Even if my parents could have afforded to purchase a motorcycle, motorized scooter or anything with wheels and a motor prior to me getting a driver’s license, it still would have been hard to convince my mother to let me have one because she was fearful that I would crash and hurt myself. To her credit, she had good reason to be concerned given my prior history of not thinking things through clearly.
All I can say in my defense is that sometimes my desire to accomplish great things got in the way of my better judgement. This is not an unusual thing for children because science tells us that a child’s brain is not fully formed until the age of 26 which means there will often be times where a child’s judgement is seriously impaired and cannot be trusted.
I tell you this not to solicit sympathy for my family’s state of affairs nor to elicit empathy for my lack of freedom as a child. I tell you this to help you understand my motives for building “The Go Kart”. To put it simply, I wanted to go fast, but economics and parental fear were getting in my way. Therefore, an alternative plan needed to be implemented.
Around the age of 13, my family moved to a modest, range style home on Dawn Drive in Pearl, Mississippi. Pearl is a bedroom community of the much larger Mississippi State Capitol of Jackson. Our town was a blue collar, middle class town with lots of quaint sub-divisions and it was small enough that all the kids in that area had very similar childhoods and experiences. Our street was a long, flat one and we lived just a few houses down from the intersection with Lanell Lane that just happened to have been built on one of the steepest, longest hills I’d ever seen in my life to that point.
If you drove to the end of Dawn and turned left, Lanell Lane went up sharply to one of the highest points in Pearl. If you turned right on Lanell Lane, the grade was much not nearly as steep, but it was a long, low grade to the bottom. If you drove through the intersection with Lanell Lane, you would be on a private drive that went up a hill to a members-only swimming pool. (Note: The pool is irrelevant to this story other than it provides the opportunity for me to point out the possibility that had I been a member and had I been at the pool swimming rather than left to my own devices, you might not be reading this story now.)
So, now that you have the lay of the land and you have been made aware of my particular situation, our story can begin.
The Build Out
Once upon a time, I decided that I should build a go kart and ride it down the hill that was Lanell Lane.
I could stop right there and let your imagination take you where ever it led you, but the outcome of this youthful, yet momentous decision is far better fully shared at least for educational purposes.
I don’t remember the exact moment when the idea to build a go kart came into my mind nor can I remember exactly how old I was at the time, but I’ve been able to narrow it down to when I was between the ages of 13 and 14. I know that the idea came to me early in the morning because it took most of the morning to build the contraption and I didn’t have to worry about school, so this story either took place in the summer or on a Saturday.
So, on this sunny morning (I remember it being sunny because it was hot but then again we live in Mississippi, so that might have been any month other than December, January or February and it could have been one of those months in off years), I was checking out the shed behind our house and looking at all the materials that were stored in and around the shed. The picture of the go kart I wanted to build came fully formed in my brain and it looked a lot like this one:
I don’t know if I saw a picture of something like this in a World Book Encyclopedia (my parents had purchased a set years earlier and I loved to read them) or if I saw a picture somewhere else, but when I found this picture on the internet while writing this story, I was amazed at how similar the design of this wooden go kart was to the one I built. There were some variations in my design that came into play during testing, but otherwise, this was exactly what I set out to build.
My father was a mechanic not a woodworker and as such, he didn’t have a lot of spare or scrap wood laying around for the taking. So my first problem came when I couldn’t find any plywood that I might be able to appropriate for the base of my project. Instead, the only thing I could find that was long and flat like plywood was a hollow core door that was about 30 inches wide and 80 inches long. I might have made a different decision had I known when I selected the door that it was hollow core door, but then again, it might have been different had I known what a hollow core door was in the first place. They say experience is the best teacher and I would soon learn all I needed to know about hollow core doors and that knowledge would last me a lifetime.
While rummaging around in the shed, I found four matching hard rubber lawnmower wheels that I thought I could use for the wheels on my go kart. Let me clarify that a little. The wheels didn’t all match, but rather I had two sets of matching wheels. One pair of wheels was slightly larger than the other pair, but I thought that would be fine because I could put the bigger wheels on the back axle and the smaller wheels on the front axle.
I found a long 2″x4″ and after laying it on the door and making a mark on the board, I determined that if I could find a saw, I could cut a smaller axle for the stationary rear axle and I could use the longer, remaining piece for the front axle. It was important for the front axle to be longer because I wanted to drill a hole on either end of the front axle and tie a rope to the axle to act as my steering mechanism. Drilling holes for the rope was a critical step because otherwise the rope would slide on the axle and get caught between the base and the axle and I feared such an event might affect my ability to steer this beast. I might have spent a little more time engineering the steering had I known how important the steering would ultimately be, but as they say, hindsight is often 20/20.
