Building a War Pig



For the uninitiated reader, I went to Rice University and lived in a residential college called Wiess. Our mascot was the War Pig.

How the Wiess mascot came to be the War Pig -- that is, the idea of the Wiess War Pigs, rather than the physical mascots that were built over the years -- has been described to me thusly by former Wiess president Jeff Zweig '84:

Well, my boy, let me tell you...

First of all, you're very astute to note the difference between the War Pig itself (the higher, spiritual essence, if you will) and its various physical incarnations. After all, the physical mascots, although incredibly impressive, were just temporary vessels.

Actually it was in late 1983 that the War Pig first manifested itself in physical form. This time, it appeared as a Pig Iron War Pig, a heavy black 8-10 inch statue constructed from (you guessed it) pig iron. I used to carry it around the college in the crook of my arm, caressing its cool, sleek flanks.

But I get ahead of myself...

I must take you back to late 1981, when the War Pig wasn't even a pig. It was a dog. Not a war dog, but a Slime Dog. A lame name, I know, but this is how its spirit first compelled me to address the masses at Wiess.

Later that school year, in 1982, I had the pleasure of running Room Jack. For some reason that I don't recall now, a record number of soon-to-be sophomores were kicked off campus. Of course, this resulted in a loud, rollicking, drunken event (this was in the Golden Age of Wiess College, when you didn't have to be 21 to drink). After the climax of that evening, and during a bout of severe vomiting, I was consumed with a vision:  the War Pig had finally revealed itself to me in its true and glorious form. From that day onward, I had the privilege and the duty of addressing Wiessmen as War Pigs.

During the 82-83 school year, the Wiessman-as-War-Pig schema developed more and more popularity. Ah, those were heady days. Lives were being changed. The momentum was irresistible...

By the start of the 83-84 school year, we were training incoming freshmen to squeal like pigs, with an initial public performance at the 1983 matriculation ceremony. That ground-breaking exhibition involved a short period of intense squealing followed by the traditional TEAM WIESS. 83-84 was also the year the college turned co-ed. We needed a name for the women's sports teams, and I had the pleasure of proposing the name "Battle Sows." Wiessmen of both sexes enthusiastically supported the idea, and another Wiess tradition was born.

Also during the 83-84 year, we tried out the name "shoats" for incoming freshmen, but sadly this moniker died a quick death. A shoat, as you know, is a young pig.

I was at the '86 Beer Bike when Jorge (and evidently you) floated the first pig. It was truly awe inspiring and I now regret that I didn't get to see the results of your even more outstanding effort several year later.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think '86 was the first year the War Pig appeared on the college's Beer Bike T-shirts (although it looked more like a War Wolf than a Pig!). Dr. Bill presented me with one of these shirts after the event. Of course, I still have the shirt today. It remains one of my most treasured possessions (second only to the photo of the Prime Minister of Malaysia and me; with me wearing an Elvis T-shirt, a traditional Malay sarong and dive booties). But I digress...

No scholarly discussion about the Wiess War Pig would be complete without a brief word on Black Sabbath. Yes, the song title (coupled with extreme vomiting) did provide the young, hardy seed that rapidly germinated into unprecedented glory and excellence over the years. However, the song itself has no other relation to the Wiess War Pig.

Pig #1

When I was a freshman, in 1986, Jorge Martin de Nicolas '85 designed the first pig. Jorge is one of those folks whose brain is always churning on some new idea, and a person ready to sacrifice his body and wallet for a cause. The idea was to fly it at Beer-Bike. Pig #1 was about fifteen feet long, if I recall (I never saw it close-up; I missed Beer-Bike that year). Jorge and some friends built it out of trash bags and Scotch tape. It was light enough that it would fly simply by being warmed in the sun. At Beer Bike, they let it sail. It cleared the trees and ended up some blocks away in a neighbor's yard. Somehow they deduced that it came from Rice (big leap of intuition there, huh?) and returned it.

Pig #2

The next year, Jorge decided to really knock himself out. He was going to build a pig of such awesome dimensions that it would inspire fear and loathing in those lamers from those generic colleges who also happened to show up at Beer-Bike. Every night for several weeks, Jorge and his minions would clear out the commons, set up shop, and construct into the night. This pig was about thirty feet tall and sixty feet long; it was substantially larger than the interior of the commons. When partially inflated, it tended to bump into the lighting on the commons ceiling, putting it at risk of getting holes melted in the material. This pig was made with 4-mil plastic, though I don't know where Jorge got it. (Jorge is going to help me re-write this page at some point.) The inside of the seams were sealed with duct-tape, and the outside with transparent packing-tape.

