Just out of first grade, enjoying summer riding his bike, building forts with friends, catching lizards with his sisters, and playing Army, Dawson stood on the curb in the heart of downtown Redmond, Oregon, on July 4. “Dad,” Dawson said during the small town Independence Day parade, “In next year’s parade I want to drive a tank with a turret that actually moves and fires.” I scratched my head, scrunched my face, and replied, “Well, we might be able to do something like that but it may not be a full-on tank with an actual weapon. Let’s think about it.”
For the rest of that summer and through his second-grade school year, Dawson had a blast with his friends doing soldier drills like the belly crawl, marching in order, and training on home-made obstacle courses of old tires, sawhorses, and hula hoops. He created “Dawson’s Army Club” so that he and his friends could just hang out as soldier buddies. He read books and watched videos on World War Two, modern and old tanks, bombers and fighter jets, learning everything he could about the military. He visited an air museum, spent a day at a living history event amid jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and modern day soldiers, and he wrote a picture book on weapons around the world, passionately pursuing his newfound greatness as a young military expert. And, I bought him a go-kart.
By the end of June, the go-kart was painted camouflage and had features like any good military dune buggy. The roll cage was adorned with a decommissioned real-life anti-tank weapon, toy M-60 rifles were strapped to the sides, and the homemade compressed air marshmallow bazooka that we built together was in the hands of giddy Army kids who pulled the trigger to launch king-sized sugar puffs into the air. The pre-parade training-run day arrived. Dawson and his friends, outfitted with camouflage helmets, real military vests, and jungle and desert rat face paint, were set for the big day. For a year, Dawson and I had worked together so Dawson’s dream of driving a tank in the parade would come true. The go-kart was now the ultimate stealth desert patrol vehicle, as Dawson’s tank was replaced with this Desert Storm dune buggy he loved. Ready to roll, I pulled the starter cord to start the training. The rope handle snapped clean off.
It turned out that I, living blithely on the opposite end of the high mechanical aptitude scale, had bought a relatively funky Craigslist vehicle that only through the grace of the go-kart gods had run well for weeks—up until now. The next day I took the buggy to my neighbor, who ran a small engine repair business.
“Dawson has been planning and building and dreaming of driving a military rig in the July 4th parade, and I have a problem,” I said.
“Don’t worry, we will get it fixed,” replied my neighbor, Darrell. “But, this is a goofy homemade kart. The engine is an irrigation-line motor and this frame was built in someone’s garage.”
Darrell’s employee fixed the cord and made a few other improvements that would help the makeshift machine make it through the parade.
Two days later the kart was back in action for another test drive, and ready for July 4th. The Army Club boys started it up and took it for spins around the school parking lot, preparing to drive it in the parade line between the rodeo horses and classic cars. They drove it hard until it ran out of gas. After filling the tank back up, I tried and tried to get it started. With no luck and three days to go, I took it back to Darrell—my new hero. He said he knew how important it was to get it running and would clean the carburetor and add a fuel filter by tomorrow. The next day it was back in action—until it stalled on its final training mission. One last emergency trip to “Super Darrell” and his mechanic left us with hope and a new throttle spring for the big day.
The go-kart inched along a side road towards the Main Street parade start. Dawson, excited and nervous at the wheel, his three friends, me, and Bubba, another father who had decided at the last minute to walk the route with the boys, slowly moved through the blast-oven heat, as the first real hot day of summer swept in just that morning. A huge crowd framed the mile-long route, forming a sea of red, white and blue. Dawson rolled forward, gingerly touching the gas pedal so he would not run into the group in front of him. Then, the go-kart died. I pulled and pulled on the starter cord, but it would not start. Dawson, whose heart sank as he sat, motionless, yelled “Dad, it’s not running. Please fix it!” Bubba, who was a mechanic, asked Dawson to put the gas pedal all the way down to let air into the superheated flooded carburetor. The engine roared to life and the group again moved forward, with serendipity now along for the ride. We turned the corner and headed into a roar of waving flags and clapping families.
Every foot of the packed parade route kids yelled out, “How cool! I want to do that!” as the Army Club passed. Dawson gave thumbs up after thumbs up, bazooka marshmallows sailed into the crowd, and the emcee at the judges’ table exclaimed, “I can’t believe these are second graders! What a great Army Club vehicle!” The machine fought its way to the end of the route, threatening to die but never giving up. After 30 minutes of pure joy and pride, Dawson climbed out, unsnapped his camouflage helmet, high-fived his friends and Bubba and I, stood back, soaked it all in, and glowed. His dream came true.
A few minutes later a motorcycle pulled up. The rider jumped from the bike and took off his helmet. It was the mechanic from Darrell’s shop.
“Right on!” he said, “You did it!” He smiled from ear to ear, snapped a photo with the boys around the rig and climbed back on his bike.
“Thank you,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “You made my son’s dream come true. Thank you.”
Two days later Dawson and I walked up the street to the repair shop, gratitude held in our hearts and hands. I gave Darrell a six-pack and Dawson handed them a homemade thank you card—with a drawing of a boy driving a military go-kart. Dawson shook Darrell’s hand and told him thanks. Glowing with quiet pride, Darrell tacked the drawing on to the wall.
“I’m guessing you don’t know this,” he said to me as he pointed to his mechanic. “He walked just behind you the entire parade route, carrying his tool kit, staying real close to keep an eye on you. We figured he’d better do that in case the go-kart died and he was needed on an emergency basis.”
My head spun and heart swelled, as I was hit by how much these guys cared. “Thank you,” I said, “Thank you.” Overwhelmed by this act of kindness, Dawson and I turned towards home, as tears again filled my eyes.
There is no way to truly understand the power of an idea and the depth of compassion. But on this July 4th, a dad, a son, hard work, dedication, and a loving neighbor brought hope to life. Darrell’s giving made one little boy realize that people care and dreams do come true. His kindness will ripple out into the universe, forever, like a funky old go-kart with precious cargo aboard that just keeps rolling along.