History Alive

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    In January, I wrote a column about the Marine Pool, now the Cruiser Club, on East Shore Trail and mentioned a man who catapulted himself into the pool. When questioned about whether this really, truly happened, I went back to the Lake Mohawk archives. In a large, dusty old scrapbook entitled "Publicity 1939" were the many newspaper clippings I had previously read. Believe me, you can't make up stuff this good. It seems that in July of 1939, Walter M. Bura, a "slim, good-looking boy of 22," took a leave of absence from his job as a tool designer for the Wright Aeronautical Company in Patterson and was working as a lifeguard at the Marine Pool. He was an excellent swimmer and diver and his specialties included jumping off the 35-foot high tower while tied in a sack, swan diving into a flaming ring of gasoline and various other acrobatic dives. He was also an inventor and was fascinated by the catapult after reading about the Roman military stone-hurling devices. For some reason, Bura became interested in designing a human catapult. He worked on the mechanism for one year at a cost of $200, constructing six scale models before attempting to test his contraption, which he planned to demonstrate at aquatic shows. He said several engineers had told him it would not work and he would probably break his neck. Finally, the catapult was ready for demonstration. The machine, a "strange and evil-looking device," was set up on the boardwalk at Lake Mohawk. It was a triangular framework of channel irons with a board called a "sled" which slid up a 35-degree incline at a tremendous speed after 65 strands of stretched airplane shock cords were released. A chain hoist was used to stretch the cords. The "sled" was used as protection from the friction of the cords and would fall away as he was catapulted upward. That July day, "the kid, who had more sense than you would expect", according to a reporter, coated himself and the board with lard and lay down on the "sled." He had a small platform to brace his feet. Doctors warned him that his neck and backbone must be in perfect alignment and his knees stiff or his body could bend and buckle. So he took some time in perfectly positioning himself on the board. Then, an assistant released the trigger and Bura shot into the air for 130 feet like a human cannonball! Latter, he said the shock was so great when he took off that he lost consciousness for a moment. Luckily, he regained his senses in mid-air and hit the water of Lake Mohawk head on. "If he stays in one piece, he may be a rich man one day," said The Daily Mirror. But Bura was not satisfied with his performance and planned to boost his trajectory by at least 20 feet by increasing the tension on the shock cords. Then he would be able to insert six or seven somersaults in the air before diving into the water. (The aerial somersault record at that time was 4-1/2.) Bura hoped to thrill audiences at Jones Beach and in Florida in order to make enough money to finance the manufacture of a machine he invented for use in butcher shops. He had worked on that project for two years. The formidable publicity department of the Arthur Crane Company, who had developed Lake Mohawk, lost no time in publicizing this event. Pictures and articles were published far and wide across the country, from The Newark Evening News, The Des Moines Tribune, The Oregon Journal, The New York World Telegram to the New Orleans Item, to name just a few. There was even a picture in Life Magazine. The titles of the articles ranged from "A Human Glider" to "The Living Projectile" to "The Daring Young Man on his Flying Machine" to "Youth Springs a New One!" Unfortunately, there is no more information about Walter Bura and we may never know if he ever realized his dream. Or if he did, indeed, break his neck. Instead, let's choose to believe he became a wealthy man from his butcher shop invention and lived happily ever after. Article by Judy Dunn Sparta history isn't only about buildings or places; it's also about people. If you know of an interesting person who should be part of our heritage, please contact the author at 973-729-4325. The next meeting of the Sparta Historical Society will be held in May.