October 2009

“YOU REMEMBERED TO BRING YOUR PASSPORT?” they asked as they stuffed us into the idling bus. To where we were headed, no one knew.

Most thought we were going to Poland, after all it was the closest country to Berlin. I hoped we were going to the Czech Republic, and was taking bets. I curled up in my chair and tried to sleep, only to be awoken an hour later as the bus pulled off onto a dirt road. A man ducked into the bus and announced in a thick German accent: “You will now need to put on life vests. We will go down the river.” I asked, “We’re kayaking to Prague?” But my voice was lost in the zipping noise of heavy jackets being put on. It was 50 degrees out.

Some of us were more skilled at navigating our yellow canoes than others.

…And then it appeared: The Schloss Tornow castle. Through chattering teeth I thought to myself: “It better have internet access.”

It didn’t. It had a sauna in the basement, tens of bedrooms, a magnificent fireplace that crackled day and night, a piano room, ball rooms, living rooms, room rooms, staircases, and secrets– like the freshly killed and skinned boar we found in the kitchen..

Lunch was being served, and while our guides laughed about how they managed to trick everyone into packing their passports, I went exploring, and picked a room on the top floor.

It was Halloween and although most of the group had been tasked with a big project, a few of us dressed up as Americans (scary), and went out trick or treating. We soon learned, as we knocked on the doors of the seven houses in the square mile surrounding the castle, that Germans adhere to the idea that Halloween is only for the kinder. Arguing that I am 12 years old at heart didn’t get me very far. A man with a junk heap in his backyard gave us four shots of jägermeister, a kind woman gave us each a bottle of beer. We needed it. It was cold.

The others were hard at work creating a face made out of wood. It was destined to be burned to the ground in a ceremony. They had commandeered a tractor and were busy hauling wood cleared from the forest. They brought in load after load, tools were distributed, and they got down to business creating a two-story tall wooden face

Ernst the project leader approached me as the others built, “Kosta, you must make the fire! The eyes, they must glow like a beast. It is very important!” I asked for clarification, and instead of explaining further he pulled out a bag of red powder “Dragon’s Breath” (essentially ground up road flares). The pyro in me twitched with excitement. I asked if he had any gun powder, or explosives, for added effect. “I will make a call,” he said.

Soon I found myself in the backseat of a beat up Volvo driving to the home of a hunter named Paul. He looked me up and down and unceremoniously handed five vials of black powder to me. “You must be careful.” He warned. I could barely blow up a mailbox with the miniscule amount, I don’t know what he was worried about.

The team was frantically trying to put the face onto its support structure. Hans, a severely ADHD wonder, was teetering on a ladder trying to hacksaw through a branch that was in the way. Everyone shouted their opinion on how he should be doing things.

After a few hours of experimentation we decided to fill aluminum pouches with dragons breath, gunpowder for sparkle, and use bomb fuse. They pyrotechnics were wrapped up in bailing wire and tied to the face in the exact location where the mouth and eyes were to be. We dipped them in kerosene to make sure they would catch fire. My contribution was done, and the others were busy writing a note and affixing it to the face. We were to burn our fears, our insecurities, and our egos. The face was not a stranger– it was our own.

I was uncertain whether our pyrotechnics would light. We hadn’t made done any tests—we simply assumed they would work. I affixed a torch to the end of a long stick and leaned it towards our creation. The lips crackled to life, and the eyes soon followed. Everyone cheered.

We huddled together in the bitter cold and watched as our hard work, our fears, and our egos turned to smoke and drifted into the night sky. The moon hung full, watching over us. All was perfect, as it always is, and always will be.


Palomar 5 was a “social-experiment” designed to understand how groups can innovate in unique environments. 30 participants from around the world came to Berlin Germany for six weeks in the fall of 2009. The event described was part of the Palomar 5 experience.

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