During the late-night hacking sessions, they tended to play the Pink Floyd album Animals over, and over, and over ...

Beer Bike '88

The day of Beer-Bike, few, if any, of the pig builders had had any sleep. And the pig wasn't quite finished; the legs were still not quite attached. Work would continue out on the track. We assembled an honor guard of sorts, comprised of folk wielding lacrosse and floor-hockey sticks. Sadly, they would be needed ...

Someone had procured a portable generator and a fan with which to inflate the thing. The inflation was truly awe-inspiring. The pig sported TEAM WIESS in huge, yellow letters on its left side. While we worked on the thing like crazy, trying to finish the leg attachments, the pig was attacked by a group of Jones and Sid people. A gruesome battle ensued. Wiess had the advantage of weaponry and a will to prevail, but the vandals still managed to rip some holes in the pig. The damage was repaired fairly rapidly, but it was still a pisser. There's a big difference, to me, between a jack and vandalism. I love a good jack as much as the next guy, but simply destroying someone else's hard work -- that's pretty goddamn low. Anyway, a couple of noses were bloodied, and the attackers were driven off. The bravest thing I saw was Lisa Thompson '90, a tiny but ferociously patriotic Wiesswoman, attacking some guy (that she knew!) with a lacrosse stick and driving him off.

The Big Pig never got off the ground; even if it had gotten hot enough (I never did do the math to see how hot that had to be; this was Jorge's baby) it was leaking quite a bit. It also had a huge control problem. The only way to control it was three ropes taped to the front, center, and rear of the abdomen. When the wind started kicking, the ropes tended to bite into the pig.

Airborne or not, pig #2 made a big impression, and I doubt that anybody who was there will ever forget it.

Beer Bike '89

Jorge dragged the pig out a week or so before BB89 in order to patch it up. It turned out to be a much larger task than anticipated; I remember vividly staying up all freaking night, and being halfway delerious all during the event. The wind was especially bad, and halfway into the inflation, the thing tore at one of its seams where the rope chewed into it. Jorge was pretty upset. He decided that since that was his last year at Rice (his 8th; he was about to get his second M.S.), it was time to pass the baton. I think I got the nod because I had the biggest mouth. Also, despite whatever faults I had/have, I was a zealot about Wiess, and I was determined to carry on Jorge's proud (deranged?) tradition.

Pig #3

My first job as the new pig master was to figure out whether to repair the old pig or build a new one. I decided that the huge pig was too unwieldly and too fragile for my personal tastes, so I decided to start over. I wanted two things: sturdier material and internal structure. I went to Home Depot and discovered that they sold 20' by 100' 6-mil black plastic tarps. I figured that one of these ought to do the job; I let the size of one sheet dictate the size of the new pig. I sat down with one of those green engineering pads and doodled a design.

Click for a bigger version
The important parts here are the use of the plastic and of the internal structure. 45' was allotted for the body, 45' for the front and rear hemispheres, and 10' for the legs. The internal structure consists of four "rib points" on the top of the pig and four "tether points" on the bottom. These were big X's made out of seatbelt webbing. The idea of these points was to provide a number of places that could be connected (inside) by twine and (outside) by tether ropes for controlling the beast. If you tug on one of the tethers, you want the stress to be distributed to all parts of the pig, not just the one place where the tether is tied. The big seatbelt-strap X's were tied to 2" washers, which in turn had twine tied to them. We had to fiddle with the twine quite a bit to get the lengths right, and it made getting around inside the pig problematic.

The clear tape from pig #2 was replaced with gaffer's tape acquired from a Houston theater-supply company. It's basically duct-tape, only black. We still used traditional duct-tape on the inside because it was cheaper.

The anus was another tube with the same diameter of a hula-hoop. We actually used a hula-hoop, taped into the end of that tube, to keep the anus open. To inflate the pig, you simply stuck a fan in the hole; to seal the pig, you twisted the hula-hoop until the anus's sphincter closed tight. Sealing the anus was accomplished with paper-clips taped onto the body and string loops taped onto the hoop. You twist the hole tightly shut, then catch the string loops on the hooks. It was pretty nearly airtight.

Beer Bike '90

The first year of pig #3 went off without a hitch. We rolled out onto the track in a borrowed van (and you haven't sweat until you've been in the back of an airtight van with a bunch of folks in the Houston sun). We had a portable generator, the fan, and a big-ass heater that I rented. The idea was to see if we could get the pig airborne by heating it. (I had done the math and was pretty sure it wasn't going to work, but we tried anyway.) The pig defense forces were out en masse. We inflated it in a few minutes. The rest of the day, we carried the thing around, occasionally tossing it in the air, making it kick and rear up.

