Note: This memory is from a few years after the Missile Crisis. I was probably around 14 years old.
It was the fall of 1964 and The Beatles were “taking America by storm” (a ridiculously overused phrase at the time) with hit after hit. To me, they were okay, but not nearly as cool as when Doug’s parents bought him a brand new go-kart with a two-cycle Clinton engine.
I’d never seen anything so beautiful. Or so fast. We took the kart over to the school parking lot and started it. The engine whined like a chain saw (the Clinton company did indeed make chain saws), and when Doug took off he shot past me with bugling eyes and a look of frozen fear on his face.
It had to be the coolest thing ever. That night at dinner I asked my father if I could get a go-kart, too. “Sure,” he said. “If you can pay for it.”
I shoveled driveways all winter and, by the spring, had saved less than a quarter of what I would have needed to buy a kart like Doug’s. It seemed hopeless, but then, in the Pennysaver, I found an ad for a homemade kart that looked like it had been welded together out of spare pipe. It had no engine.
“You sure you want it?” Dad asked, clearly dubious, when he took you to see it. But I was sure (And why not? I couldn’t afford anything better).
I guess Dad felt bad after that, because he said I could have the Briggs and Stratton engine from our old lawn mower. I unbolted the engine from the lawnmower, drilled new holes in the engine plate on the go-kart, and mounted it.
When I went to the store to buy a centrifugal force clutch, I discovered that I couldn’t afford one. But I could afford a sprocket and a chain. All I’d have to do was jump start the kart.
Our short driveway slanted down to the street. After making sure no cars were coming, I crouched beside the kart like a bobsled driver and pushed. The engine caught and roared. The kart shot out of my hands, sailed down the driveway, across the street, crashed into the curb, and died.
In time I learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. I would ride up and down the narrow street in front of our house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if I hit the brakes too hard she’d stall.
Jumpstarting is hard on an engine. The spark plug often got fouled and had to be cleaned. I fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned myself on the muffler. Cables snapped and had to be replaced. Brake bands wore out and had to be replaced. The drive tire went bald and had to be replaced. I did it all myself.
While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart, I cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive mine. I suspect they regarded my kart as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, I can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous.
I’m pretty sure I spent far more time fixing the kart than driving it. At its best, it never went a third as fast as Doug’s. It would be too neat and easy to end this story by saying that Doug got bored with his kart, or never appreciated it. The truth is, I have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All I know is I loved every second I spent with mine.