Hilla the Hairy Hero
Hilla the Hairy Hero
By Mini Mukherjee
In the fifth grade I came home early from school and my parents found me hiding underneath the bed, my face slick with tears. The teasing at recess had been vicious that day and I snuck out through the side entrance of Bryant Elementary before the walls closed in on me.
The tormenting began months ago. I didn’t care, at first, but then the kids began coming up with original songs about me and their voices felt personal. The lead mean girl with her crew of minions conjured up a particularly vicious rhyme about, of all things, the hair on my arms after I crossed the monkey bars and my sleeves came up.
Hilla Hilla Hilla the hairy girl
The sight of her arms make us wanna hurl
She looks like a furry black bear
The worst part is she doesn’t caaaaa-aaa-re!
Hilla Hilla Hilla the hairy girl
At first the song and their teasing didn’t get to me but they were relentless. I stopped playing with the other kids, kept to myself in the classroom and read during recess. Mom wouldn’t let me shave my arms so I wore a Gap sweatshirt every day to hide my fur. This didn’t lessen the teasing because money was always tight and I only had one sweatshirt, a shabby tangerine, which I realized later only made me stick out more. My only friend was Christopher Billoo, who also marched to the beat of his own drum and tinkered with his K’nex set while I had my nose in a book during recess.
Soon after seeing how upset I was, my parents took me to a Makerspace that had recently opened near us. Soccer, rugby, ballet, Dad had even tried to get me into the all-male football team; the seemingly endless extracurricular activities that my parents volunteered me for never kept my attention, so this defunct carpenter workshop was a last resort to get me away from my samurai toys. The Makerspace building was a cavernous and bare-bones warehouse filled with equipment for everyday people to work on oddball projects. Makerspaces and similar builder workshops are now more prevalent but in 2009, I was one of the lucky few to have a Makerspace, or Space as the members called it, in my hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. It was in this dank warehouse with tools three times my weight I found the spark that drove me to eventually create a company entirely devoted to building partial prosthetic limbs.
Most of the “makers” were older yet they had a child-like excitement when they stepped into the Space. They embraced my curiosity and I felt their delight in having a young tinkerer there. I quickly forgot my fuzzy arms and rolled up my sleeves to begin digging into all sorts of materials. Every Saturday and Sunday for months I worked at the Space and my projects slowly started to take on a life of their own, becoming more complex and inventive. The more outlandish my creations were, the more support I got from the community. Even my Samurai toys were welcome and I began building extended body parts to make them “super-sized.” The output resembled a Japanese-style Transformer where the samurai would be in the center with a shiny surrounding body of red, gold and silver that was six feet tall. I hand painted spiral designs to insinuate a sense of motion. As much as a 10 year old understood about love, I felt enamored with my creations.
There was one Maker who caught my eye with his toy robots. He kept to himself and always seemed to be intensely focused on whatever he was doing, as if he already knew his time was more limited than anyone else in the room. Most of his creations were wind-up but he started building circuit boards to make them move with ease, giving them a “human” feel, which I wanted to replicate for my samurai transformers. He wore draping ponchos and his arms looked like flapping wings as he worked furiously to saw, sand and wire. Being a shy and polite girl, I didn’t dare interrupt and bother him but I did admire him from a healthy distance. And with a name like Grover Wunderlin, I thought he must be someone very important.
In 2010 our Space bought their first 3D printer. I remember getting to the workshop two hours before it opened so I would be the first in line to use it. Grover was right behind me, wearing one of his red fringe ponchos, and one of the tails kept tickling my elbows. I didn’t want to say anything but I got frustrated after I moved up and still felt the tail graze my arm.
I turned around and said, “Hey, Grover. Could you please draw in your poncho?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry, Hilla,” Grover said warmly. He quickly pulled in his poncho.
Grover knew my name?! “That’s a-OK, Grover. I like the way it looks on you.”
“Thanks. It was my father’s,” Grover said, twirling the edge of the poncho in an elongated S shape. “You’re heading straight for the 3D printer?”
“Yessir. What are you working on?” I asked coyly, unsure if Grover would share. Some makers were secretive about their projects.
“I think I will start on my brother’s leg today,” Grover said breaking into a toothy smile.
“Leg?” My eyebrows and voice rose in confusion.
“Yes. My brother lost the lower half of his leg in a surfing accident a little while ago and had a fake part, called a prosthesis, put in so he can walk. I have been doing a lot of research and thought I could build one that is more comfortable. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, I could make the prosthesis waterproof so he can surf again. I’m going to first design it and then print the parts out using the 3D printer.”
“That’s really cool, Grover. I haven’t seen a prosthesis before. I wanted to create a helmet for one of my samurais with the 3D printer but your idea sounds a lot more fun. May I help?”
Grover chuckled. “You sure can, Hilla. I could use the help.” The line moved forward and the doors to the Space opened.
For the next six months, Grover and I were inseparable. Each day after our respective obligations, school for me, a job at a medical device company for Grover, we met in the kitchen to have a quick pop and then got down to work. We poured hours into researching designs and the inner workings of a 3D-printed prosthesis.
At that time, there were limited resources or examples to help us, but each day we made progress and that kept us committed. Despite the countless roadblocks we hit and the sweaty pits-inducing “is this possible?” moments, we never became entirely discouraged. Grover and I never discussed the possibility of failure; our heads stayed in the weeds, too busy to think about our unfavorable odds and lack of experience.
