The fort brought my 10-year-old son and me closer and we both learned, through trial and injury, how to use power tools. I also had a September 1 book deadline so I needed to take on something that would derail me for about 30 days.
Each of these projects is another step towards making my son a man, and keeping me a child. Owen was very difficult as a baby, crying constantly and only calming down if my wife or I held him. As a toddler he began expecting this doting and, quite frankly, I feared his becoming a momma’s boy.
But I knew there was another side to him. I saw it at SeaWorld in San Diego one afternoon. Jim Breuer and I are at a sand play area with rubber mushrooms popping up for our kids to climb on. Jim and I watch as a bigger kid reaches up and pulls my son off of a purple shroom and then waddles away. I begin running towards my child but Jim grabs my arm and says, “Let him shake it off bro."
Owen picks himself up and heads after the kid. He comes up behind him, pulls him to the ground and rolls over on top of him. As the kid starts crying, Breuer high fives me and says, “Righteous dude!”
So, once again, we cracked open “The Dangerous Book for Boys” to get some inspiration. We skipped past chapters about making paper airplanes and hunting rabbits, and then we saw it: The blueprint of a simple skeleton for a soapbox car.
It was an H-shaped frame that you steer with ropes. We laughed at the simplicity and then headed to Anawalt Lumber to load up on supplies. Returning home with a rooftop full of 2X4s, we had already decided to upgrade the plans for the car (not cart). It would need a hood, a space in the back for the second man to crouch after pushing the car, foot brakes, and hand levers on the sides to steer. Something the Beach Boys would have sung about.
It took only five days to sketch it and then saw and drill the skeleton of the car. Keep in mind we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. It was pure ingenuity and logic mixed with two guys shirking all other responsibilities in their real lives. My publisher texted me that they were very excited to read a draft that week. I was very excited too, but it had nothing to do with a stupid book; I was crafting a death trap for my son and me to tear down a hill in. The inspiration was a 1957 Corvette, a matchbox car he’d had on his dresser since he was 10.
For the interior we hit up a material warehouse where we picked up boat padding for the seats and a sheet of pleather to wrap the padding in. The steering mechanism consisted of two pieces of sawed down broom handle bolted to the sides of the chassis and connected to chains, which pulled either side of the front axle. For brakes, a square of thick plywood was hinged to the underside of the frame below the driver’s feet. Large rubber bands held the brake taught until the driver would press down and pray the contraption held together.
The finishing touches included a hinged front hood that housed a bungee cord leash to pull the car back up the hill. The exterior was spray painted blue and black with reflectors on the bumpers and an LA Kings decal on the hood (no one was going to steal a go cart with a gang emblem on the front of it; except maybe a member of that gang). For the rims we bought a highly toxic gold lead paint that shined when the light hit it.
It was time.
We loaded the car (which weighed nearly 150 lbs.) into the back of my Subaru and we went in search of the largest hill in Venice California. May Street looked promising. Newly paved and wide, it sloped downhill drastically but leveled off for a good 50 yards before hitting a major intersection. If we were to coast that far it would be a victory worth dying for.
My daughter, at eight years old, wanted to witness our adventure. Even at this young age she sniffed danger and humiliation and planned to document it on her GoPro. The plan was for her to capture the magic from the top of the hill and then hop back into the Subaru to wait for us.
I insisted that Owen wear all of my ice hockey equipment and his bike helmet. He looked like a dwarf from “Mad Max: Beyond Logic.” Some fathers would have started out only halfway up the hill, but then some fathers would have been working on their books this whole time and occasionally showering.
We lined up the car. Owen commandeered the cockpit as I crouched behind the car and gripped the two handles attached to the sides. My heart raced as we teetered between stationary inertia and the free-falling momentum we were about to embrace. The fruits of weeks of our labor were about to be transformed into the beginning of what would hopefully be many more rides. I began pumping my legs until we had enough speed for me to tuck myself into the compartment behind. I then peeked over his head as we descended the notorious May Street.
The car, I remarked to Owen after about 20 yards, was quite a bit faster than I had predicted, owing perhaps to it’s massive weight now combined with two bodies and 25 pounds of hockey equipment. I suggested to Owen that he perhaps push down on the breaks a bit, as we seemed to have accelerated beyond the street’s 30 mph speed limit. He was euphoric in the thrill of the moment, however, and began to gently slalom from curb to curb while shrieking with joy.
This is not like him, I thought. This is a cautious boy with a need for control. I then realized the screams were not joy but abject terror and the slalom was not for sport but because he had lost control of the steering. He told me later that he forgot there were brakes and his legs had simply frozen.
The car began lifting off the ground onto two wheels, first in one direction and then the other. I suddenly felt way too tall to be hunched in the back of this half-baked experiment as it careened down the side of a monstrous hill.
With a grunt of rubber the wheels suddenly gripped hard and I was launched over the top of the speeding car as it flipped. I looked back to see Owen bail out the side and dodge the spastic car by inches. There was a trembling silence as we lay sprawled on the double yellow lines of May Street. Our chariot was upside down with wheels still spinning.
I crawled over to him like a wounded soldier and he held up his hands. They were scraped and bloody but he didn’t cry. We dragged ourselves to the side of the street and lay moaning by the curb. My shoulder was on fire and I’d banged my head but I felt immense relief that it hadn’t been worse.
JoJo! We had left her in the car at the top of the hill. I needed to get up there and make sure she was okay. We righted the car and although it was splintered and banged up it still rolled, so we strapped on the bungee cord and started pulling it up the hill.
My wife was hysterical. We were idiots apparently and I was irresponsible. She lovingly treated our wounds, fed us, and we sent Owen to bed. I came in a while later to say goodnight. He lay there but his eyes shined through the darkness as I sat on the edge of his mattress.
“Today the hill won," I said. “But tomorrow we’ll win."
He put his arms around me and for the first time he let out his tears.
Six years later, with Owen in the midst of his teen years and having built and destroyed many other projects with me, I look back at this event as having birthed a running theme in our relationship. It boiled down to this: “Let him shake it off bro." Whether it’s letting him discover his own authentic reaction to a pushy kid on a playground or dodging a flying deathtrap, he can handle it.