Even though Jim Malcolm had seen several boats created by Tony Bruno's shop classes launch successfully, the School Board chairman was a little reluctant Sunday to be the test pilot of one of Bruno's latest creations, the AEC X-1.
"Both my sons were in Bruno's shop classes at Parrott Middle School, and I've never seen any of his boats sink yet," Malcolm said as he studied the experimental pontoon paddle boat, the brainchild of Bruno and his middle school shop class at the Alternative Education Center of Brooksville. "But I do get a little leery when I hear the word "experimental.' "
As three members of the class carried the AEC X-1, or Alternative Education Center Experimental 1 craft, to the water at the Hernando Beach Park on Sunday afternoon, the 56-year-old Bruno tried to calm any concerns of the parents gathered to witness the launch.
The teacher told of his vast experience as a shop teacher at Parrott Middle School before joining the staff of the Brooksville AEC in 1995. The center provides specialized education to students who may have emotional difficulty adjusting to classroom environments.
He spoke of the value of the education center's shop program and the aim of the boat project, which teaches woodworking nuance and helps foster teamwork and problem-solving skills in his seventh- and eighth-grade pupils.
He made a last, bold prediction that seemed to set even the edgiest of the 30-member crowd at ease.
"The boat will float; that much I'm certain of," he said confidently as his pupils chose a captain for the vessel's maiden voyage. "You have my personal guarantee."
Still, history intimates that the creators of the Titanic probably said the same thing, and Bruno could not quite mask his anxiety when 13-year-old Pat Flora climbed aboard. Before Pat shoved off, Bruno handed him an orange life vest.
Then, much to the delight of his audience and Bruno's relief, the vest proved to be only a precaution. The boat's symmetrical pontoons sank only an inch as Flora pushed away from the shore, illiciting a round of applause from the crowd.
Bruno, though, milked the moment.
"Oh, ye of little faith," he bellowed triumphantly to the fixated parents, still amazed at the boat's seaworthiness and maneuverability. "What did you expect?"
The day's triumphs, however, would not be complete until the class's second vessel, a 12-foot rowboat, also was launched.
Bruno said both vessels were completed in just over a month. The class bent plywood sheets over frames of inexpensive wood and then lined any cracks or gaps with strips of fabric. The fabric was in turn coated with a glue solution, making the crafts waterproof, then coated with common house paint, making the entire creation process relatively simple and cheap, Bruno said.
Like the pontoon boat, the rowboat proved a success. Pupils Jeff Rook, Marcus Barnes and Adam Goodman paddled the stable craft into the narrow canal, but Marcus quickly tired of the exertion and found a more enviable chore. The 15-year-old class clown provided the crowd with a healthy chuckle as he dictated stroke commands to his two classmates from a comfortable reclining position in the bow.
The rowboat will be given to pupil Shawn McGrantham, who Bruno said did a large portion of the construction work, and the pontoon boat will be raffled off to another member of the class.
But regardless of where the vessels end up, many parents and school administrators feel the effort and confidence shown by their creators reflect admirably on the success of the Alternative Education Center and the dedicated commitment of teachers such as Bruno.
"You just have to watch and see for yourself what he does," said John Weber, Hernando County Schools vocational transition specialist, of Bruno's many accomplishments. "He performs miracles with these kids."