Something about the kids suddenly acting more grown up has made me start harking back to their childhoods. I’ll call this episode:

“Super Dad – and other myths”

When Evan was little, he first began to display his now-well-known ability to focus his mind on a project to an extreme degree. He was the king of projects – and when Erin came along, she became the queen of craft projects. I remember when I first set up an easel for him to paint. He was 2 or 3 and I set up a small piece of plywood in the garage of the house we were living in in San Jose, California. I taped up some large sheets of paper, dressed him in one of my old T-shirts (which was so huge on him, all you could see were his hands and his toes sticking out, opened up a paint set, gave him a brush, and told him to have fun. He stood there for at least two hours painting one piece of paper after another. There were paintings all over the garage floor drying when we finally had to make him stop. All he said for that entire period was “I like to paint” every so often. After that, my Dad got him and Erin some real easels so that when we visited them in Arkansas, they could both get creative; which they did.

Every so often, we were called upon to create something together.

Such as the event at the Methodist church in Campbell, California. I don’t even remember what the occasion was – I just remember that the kids were there for something and I was outside talking to my friend Daniel Hinojosa. I felt a nudge on my arm and found Melissa there asking me: “Do you want to do a craft project with Evan?” I didn’t but I could hardly say no. I followed her inside only to find a room filled with trash: styrofoam meat trays, yarn, oatmeal boxes, milk cartons, etc and of course the ubiquitous hot-melt glue guns. You know – trash. It was a completely unstructured craft free-for-all. I was incredulous; what was I supposed to do? “Just make something” was Mel’s response.

It ain’t the polar express but it will do

Evan had that look on his face: craft project a-comin’ and he was getting his game face on. This was no game to him; he took it very seriously. “What could we build?” he wanted to know. My mind was a blank but he and Mel were looking on with that “OK, create something” look on their faces. “OK, what do we have to work with?” I thought. I fumbled about for a bit when suddenly, an idea formed in my head: an oatmeal box, a little milk carton, a 35mm film can, some milk jug lids, great gobs of hot glue and in short order, we had ourselves a reasonable facsimile of a steam locomotive. I came through! I felt like Lynn Swann making that classic catch in the end zone. It was awhile before we threw that little gem away.

Later on, when he was 5, he started Kindergarten and we went to parent’s night. Again the same scenario played itself out. The teacher put us all on the spot by saying “OK parents, sit down with your child, get out a toy and PLAY!” Evan ran – RAN – to the “inch blocks”. This was just a large plastic tub full to the brim with tiny wooden blocks that were 1 inch on a side. He dumped them out and said “Let’s make a castle!”. Well, that’s a tall order but I was trained as a scientist – I knew how to focus my mind and I knew from watching him that he did too. We put our heads down and set to it. I think we only had 10 minutes but we were both so totally focused on the task that we didn’t notice when it was time to stop. We were working on the large tower you find in the corners of castles and it was up to about 1 foot when the teacher bent over us and had to tap me on the shoulder to get me to break my concentration. It turns out we had an audience.

Kids were standing there just staring at us. Some parent were too. The teacher was beaming with that expression that meant she thought her mission had been accomplished. She had precipitated a “moment”! She went on and on about that – she made joking comments about our ‘engineering’ project. She commented to Melissa that most kids would work a puzzle or just lose interest after 15 seconds with all the unusual distractions around but here we were with this massively complicated thing and no sign of stopping. I imagine she’s still chuckling.

But it all pales in comparison to Evan’s third-grade year when his Kaleidascope class studied medieval history. This was a set of projects that crossed the boundary of common sense and produced projects that both Evan and Erin took to school to show off. I wish I still had the series of emails I sent out that chronicled this phase of our lives. Basically, this was all me. I got it into my head to try and make two things that I had been thinking of for years: chain maille and a trebuchet. I figured I could do a project that I had always wanted to do anyway and score some brownie points at the school too with a demo of my projects.

The trebuchet came first. For the unitiated, a trebuchet is a type of catapult – a medieval weapon that throws things. It is unique in that it uses gravity as its motive force instead of a spring. If you watch the second Lord of the Rings movie, you see them using trebuchets to defend Gondor. I had seen an article in Scientific American in the early ’90s about them where some guy in England had built one that would throw a car (albeit a very small car with its engine removed). I was inspired because it looked so simple. The “it’s for school” angle was just what I needed to get me going. I started work immediately but without plans. I just started building by the seat of my pants. As such, it didn’t work all that well but it definitely worked. I had imagined that it might have a theoretical capability to fling a ball about 100 yards but I could only manage about thirty. Golf and tennis balls flew well but they bounced and rolled forever so I was forced to use beanie babies which would just land and stay put. Water balloons were right out – they couldn’t stand the acceleration of launch. They would burst on the upswing every time. I put it out on the sidewalk in front of the house to test it which evoked all sorts of weird looks from passers by. Some people would drive by and then later I’d see them drive by again. A couple of my engineer friends from out in California were enthusiastic supporters and even came up with a list of names for it – apparently, the medieval warriors named their weapons. We settled on the name “Fragarach” which was apparently some Gaelic god whose name roughly translates to “destroyer”.

