When I was eight, my Uncle Tom, who loves working with his hands, got me a go-kart kit for my birthday, and a few months later, we had it built and painted. His vision was to send me down the tourist infested Lombard street, a steep, curvy, brick road in the middle of San Francisco. But, during our first ceremonial test run on the hill behind my house, one of the wheels very nearly fell off as I swerved to avoid a dog. Uncle T decided the wheels were, “kind of shitty,” so we put it back in my grandmother’s garage and left it for almost four years.
“There may be fake news but there are no fake uncles.”
Uncle T was trying to teach me basketball. It didn’t matter that he didn’t really know how to play. It didn’t matter that I was too young to properly shoot a ball. He was going to teach me.
On the court, my short, slender, six-year-old frame was completely dwarfed by the 6’4” 200-pound man standing over me.
He dribbled past me, going for the layup. As he jumped up, he said, “Shaquille O’Neal.”
Wow you really crushed that six-year-old.
But Uncle T is not the most agile man, and as he came down, I found myself underneath him. He fell hard, landing squarely on my head.
“Eh, it’ll toughen him up,” he told my mother later.
“I am the first Brigham to not be asked to leave Phillips Exeter Academy since 1928.”
Four years after our initial test, we brought the go-kart back. We cut off the old roll bar designed for 4’6” me and pretty much just screwed a little kids’ bike trailer Tom had found in a dumpster to the back of the go-kart. Having re-sparked our interest, my uncle proceeded to purchase a stroller from “some dude named Jeff” on craigslist to replace the other two wheels.
A few weeks of work later, the go-kart was functional. However, the brakes were questionable, and the steering was imprecise (essentially, you could steer hard right, hard left, and slight left).
Most of his effort had been placed on making it look cool, and look cool it did. He had redone the paint job and carved flames into the back. His specialty was making things look worn, so he added several coats and went over it with sandpaper. The finished product looked like a steampunk hot rod car that had been sized up to fit a human.
In the Exeter nation, he’s a fourth generation,
but the truth is quite hard to divine…
As he scans through the masses of graduating classes,
the Brighams are hard to find.
–Excerpt from “Willie and Freddie”
By Tom Brigham
“Hey Freddie,” said Uncle T over the phone, “any chance we could move breakfast to 9:00?”
I agreed despite my hunger, and an hour later I walked down the hill to his apartment. I rang the doorbell, and a few seconds later the door buzzed aggressively. I climbed up the stairs and opened his door to the smell of pancakes.
“I know you gotta be home by eleven for some funeral or something so we won’t work on our project for too long,” he said.
I was about to tell him it wasn’t a funeral but decided to eat my pancakes instead. They were thin; he insisted on thin pancakes to differentiate his from the half-cooked IHOP ones. He is a pancake artiste.
While we ate, he told me stories from his time at Exeter. We talked about his dismay upon hearing that his brother had been expelled, right as he was about to enter. He told me about his fights with his roommate, and how his banjo skills helped him win friends and influence people.
Suddenly, it was 1:30 and we were just finishing up lunch at a divey Thai place on Clement.
“Is looking cool a category?”
(Upon being asked if the go-kart was being built for speed, handling, or comfort.)
After what Uncle T called, “decades of planning” (it was really more like fifteen minutes), we showed up at 6 AM on Lombard Street. Armed with nothing but a clipboard, my uncle walked out into the middle of the road, stopping several early morning tourists.
We rolled out the go-kart. Then, he pushed me down a hill steeper than we were sure the brakes could handle, curvier than we knew the steering could handle, and bumpier than we knew the suspension could handle. Essentially, he was willing to send me down a terribly steep road with questionable brakes just for the story.
But I love him anyway.
Frederick Wehlen is an eleventh grader at boarding school in New Hampshire. He is the fourth generation in his family to attend the school, but none of his relatives have graduated since 1929. They have mostly been asked to leave. This is a character profile of one of those family members: Uncle T.