By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s not often that you can swing by a friend’s garage, in Jefferson, on a Friday evening and walk away wondering if what you just witnessed constitutes a violation of the United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects.
Snappy title, eh?
But, specifically, Protocol IV.
The one dealing with “blinding laser weapons.”
Everything in Troy Powers’ garage, he casually tells me, would be illegal in Great Britain.
But here in a country where you can still own your own .50-caliber sniper rifle, what’s a lil’ ol’ 150-watt neodymium laser?
“Just a reflection can cause eye damage,” Powers said, even though you can’t actually see the beam.
The Chinese once weaponized the infrared beam as the ZM-87 Portable Laser Disturber. (Never mind that China is among the 109 parties to Protocol IV.)
Powers got his — which currently stands in a corner of his garage behind a stack of car tires, and presumably isn’t so powerful as to land him on a list of state sponsors of terrorism — in a surplus sale at Iowa State.
Spend any amount of time with Powers, 30, and the conversation is sure to come around to lasers, which he uses to up the cool factor of gadgets he builds based on things he sees in movies, video games and comics.
He was a presenter at the recent GC Mini-Con at the Greene County Community Center, where he once again showed off a wealth of geeky DIY projects.
His homemade lightsabers all contain real lasers. There’s an eight-watt laser inside his mechanical “arm cannon,” based on the one used by galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran in the “Metroid” game series.
He outfitted a store-bought “Star Trek” phaser with a one-watt laser.
Pfft. What’s one measly watt?
“That’s like 1,000 laser pointers,” Powers noted.
Powerful enough, in other words, to totally blind a 737 pilot on approach or to entertain the world’s largest cat.
I didn’t actually drop by Powers’ garage Friday evening to talk lasers (this time). Rather, he’s been wanting to show me a project years in the making — a real-life hoverboard.
“I’ve been wanting to build this my whole life,” Powers said.
At this point, Powers’ wife doesn’t even bother making an appearance.
The last time I stopped by, several years ago, I brought over a package of Ball Park beef franks, and we nuked one using Powers’ “Ultimate HERF Gun,” an ordinary microwave oven that he had disassembled and rebuilt in the form of a laser blaster at the request of the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines, which challenged him to build something that could cook bacon in a fun and educational way. (HERF, by the way, stands for high-energy radio frequency.)
In theory, Powers said then, it could also disable a newer-model car.
This time, I brought along my 10-year-old son, who has been asking questions lately about why some classmates are identified as “talented and gifted” and others are not. (He was not, I suspect, because he most likely inherited my math genes.)
I wanted him to see what “talented and gifted” really looks like — it’s a guy who wasn’t identified as either in school.
Instead, Powers, who graduated from Jefferson-Scranton in 2006, was tagged as “disruptive.”
We could hear the sounds of the high school football field, where the big Homecoming game was nearing kickoff, right up until Powers activated the two jet engines on his DIY hoverboard.
A hoverboard — you know, a combination skateboard/hovercraft — has been Powers’ holy grail ever since he laid eyes on one in the Windows 95 game “Jazz Jackrabbit,” which came loaded on his mom’s computer.
Then he finally saw “Back to the Future Part II,” which hit movie theaters 30 years ago this fall.
“This is prototype 12 in the last four years,” Powers announced.
In “Back to the Future Part II,” partly set in 2015, the hoverboard used by Marty McFly is a sleek floating skateboard made by toy giant Mattel.
In real life, it’s a lot more complex — Powers’ is a 30-pound contraption powered by a water-cooled, 11-horsepower motor spinning at 150,000 rpms and two small ducted fans producing 15 pounds each of thrust.
On this night, it was hooked up to a series of little lead-acid batteries. Optimally, the juice would come from four lithium polymer batteries, but he blew those eight minutes into his first ride last month at the Science Center, where he debuted the hoverboard publicly at the annual Des Moines Mini Maker Faire.
Eventually, he hopes to hide the components for a sleeker look.
“I’m just continually prototyping and making the next one,” he said.
Making one is apparently easier than riding one.
“It’s a really weird feeling,” Powers said. “It’s kind of like being on ice.”
A year ago, when his feet lifted off the ground for the first time, he was in his basement, holding onto a post for support.
The realization that he could move in any direction was thrilling.
“This, to me, is a childhood dream being realized,” he said. “I just keep getting closer.”
“I’m hoping by next summer I’ll be able to ride it around town,” he added. “I’m hoping by Bell Tower.”
And, no, his wife no longer allows him to keep it in the house.
“She’s incredibly concerned about everything I make,” he said.
By day, Powers is a wind turbine technician who troubleshoots problems 300 feet in the air.
By night, he’s like a millennial version of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future.”
One day, I totally expect to hear him use the word “jigowatt.”
Admittedly, he’s exhausted the internet — like, the whole thing — of information pertaining to hoverboards. He’s now turning to old books with such eye-catching titles as “Hovercraft Design and Construction.” (It’s on order from Amazon.)
“I still have questions I need answers to,” he said. “A lot of this has been trial and error.”
Powers’ thirst for knowledge is what makes him unique. His curiosity is endless, like when he points to his yard and explains how astonishing it is to realize that each blade of grass is made up of a million cells.
“To me, the world is just so amazing,” he said. “How can I not want to learn more?”
The hoverboard is just the latest in a long line of gadgets and toys.
What’s funny is that he chose this year to debut it.
A visitor once told me that the Greene County courthouse, with its giant clock, reminded them of the fictional Hill Valley courthouse in “Back to the Future.”
At the time, I just kind of chuckled.
Then, the day before I was set to check out a real-life hoverboard in Powers’ garage, Wild Rose Casino opened a sportsbook.
You’ll remember that sports betting was a major plot device in “Back to the Future Part II,” when the 1955 Biff is given an almanac from his future self containing complete stats for every sporting event from 1950 to 2000. (He amasses a fortune and remakes Hill Valley in his own image.)
Suddenly, things are getting strange.
So strange, in fact, that when I joke to Powers that I sorta half-expect him to message me someday about visiting the future — and that I need to come over sometime and check out the time machine in his garage — he’s forced to make a confession.
“I’ve looked into that, too,” he said. “I’ve checked out time travel for years.”
Like the movie said, “To be continued.”