The Greatest Fourth of July Story Ever

By: Ken Streater | Parenting | Personal Stories

Just out of first grade, enjoying summer riding his bike, building forts with friends, catching lizards with his sisters, and playing Army, Dawson stood on the curb in the heart of downtown Redmond, Oregon, on July 4. “Dad,” Dawson said during the small town Independence Day parade, “In next year’s parade I want to drive a tank with a turret that actually moves and fires.” I scratched my head, scrunched my face, and replied, “Well, we might be able to do something like that but it may not be a full-on tank with an actual weapon. Let’s think about it.”

For the rest of that summer and through his second-grade school year, Dawson had a blast with his friends doing soldier drills like the belly crawl, marching in order, and training on home-made obstacle courses of old tires, sawhorses, and hula hoops. He created “Dawson’s Army Club” so that he and his friends could just hang out as soldier buddies. He read books and watched videos on World War Two, modern and old tanks, and bombers and fighter jets, learning everything he could about the military. He visited an air museum, spent a day at a living history event amid jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and modern day soldiers, and he wrote a picture book on weapons around the world, passionately pursuing his newfound greatness as a young military expert. And I bought him a go-kart.

By the end of June, the go-kart was painted in camouflage colors and had features like any good military dune buggy. The roll cage was adorned with a decommissioned real-life anti-tank weapon, toy M-60 rifles were strapped to the sides, and the homemade compressed-air marshmallow bazooka was ready for action. Dawson and I had built that contraption that now sat in the hands of giddy Army kids who pulled the trigger to launch king-sized sugar puffs into the air.

The pre-parade training-run day arrived. Dawson and his friends, outfitted with camouflage helmets, real military vests, and jungle and desert-rat face paint, were set for the big day. For a year, Dawson and I had worked together so Dawson’s dream of driving a tank in the parade would come true. The go-kart was now the ultimate stealth desert patrol vehicle, as Dawson’s tank was replaced with this Desert Storm dune buggy he loved. Ready to roll, I pulled the starter cord to start the training. The rope handle snapped clean off. It turned out that I, living blithely on the opposite end of the high mechanical aptitude scale, had bought a relatively funky Craigslist vehicle that only through the grace of the go-kart gods had run well for weeks—up until now. The next day I took the buggy to my neighbor, who ran a small engine repair business.

“Dawson has been planning and building and dreaming of driving a military rig in the July 4th parade, and I have a problem,” I said.

“Don’t worry, we will get it fixed,” replied my neighbor, Daryl. “But, this is a goofy homemade kart. The engine is an irrigation-line motor and this frame was built in someone’s garage.”

Daryl’s employee fixed the cord and made a few other improvements that would help the makeshift machine make it through the parade.

Two days later the kart was back in action for another test drive, and ready for July 4th. The Army Club boys started it up and took it for spins around the school parking lot, preparing to drive it in the parade line between the rodeo horses and classic cars. They drove it hard until it ran out of gas. After filling the tank back up, I tried and tried to get it started. With no luck and three days to go, I took it back to Daryl—my new hero. Daryl ran a busy shop, with three employees, dozens of lawnmowers, chainsaws, and even a few go karts lined up waiting for a fix. Normally, it would take a few days to get your machine repaired, which didn’t matter much considering the speed of growing grass. But this was different. The parade would not wait and Dawson’s fulfilled dream was on the line.

I didn’t even need to plead with Daryl. A retired airline pilot turned small town business owner, making the right decision in order to take care of people was in his DNA. Generosity flowed through his veins. He said he knew how important it was to get it running and would clean the carburetor and add a fuel filter by tomorrow. The next day it was back in action—until it stalled on its final training mission. One last emergency trip to “Super Daryl” and his mechanic left us with hope and a new throttle spring for the big day.

The go-kart inched along a side road towards the Main Street parade start. Dawson, excited and nervous at the wheel, his three friends, me, and Bubba, another father who had decided at the last minute to walk the route with the boys, slowly moved through the blast-oven heat, as the first real hot day of summer swept in. A huge crowd framed the mile-long route, forming a sea of red, white and blue. Dawson rolled forward, gingerly touching the gas pedal so he would not run into the group in front of him.

Then, it died. I pulled and pulled on the starter cord, but it would not start. Dawson, whose eight-year old heart sank as he sat, motionless, yelled “Dad, it’s not running. Please fix it!” Bubba, who was a mechanic, asked Dawson to put the gas pedal all the way down to let air into the superheated flooded carburetor. The engine roared to life and the group again moved forward, with serendipity now along for the ride. We turned the corner and headed into a roar of waving flags and clapping families.

Every foot of the packed parade route kids yelled out, “How cool! I want to do that!” as the Army Club passed. Dawson gave thumbs up after thumbs up, bazooka marshmallows sailed into the crowd, and the emcee at the judges’ table exclaimed, “I can’t believe these are second graders! What a great Army Club vehicle!” The machine fought its way to the end of the route, threatening to die but never giving up. It was as if Daryl’s gift willed it across the finish line. After 30 minutes of pure joy and pride, Dawson pulled to the curb, climbed out, unsnapped his camouflage helmet, high-fived his friends, Bubba and I, and glowed. I stood back and soaked it all in. His dream had come true.

A few minutes later a motorcycle pulled up. The rider jumped from the bike and took off his helmet. It was the mechanic from Daryl’s shop!

“Right on!” he said, “You did it!”

“Thank you,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “You made my son’s dream come true. Thank you.”

He smiled from ear to ear, snapped a photo with the boys around the rig, climbed back on his bike, and roared away.

In his book, The Generosity Path, Mark Ewert explains, “The word generous comes from the Latin generosus, which means ‘noble’, ‘magnanimous.’ Magnanimous in turn comes from the Latin words magnu—‘great’—and animus—‘soul.’ Generosity’s rich meaning implies giving freely, giving more than necessary, and giving more than expected. Generosity ennobles us. It makes us great souls. As an added delight, the prefix ‘gen’ means birth. So, generosity causes something new to be produced.”

Two days after the parade Dawson and I walked up the street to a place that had become more than just a repair shop, gratitude held in our hearts and hands. I gave Daryl a six-pack and Dawson handed them a homemade thank you card—with a drawing of a boy driving a military go-kart. Dawson shook Daryl’s hand and told him thank you. Glowing with quiet pride, Daryl tacked the drawing on to the wall.

“I’m guessing you don’t know this,” he said to me as he pointed to his mechanic. “He walked just behind you the entire parade route, carrying his tool kit, staying real close to keep an eye on you. We figured he’d better do that in case the go-kart died and he was needed on an emergency basis.”

My head spun and heart swelled, hit by their caring. “Thank you,” I said, “Thank you.” Overwhelmed by this act of kindness, Dawson and I turned towards home, as tears again filled my eyes.

There is no way truly to understand the power of a dream and the depth of a gift. But on this July 4th, a dad, a son, hard work, dedication, and a loving neighbor brought hope to life. Daryl’s giving made one little boy realize that dreams do come true and that people do care. His generosity—his  great soul —spawned kindness that forever ripples out into the universe, like a funky old go-kart with precious cargo aboard that just keeps rolling along.