Another true story from my childhood, that I call “The Go-Kart”. Enjoy:
I wheeled the Go-kart out from behind the shed. One could be forgiven for thinking it was a dune-buggy with its two rear tractor tires, its heavy-duty metal frame and roll bar. But it wasn’t a dune buggy. It was a go-kart – our go kart. My Uncle Ray had built it for us a few years prior, but it was never completed. In its current state, I suppose, it would be more correct to call it a soap box since it’s motor wasn’t functional. But I prefer to define things by their potential, not by their shortcomings, so I’ll call it a go-kart here. But I digress.
The seat was a single, curvy piece of lime-green fiberglass that was moulded into the shape of a cock-pit. It looked a little bit like a bathtub with a high back and a steering wheel. The steering column was moulded into the fiberglass’ contour, protruding up in the center, so that, when sitting in the driver seat, you would slide your legs into position on either side of it – the right foot on the gas pedal, and the left foot on the brake. Behind the seat, on the frame, was mounted a lawnmower motor.
The front wheels, in contrast to the rear tractor tires, were smaller (about 8”), rounder, and far less grooved. They looked like proper go-kart wheels.
She had been collecting dust underneath the lean-to roof behind our shed for years. Occasionally we would pull it out and push it around for a bit, but it was hard work because of its weight, so it mostly just sat waiting for the day when we had the wherewithal to get it “working”. Today was that day. Today was the day that my friend, Ezra, and I were going to finally take her out for a spin.
It was the summer after grade 7, and we had plenty of free time to tinker with the go kart. We had a goal, which was to “fix” the go kart’s engine, which had never been operational, but the plan was half-baked at best.
Ezra yanked on the engine’s starting cord a few times. It didn’t start, but it sounded like it almost did.
“I think we just need to pull faster. If we pull fast, and then let it go real quick, I think that’ll get it going.”
I gave it a couple of feeble pulls with no success, then Ezra took over again. Ezra was bigger and stronger than me, he was usually assigned these brute-force tasks.
“Check the gas”, Ezra said, “maybe it needs more”.
I found the grease-covered gas cap on the top of the motor and turned it to take a peek inside.
“Is it empty?”, Ezra asked.
“I dunno. Can’t tell. Too dark”.
Just to be sure, I fetched the jerry can from the back of the shed that we used for the lawnmower, and topped up the gas tank.
“That oughta do it.”, I said as I twisted the cap back on then wiped my greasy palms with my jeans pocket.
Ezra dug in with his foot on top of the go kart’s metal frame so that he could pull extra hard, then he gave it a tug.
The engine turned and sputtered a bit as the cord was pulled out, but it refused to add its own force and, like all the times before, just whirred down to a stop again.
“Maybe it needs to have a chain”, I said, pointing at the naked gears of the motor that were clearly intended to link up with the rear axle.
I thought for a minute, while Ezra continued to tug on the starting cord. Where could I find a chain? Hmm… Then it came to me. Our old swing set had chains that were used to connect the swings to the monkey-bar frame. Perhaps I could use that chain to link the gears of the motor and axle.
It took a bit of digging in the garage, but after rummaging through a dozen or so drawers of junk, and screws, and old light switches, I finally found the chain that I was looking for. This chain wasn’t the kind of chain that would typically be used in motors. This chain was more like the ones that they used at Zellers to rope off a closed checkout lane. I recognized that it wasn’t quite right, but I still naively hoped that it could be adapted. MacGyver once made a record player out of an Earring. If he could do that, then there was a chance, even a tiny one, that I could make this chain work.
Ezra took one look at the chain, and said “That’s not going to do it. It’s the wrong kind of chain”.
“I know”, I said, “but….”. I trailed off as I began my futile, and frustrating attempt to fit this square chain onto the round gear.
Ultimately I was forced to concede defeat to my cruel and humorless opponent, also known as reality.
This was a set-back.
We stood there for a moment, trying to think of an alternate solution. We had been planning for today. The goal was to take the kart out for a ride, and we weren’t going to return empty-handed. But without a working motor, there could be no “ride”.
“The walkway!”, I said excitedly, referring to the fire lane at the end of the cul-de-sac. If we could push it up to the top of the hill, we could let gravity be our engine. Just let it roll down the hill and hang on tight.
“And it’s closed off to cars, so it would be “safe”, I added.
Small detail, but relevant here: The go-kart, despite having a brake pedal, had no working brakes. “No matter”, we reasoned. “The bottom of the fire lane leveled out and should give us plenty of time to coast to a stop before we hit traffic.”
We discussed all of these safety concerns with sober consideration, and decided unanimously to proceed.
We used our combined might to roll the kart out of the back yard. Ezra walked along side of the driver seat and applied pressure on the steering wheel so that he could steer.. I pushed from the back, both hands on the frame. The first few hundred yards went smoothly because it was mostly level ground.
My house was situated at the “bottom” of our neighborhood. The entrance was at the “top”. By this I mean that if you drive into the neighborhood, the road follows a steady descent in the shape of a wishbone. When you reach the cul-de-sac at the “end” of the neighborhood, you find yourself at the bottom of the hill, and as proof of this, there is a rather dauntingly steep walkway at the end of the cul-de-sac, which leads directly back up-hill to the entrance of the neighborhood. If not for the fallen tree branches littering the path, and its rounded hockey-stick shape, this walkway would have made a fine venue for Olympic ski jumps. There was even a storm drain about three quarters of the way down that made for a perfect jump.
