Road Less Traveled
Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
Photography by Brenna Orozco
One of the most beautiful things about us as humans is that we’re all different. We are all born asking different questions. We have different dreams and ideals, and we each come with our own set of talents and passions that, hopefully, we use for the better in our short time here on earth. Somewhere along the line, most of us learn to conform and fit in; to want what we’re expected to want, and to take the most traveled path into what is defined for us as “success.” But other people take a different route, risking failure and lack of acceptance. They have taken the road less traveled by and it has, indeed, made all the difference.
I’ve set out on a mission to find twelve of these remarkable people in twelve months. I want to know what makes them tick ... what inspires them and how they ended up on that unchartered path. Has it been worth it? Would they change it? What can I learn from them? What does the world have to learn from them? I’m about to find out.
Contact Amanda Christmann Larson to nominate someone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Month 1: Joe Hudy
Finding Joe was tricky, although it shouldn’t have been, considering that I was looking for a bright orange piece of machinery roughly the size of a Smart Car. We had an appointment to meet near the skate park at the Anthem Community Park, but when I scanned the area, all I could see were groups of kids talking, riding skateboards and bicycles, and just hanging out in the afternoon sun. I didn’t see the orange machinery, and I also couldn’t identify an extraordinary but awkward fourteen-year-old boy and his mom. Walking toward the far end of the park, I finally spotted them. Joe and his mom were off in a quiet far corner of the park, away from the distraction of other children enjoying their activities. He stood proudly by his nearly-neon contraption, his smile wide and confident as he held on to the bike pump that pressurized his invention.
Joe is a genius. It does not take long to realize that this kid is incredibly gifted. He was at the park to show me a triple pipe tank marshmallow cannon he’d built, one of many inventions he’s come up with over the years. This particular invention, like many of his creations, was made out of what he terms “boredom.” He said he was bored in class one day when he connected his pencil to an empty water bottle. When he squeezed the bottle, the pencil launched. “I was basically forming an air compressor in the bottle, which pressurized and launched the pencil,” he explained. “From that, I thought of this.”
“This” is one doozy of an apparatus. A long white tube in front is connected to a series of three orange pipes, with an electromagnetic valve (read: sprinkler head) controlling the launch. The bottom ends of the orange pipes are connected to a fancy-looking valve stem, which connects to a bike pump to pressurize and compress the air inside. Joe has attached a switch to the valve so that, when it is released, the pressurized air escapes out the front tube, launching a marshmallow on a trajectory that travels about 170 feet. That’s my sort-of scientific take on it. Joe’s explanation contains a whole lot of words I haven’t heard since they put me to sleep in my high school physics class.
He’s anxious to show me how it works, and he dumbs down his explanation so I can understand. “It’s kind of like when your closet’s full of things, and everything is falling out. If you pump more air in the tank, it’s kind of like stuffing more stuff in your closet when it’s already full. Eventually it all falls out. This is the same concept. I use the bike pump to stuff more and more air inside, and eventually, there’s too much and it has to escape. It comes out the tube, and shoots the marshmallow out in the process.”
It took me only a cursory glance to realize Joe isn’t a typical girl-crazy adolescent. It’s not only his use of multi-syllabled scientific terms. Joe is slight for his age, and seems to embrace his lack of athletic ability and social graces. He often doesn’t sleep - his mind focused on projects he wants to do. Just barely into his teens, he has invented and built more contraptions than the average number of book reports most kids his age have completed. He has a hard time interacting with other children. “I’m not a crowd person,” he explained. “I hate sports, and I’m not a party kind of a guy for sure. I really don’t have friends. I don’t even go out at recess. I just sit inside and read a book.”
He’s got an accurate view of himself. Joe was born with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. “I’m not the expert on all that,” he told me. “I know it has something to do with not developing social skills.” And again, he’s right. People with Asperger’s were once simply labeled “eccentric” or “odd.” They tend to not recognize social cues. When they talk, they often avoid eye contact and other social norms. They often don’t demonstrate empathy, failing to realize when people are bored with a topic they’re discussing (often in great depth), and appearing abrupt and insensitive at times. As debilitating socially as Asperger’s Syndrome can be sometimes, such as in Joe’s case, Asperger’s comes with the gift of remarkable mathematical or scientific ability.
