The Steno Chair

The pronunciation was always a point of contention among my roommates, but it really only mattered in terms of how we were going to tell the story later.

In Dave’s room was a chair, rolled and tucked away in the nook of his desk. The box it came in said “Steno Chair.” An honest to goodness office chair in a college apartment. There was no way this chair would see graduation. We weren’t sure any of us would either, but as my favorite Subaru commercial says with wondered amazement, “They lived.”

Every word that follows is true. You’re going to want to believe that nobody can be this stupid, but I wouldn’t lie to you – we were this stupid, and it’s not even the dumbest thing I’ve been a part of in my life. I once jumped off the hood in front of a friend’s car while she was driving because I thought I could outrun her. So, yes, this story is true.

Steno of Death2

Steno Chair. Black, molded plastic framed a gray fabric seat and supported a floating backrest. A hydraulic rod descended into the star-shaped wheel base. Within that framework were five plastic wheels spinning on bearings of questionable quality. There were no arms on the chair, nothing to hold on to. After all, why would you need something like that?

Steno. Was it pronounced “steen-o,” or “sten, as in pen, -o?” We could have easily figured that the reference was likely to a Stenographer’s chair and that the proper pronunciation should follow that logic. But “steen-o” was more fun to say. And that was important. Steno Chair was fun, Steno Chair was a 5th roommate.

And it wasn’t long (may have even been that night) before we wondered: How fast do you think Steno Chair can go?

It’s one of those questions filled with possibility. Once asked, you can never look at Steno Chair the same way again. “Are you fast? Or do you just look fast?” Steno Chair didn’t look fast at all – that was the alcohol talking. Steno Chair did look somewhat robust, though, and we knew already it could take a beating. That really was the question when you got down to it: “Can you survive the torture we are going to put you through this year?”

We all played our roles, and I think that’s why we were such good roommates. Brandt was the voice of reason, almost like a mother. He knew immediately we were going down a wrong, terrible path fraught with heartache and pain, but bless him for not trying to stop us. Dave, Steno’s owner, was a force. A hundred miles an hour in everything he did. His laughter was infectious, and he could get you to do things you knew you shouldn’t but that sounded perfectly reasonable at the time. Trevor was an instigator. He encouraged Dave, and nothing was ever really a problem to Trevor. He kind of split the difference between Dave and Brandt.

I think I was more of a problem solver in the group. Maybe the other guys would disagree, but twenty-something years later that’s how I remember myself. When problems came up, I tended to ask the questions or make the statements that got us moving to a solution. I tend to take a “here’s something to think about” approach. “Do with it what you will.” Here’s an example, one for the history books: “If you want to get any kind of speed out of the Steno Chair, you’re going to want to sit with your legs pointed straight ahead and lean back a little. That’ll give you more stability over the rough spots.” I like to be helpful where I can.

After a while, it seemed there was nothing more important than getting an answer for Steno’s speed. Planning went full-scale that spring. We brought in more collaborators – David (whom I will refer to as “Dave #2” for clarity), Damon, and Matt, who actually just happened to be hanging out in the apartment while we were talking about it – and from that moment, this was officially a thing we were going to figure out.

Here’s the problem: out of our group, Dave, Dave #2, Damon, and I were pilots. If I were telling this story to other pilots, I wouldn’t need to say anything else. I would say, “we were pilots,” and they would say, “okay, that makes sense.” They might even say, “I’ve often wondered the same about my Steno Chair, but I don’t have any other pilot friends to help. I envy you guys.”

For those that are not pilots and who don’t know any, you need to know two things that define a pilot mentality: everything has the potential to be a crazy adventure, and if it’s possible, it absolutely should be tried. I think the other guys all fly professionally now, so I can’t tell you specifics about any of our other stunts without incriminating anyone. I can say, though, that it takes almost 8 seconds to roll a Cessna 172, and that you have to get the approach angle just right to wet your wings in the fountain at the West Point Stevens plant.

On a cool Saturday night that spring, we took Steno down a flight of stairs from our second story apartment to the parking lot below. We had about 60 feet of level concrete to work with. It wasn’t much, but these were just the first test runs. We started by running each other back and forth from one end of the lot to the other. Steno Chair proved that it could officially handle multiple passes at ten miles per hour. It wasn’t nearly enough, so we brought Trevor’s mountain bike down. At this point, it was helmets from here on out. Safety first.

One of the guys had brought some flexible tubing with him, and we thought this would make a pretty good tether. Getting the bike up to any sort of speed though was tough, and while the elasticity of the tubing helped give a slingshot effect at the end of the run, we just didn’t have the room we needed to get much past running speed. After a few tries, we thought it was time to give it up for the night.

I went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning and walked out of my bedroom into the living room, I saw Matt sitting in what was left of our Steno Chair. His back was turned to me, and when I said “Good morning,” a horror show began to unfold.

He turned slowly around as Steno squealed on its busted lift, listing to one side toward a missing wheel. As his expressionless face rotated into view, I saw that his thin mustache suddenly ended just past the philtrum, ripped clean off one side of his upper lip. More of his face was revealed, and it only got worse. Long gashes and road rash ran from his forehead to his chin on the right side of his face. His eyes were blackened and the white of one of them was now deep crimson from the busted capillaries. Blood was dried down the front of his shirt, and his hands and arms were scabbed over.

