May 9, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
When my nephew Hunter James Gonzales turned three, my father gave him the most dangerous birthday present I’ve ever seen. Dad’s deathmobile was used only once, almost twenty years ago, but I remember it as though it were yesterday. A hot needle would would burn out the memory. Free e-books to anyone who does the operation.
Hunter loved machinery. He’s two here, asking Tim about the turbine vent on top of Dad’s tool shed.
He was your usual kid. For a long time he was Superman.
His favorite machinery was vehicles powered with internal-combustion engines. So Dad decided he would build Hunter an antique fire-captain’s car that actually ran. Dad made it from wood. It had a fully functioning steering system, a gas pedal, and a brake. No seat belts, which it should’ve had. As you’ll see.
Here’s the finished deathmobile.
It was tiny, because Hunter was tiny. After all, he was only three. The car was about four feet long, but it weighed a hundred pounds, easy. Dad being the secretive man he was, he’d built it in his shop under the cover of darkness. Hunter’s mother—my sister Carrie—and her husband Bobby came over with Hunter and baby Wylie, and Dad asked me to help him wheel the car out of the shop.
How could something made of wood be so goddam heavy? Also, since it was so small, I had to crouch like a gorilla to wheel it. Hunter was ecstatic, but before he was allowed to climb aboard, Dad had to explain its features. You can see in the above photo that it had a little patch of carpeting so Hunter’s baby-feet wouldn’t skid all over the place. The carpet was the only safety device on the deathmobile.
Here’s the steering wheel, the gas pedal, and the brake pedal.
Notice the carpeting, again to keep those miniature feet from slipping off. Very necessary. Why?
Here’s why. This is the engine compartment at the back of the car.
Dad used some kind of nightmare electric motor that was powered by a car battery. Together these two components gave the deathmobile its surreal mass.
When Dad opened the engine compartment, I was aghast. That was a two-horsepower motor. Hunter was three. We may as well have been giving him the keys to my car. Tim and Mom were all gray, and Carrie obviously wasn’t a fan of the deathmobile, but Dad had put so much effort into it that nobody had the heart to tell him he was, well, off his rocker giving a toddler such a toy.
After Dad explained to Hunter how the gas and brake pedal worked, Hunter sat in the deathmobile and took off down the sidewalk at thirty miles per hour. Dad roared with laughter while Tim and I ran as fast we could to keep Hunter from slamming into one of the cars parked on the street. I had this hideous vision of him flipping the deathmobile and having those hundred pounds of motor and car battery grinding his baby-body into pâté.
See, Hunter was too little to understand steering and braking. He just wanted to watch the wheels of the car go around, so he didn’t look where he was going. He’d lean over out of the seat and watch the wheels, while Tim or I ran as fast as we could while squatting, steering the car and then manually lifting his feet off the gas pedal.
A hundred pounds going thirty miles per hour? Hit an elephant and you’d have a giant explosion of guts and ivory. We’d make it down the sidewalk without Hunter being killed, and then we’d squat-push the deathmobile back to where Dad stood chuckling.
“Give ‘er another run!” he’d shout.
Hunter wasn’t my child. I couldn’t say what I wanted. All I could do was run beside the car to keep my three-year-old nephew alive. It was exactly like a Buster Keaton film. Ironic, since he’s one of my heroes.
When you’re doing it for real, and a three-year-old’s life depends on you, it isn’t so funny.
After eight or nine kamikaze runs down the sidewalk, the motor started to smoke. Dad said it was just excess lubricating oil; once it burned off, everything would be fine. Carrie and Bobby took the smoking car home with them, but since it was so heavy and had only one speed—thirty miles per hour—they never used it again. Hunter outgrew it in a few months, thank God.
At some point Bobby brought it back for repairs, but Dad never got around to it. The deathmobile sat in my garage until the summer of 2013, when Tim and I took out the car battery and that horrifying motor and gave the harmless shell to the Goodwill.
Hunter joined the US Army and is now a private first class.
We’ve spoken only once since June of 2012. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you’d hoped. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful for all the moments that were just as nice as they could’ve been.
Here’s the color version of the photo of Hunter and me in Ghosts and Ballyhoo. That wading pool was about as adventurous as I ever wanted to get with Hunter. He loved water. Luckily, so do I. For hours we’d fill bottles and empty them. That’s all.
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