One of the best gifts a parent can give a child with Asperger’s Syndrome is the freedom to be who they are and set aside the inherent desire every parent has for their child to be accepted and to fit in with their peers. Joe’s parents would love for him to be popular and social, but they are learning to accept that Joe is not that kid. “I don’t think kids really understand and appreciate [Joe],” his mom, Julie, explained. “It’s hard when you’re different. It’s hard to find your niche.”
But Joe’s story is not a sad one at all. In fact, not only is this exceptional boy doing his own thing, he’s found his calling.
A couple of years ago, Joe was searching online for snap circuits, which are kind of like Lincoln Logs for kids who lean in a scientific direction. As the name implies, they snap together and form electrical circuits, and they can be manipulated to power in different ways. He came across a company called Elenco Electronics out of Illinois. Joe often has in-depth questions about the products he purchases, so his mom relayed his questions to Jeff Cota at Elenco. Jeff took a special interest in Joe. Jeff’s niece, too, is autistic, and Joe’s focus and determination touched Jeff. He began sending materials to Joe, free of charge, and their friendship grew. Joe began testing the company’s products, giving his input and suggestions.
At the same time, Joe made more friends. At Home Depot, employee Jerry Becker has given Joe advice on his many inventions, often going above and beyond, by cutting and pre-drilling materials Joe will need. Joe’s Project Math teacher, Mr. Clark, has also embraced Joe’s creativity, helping him with special projects and offering encouragement.
In perhaps the best piece of guidance Joe has gotten yet, Jeff introduced Joe to a convention in San Francisco called Maker Faire, a weekend full of inventions, presentations, and encouragement for people of all ages, started by Make Magazine founder Dale Dougherty. Jeff convinced Julie the trip was worth the financial sacrifice, and he even sent Joe tickets to get in. As added icing on top of the cake (marshmallow?), Joe was asked to present his invention, the marshmallow shooter, to the crowd. That meant he had an extra day, Friday, to hobnob with companies and other inventors—people who spoke his language.
Joe told me all about Maker Faire. Kids with Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve read, often sound monotone or unemotional when they speak, but there was nothing less than pure joy on Joe’s face and in his voice. It was clear he’d found his niche.
Joe talked about Tesla coils (he wants some), and hackers (people who turn things like cell phones or toasters into, say, water heaters). He shared praises he’d gotten from company reps and other inventors, and he shared concerns about his need to patent his creations. What made his face light up the most, though, was his story of meeting one of his idols, MythBusters’ Adam Savage. With the help of event organizers, who were impressed with Joe’s focus and determination, Joe was able to spend a precious few minutes with his hero before Savage went on stage. He’d been dreaming of this moment for weeks, and he took the opportunity to present Savage with a copy of his Book of Inventions - all of Joe’s notes on what he had built and what he wants to build. At the end of their meeting, Savage shook his hand and thanked him, then Tweeted about meeting Joe on his Twitter account.
Joe had gotten something he has been fighting for his whole life: he had been understood and had been accepted.
At the end of the day, Joe called Jeff and thanked him. “I wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for him, is what I told him,” Joe said in a matter-of-fact tone.
He also told his mom something that night that made my own mom-heart melt. “I told her I realized I was actually smart,” he said.
“Finding your place in the world when you’re fourteen is really hard,” Julie added. “At Maker Faire, Joey found his place.”
As I left the park, I felt like Joe had answered some of my initial questions, at least in his case. Maybe somewhere deep inside he wishes he was more like other people he knows, but I don’t think he would ever choose another road. At the ripe age of fourteen, he’s found something that really makes him happy, and that’s more than many of us experience in a lifetime. As for the road less traveled, in Joe’s case, he didn’t really choose it—it chose him. He’s just going along for the ride with a smile on his face and a bag of marshmallows in his hand.