The Pallet Bullet
Updated: May 5, 2019
From the age of seven until I moved away after college, I lived with my mother, stepfather Bill, and my two sisters (and eventually a half-brother) in a little house on Mattanawcook Street - a short potholed street that hangs like a comma off the seemingly endless Taylor Street.
The front yard of our house consisted of a strip of grass perhaps three feet wide that ended abruptly right at the edge of the pavement. On one end of the house was a gravel driveway just large enough to park one car which was plenty, since one car was all we ever had until Debbie got old enough to start working and bought her own car. After that, having space for two cars wasn’t really a problem – since we were the last house on a dead-end street, Debbie usually just parked in front of the house.
On the other end of the house was a small shed and a slightly wider strip of grass, maybe fifteen feet wide, that ended in a tangle of weeds and brambles that had overgrown the wire fencing that marked the property line to the bigger house lots that were far more common for the residents of Taylor Street. Since the shed was on this side of the house, this section of yard was where things got done. That’s where we would stand a bicycle upside down, resting it on handlebars and seat as we worked to fix a flat tire or replace a chain. It’s where we would dig the worms for our endless fishing excursions up and down the shore of the lake. And it’s where Timmy and I built the world’s heaviest go cart out of two mismatched sets of bike tires and boards stripped off several pallets. These were not the cheap flimsy pallets you find today, but the old pallets made with thick, wide boards of hardwood. Having never built a go cart (or anything else at all for that matter) and not having any patterns to work from, when we were finished, the cart looked like an oversized vegetable crate on wheels. It was monstrously heavy, the wheels wobbled as it rolled, nothing was square, we didn’t bother sanding or painting anything, and there were lots of bent over nails that we flattened down as best we could. In other words, as the first carpentry project for a ten-year-old, it was beautiful.
It was long enough for Timmy and me to both sit inside, one in front of the other. The sides consisted of two boards, high enough to make us feel secure, but not so high that we couldn’t reach out over the sides to steer. Since we didn’t have anything to use for a steering wheel, we just tied a rope on either end of the front axle, which we had put on a pivot (Bill helped drilled the holes and fastened a large bolt to act as the pivot) and would yank the left rope or the right rope as needed.
When we wanted to go riding, we would make the long, difficult journey through tall grass in the little field next to the Corro’s, up the steep four-foot high bank onto Taylor Street, then begin the Herculean effort of pulling the cart up Ariel Street which crept steadily up the long, sloping shoulder of Fish Hill. Since the cart was so heavy, we would only go up the hill as far as Clark Street. That was also just about as far from our houses as we were technically allowed to go. There were no rules written anywhere, but we both knew that within eyesight or earshot of either of our mothers was the unspoken legal limit. Not that we were really that afraid of getting in trouble for being so far from home without telling anyone where we were going. That was a common, nearly daily occurrence in the summers of my youth. so we weren’t at much risk from our mothers.
No, the real risk was simply in pointing the very heavy and slightly rickety cart downhill, getting a running start and leaping aboard. From Clark Street to Taylor Street was a short ride – perhaps only 100 yards. Even with a vigorous push, we would barely get rolling and start working the steering ropes to keep everything going in a relatively straight line downhill before we would need to steer into one ditch or the other to stop before we got to Taylor Street (we had never figured out how to put any sort of brakes on the cart). But since it was a short stretch of road and not very steep, it was fun, just a little scary, and certainly not dangerous. And because of that, we would simply pull the cart out of the ditch and head back up to Clark Street to make another run, this time switching drivers. We would make runs down as long as we had strength to drag the cart back up, until it got dark, or until we heard the faint “Dannnnny” or Timmmmy” on the wind that signaled the end of our day’s fun.
On one occasion a bunch of kids from other neighborhoods were out with their go carts, and even though we didn’t know any of them, and even though their carts were made with shiny metal pipes or slick painted wood, each with steering wheels and real seats which made us a little self-conscious of our own beast of a cart, we decided to soldier on through the intersection of Clark Street and go to the very top of the hill with them to where Ariel Street began (or ended, depending on your perspective). We knew this was different and were anxious about going. Of course, we were straying outside the invisible fence that was our mother’s eyes and voices, but that wasn’t what made the extra walk such a nervous one. The further up Ariel Street you go, the steeper the hill becomes. And the section from Clark Street up is much longer than the section from Clark Street down, perhaps twice as long. We’d never driven our cart more than a short section at a time and had no idea how it would steer or stop on a longer run. And of course, though I didn’t have any math knowledge beyond what I learned in fourth grade to that point, I think in the back of my mind, the future math-me was whispering something about mass and acceleration, coupled with a more urgent reminder - no brakes, no brakes no brakes…).
When we got to the top, we pointed the cart downhill and Timmy and I both hesitated, looked at each other and awkwardly offered the front to one another. Eventually, I settled into the front and Timmy prepared to give us a push start. The other kids, each one in their own fancy cart, had already taken off and were well on their way down the hill, headed to the intersection with Clark Street. Timmy started running, jumped on back, and we slowly started down the hill. Well, not so slowly. In just a matter of seconds, we had picked up more speed than we’d ever encountered before. The wheels in front were giving off a vibration I hadn’t heard or felt before, and as I was looking at the wheels to determine if they were going to fly off the axle stubs, I heard Timmy yell behind me. I looked up just in time to watch the front of our cart hit the back wheel of one of the other kid’s fancy cart. The kid gave a startled yell, steered onto a lawn, and spilled off his cart onto the grass.
