Longform

Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

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"Almost everyone who sees it can also see the potential," says Brent Johnson, who was hired in January as the chief executive officer of Tendix Development, Timber's company that's developing the IRIS. "The potential of the technology, although it has challenges, is enormous. The struggle is, how much will it actually deliver. That can only be guessed at this point."

That's because they didn't yet have the funding to build an IRIS — but the way things were progressing, it was only a matter of time. The big news arrived at the end of January: NASA had named the IRIS the best new transportation idea of the year in its annual "Create the Future" design contest, beating out almost 1,000 other submissions. In April, Timber was scheduled to fly to New York to accept the reward.


It was a battle for the ages, the clash between chaos and Timber Dick.

Timber was more than a worthy adversary, seeking out balance, logic and stability wherever he roamed. He'd been immediately taken with the big white house's classical symmetry, its two perfectly proportioned wings. And he took unending comfort from the inherent equilibrium of his progeny, how almost every succeeding child alternated gender, hair color, even academic fascinations as if by some strict genetic plan. Chaos might have won a skirmish or two, but he wasn't even close to conceding victory.

This is why he would have found the circumstances of his March 29 car accident on I-70 frustratingly random. It just didn't make sense that the right front wheel of his Dodge Caravan would seize up on Floyd Hill near Idaho Springs, sending his minivan off the road and down into a ravine. This wasn't a burst tire or a stretch of slick road, but a catastrophic failure of the entire wheel, a sudden and total breakdown of the most basic operation of his vehicle — something that just shouldn't happen. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 38,588 fatal crashes in 2006, the last year for which there is data, only seven were related to wheel failure, and none involved a minivan like his.

To make matters worse, his accident involved a malfunction of one of the things he knew and loved best. He'd always been passionate about cars, making their safety and efficiency the focus of many of his inventions. In that way he was just like his father — the race-car aficionado who was killed in an auto accident.

To Timber, this predicament just wouldn't have cut it; he would have immediately wanted to start doodling solutions with one of his trusty purple pens or locked himself in his workshop until he fashioned one from Plexiglas and PVC pipe.

The doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital burn ward, where Timber had been taken after the accident, thought he might get that chance.

While he'd suffered broken bones and severe enough burns over his legs and chest that he was placed in a medically induced coma to relieve the pain, signs suggested he could be out of the hospital in a few months. So the family immediately set to work revamping life in the house to make their father's recovery as smooth as possible, the sort of thing he would have done for them.

But things went wrong. It turned out the burns in Timber's lungs were worse than at first believed, and over the next few days they began filling with fluid as he lay comatose. Starved for oxygen, his organs began to fail, one after another. There was nothing the doctors could do; it was a catastrophic failure.

Chaos, in other words, had pulled a fast one.


Death isn't the end, believed Timber. It's just a slight transformation, a shifting of gears on the road to eternity.

The Mormon church's spiritual messages had seemed so logical to him, promising protection for him and his family from the most irrational part of life: its end. According to the religion, the world he'd help build inside the big white house wasn't just meant for this lifetime. The spirits of his family were sealed together for time and all eternity, and together they would grow and learn and flourish — and probably squabble a bit — in the world after this one. "I think there is this great desire in our lives to find an end to our stories," says Charity. "The truth is, our stories don't end. I know that Daddy's story isn't going to end."

That's why, on the afternoon Timber died, his family, singing and praying around him in the hospital, were filled with grief but also peace. They knew he was simply taking an extended vacation — and sooner or later they'd see him again. Yes, Timber would miss them, but it would be nice for him to have a little peace and quiet in the afterlife. That's the good thing about the Mormon idea of Heaven: It isn't a perfect, cloud-filled Nirvana; rather, it's another world like this one, so there would be a lot of stuff for Timber to fix.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner