Story by Maggie Cassidy. Video shot and edited by Maggie Cassidy.
Post Mills — Setting the world record for using your mouth to catch a grape dropped from the greatest height: It was a dream years in the making, and all it took was a hot air balloon, walnut-sized fruits shipped specially from Georgia and a crew of Ph.D.-level engineers who gathered at a tiny Vermont airport before the sun rose on Monday morning.
The man with the plan was Brent Fraser, 35, who said he “just had a natural knack” for catching things in his mouth ever since his high school days in Barre, Vt., where buddies would chuck food toward him in the school parking lot.
“I was a bit of a show-off,” recalled Fraser, a Lebanon resident and human resources administrator at Creare, a Hanover-based engineering firm.
Things got real after college, when his wife took him to see Blue Man Group.
“In the show, they were throwing marshmallows at the crowd trying to get people to catch it, and nobody was catching it, but then they threw one at me and I caught it,” Fraser said. “And the blue man was a little surprised, so he threw another one, and I caught it.”
After this went on for a few more marshmallows, “I was like, hey, I think I kind of have something,” Fraser said.
A YouTube search for “grape catching” led him down a rabbit hole of videos, ultimately inspiring him to try to set two records — for grape-catching height and distance — as kept by Guinness World Records, based in London.
Nobody has set an official record for the Guinness category of “greatest height catching a grape in the mouth,” but the organization requires a minimum 30-foot attempt.
After talking to someone who said he did 74 feet, Fraser decided to shoot for 75 feet on the first height attempt, and more than 350 feet for similar reasons on the distance.
He sent application paperwork to Guinness in 2010, and a few years later contacted the Post Mills Airport’s Brian Boland, no stranger to oddities and record-breaking.
Boland, the airport’s owner-operator whose museum there includes the famous 25-foot-tall wooden Vermontasaurus, piloted the ride for a man who completed the most lunges in a hot air balloon in 1992.
And separately, he was part of the team who built and briefly flew the world’s largest hot air balloon in Massachusetts, some 200 times bigger than the one flown on Monday morning, among other records.
Boland agreed to Fraser’s request, but the project was delayed for years when Fraser and his wife, Jessica, had their son, and Fraser later broke his leg.
In the meantime, the engineers got involved.
Fraser had been practicing with a three-man slingshot, but some of his Creare colleagues, taking a break from their work on jet engines, deemed it too inconsistent, jotting down some simple math and using two-by-fours to build something more reliable.
“It’s kind of diabolical,” Fraser said on Monday morning, shortly before things kicked into gear.
“That one’s probably going to hurt the most.”
Indeed, once things did get going, most of the few dozen attempts ended with a goggle-clad Fraser getting smacked in the face and chest by the large grapes — selected because they were easiest to see — that were traveling about 56 mph.
This led to good-natured hoots and guffaws from his wife, 4-year-old son Colin and the four Creare engineers on hand.
“How much did they hurt?” one of the engineers, Tristan Ramey, asked at one point.
“So bad,” Fraser told her. “I felt like I was being punched in the face.”
The distance record with the slingshot, used later in the morning, didn’t work out.
By that point, the engineers said, the grapes had become too mushy, compromising their velocity.
They plan to try the distance attempt again some other time.
But earlier, just as the sun began to rise, Ramey stood in the balloon basket with Boland, dropping the grapes from a wooden spoon, while the other three engineers filmed the event and controlled the tethered balloon from the ground, using the rope as both an anchor and a measuring stick.
It only took a few tries at 75 feet before Fraser shot his hands up triumphantly — but he wanted three digits, he said.
After an extended round of grape-pelting to the face, he caught one from 101 feet.
He’ll send the information and videos to Guinness for the world record to be confirmed, which he expects could take about four to five weeks.
“I really wanted 100 feet,” he said. “So to get 101 was really cool.”
The whole episode was wrapped up by 8:15 a.m.
Fraser, most of his face stained in purple grape juice, had to get to work to interview a prospective employee by 9 a.m.