The months had flown by and the leg was almost complete. The last of the design issues were resolved and I was growing anxious to finish the final details. One Tuesday evening, Grover was not at our usual meeting spot. I waited a few more minutes and then began working, thinking he would know where to find me. I waited another hour by passing the time with the other Makers and their projects. The minutes ticked by and still no sign of Grover. Even if I wanted to contact him I wouldn’t know how. Grover’s life outside of our sessions together was cloaked in mystery; he rarely talked about his job and never mentioned having a wife or children. During one of our pop breaks, he briefly shared a story about going on a camping trip in Yosemite with his brother before the accident. I imagined Grover to be an especially crafty and impressive camper but he finished his pop with “back to work” before I could pry.
Grover didn’t show up the next day either and that’s when I decided to track him down. Grover never missed a day of our work. It took some cajoling but I convinced the office manager to give me Grover’s phone number.
“Hello, Wunderlin residence?” The voice came across as nasally and impatient.
“Um…may I please speak to Grover?”
“Yes, one moment. May I ask who is calling?”
“His friend Hilla. He’ll know.” I began biting my nails as I heard fading footsteps in the background.
“Hilla, well, hi there!”
“Grover? You sound really scratchy. Have you been laughing too much again? I know you get a wheeze to your voice.”
“No, Hilla, my chest hurts a little. It’s just a bad cold, but I’ll be back at the shop in a few days.”
“A few days?” I asked, unable to disguise my dismay. “That will throw off our entire schedule. We are supposed to have the laminate completed by today.”
“Hilla…that’s the best I can do. And we’re almost done! How about you ask some of the other Makers to help out, or what about a few of your classmates? They could be your helpers if you take a little time to teach them!” I heard several distant coughs and I realized he had taken his mouth away from the phone.
“My classmates can’t help with lifting the heavy tools, Grover,” I lamented with my head tossed to the side with irritation.
“Stop whining. Get to work.” Grover hung up before I could complain.
I plopped down right onto the floor, leaning against the office manager’s desk, and sat there brooding for several minutes. I didn’t need to continue to work on the project. It was, after all, for Grover’s brother, a man whom I knew very little about, but something inside of me knew I had to keep building. It was obvious from making the rounds earlier that day that the other Makers were preoccupied. Christopher Billoo, the K’nex kid, flashed into my mind. I needed someone who would think the way I did, and with Grover being the only adult-kid I really trusted, a classmate would have to do.
That night, my fingers trembled as I dialed Christopher’s number and explained my situation. I felt relief wash over me when he proactively asked me if I needed any help before I actually asked for it.
“I’m sorry to hear that your friend Grover is sick. It sounds like you could use some help, Hilla.”
“Yes, I could.” I held my breath, pausing for a second, and then Christopher continued to speak.
“I don’t know a lot about 3D printing or fake body parts but I could come over to the Space on Sunday after we finish up at church and check it out. Would that work?”
“Yeah, thanks a lot! One more thing, Christopher, are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Could you please keep this between us?” My voice dropped lower to just above a whisper. “I don’t want the other kids to hear about this and find yet another thing to make fun of us for.”
“Ok, Hilla. It will be our secret.”
That Sunday, and for several evenings thereafter, Christopher and I along with a few other Makers worked together side-by-side. I became the point person by default because I knew the most about the project. Grover was bedridden with chest pains but I visited him almost every day to report our progress. When we finished, I did the honors and called Grover.
It was a foggy autumn evening when the team and I gave Grover’s brother his new leg. I learned Grover’s brother’s name, Sheldon, that night. The look in Sheldon’s eyes still inspires me today; he smoothed his hands over every inch and when I told him it was waterproof so he could try surfing again, he said, as his voice wavered,
“You and Christopher may not understand this now, but this gift makes me feel whole.”
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that proud.
Grover never did make it back into the Space. We got news through our office manager that he passed away a few weeks after our visit. It turned out that many people loved Grover and his funeral felt more like a celebration of his life rather than a mourning of his death. Dad suggested that I bring one of Grover’s wind-up toy robots from the Space as a memento for Grover’s family but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I held it close to me like a teddy bear during the service.
I never had the opportunity to thank Grover for making me feel like I belonged somewhere but I got the feeling he knew as much. Somewhere between swatting away his red poncho and the day we presented our masterpiece to his brother Sheldon, I learned how exciting it was to make people feel whole. With the help of a few makers and a couple of classmates, we run 3D Heroes, a 3D printing and robotics innovation company. Our first prototype was an updated version of the prosthetic leg designed at the Space. We named the model Grover.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MINI MUKHERJEE
I’m a late 20-something life explorer with a slight always-on-the-go itch. I live in Irvine, CA (just moved from LA!) and write full-time. When I’m not writing, I am working with early-stage startups to help craft their voice and company message. Before coming to Southern California, I had an EdTech software company in Boston that I co-founded after working at companies such as Goldman Sachs, Nielsen, and Fiksu. I have seen first-hand how the written word and technology transforms, connects and elevates. My latest endeavor, Our Smile Project is a collection of short stories about moments of perseverance, love and embracing who you are. From my heart to yours, enjoy!