happened that 3rd place was dynamically awarded in grand impromptu fashion to my daughter for “shortest flight.” She received an alien keychain.
Hey, what about the parenting lesson?
Oh, you already know the parenting lesson. Get off your duff and do stuff with your kids. It doesn’t have to be perfect. They’ll have fun.
My daughter appeared in the Sunday newspaper in a story about Bridgefest, including a thumbnail photo in the print edition. It’s her sixth time being in a newspaper (2 covers), always because we’re out doing stuff with our daughter.
I suppose I could be mildly rankled that Grandma was quoted in the article talking about how she, her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law each made saucers at home. What am I, chopped liver?
But it was Grandma who turned what would have been a fun afternoon into a truly memorable occasion and what is sure to now be an annual tradition for our family.
Caption: Spreadsheet enthusiasts will want to know the column names:
- Crew name
- Positive points: appearance + materials/bribes, launch and flight score (for 2 launches), total
- Negative points: whiner, parts lost, river landing, other/bribes
- Grand total for most points.
Caption: And there’s a view of the flight bridge after the event as vendors began packing up. We are sooo going back next year.