If the elements didn’t kill us, my mother was going to.
It was late in the evening. I was eight years old. My father, my grandfather, my little brother and I—we all sat huddled inside our minivan. Two-tone brown. Sticky, kid-ravaged woven seats. A lingering sour odor, like the restless ghost of some milkshake long spilled. My dad’s van was a rolling monument to Middle America in the 1970s.
Only it was no longer rolling.
We’d gone to Northern Utah to fetch my grandfather. Grandpa Snow had a newborn grandkid to meet. Mom and my two youngest siblings—toddlers both—were waiting for us at home with the baby. But we four sat stuck on the muddy shoulder off a lonely stretch of highway my dad like to call Nowhere, Idaho.
A hundred miles from home, Dad’s groovy ride had decided to quit.
Outside: freezing, because Idaho.
My father was an engineer. He worked at a nuclear power plant in the middle of the desert, which is why we lived an hour and a half north of Nowhere. Dad was halfway inside the engine, tinkering with different parts. Scientist that he was, he soon sniffed out the problem. The fuel pump was broken: a little contraption the size of a soda bottle that squirted tiny, precise amounts of fuel from the gas tank into the engine every few seconds.
It was 1991. James Bond had a cellphone. My dad had an 8-track and a tape of Stevie Wonder: greatest hits. We were dead in the proverbial water.
My grandfather was a kindhearted Korean War vet. Shaky with age and cancer, Grandpa puzzled over the array of car parts strewn across the front seat. This was one of those vans where you could pull off the dashboard and see the whole engine from the inside, which was convenient, given the weather.
My brother Mat was in the back seat with me. He was a year younger than me, and I thought it proper to hate him. We were busy fighting, as usual.
At this time of day and in this part of the country it was rare to see another car, much less a cop or a tow truck. We were on our own. Cold, dry sagebrush stretched endlessly away on both sides of the highway. The darker it got, the worse things looked. The fuel pump wasn’t just broken. It was irreparable.
No cars passed. Mat and I kept fighting in the back. The old man in the front took deep, cold breaths. My father was surely picturing a 5-foot-nothing woman 100 miles away, juggling two toddlers and a newborn, who had no idea just how screwed we were.
Lonnie Johnson was born in Alabama in 1949. Lonnie’s mother was a nurse’s assistant. His father was a handyman-slash-driver.
The Johnsons were poor enough that Lonnie’s father taught his kids how to make their own toys. Lonnie got pretty good at scrapping together parts from weird objects and turning them into dart guns and go-karts and robots. This probably explains why his classmates called him “The Professor.” It’s also why Lonnie was able to win a University of Alabama Science Fair as a high schooler—despite the fact that U of A did everything it could to prevent Lonnie, the one black kid in the competition, from even entering.
He went on to get his PhD in nuclear engineering. Eventually, he landed a job as the first African American scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he designed computer chips for the Galileo space probe to Jupiter.
A family man at this point, Dr. Johnson was one day tinkering with an air conditioning system in his bathroom. He’d hooked a hose up to the sink in an attempt to see if he could find a way to replace freon with water and make the AC system more environmentally friendly.
Suddenly, something happened. His contraption shot a hard stream of water across the bathroom. A light bulb went off in Johnson’s head—a flashback from toy-making days with his dad.
Gleefully, Johnson abandoned his AC project in favor of making an ultra-powerful toy water gun for his own kid.
This was no squirtgun. PVC pipe. Sniper barrel. Top-mounted soda-bottle magazine, and a clever plastic trigger. Some loose ends of twine, yes, but a solid prototype nonetheless.
Then testing. He gave the prototype to his daughter, who meticulously drenched her friends with it. Dad got feedback and improved the design.
Johnson pitched his new toy gun to various companies. They all said no. Then Larami Incorporated, makers of various water pistols, finally bought it. They partnered Johnson with a plastic designer named Bruce D’Andrade, who helped turn the prototype into one of the best-selling toys in the history of the world.
The Super Soaker.
In the first two years, Larami sold more than 200 million dollars’ worth of Super Soakers. Over time it would sell more than a billion. Lonnie Johnson was as rich as Harrison Ford. The Super Soaker outstripped the AK-47 to become the most popular type of gun on the planet—a happy thought!
Back in Idaho the night was getting colder. My dad had a plan, and it wasn’t pretty. It involved my grandfather sucking a small amount of gasoline into a straw, stopping it with his finger, and then dripping it into the tiny tube that led to the engine while my father turned the key.
Grandpa bravely took his station. Incredibly, the engine started, but it only managed to move us a few feet.
Around this time my tired father had had enough with the roughhousing going on in the back seat. He turned around to yell at Mat and me.
“Would you cut it out with the Super Soaker?!”
Mat had found the toy under his seat and now he was spraying me point-blank with the dregs of a bygone summer—that’s how I remember it, anyway.
Combat gave way to a sullen ceasefire. Dad turned back to the dismembered engine in front of him.
And that’s when my grandfather said, “Wait a minute.”
It turns out that three manual pumps every 20 seconds from a base-model early ‘90s Super Soaker is enough to keep a two-tone ‘70s van with a broken fuel pump rolling across the high Western plains.
It also turns out that a standard Super Soaker can hold enough gasoline for a two-tone ‘70s van to travel from Nowhere, Idaho, to Bonneville County with only a couple of refills.
Thus a poor handyman from Alabama, his son the inventor, his son’s little daughter the beta-tester, a plastics designer, and a group of toy company executives supplied a breakthrough whereby two obnoxious kids triggered a crazy idea for an old war vet that helped a man make it home to a heroic wife and mother of five without freezing to death on the side of an Idaho highway.
Keep your eyes open, and spread the love! (And if you’re intrigued by what you’re reading, I’d be delighted if you pre-ordered a copy of Dream Teams!!)
Have a great weekend,