When I was a small boy I attended a circus that featured a “human cannonball.” This amazing fellow was shot out of a large cannon and flew about 30 yards into a giant net. How did they do this without blowing the poor guy to pieces? It seems to me if this was legitimate the only thing emerging from the barrel of the cannon would be ten thousand human cannonball pieces. –Rob Marchant, Carrollton, Texas

Yeah, that’s what you wish would happen, you bloodthirsty savage. Unluckily for you, the art of human ballistics today has reached such a pitch of perfection that it’s no more dangerous than, oh, shaving with a chain saw. Which is to say it’s still pretty easy to get yourself injured or killed.

Human cannonballs aren’t blasted from the cannon with gunpowder. They’re propelled by a catapult. The flash, loud noise, and smoke are supplied by firecrackers and such.

The first human cannonball was a young woman named Zazel, who made her maiden voyage, so to speak, on April 2, 1877, at the Westminster Aquarium. Zazel employed “elastic springs,” but human cannoneers soon graduated to more potent weaponry. The propellant of choice today is compressed air. The human projectile climbs into a hollow topless cylinder that slides inside the cannon barrel. Having been pulled back to the bottom of the barrel, the cylinder is blasted forward by compressed air at 150-200 pounds per square inch. The cylinder stops at the cannon’s mouth. Its occupant doesn’t.

Being shot from a cannon is sort of like jumping out of an airplane: it’s the sudden stop at the end that’s a bitch. Elvin Bale, the “Human Space Shuttle,” was experimenting with air bags to break his fall while on tour in 1986. He overshot the air bags and crashed into a wall, seriously injuring himself. On another occasion two members of the Zacchini family, long famous for its cannonballing exploits, were launched simultaneously from opposite ends of the circus. They collided in midair; one Zacchini broke her back.

Historian A.H. Coxe says that of some 50 human cannonballs more than 30 have been killed, mostly by falling outside the net. Even if you avoid mishaps, many human cannonballs black out in flight, which makes me wonder about long-term brain damage. Of course you might figure anybody who lets himself get shot from a cannon in the first place is a couple eggs short of a dozen. You want lethal thrills, why not join the Marines? At least they let you shoot back.

Recently I got into an argument over this riddle: “Three sailors decided to share a motel room for $30 a night or $10 each. After they’ve checked in the manager feels guilty for charging so much, so he gives the bellhop $5 to take to the sailors. The porter is mad at the sailors for not tipping him, so he keeps $2 and gives each man $1. Each sailor now has paid $10 – $1 = $9. $9 x 3 = $27. Add the $2 the bellhop kept and we have $29. Where is the other dollar?” Well? –Ray Goerig, Kobe, Japan

I got this same question in the same mail from Sam Broaddus of Austin, Texas. You guys part of some cult? Anyway, where’s the mystery? The sailors paid $27. The motel got $25, the bellhop $2. Total, $27. No missing dollar.

Your problem is thinking that what the sailors paid plus what the bellhop received should equal $30. It shouldn’t. It’s only happenstance that the total comes as close as it does.

Suppose the sailors had initially paid $45 for their $25 room–$15 each. The manager feels guilty and gives the bellhop $20 to give back to them. The bellhop keeps $17 and gives the men $1 each. Each has now paid $14–$42 in all. The bellhop has $17. $42 plus $17 equals $59–only now we’re so far off the original $45 that it doesn’t occur to you to ask where the “missing” $14 is.

Many riddles work by suggesting a relationship where there isn’t one. Take the old schoolyard trick where someone “proves” you have 11 fingers. First he counts down the fingers on one hand: “10, 9, 8, 7, 6.” Then he grabs your other hand and says, “plus 5 makes 11.” By the time you were in sixth grade I imagine you saw through that fraud; now you’ve seen through this one. Next week we’ll work on the Republican Party.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.