I’m making an infantry fighting vehicle for my three kids, which can also read as “guy makes 1:4 scale miniature under camouflage of parenting”.
There’s more to it than that, though. Sitting back, nine-odd months on from starting this outrageous project, the act of making my kids an insane billy-kart is a pretty powerful allegory, and though that ball of gristle I call my heart doesn’t suffer cheese lightly, the journey continues to be an important one of personal growth.
I can’t quite pinpoint how I became an armchair scholar of South Africa’s Cold War military engagements, or the exact time, but one thing led to another and a fascination took root with the war machines those Afrikaners cooked up. If not the pioneers of mine-protected vehicles, then certainly the ones who made it an engineering art form. Usual political caveats aside, the South African Defense Force’s derring-do during their long-running Border War captured my imagination, and their tools of the trade — specifically the Ratel, or Honey Badger — tickled design fancy.
Built a house, built a garage. Kids running thither and yon in a small rural hamlet. Come August last year, it was time to start the first big project as a capital D-Dad, now that I had space to swing a circular saw. Actually had to buy a circular saw first, along with a bunch of new tools to start that dependant home handyman arsenal. And so it goes.
Tree house? Not yet. Need to establish the garden first. Seesaw? Limited fun, need to keep young milk teeth where they are for the time being. Flying fox almost made the cut, but the topography just wasn’t conducive without massive platform construction. No, some sort of car makes sense. Something for the three of them.
A pull-along car. But let’s go a little wild here. A pull-along TANK. Cue rivet-counting Strategy & Tactics subscribers everywhere pushing up glasses and readying the correct nomenclature. But you get the idea.
I’d seen a very tidy CAD blueprint of a Ratel on some forum, dated around 2005. On a lark, I did a little bit of sleuthing on the artist responsible, and if I could track down a version that wasn’t an anaemic resolution. I found the fellow, an architect and designer in the south of England, who was delighted someone was interested in work long-forgotten. Any larger resolution, I asked, and I’ll pay. He sent a massive picture file my way and said the only payment he needed was a picture of the model when it was done.
The woman at the register had eyes as big as hen’s eggs, wondering what this bloke was doing with six flat-run wheelbarrow wheels. Futzing about with a Miffy ruler borrowed from my daughter, I worked out the math after returning home, using wheel diameter to set the scale. It was time to begin. The kids will love it, I told myself, ignoring the threat.
That threat. I’ve a long track record with not finishing things. Letting projects founder out of boredom. Giving up. Listening to that shitty voice. Anything beyond absolute necessity runs the risk of just being dropped when the excitement dies or something goes wrong. Hell, even absolute necessity is fare game, remembering a high school education stupidly thrown away in favour of drawing penises in textbooks for peer amusement. The irony of becoming a teacher thereafter, though. Delicious, slightly acidic.
Not being able to maintain the sheer grit to stick something out haunts a man. Aha, par for the course. Again? Too hard, but of course. Regret, introspection, self-blame, all that. All those opportunities wasted. But then, my daughter came along. And then my second lass. And then my youngest, a little lad. No secret that this changes everything, and like most people who find themselves staring at a sonogram or driving like the clappers to the maternity hospital at 4AM, you step up.
Though the crushing doubt still plagues, those three cheeky ratbags offer calibration. No going back now. Forget standing on the desk, Dead Poets, I’ll damn-well have a crack at building one. Or, you know, this Ratel business. Because it’s about focus, and those little scamps, turns out, are my reservoir.
My two eldest held the drill together, burring the head of the screw as it disappeared into the ply. The little bloke raked a sheet of sandpaper around the primitive hull, just happy to be in the thick of it. Afternoons of the mob crafting off-cut monstrosities with dollops of wood glue, while Dad strides around the beast, realising he’s made a few mistakes in the design. But remains undeterred and highly motivated. Excited, even, by the prospect of solving another problem. Jump in the car, kids! We’re off to the hardware store. Today’s mission? Automotive primer and, hold back the excitement, a holesaw drillbit! More caulk. Some epoxy resin. Seatbelts.
We’re almost a year into the project, and the cylinders are firing as hard now as they did on day one. It’s a project that has needed to fit in with the daily schedule, the weekly schedule, fits and starts; but where once that sort of oft-infrequent time dedication would have let the fire die, it is a catalyst. Kids! No plans today, only The Plan. We’re not there yet, but it’s in range.
After thirty-four years of DNF, I have finally found my reason to take it over the line for pole position.
*[Dave apologizes for the lame pun on such an awesome article. He’s hanging out with his own kids today and simply went for the lowest hanging fruit. Don’t worry, as always he’s ashamed of himself. -ed.]