I found some lag bolts I could use to mount the wheels on the axles as well as a large bolt & nut that I could use for the front axle’s pivot point. I also found a lot of flat washers that would help my axle and wheels move smoothly, so I gathered those up too. I found some large nails I could use to mount the rear axle to the door and I found an old for sale sign made out of press board that would work for the seat back rest.
My next task was to get the axles ready for use, so I had to find a saw. The best I could come up with was a hack saw with a metal cutting blade, but with a good bit of effort, I was able to saw through the 2″x4″. The rear axle didn’t require as much finish work, so I just eye-balled the location for the rear axle (about 12 inches from one end of the door) and nailed it into place. The nails were a bit longer than I needed, so I drove them through on the grass and then turned over the door and bent over the points that were sticking through. I really didn’t want those bits dragging on the ground and slowing me down. I had to be careful because I found that if I hammered too hard, the nail would just go straight through the top layer of the door. This was my first indication that the hollow core door was not the best choice, but I was oblivious to hints and foreshadowing as I just wanted to get this project done!
Next, I found my dad’s drill and I drilled three holes in the longer, front axle. I was smart enough to offset the holes on the ends because I knew that I’d be screwing lag bolts into the ends of the 2″x4″ and I didn’t want to weaken those structure points. I realized when I mounted the rear axle that there really wasn’t much material to work through on both sides of the door, so I took the drill and found a middle spot about 18 inches from the end of the door and quickly put a hole through the door to hold the front axle’s pivot bolt. I threaded a long bolt through the door with a washer on top, put a washer on the bolt as it came out of the door, threaded it through the front axle and then put a washer on the bottom and then a nut that I tightened enough to hold everything together without breaking or collapsing the door. I threaded my rope through the holes on the ends and tied them off with plenty of rope to spare for me to pull on to steer the go kart. I tested the steering and confirmed that pulling on the rope would easily turn the axle in the direction I pulled.
The wheels went on next, but I’d never heard of the idea of “pre-drilling” my holes, so it was a little bit difficult to get the lag bolts started but ultimately by putting the bolt through the wheel and using a hammer to beat the tip of the lag bole into the wood, I was able to use one of my dad’s wrenches to turn the lag bolt and anchor the wheels. A couple of times I heard the sound of wood splitting, but I didn’t see any obvious damage, so I plowed ahead until all four wheels were attached to the axles.
Finally, I needed to figure out how mount the seat back and after some thought, I found a 1″x1″ used bean pole and I made some angle cuts on the ends with the hacksaw and I used the cut piece to prop up the for sale sign and then mounted the sign and cut bean pole to the door with nails, again bending over any nail that extended beyond the bottom of the door.
After a couple of hours of work and effort, I stood back and admired my creation. It looked awesome, but it needed some racing strips. After all a brown door with wheel’s on it doesn’t look that fast without some decorations. I found some old spray paint in the shed and added some red blotches of color that tied the “For Sale” sign motif together with the brown door and black lawnmower wheels.
I pulled the go kart from the backyard to our drive way using the steering rope and I was amazed at how easy the steering worked and how well the wheels turned. And once it was in the driveway, I sat on the go kart, leaned against the For Sale sign with the steering rope in my hands and bounced up and down a little bit. Everything felt good and firm, but I realized I didn’t have a place for my feet to rest. That concerned me because I knew that I didn’t design this thoroughbred to include a seat belt and I needed some way of anchoring myself firmly against the For Sale sign in order to stay on this Formula 1 racer. Fortunately, after looking at my options, it was clear that there was enough front axle sticking out on either side of the door that I could use this area as a foot rest and I would gain the added benefit of being able to use my feet to help turn the wheels. I decided this was a great solution to a simple problem and just like that I was ready for the first test run.
At the last minute while sitting on my go kart in my driveway, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to include one very important piece of safety equipment on my ride. As I thought about the ride down the hill, I decided that I might want to stop the vehicle as it neared the bottom of the hill, but alas, I had not included any sort of braking mechanism in my design. After some quick thinking, I remembered the remains of the bean pole I had used to fashion the back brace for the seat and I ran to the backyard to get what was left. I broke off a piece of the stick that was about 18″ long and then nailed it to the side of the door. Now that this was in place, whenever I wanted to stop, all I had to do was pull up on the stick and it would start dragging the ground and provide the necessary resistance to bring the go kart to a halt. Safety is too important to forget and I was pleased that I remembered such a valuable lesson.
