He did not specify the details when sophomore-year history teacher, Mr. Stammerjohn, assigned students to create historical items for his class. He suggested that some students could make a cannon replica, a painted flag, then offhandedly, a guillotine. As for the guillotine, what he meant was a twelve-inch stick, glue, and tape model, which a few students did decide to build. Popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue uprights, with others side by side, to make the platform, topped with one of their parent’s double-edged razors to act as the blades. A couple were quite nice. I don’t remember if they actually chopped anything.
We were always an odd duo, my friend Tim Abernathy and I. We took the instructions to heart. The project grew. After a few designs on lined notebook paper, some scratched out, and some tossed toward the trash can, we had our plan. The result was a seven-foot, fully operable “lettuce chopper.” It was heavy-duty construction made from materials we “borrowed” from my father’s construction business. Better yet, it could be broken down for transport.
“What are you doing with my stuff?” Dad was not amused. “Mr. Stammerjohn said… and we thought… and so… well, we…,” was our explanation. The words eventually rolled out to explain the pile of contraband. To our surprise, my dad “got into” the project. He was good at mechanical improvisation, the same way stand-up comics can hurl insults at hecklers. He was good, and he had suggestions to make the contraption work better. After we fumbled through a few tries at making various wooden triggers, Dad walked to his truck toolbox. A short time later, he produced a gate latch that made the perfect blade release. His realtor friend’s sign that had moved from a home sale became the blade. “He won’t mind,” Dad explained. Not that he ever knew.
The garage was filled with sounds of creation; the buzz of a table saw, the squeal of a grinder, the hiss of a power drill. It was our pine-dust opus that blended the aroma of fresh-cut wood and the spicy pungence of smoking metal with a succulent zest of boy sweat. Our first try failed. The thin sheet-metal square wasn’t heavy enough to decapitate our test subjects; lettuce, melons, and other vegetables from the refrigerator. “Try bar stock at the top to weight the blade,” Dad suggested.
It worked. It was a success. We had a real-life, French-authentic, king-top-lopper — a compact, working guillotine. My mom’s produce supply was exhausted, but the project was a success. After a couple of coats of flat-black paint, we stuffed the possibly illegal construct into the back of my dad’s truck and delivered it to school in time for our presentation. The class was stunned. The teacher was stunned. The principal, Fleming Hass, was stunned enough to check the school’s insurance policy. The school was covered. The project was accepted.
Hot damn, an A-plus! We were given an A-plus… something neither Tim nor I had accomplished in our high-school academic careers. The newsletter for the school system ran a picture of the two pseudo-nerds who let their imaginations run. We were sophomore-class legends. Later, Mr. Stammerjohn had us move the machine to the teacher’s room. “Good God!” I heard another teacher exclaim. Our project became a hit with the other educators as well. After that, Mr. Stammerjohn refused to return it. Either the teaching staff used it for drinking games, executing effigies of specific students, or setting examples of those who liked to cut class, I’m not sure, but they did know what trouble two boys could get into with such a device.
Years later, I visited the school and was surprised to see the guillotine still standing among the globes and books and copies of neatly organized tests that lay on the surrounding teachers’ desks. I don’t know if the teachers chopped lettuce or cubed melons or used it for practical jokes on each other. But I suspect it may have been used to inspired students like Tim and me to toe the line and do better work. You could do that back then. It was the Sixties, and things were tough. Remember, we walked to school in our bare feet… in the snow.
– JD Byous