When doctors told Robert Elam he’d have to get his leg cut off, he didn’t argue. He wasn’t even upset. He decided that if he was going to have one real leg for the rest of his life, he may as well make the other a peg leg and build a pirate ship to ride around in. Kids would get a kick out of it.
Elam was first told he needed an amputation about three years ago he was found to be allergic to materials in his knee replacement, and subsequent ones. A doctor said his leg needed to be cut off four inches above the knee.
A year went by with that doctor telling him he’d lose his leg.
So, the Bakersfield, California resident told the doctor he’d build a ship on wheels, with an automatic transmission instead of sails, so he could be a peg-legged pirate when they were “done cutting it off.”
He’d later call the ship the “Cowboy Pirate.” It’s been through several paint jobs and renovations since Elam made it.
Elam, who’s retired and said he’s built 15 custom vehicles, planned to go to hospitals dressed as a pirate on a peg leg to hand out balloons to kids—coming and going in a pirate ship carved from a motorhome. Elam’s reaction to losing a leg shocked his friends, but it was just a normal thing to him.
“You’ve got two choices,” Elam told Jalopnik in a phone call. “You can feel sorry for yourself, or you can use it to make things better. I was going to milk it. Could you imagine going to hospitals dressed like a pirate, in a ship, filling them with balloons? How frickin’ fun would that be?”
But Elam went to a different doctor later, who was adamant he wouldn’t lose his leg and found him another knee. He was allergic to that one, too.
“On the second time, I said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to do another surgery, just cut it off and we can be done,’” Elam said. “He said ‘Nope, I’m going to find you another knee.’”
Elam said earlier this year the false knee that finally worked—at least temporarily—was coated in ceramic as a barrier between himself and the materials he’s allergic to. It didn’t work in the end, and Elam said he’ll be getting the leg amputated soon.
But when he thought the coated knee would work and he’d be on two legs for life, he referred to his former plans as “If I got to have the peg leg like I wanted...”
“Everybody says, ‘You’ve got the ship, go ahead and do it,’” Elam said at the time. “But it’s not the same if you have a regular leg. I need a peg leg, man, come on.”
Now, Elam will get what he wants. The plan is to make his hospital-visiting idea happen, so long as he feels well enough once he’s down a leg.
The ship started as a 27-foot Fleetwood motorhome Elam and his wife lived in for more than a year. They bought a fifth-wheel camper, and Elam turned the motorhome into his newest toy.
“I took everything out, cut it down to the shape I wanted,” said Elam, whose wife paints his projects. “Then, I built the ship for two or three hours at a time.
“For four months [after surgery], I couldn’t touch it. As soon as the doctor would let me do a bit, it took me about nine months to put that thing together. I should have been able to build it in about two months.”
Because Elam had to rest and take pain medication, he said he couldn’t focus on building the ship as much as usual. When he did get to work on it, it didn’t go quickly.
“It took me five hours to cut the body off by myself,” Elam said. “I cut it into pieces I could handle because I could only pick up a certain amount of weight. It would’ve went together a lot faster if I’d had my real leg.”
Elam doesn’t like to take his time, or to keep things the same for long—he did major modifications to the ship three times within the first few months after he built it.
Elam’s spent several thousand dollars on modifying the motorhome into a ship, not including the price of the motorhome itself.
“I don’t keep receipts because I don’t want to know what I’ve got in it,” Elam said. “It doesn’t make any difference. It only gets 7 miles to the gallon, so it’s like driving a motorhome. If you can’t afford the gas, don’t have a ship. That’s all I can tell you.”
Cash flow is slower now that he’s retired, which slows down his build pace. He has to do a bit of work at a time when he gets retirement checks, and the same goes for actually driving his creations around.
“When we get a check, we put gas in it,” Elam said. “It holds 80 gallons, [so when we get enough], we cruise around and go wherever we want.
“When we’re out of gas, we come home—park it and start all over again.”
The ship doesn’t make Elam money, either, because he doesn’t want the hassle of renting rides. Insurance, liability and all of that—nah.
“It’s stupid for what it costs,” Elam said. “So, I take friends, anybody who wants to go who knows me.”
But he always has passengers in the form of his friends’ kids.
“Once the kids ride in it one time, they freak out,” Elam said. “I go buy those $3 pirate hats, and when the kids ride, I give them a hat.
“I took two sets of 12 kids for a ride the first time I had it done. Everybody gets happy when you drive by. They can be in a really bad mood, and when that ship drives by, everybody changes.”
No matter how fun it is, Elam’s sure he’ll slow down with the vehicle builds someday, especially as he gets older. But for now, he plans for his next build to look like steam-engine train running in reverse.
Elam got the idea when he thought he wouldn’t have his leg amputated. He figured that since he couldn’t have a peg leg, he “might as well have a train.”
“It’s going to look like the train’s going backwards,” Elam said at the time. “You’re going to drive it like a regular vehicle, facing forward, but it’s going to look like the train is backing up. It’s pretty funny. That’s if I sell the ship.”
With the amputation coming up, Elam said he hopes he’s in good enough shape to make the train happen. If he isn’t, it’ll be really unlike him to keep the ship around.
“I only last about six or eight months per vehicle, and then I get bored and I cut them or I junk them,” Elam said. “Then, I build something else. That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years.”
What Elam does next will depend “how long it takes to recover,” as will his life as a peg-legged pirate at hospitals. But regardless, his outlooks are about as optimistic as outlooks can get.
“You can make life what it is,” Elam said. “You can have fun with it, or you can sit around and twiddle your thumbs.”