What follows is an explanation of the events that happened in the dark, late-night and early-morning hours from my point of view as if I had been there. It’s all true; the others’ stories are corroborated, and the evidence on Matt’s face and the busted Steno Chair support the facts.

The parking lot was too short. That much was evident from the first bicycle run, and there was never really any question that we were going to step up the scale, even though that wasn’t the original intent for that night. But get a few college-age pilots together, and a sidekick that just liked to hang out with us, and I really should have known that the night wouldn’t be over anytime soon. Dave and Matt had started trying a few short runs being towed by Damon’s Celica, but the space we had wasn’t nearly enough for more than fifteen or twenty miles per hour.

Sometime after midnight, I heard the Celica’s engine rev and the tires squeal, and the noise of the three Ds (Dave, Dave #2, and Damon) and Matt faded into the night.

Just on the other side of the small town that surrounded the sprawling university campus was a shopping mall. I don’t know if it is still there today, but I’d be surprised if it was. It seemed practically abandoned when I spent too many of my classroom hours in the mall arcade blowing more money than I’d care to admit on Tekken. If there was nobody there in the middle of the day, the parking lot was completely deserted at 2 o’clock in the morning. A few hundred yards of straight and level asphalt, spottily lit by the occasional streetlight, rarely patrolled by anyone that might put a stop to college boy shenanigans. It was perfect. So perfect that the conversation probably went something like this:

“Where can we get a clear space to get up some speed?”

“The mall parking lot.”

“Perfect. Let’s go!”

Matt took the first run, a hundred yard jaunt at about twenty miles per hour. Sort of a test run for road conditions. Matt would ride outbound, and my roommate Dave would take the trip back to the start. If you thought this story couldn’t get any dumber, you’re so wrong. You see, while Matt preferred the “tow behind” method of travel, Dave thought it was safer to do a “ride along” style. He held onto the passenger doorframe and was carried along beside the vehicle. Dave #2 was the anchor, securing Dave’s arm to the door. Dave figured that if the chair buckled, he wouldn’t go down with it because he would be held up by Dave #2. If something had gone wrong at that point, this would be a very different story today.

Each pass increased the speed a few miles per hour, so I’ll cut and save you some suspense here.

Thirty-eight miles per hour is the magic number. Well, technically thirty-seven, but we can’t know for sure because each pass certainly weakened Steno Chair’s structure. A single run might have been able to exceed forty (in fact, Dave’s prior run might have been faster, but twenty years muddles the details of history a bit), but in our case, thirty-eight was when the shit hit the fan.

Matt was set up for another run. Damon eased on the accelerator, and the slack in the tubing tightened. Matt was rolling. The Steno Chair wheels bounced and vibrated in a wild blur over the asphalt. What seems relatively smooth under foot or to a rubber car tire is not a hospitable surface for 2-inch plastic wheels or the bearings that support them. One of the front wheels had finally had enough and disintegrated under the punishment. The chair base dug into the makeshift test track and catapulted Matt into the darkness. What I saw that morning leaves no doubt that he went into the ground face first. Thank God for Trevor’s helmet.

I know the wreck was witnessed and reacted to immediately. While Damon drove, the two Daves were intently watching for signs of trouble. This was a serious scientific investigation, after all, so each run was monitored closely. That, and I think deep down inside we all knew exactly how we were going to figure out the top speed of Steno. The top speed could only be determined by complete structural failure. There was no way we were going to run up to twenty-five miles per hour and say, “Welp, I guess that settles that!” No way. The problem, though, was that I don’t think anybody thought Steno would ever get up to near forty. I shudder to think what would have happened if fifty had been the magic number.

As the Celica sped back toward Matt, the three Ds saw only a lifeless form on the ground. Matt wasn’t moving, and the possibility that our friend had just been killed in a ridiculous stunt seemed very real. Luckily, Matt came to right when they arrived, but not all was okay. He started frantically grabbing at his mouth and looking around in the wreckage around him. He began to shout, “My teeth! My gums! They’re everywhere!”

Something was definitely very wrong with Matt.

After finally convincing him that all of his teeth were amazingly still in his mouth, the three Ds got him back in the car and raced him to the ER. After some time of poking and prodding and picking gravel out of his face, the doctors sent him home. I have no idea if the staff believed the cockamamie story about a bicycle accident (which technically could have been true earlier that night), but they had the helmet as proof and the road rash to back it up.

The Daves and Damon brought Matt back to our apartment with instructions to keep an eye on him overnight due to the concussion. Damon and Dave #2 went back to their respective homes, and my roommate Dave went to bed. Matt was left sitting in the Steno Chair remnant with the instructions handed off for him to just sit there and not fall asleep.

And that’s how I found him that morning.

In college, we are unstoppable forces, juggernauts of senselessness. But we are not indestructible. While something most certainly did go wrong that night, the number of things that went right for Matt to be sitting there in that busted Steno Chair on a Sunday morning is incredible. I wonder what the doctors would have said if they had been told exactly what happened and not about a run-of-the-mill bicycle accident.

If the wheel had fallen away on Dave’s pass, he would have gone under the car for sure.

If they had gotten up to Matt’s planned speed – just a few miles per hour more – the impact could have been far worse. Deadly, even.


But those things didn’t happen, and so ends my version of the Steno Chair story. If you ask any of the other guys, maybe they remember a detail or two a little differently. But, probably not. Like I said, every word of this was true.


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