I grew up in the West End on Arbor Street, by the old Schmidt Brewery. One of our pastimes in the mid-fifties was building and racing “chugs,” which were homemade go-carts, made entirely of found parts—boards, bent nails we straightened with a hammer on the sidewalk, and of course the most cherished find, wheels big enough to use (many baby carriages were wheel-less that summer). We had no plans; the closest thing to a blueprint I had was Greg, a bossy older brother. (I was eight at the time.) We usually started with a group of kids, but after a while I was alone straightening nails. The chug in this story had wheels from our Radio Flyer wagon. We broke the steering taking it apart, so the steering was done by feet pushing the axle assisted by found twine tied to the axle held in both hands. The brake was a stick nailed on.
Saint Paul has a lot of hills. One of the best for a maiden voyage on a homemade chug, so we thought, was Deubner Place. Benhill is good also, because it is longer and windier, but it is not as steep or rough. So we pulled it all the way up to the top. At that point I realized how steep it really is. I told Greg we should have better brakes, but he said you don’t need them. Seeing that he was older, I trusted his judgment.
My brother and his friend pushed me off the top of the hill. The wheels had great ball bearings, and I was really flying. I tested the brake about a third of the way down and it ended up in my hand. The bent nails didn’t hold. At this point I started to doubt my brother’s knowledge and judgment, and even if he wanted me as a brother.
I was now weaving from one side of the road to the other, steering with my feet because about two-thirds of the way down the twine broke.
Near the bottom of Deubner was a house with a cement retaining wall along its driveway. Although there is a lot of grass around, I hit the wall in the runaway chug. No brakes, no steering, and after it hit the wall, no wheels. I sat in the seat, stunned. My brother came running down. I am thinking he was worried about me, but what I heard him yell was “You broke our chug! Why did you hit the wall?”
Every time I drive down St. Clair past Deubner, I think of that day.