John Bennett (EE prof, Wiessman from '72, former Wiess associate, later master of Sid) came up to me and said, "I want to see that pig fly." I said I'd think about it.

Beer Bike '91

John Bennett flies the War Pig, 1991

The pig didn't need much in the way of repairs or modifications, so I considered the flight problem. The thing weighed about sixty pounds empty, so somehow I had to generate sixty pounds of lift. I sat down and figured out how hot you'd have to get the air inside something of the pig's volume to lift 60 lb. I came up with an answer of about 210 degrees F. I figured that would likely cause the thing to melt, or at least soften the duct-tape stickum. So I fell back on helium. (Actually I flirted briefly with the idea of using hydrogen, which isn't that dangerous because it can't stick to you, but Stan Dodds raised such a ruckus I backed down.) The answer for helium was much more tractable: six big canisters of helium would do the trick. The pig wasn't sufficiently airtight to just fill it directly, so I figured we'd better have some bladders to contain the helium. I found some 8' weather balloons from Edmund Scientific that ran $24 apiece.

I went back to John and said, "The helium is going to run about $300, the balloons $150, and other crap will add up to around $50. So, I need $500 to make the pig fly."

John thought about this, then looked me in the eye and said, "You have a budget of $500 to make the pig fly."

I bought six weather balloons, got the helium from the same friendly supplier that sold us our medical-grade nitrous oxide, and rented another generator. We stayed up all night doing last-minute repairs. I got a little sleep but not much; I was blared awake, per ritual, at some ungodly hour.

That year went off pretty well (fabulously well by some standards). We got out to the track and I crawled up the anus to begin the inflation. I encountered two problems: (1) inflation took a looooong time, longer than anticpated, because the expanding helium was cold and (2) the twine was in the way of the quite fragile balloons. The pig flew, but not until the men's race, leading some of the women bikers to accuse me of stalling until the women's race was over. Once the pig was in the air, it stayed up for twenty minutes or so. The balloons inside the pig popped, one by one, as the wind kicked the thing around, causing the cris-crossing twine to act like scissors. John got to drive a bit, as evidenced by the photo.

All in all, it was a great success.

I later presented John with $512 in receipts, and he paid up.

I graduated after that, and though I came back after a year for a couple of years of grad school (working for John), I figured it was best to turn the torch over to the new generation. I had no idea that the pig would last another five years (but never, to my knowledge, fly again).

Building Pig #4

This is where you come in. I'll go over what I think are the key things I learned, and what I might do differently if I were working on this directly.

The most important thing to have is motivated workers. I've learned that most problems can be overcome if you have the flexibility that many hands provide. Almost as important is leadership; you need a chief to direct the indians, especially when it comes to design decisions. You'll need a plan, and you'll need money.

Picking the material will be important. I don't know what you'll be able to readily get in bulk, but you'll need to balance the demands of strength, light weight, cost, and workability.

Start scouting out supplies ASAP. You might need to locate gaffers' tape, helium, a portable generator, etc. etc. etc. If you're going to write TEAM WIESS in yellow plastic, you'd better start hunting that down; turns out you can't buy yellow trash bags at the store (last I checked) because that's some sort of international code for biohazardous waste.

If I were going to build another pig, I would spend a lot of time figuring out how to reconcile the need for internal structure with the need for helium bladders (if you're going to make it fly again). You could make it super-airtight to dispense with the need for the bladders, but that's tricky, given the abuse it's bound to receive. Even sitting on the asphalt in the track area it's likely to pick up pinholes, unless it's super-sturdy as well. And super-sturdy generally demands a lot of weight.

Another area I'd put more effort than last time is the front and rear hemispheres. I cut three triangular sections, which reduced the length of seams I had to deal with, but was a less-than-optimal approximation of a half-sphere. I would consider maybe five sections instead of three, or perhaps a soccer-ball pattern. If you do stick to triangles, do a little math to get the shape correct. I think I just eyeballed it.

Good luck. Team F. Wiess.

Additions, corrections, suggestions, questions?

Special thanks to other tireless and invaluable pig crew, including (but by no means limited to) Jeff Hagen '92, Mark Lohman '89, Mark Arbore '93, and Brian Hamill '93.

Last updated 30 Mar 98 by max