The Trebuchet

The crowning moment came actually in the spring at the end of the school year where there was a big hoop-de-doo at a local football stadium where all the students throughout the city who were in the program got together and saw some jousting knights (I wonder where the school system hired these guys?), learned some stuff, and generally had a good time. But the teacher had asked me if I’d bring my trebuchet and demonstrate it. As things turned out, the talking part of the program ended and I was announced to be on the field where people could watch the thing work. As I went down to my machine, I became the center of quite a crowd. I cocked the thing and prepared to fling when I noticed an even bigger crowd. I was afraid that my beanie-baby projectiles might get lost in the crowd so I asked for volunteers to go fetch my ammo. Accordingly, a huge crowd of boys broke off from the crowd and headed towards midfield.

I yanked the lanyard to release it and it flung oh-so-gracefully from the sidelines out to midfield where the crowd chased it like kids chasing a foul ball at a baseball game. After watching it sail, I turned back towards the trebuchet to find that some mom had organized all the kids into a line. I guess she thought that all of them were going to be given a chance to shoot it. Well, that wasn’t in the plan but what could I say? I cocked it, loaded it, and gave the lanyard to the first little kid in line. She yanked, it flung, the crowd went “ooh” and the process was repeated. I cocked and loaded the thing for two solid hours. I had meant to go talk to one of those knights (to see their armor actually since I had an idea for building some of that too) but alas, I was too busy. My brother-in-law and, finally, Evan came to help me but not before I was totally exhausted. It was a good time. It was just in time too for my axle was beginning to bend in the middle and failure of the machine was immiment.

After building that project, I started off on the chain maille project. Part of the school year’s projects called for the kids to wear a costume so I figured Evan could be a knight and wear my chain maille. I decided to make a coif (the hood-like thing you wear to protect your head) since that seemed to involve the smallest amount of material. I found instructions on the internet as to how to make the little rings easily and how to weave them together. That (not surprisingly) was a very long and tedious project – it’s like knitting but with steel wire. I found various ways to make it easier and quicker but not all that quick. I remember several Sundays, sitting in front of the TV watching NFL games and weaving maille links. Finally, it was done.

Boy was it heavy! It weighed in at just short of five pounds which is a lot for a kid to have sitting on his head. It’s a lot for an adult to wear on his head all day too. It’s also cold and the links often snag your hair and pull it. But it’s very cool nevertheless. Plus, it turns out that you’re not supposed to wear it directly against your skin anyway – apparently, knights had some padding they put on first. So he wore this thing to several events including Trick-or-Treating. It looked cool and so, of course, I took it to work several times as well.

I haven’t told too many stories about doing these things with Erin but I attribute that to the fact that she is so independent. When she is given the go ahead to start a craft project, whether at home for fun or at school ‘for real’, she jumps in there with both feet and doesn’t ask for, or really even welcome, any help. She heats up the glue gun and gets after it. She can take a clean room and create a mess of biblical proportions in the blink of an eye. When she gets busy, she really gets busy. I’ve known the family to sit down to watch a movie and before the movie is over, Erin will have gone and gotten a few supplies (like tape, scissors, paper, yarn, etc) and embarked on a project of her own making while the rest of us were focused on the TV. When we turn on the lights again, two hours later, the floor is covered in tiny bits of refuse for a radius of about five feet with her in the middle and a product in her hands.

Even at a very young age, she would undertake these things by herself. I can recall once when we were visiting my sister, a box of felt scraps was brought out. My sister thought that we could perhaps cut them up into vague shapes and maybe stick them onto other pieces of felt – just something to keep the kids busy. But Erin ended up cutting up a piece in the shape of a cat and then cutting a matching piece, sewing them together, glueing little various bits and pieces to it, and making her own stuffed animal. Apparently, for her, the joy was found in the process rather than in the product since she gave it to my sister to keep before we left.

I haven’t even mentioned Melissa and her fabulous themed birthday cakes. That’s a subject for another time I think.