Yes, I can say with pride that I did invent the Frisbee — or at least my version of it.
Even though it might not have looked like the ones we have today, it was still a Frisbee. At the age of 5,I truly was an entrepreneur. Because we were so poor and had very little when it came to toys, we had to make or invent our own. No, I am not poor-mouthing, that just was the way it was for most of the people of western Tennessee during the ’50s just like here in North Carolina.
As I have said in the past, most of our memories are brought on by pain. This day could not be less of a day in memories just because it was not my pain that brought on the memory of which I will tell you. But pain is still to be a part of this memory for me, as I would get my taste of it also.
For this 5-year-old, life was all new and great as I was not a little boy in my own mind, but a little man just like the other men, only I was little. I still had all the adventure of an older man — let’s say of the age of 7 or 8. They were grown men, as far as I could see at that time. It would also be one of these grown men of 7 or 8 who would help me invent the Frisbee.
Even though he would have been just as happy to not have the scar or the memory of that day or any part of the inventing process.
It was a warm summer day, we lived in a small valley town of about 300 people, give or take. I knew everybody and they knew me. I think this was one of the few times in my life that I was truly happy, I was too young not to be. I lived one street back from the main road that went through our valley. That was Tennessee State Highway 21, that ran from Union City to Memphis.
That was the only world that I knew. The road was my boundary, I was never to cross that road, for if I did, death was sure to follow. Either in the form of being ran over by a car or death by mother. The car would have been a fast death, Mother would have taken her time. I was always told what would happen if I put just one foot on the road. All of these points are part of inventing the Frisbee.
On that day, my 7-year-old friend was allowed to cross Highway 21. He had come over to play, or, I should say, to help invent the Frisbee. OK, maybe it wasn’t a real Frisbee, but at 5 years old, I had no idea what a Frisbee was.
But, there it was, the prototype of the Frisbee of today. It was just laying in the road; no one had any idea just how valuable this prototype was. To think that I had a hand in helping the bored college students of the future spend endless hours flinging round plastic disks to one another is unbelievable. But I believe it.
They should have been studying rather than being caught up in this mindless game of toss, run and drop. All great inventions start out on the bottom and rise to the top just like cream on top of milk. The same was in my case. Once again, it was not a real Frisbee, but a hillbilly Frisbee, just the same in my mind at the time.
This large tomato can had been run over and over until it was just as flat as it was ever going to be. But it was not just a tomato can, it was Prototype 21, named after Highway 21. In the early stages of its development, it was unstable in flight, but it did fly. The best way to throw it was a side-arm toss. Then we developed the overhand toss. This made it even more unstable, so we went back to the side-arm toss.
I was not happy with the testing, as when we threw it, we had to go and retrieve it. So I came up with the bright idea that if my friend was at the other end of the road, then we could fly it back and forth. It worked with no problem for a while.
Then — as with most aerospace development — tragedy struck. There was a loss of communication with ground control. We had flown with safety all morning long with no mishaps. I had Prototype 21 in my hand and launched it. The only problem was that my partner in development had looked away just as I let it fly.
It did no good to yell. Prototype 21 had just left on what would be its best and last flight. It was flawless, as it had achieved great height and distance. He had just enough time to turn and face sheer terror as Prototype 21 ripped his forehead open. With the scream of a little girl, he hit the ground and he hit hard. But it was only for a brief moment, and he was up and running for his life.
I had never seen so much blood. His face was covered. He would run, fall, get up and do it again. This went on as he made his mad dash for Highway 21 and home. I, in turn, was doing the same thing, but not for the same reason. I was trying to catch him so he would not tell, but it happened that he had made it to the line in the sand. He had made it to Highway 21, the road that I could not pass for fear of death — be it by car or mother.
I was scared to death. I had no idea what to do other than to go and hide, and I did. I hid all the rest of the day under an old cedar tree with branches that hung low to the ground. I could hear people calling my name, but there was no way that I was coming out of my hiding place. Just before dark, my great-grandpa found me. I was safe, for he would not let my mother have me. He knew as I did what was going to take place.
Remember the part of pain and memories? Well, I got mine. Mom got me the next morning, and she tore my little butt up — and good.
My friend, well, he got 27 stitches and he was not my friend for the rest of the summer.
But I’d always remember my invention, the hilbilly Frisbee.
Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and former U.S. Marine who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo.