I predicted this a year and a half ago, but I thought I’d have more time before it actually came to pass. This past weekend John and I went to Louisville for a BMX national race. The boy seemed tired both days and only made one of three possible main events, so on the way home Sunday I suggested we stop at Lebanon Bike Park, which is fast becoming one of his favorite places. I didn’t realize at the time that both of us were about to become no-kidding sick the following day and that John’s listlessness had been due to the fact that he was warming up to stay home for most of the school week.
My son enjoys competition and will create it anywhere he spots an opportunity. I wasn’t surprised when he started challenging the other children at the pump track to a few races, which he won. He then started working his way through the adults present, including two college-aged men on first-rate mountain bikes. Eventually I got tired of him dunking on civilians, so to speak, and I pulled him aside.
“Alright, enough messing around with people. I hope you don’t think you can beat me like that.”
“Then you hope wrong,” he responded. I frowned and put my helmet on.
It’s a foolish man who doesn’t understand his strengths as well as his weaknesses — and the bicycle pump track is one of my personal strengths. I wouldn’t finish within ten seconds of a modern pro rider around a 60-second BMX track, but around a 30-second pump track I might be within two seconds, or one. So I had no doubt that I would handily beat my excessively cocky kid in this situation. So I let him ride ahead of me by one bike length, expecting to buzz his back tire within the first hundred feet or so.
What actually happened was this: By the hundred-foot mark, he was three bikes ahead. John was simply faster than I was over everything. He is ten years and five months old, so this is utterly humiliating. With that said, I knew that the second half of the pump track had a particularly unpleasant double jump which requires a stout pull to clear. I hadn’t seen him clear it in any of the earlier races, so it seemed reasonable to assume I’d get some distance back. Naturally, he jumped it without a second thought — and just as naturally, I tapped the landing and lost momentum. We crossed with about twenty feet of gap between us.
John was not particularly gracious in victory, not when there were fellow children to impress, and I’ll admit that I got my mouth all the way open to say “Let’s go again” before some kind of vestigial sense of human and/or parental decency kicked it back shut. “Let’s go again,” of course, is the Great Santini’s response to having his son beat him in basketball. It’s the displaced father’s lament, the rage against the dying of the proverbial light.
Also, there was more than a good chance that my second loss would be even worse.
Remembering that Vet Pro Josh Smith had circled the pump in 18.69 seconds, I challenged John to run it against the clock. This would determine whether I’d lost a step or he’d gained one. He crossed the line in 20.05 seconds — so it’s the latter. I can feel good about that, at least. I didn’t get any worse. My son got better. Still. My father and I never had any kind of formal baton-passing between us. All of the things he could do better than me in my youth — basically any stick-and-ball sport plus the major track-and-field events, golf, and tennis — he can still do better. Anything I can do better than he can — ride a bike, write something, perform a bit of math, solve a technical problem — is a skill acquired so early I no longer remember not possessing it. So there was never a moment where I stood up and he stepped down.
I owe my son a Wendy’s Frosty as a result of losing that race. We didn’t have a chance to get it on the way home. I think I’ll make a big deal of taking him to get it. We will celebrate his achievement while at the same time reassuring him that the center still generally holds, that there are many areas from fiscal solvency to picking up heavy objects in which I expect to preserve my reliable superiority for a useful bit longer. It’s important, one suspects, that one’s father eventually prove beatable at anything and everything — but it’s even more important that the old man doesn’t make it too easy. Which might be why I recently found myself signing up for a couple of as-yet-unproven knee treatments. The first one featured a big needle right to the worn-down end of my femur. It’s going to be worth it. The next few Frostys* won’t be so easy to get. He will have to fight for each one after that. And I think we both understand that he will have to eat the last one by himself.
Last week I wrote about the everlasting impact of a deceased auto executive.
* As a proper noun and a brand name, I believe it is “Frostys” and not “Frosties”; I am, however, always willing to be convinced otherwise.