Big Enough to Ride In

You just want to hang out in your giant robot. Is that wrong?

By S.I. Rosenbaum | The St. Petersburg Times | March 27, 2008

You're living in the Vermont woods in a four-story dome you built yourself. Well, the third floor is really a trampoline. You're not sure if that counts as a floor.

So you're living in your dome, working on all your little robots — the one like a slug, and the one like a turtle, the one that swims and the one that climbs walls — and you decide it would be cool to have a giant robot, big enough to ride around in.

And because you're Jaimie Mantzel, you know right away you can build it.

You can feel the shape of it in your mind.

But the Vermont winters are too cold for robot-building, so you pack up your scrap metal and your electric welder and drive south to visit your dad in Valrico.

You start work in his garage. It's a perfectly normal suburban street, cream stucco houses, lawns. You leave the door up, letting the mild Florida breeze waft in.

Sometimes people driving by glance in at you — your brown hair thinning at age 32, sparks spraying from the welder — but they don't ask you what you're doing.

The robot doesn't look like much yet. Just an odd structure of aluminum and steel and plastic.

When it's done, it will look like a giant spidery thing with six articulated legs that each move independently, and you'll steer it from a cockpit perched on top. You've already built a miniature version, as tall as your hand, that works perfectly.

Your 11-year-old brother, Sean, watches you work. He thinks you are awesome. He made up a story about your robot for his language arts class, in which the robot goes berserk.

"My brother's invention (went) haywire," he wrote. "It almost took out the entire house and started destroying the master bedroom and blew up our car. The invention was a giant robot."

When you tell people about your giant robot, that's what they assume — that you'll use it for havoc and destruction.

They don't understand. You just want to hang out in your giant robot.

Is that wrong?

***

You grew up in Ontario. You built your first robot when you were just a kid in grade school, not long after your parents divorced (havoc and destruction enough for you).

You built it out of Popsicle sticks and coat hangers and three miniature motors. In your head, from the start, you could see how all the parts would fit together. But, even so, you were surprised when it began to walk.

You've always had that ability, to look at anything mechanical and know just how it works. You can turn the image in your brain, look at it from all angles.

It took you a while to realize not everyone can do this.

Later, at Brown University, you started out as an engineering major. But it turned out to be all math, all students striving toward some elusive goal. Outside the classrooms, you heard them comparing grades, speculating about salaries.

So you majored in art instead. You built robots, but you called them "sculptures."

After school you worked for a collector of ancient Chinese rocks in Boston. You did contracting jobs. You saved money and paid off your loans and bought some cheap land in the woods of Vermont — 25 acres for $12,000 — and you moved there and built your dome.

You don't spend much; you can live on only a few thousand a year. When you need money, you take on construction jobs in town, or you travel across the country looking for projects. You built a greenhouse in D.C., a stilt­house in Alaska.

You haven't spoken to your mother in a long time.

Your father is proud of you. Ever since you paid off your student loans, he's known not to worry about you. He respects your creativity.

You're the only one of his children who hasn't "gone the corporate route," he says. Your older sister, for example, lives in a house that someone else built. She has a job. She has kids.

She's content.

But you wouldn't want to live that way.

People ask you why you want to build a giant robot. You have a hard time answering. Because — duh, giant robot!

But when you really have to answer, you think for a while, and then you say: It will make life more interesting.

***

Sometimes you're lonely, up there in the woods with your robots.

You want a family. A wife. Kids of your own.

But that's not something you can build by yourself.

After you finish with the giant robot, you think, it might be fun to build an even bigger one. Maybe big enough to live in. Big enough to build a dome on top of.

And then you and your robot could live in the desert, out west. You could stride around on its spider legs.

Nothing would be ordinary ever again.

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PHOTO: Skip O'Rourke