The Uphill Climb
The downside to building any vehicle without a motor is that you have to depend on either someone to push or pull said vehicle (ie: Radio Flyer Wagons) or you need to utilize gravity to make the vehicle go. Since I had no brothers and sisters to enslave and no neighborhood kids were outside, I was left to pull my go kart up to top of the hill that was Lanell Lane by myself. My earlier experience with pulling the go kart from the backyard into the front of our house was sufficient to give me confidence that this would be no big deal. As I stated earlier, we lived a few doors down from Lanell Lane on Dawn Drive which was pretty flat, so I started pulling my new go kart down to the end of the road. As I pulled, the machine was heavier than I thought initially but it worked just as flawlessly as it had in the driveway and my confidence was beginning to soar. I also began to draw a crowd. A small crowd to be sure, but a crowd nonetheless.
One of the neighborhood kids that lived next door saw me go by pulling my custom built vehicle and he came outside to follow me up the hill.
“What you pulling?” he asked cautiously.
“A go kart.” I replied and kept pulling.
“Where you going?” he asked as he began to follow me.
“Up the hill to try it out.” I said.
“Will it go fast?” he asked incredulously.
“Of course, it will!” I stated confidently.
“Can I watch?” he asked conspiratorially.
“Sure!” I said as I reached the end of Dawn Drive.
The boy became quiet as I made the left turn and started up the steepest part of the Lanell Lane hill. Other kids had started coming out because they sensed that a moment of greatness was at hand and they were asking the first kid the same questions he had asked me. I noticed they were keeping their distance from me. I think they were just in awe that someone with my engineering skill put together something so impressive and they were just giving my genius room to breathe. The atmosphere on Lanell Lane became electric with anticipation the higher up the hill I trudged.
By the time I got the beast to the top of the hill, there were about 8 or 10 kids gathered along the sides of Lanell Lane all them waiting breathlessly for me to launch my creation down the hill. I was breathless, too, but for a different reason because now standing at the top of the hill that was Lanell Lane, I realized just how steep it really was and frankly, pulling my go kart up the hill had been more work than I thought it would be. Looking back now, I was just weary from my building efforts because when I returned as an adult to see my childhood home some years back, that hill didn’t seem as large nor as high as it did to me when I was standing at the top preparing for my glorious and triumphant ride down the hill.
I surveyed the faces of those kids and I knew that their hopes and dreams were going to be riding down that hill with me. They were standing very still and were making very little noise. They were giving me the space to collect myself and prepare myself mentally for the challenge of Lanell Lane. I did not know anything about visualization back then, but I stood there and saw myself flying down that hill and I distinctly heard the cheers of the children as they yelled, “Go, Paul Go!” and when the ride was over, I saw them gather around me and jump up and down and cheer because I successfully conquered the hill that was Lanell Lane.
After a few minutes of basking in the glow of imagined victory, I climbed aboard the go kart and kept my feet on either side to prevent it from prematurely starting down the hill.
The launch of my new go kart was actually sort of a let down because I just lifted my feet and put them on the front axle, then rocked back and forth to get the go kart moving and it started to roll slowly forward. No band was playing, no fireworks were exploding and the crowd was not cheering yet, but inside my head I was elated because I knew the trip had officially begun. There would be no turning back now for any reason. I spent all morning getting to this moment and I knew that high noon was my moment to shine. I wanted to wave to all the children and wish them well, but I was afraid to take my hands off the steering rope because within one or two revolutions of the wheels, I felt gravity kick in and the go kart began to gain speed.
I knew there was a problem with my design by the time I reached the first driveway a third of the way down the steepest part of the hill. I hit a bump in the road and I felt something give in the door below me. I’m pretty sure what I felt was the first crack in the hollow core door. And with that first crack, I realized that a hollow core door was not nearly strong enough to hold up a husky child as myself subjecting it serious g-forces. I had clearly picked the wrong material as the frame of my go kart; a small but important fact I learned just about the time the go kart reached cruising speed about half-way down the hill that was Lanell Lane.
The seat I had fashioned from a For Sale sign started giving way as I bumped and slammed against it. Because the hollow core door really didn’t have anything for the nails to hold onto, the nails in the seat back were working their way out and I was quickly losing the ability to lean back against the seat. In fact, about the time I heard the second crack in the door beneath me, the sign and the bean pole support flew off the go kart and I was relegated to holding myself up by hanging onto the steering rope and pressing my feet tightly against the front axle. I was sliding from side to side as the beast bucked wildly under me every time I hit a hole or a bump.