In a blur, we had caught up to all the other kids. Sure, their carts were fancy, pretty, well made. But ours was five times heavier and we were riding double. Even with loose wheels and questionable bearings, with friction and vibrations and limited steering, our beautiful cart was faster than all of theirs!
Of course, that onrush of hubris only lasted a second. While the physics of the matter was correct and our heavier weight did indeed create a faster trajectory down the hill, as we flashed by each of the other riders, smiling at each in turn as we zipped by, I realized that they were all slowing down to a stop. The boy on the pipe frame cart was pushing a pedal with his feet and pulled to a stop on a lawn. The other two kids in their wooden carts each was working a handle at their sides, thrusting a friction pad against the back tires, and they too came to a stop. For an instant or two, I curiously wondered why they were stopping so soon when Taylor Street was still a long way downhill, then I remembered. CLARK STREET!
There were no ditches between the street and the yards on this section of Ariel Street to steer into as we always did on the shorter, flatter section below and at this speed if I deliberately turned onto a lawn, would we flip? Crash into a house? Hit one of the many cars parked in driveways? Immobilized by indecision, we flashed by the other kids whose shocked faces confirmed my dread – we were about to zip through the intersection. I closed my eyes. I felt Timmy’s head burrow into my back between my shoulder blades as he tried to protect himself from the collision with god knows what might be coming up Clark Street. The wind was whipping across my ears and with the sound of the vibrating wheels nearly deafening now, I barely heard the screech of tires on pavement and the blare of a horns, but I felt the closeness of something large. As I forced my eyes open, I saw bumper and grill and hood and, further up, a driver’s pale white faced contorted with anger and fear as we hurtled past, only inches to spare.
My heart was pounding. We were uninjured by the close call with the truck, but my body was reacting anyway. The steering rope was tightly clutched in my fingers, but I couldn’t feel it. The only sound I could hear was a dull thudding-hum deep in my ears. And my eyes were acting weird too. My peripheral vision was gone, replaced by a darkness that was slowly sliding further and further forward. As we zipped down the familiar section of lower Ariel Street, I knew we needed to stop somehow, but my only thought was the fascination that I was about to pass out.
Through the tiniest sliver of vision I had left, I saw Taylor Street fast approaching, felt my stomach lurch and churn as I knew I was incapable of doing anything other than waiting for the end, and resigned myself to blasting into the traffic of yet another busy street completely out of control.
With all the momentum of the wild ride down the length of Ariel Street behind us, we were moving way too fast but now, slipping into a faint, everything was moving in slow motion for me. I saw the pavement of Taylor Street come and go beneath us, saw the gravel of the ditch, noticed the tall grass at the top of the steep bank, and watched with subtle detachment as the ground dropped away as Timmy and I, and our hardwood bullet of a go-cart, went airborne.
I don’t remember much about the impact of the crash. But I do remember the flash of white that erupted in my eyes as my nose smashed into the boards in front of me and the sharp crack as Timmy’s head whiplashed into my spine. We crawled out of the wreckage. Timmy’s nose was leaving a twin crimson trail down the front of his shirt. I felt wetness and swiped at my own nose, leaving a large bright smear on the back of my hand. My knee throbbed, and looking down, I saw a large sliver of pallet board, about the size of a pencil, sticking out of my skin. I yanked it out with a wincing grunt, tossed it aside, and looked at Timmy. If I looked as bad as him, there was no way we could go home anytime soon. As scared as we had just been, as close as we had just come to total catastrophe, I would rather drag the cart back to the top and do it again rather than stand in front of my mother or Francis and try to explain why we looked like this – clothes torn, knees and elbows bumped and bruised, faces bloody. We looked like we had been run over by a truck, and if they found out how close we had actually come to that being true? My stomach made yet another lurch as I shuddered at the thought.
The cart was ruined. The back wheels were both folded over, presumably from landing tail first after our less than majestic flight. Both boards from the right side had been torn off, large spikes protruding here and there. How we avoided being impaled on one or more of them is just one of many miracles that we had just witnessed. Both front wheels had been ripped off; one lay a few feet from the axle, the other was gone, buried in the tall grass somewhere in the field.
We left the cart and snuck between our houses to the lakeshore where we cleaned up as best we could, then went back up to the field. We sat among the wreckage until it got dark enough to risk going home. I don’t recall when we went back to get the cart, but eventually it ended up in my side yard. We never rebuilt it or took it apart, we just pushed it off to the side and never mentioned it again. That was my last go cart ride. I can’t say if Timmy ever rode a go cart again, but certainly never again with me. But, later that year, after the snow had fallen and the crust had frozen, he and I and his nephew Tommy had another adventure, this time with a toboggan on the steep hills near Ariel Street. Though it was with a different group of kids, it also ended in tears and blood and furtive whispers of “what do we tell our moms?”, but that story will need to wait for another day…