I used to love riding my bike down hills. I would take my hands off the handlebars and hold out my arms like a bird stretching its wings as the force of the wind blew against my body. I was a kite flying in the wind. But I never dared to ride my bike down this walkway. Too steep. Too narrow. Too crazy for my blood. And my bike had brakes.
We rolled the kart to the entrance of the walkway with ease. We were slowed for a moment while we steered around the gate posts, which had presumably been installed to prevent people from taking vehicles onto the walkway. The kart’s steering worked, but it was a little stiff, so it took a couple of attempts to thread the needle, and soon we were cruising again.
To make things fair, Ezra and I switched positions. I took the steering wheel to guide us up the landing, or the “blade” part of the hockey stick shaped run. Once we started rounding the heel, things got far more difficult, and we both had to push from the back to maximize our effective power output. From here on up, every step of the climb would be hard fought. I’m not sure how heavy the go-kart was, but it had to be at least a few hundred pounds. The frame alone was heavier than Ezra and I put together.
We reached the storm drain, and rested the go kart on the ledge that it formed so that we could take a short break and collect ourselves for the remainder of the climb. Beads of sweat were dripping off my brow and down the ridge of my nose. I looked back at the ground that we’d covered, then I looked up at the path ahead, and felt, for a moment, like we were in over our heads. Only a hundred yards to go. Maybe a hundred and fifty. But when every step is a battle, a hundred yards feels like a mile.
Luckily we had nothing else on our schedule for the day, so the length of the climb didn’t matter. If we kept pushing forward, eventually we would get to the top. And we did.
I recall an immense feeling of accomplishment as we approached the top of the path. We reached a second set of gate posts there, but we didn’t have to steer through this time. We carefully performed a 9 point turn with the kart and rolled it to the starting line. This is where we finalized the details.
It was already decided that Ezra would drive. I would stand on the back frame and hold onto the rollbar. We didn’t go immediately as we were exhausted from the climb, and wanted to rest. We also wanted to take in the experience for a while before moving onto the next thing. I suppose we were also a little scared. But what was there to be scared of really?
To recap, there were no brakes. Neither of us had helmets. I don’t recall if there was a seat belt, but if there was it would have been a loose-fitting lap belt. From one perspective, these details demonstrate a clear cause to be scared. But, looking at it another way, it demonstrates that we didn’t consider these things to be important, and thus, we didn’t think there was anything to fear.
We went in with eyes wide open. Before finally deciding to launch, we both took a last look down the path.
“That curve might be tricky”, I said.
“Yeah.”, said Ezra. “I’ll try to take it wide”.
“And watch out for that storm drain”, I warned. “If we hit that, I’ll go flying off the back for sure.”
We laughed for a minute at the ridiculous image of my flying through the air, arms flailing. We made up a few scenarios like the kart flying off the cliff and into the ravine. (Did I mention that the walkway had a cliff on one side with a hundred and fifty foot drop down to a river).
“That would suck”, we both agreed.
“We’d never be able to get it out of there.”
And we laughed some more.
Then things got serious as we prepared ourselves for the final countdown. We backed up the kart as much as we could, then Ezra climbed into the driver seat. I pulled on the back of the frame to prevent a premature start.
“Three, two, one…” I counted down.
I gave it a little push – a very little push as I wanted to make sure I was still able to climb onto the back before it gained too much velocity. It started to roll, so I jumped up onto the frame, and held on for dear life.
There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where the Nazi opens the hatch of the army tank just as it is about to roll over a cliff. This was me after about the first twenty feet, so I bailed out. But the kart continued, with Ezra at the helm.
The uncontrolled acceleration I felt in those first few yards had ignited a new fear in me, as I realized that brakes were a good thing. And a lack thereof was a very, very bad thing. I watched from the top of the hill as Ezra swerved from side to side and his momentum increased. The steering was a little tricky, and we’d never tested it at these high speeds before. Perhaps that is why Ezra’s plan to avoid the storm drain and take the curve “wide” didn’t pan out. Or perhaps he thought “what the hell!”, and decided to take the drain head-on. Whatever the reason, he went directly into that jump, and the kart was catapulted 5 feet into the air. I watched for that short eternity as Ezra and the cart sailed through the air.
Amazingly the cart stayed level, and straight. Unfortunately, the path began to curve underneath him, so that the further he flew on his trajectory, the closer he came to the curb.
The run had begun as “Days of Thunder”, but had suddenly morphed into “Top Gun”. Its success hinged on Ezra’s ability to land the aircraft. In slow motion, the harrier jet descended on the runway, inching closer and closer to the edge. And just when it looked like a spectacular crash was inevitable… he landed it! It touched asphalt just inside the curb which served as a sort of roller-coaster rail, guiding the kart around the heel of the hockey stick and into the home stretch. At the moment of touch-down, the universe returned from its suspended animation to a sort of “Three-stooges”-like fast frame mode. (You know, the effect where they speed up the film speed to make it look like the characters are running really fast, and movements become comically jerky). The friction from the tires scraping against the curb caused Ezras head to appear to bobble back and forth, like a small child hanging onto a jack-hammer.
I ran down the hill, screaming “Oh my God!”, and as the go kart started to decelerate on the landing, my fear converted itself into elation.
“That was awesome!”, I yelled. Still running down the hill.
When I reached the bottom, we celebrated briefly, and shared with each other what the view was like from our respective seating positions.
“You got so much air, man!”, I said. “Like 10 feet.”
“Yeah”, said Ezra with an air of new-found experiential wisdom, “I didn’t think I was going to land that”.
“You could have been killed”, I exclaimed, not stating the obvious at all.
I don’t remember who said it, or if it was said out loud at all, but we both heard it.
“Let’s not do that again.”