Then the door cracked more seriously in the middle from the g-forces of my weight crashing into it after a particularly jarring jolt, I knew then that my dreams of achieving glory among my peers were just dreams. The door didn’t break completely in two, but it bent and bowed in the middle to the point where the door began to drag along the ground on the right hand side and the friction began to pull the go kart toward the curb on the right. I knew that my best hope was to stay on this thing and avoid hitting the curbs because I feared at this speed, hitting the curb would launch me high into the air and not being a gymnast, I had no clue how to stick a landing. No, the best thing to do, I thought, was to stay on this bronco and bring it to a safe and complete stop. No flight time for me. Not if I could help it.
As the kart careened forward and to the right, I knew I needed to turn it back to the left and get this thing back into the middle of the road. So I pulled hard on the steering rope with my left hand and pressed on the axle with my right foot in an effort to turn the front axle to the left. Unfortunately, when the door bowed and sagged in the middle, it put extra pressure on the front axle and the friction between the axle and the door far exceeded the ability of the washers I had so carefully thought to include to make turning the axle an easy proposition. As I reached the intersection with Dawn Drive, I was able to just barely turn the front axle and I could see the direction change away from heading straight into the curb. My relief was palpable but short-lived.
I had quickly passed all of the children standing on the side of the hill and now they were running after me and I could hear their cheering as this was clearly the most exciting event to happen to our small neighborhood in a very long time. They were loving the show at the same time I was just trying to survive it. Time slowed for me even as the go kart seemed to speed up. I thought of my parents and how I would never complain about not having motorized toys again. I thought of the moment of glory I had felt at the top of the hill and now I just hoped that this adventure would not end in a plaster cast. I relived the building of the vehicle that was now trying so hard to buck me off and I discovered multiple failure points in my original design that I would have done differently. And finally, I remembered the safety equipment I had so thoughtfully installed at the last minute: The brake!
While holding on tightly to the steering rope with my left hand, I reached down to my right side and found the bean pole that I had carefully nailed to the side of the door and I pulled it back toward me and forced the free end to press into the asphalt of the road. I felt it make contact and begin to drag against the road and just as relief started to settled in, I realized that the resistance was once again pulling the go kart to the right and I was once again headed to the curb.
I now only had one hand on the steering rope, the other hand was pulling on the brake and so my feet were the only tools I had left to make the axle turn and so I pressed with all my might and when I did the door completed the process of collapsing in the middle. At the same time the door settled into the ground, the brake came loose in my hand when the nail came out of the door. The go kart began a slow spin to the left as it lost all forward momentum and just about the time it stopped completely, I rolled off the wreckage and came to a stop in the middle of the street flat on my back still holding the brake in one hand and the steering rope in the other.
The children ran up to me laying in the middle of Lanell Lane and they were all laughing and cheering and they thought it was the grandest adventure they had ever seen. They were telling me how great the whole thing was and how cool I was and even though the ride ended in complete failure, I still received some measure of satisfaction for having done something that no one else had ever tried. Oh, sure, we’d all ridden down the hill that was Lanell Lane on our bikes but never had anyone ever attempted such a stunt on a machine they had built themselves.
As I gazed back up the hill and saw all the littered pieces of my prized go kart, I could trace each event of the ride that caused each piece to fall off my go kart. I created what I had hoped would be an agent of fun and too late I realized the inherent danger contained within and yet somehow I still managed to survive it. Maybe my dignity was dinged and maybe my pride too, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, I don’t remember building or test piloting any more homemade vehicles. Maybe it made me safer or smarter. In the end, I discovered that I was content to have just survived the hill that was Lanell Lane, even if I came up short in conquering it.
The other children eventually quit cheering and went back to doing whatever it was they were doing before, and after I picked myself up off the asphalt, I began to climb back up the hill with my tattered go kart in tow. I dragged the wreckage of the go kart to Dawn Drive and then picked up all the other pieces that were left on the hill. Then I piled all the broken bits on top of the wreckage and dragged it all back home.
I hid the remains behind the shed in the hopes that my parents wouldn’t find it too easily and I discovered several bruises and minor scrapes that were beginning to become visible. I went inside and doctored what needed doctoring and settled in to watch some afternoon television and wait for my parents to get home.
When my parents finally came home and as usual they asked “What have you been up to today?”
“Not much.” I replied with a smile secretly still feeling the wind in my hair and my heart pounding in my chest.