I still clearly remember the first time I intentionally sat down to design something I’d later build. It was summertime, and I was sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table. I was about 10 years old.
For some reason, and I think it might be that it just came to me as I drew, the design became a rickshaw. Not just any rickshaw, mind you, but the one meant to carry my grandma under its canvas cover and upon its upholstered seat — behind the little Honda motorcycle that my grandpa borrowed for me each summer from his best friend, Feise.
My dad was a civil engineer, and my mom, a potter. We had recently moved away, from Colorado to Louisiana. It was no punishment being sent back to Colorado for parts of each summer after the move; I loved my grandparents’ house. But more to the point, I loved my grandpa’s workshop.
The old building had been his brother’s shop, used to maintain Mountain Bell phone system service trucks. It was a mixed-use building separate from the house;“down below,” my grandma called it. It was home to my grandma’s real estate office, my mother’s old pottery studio, chickens, huge scary spiders, and at one point our horse, Mr. Teacup.
Most important though were the rows of drawers heavy with tools. These were huge, deep, wooden drawers, loaded very specifically with like things within. There was a drawer with only hammers of every kind and weight, drawers with only flat head screwdrivers, drawers with unrecognizable things that smelled old and oily— so many drawers.
I remember my favorite thing among all of them though was this special waxed cotton string. I knew my grandpa had used it in his work somehow. It was perfect: you can’t find string like that anymore. If I could, I’d buy it all. Oddly, my parents would say that I’m wrong. They’d say that my favorite thing was duct tape.
Everything a boy could want was in that space. And for some reason, they just let me explore it. I knew every nook, and if I didn’t know what something was, it wouldn’t matter; it was part of a starship or a sword or some siege engine.
I would hammer on things, take things apart and put them back together. I’d bend scrap metal, drill holes through random pieces of exotic wood. I remember making so many different Storm Trooper cannons and blaster guns. Once in a while, and I think he was never far away, my grandpa would come and see what I was up to. He’d give me a little grief about putting things away, and remind me that we had to head to the mountains soon. I’d always find a reason to again be back “down below,” and he’d always let me go, rolling his eyes with that wonderfully kind, confused smile.
Upon reflection, I don’t think I had a better friend in my childhood than my grandpa.
That particular day, I headed to the workshop to begin construction of my rickshaw. I was certain that everything needed was there—I had a pretty good running inventory in my head. I realize now that I counted heavily on my grandmother’s ability to persuade grandpa toward her cause, which worked well if our causes were aligned. In this case, I needed wheels, and grandma needed to be rickshaw-ed.
So, that was it. I (we) spent a summer building my first design. They took me to a swap meet where we found wheels that needed an axle. We built an axle. We built and then upholstered a seat, worked out a chassis, built a collapsible canopy and created a hitch to attach the whole thing to my motorcycle.
I swear that to this day, the most flattering and gratifying thing I’ve ever experienced was my grandmother climbing aboard that rickshaw. She trusted me, trusted this thing that I created in my head, this thing we made real in that workshop over that summer.
Later that year, my grandparents came down south to visit and brought my rickshaw. Now without a borrowed motorcycle, I sat down to design again, and this time it would be pulled by our Rottweiler Max, with me in tow.
They let me do it, and so it began.