Twenty minutes into John’s first afternoon at the track, some local kid, shirtless and dirty, on a rusty bike that was two sizes too big, rode into the first turn the wrong way. Avoiding him, John swerved, fell off his DiamondBack, and slid down the asphalt on his hands. I could hear him crying from two hundred feet away.
“I never, ever, ever want to ride a bike again!” And all I wanted to do was pick him up and hold him and tell him of course, you never have to ride a bike again, let’s go home and have ice cream and I’ll snuggle you. But instead I swallowed those feelings and told him,
“That’s fine with me, I don’t care, but you have to stop crying.”
“I want to go HOME!”
“No, we aren’t going home, if you don’t want to ride your bike, you have to sit up on the hill and watch the other children ride theirs.” I carried the DiamondBack to the starting hill. John sat away from me on the concrete corner, crying, blood on his hands. He is five years old, I thought, it doesn’t matter, just pick him up and take him home. I sat immobile and listened to him cry quietly.
“Ow, ow, ow,” he sobbed, “why do my hands have to hurt so much, ow ow ow.”
“John, if you don’t stop crying, I’m going to take away your PlayStation for a week.” There was a catch in my voice as I said it and for a moment I thought that I would start crying myself. He continued to shake and sniffle, but more quietly, and after a minute the tears ran down his face but he was silent.
I let him sit for ten minutes that seemed like an hour to him and ten hours to me. Then I told him, “If you want to go home, you have to ride your bike to the end of the first turn.” He was still crying without noise and licking his hands like a wounded, tired animal.
“And then,” he sobbed, “I can go home.”
“Yes, and then you can go home. And,” I improvised, “we can go to Toys R Us and you can have a Hot Wheel.” We lined up on the gate but when I let him go he stopped the bike and screamed, “Daddy, I’m scared!”
“I don’t care if you’re scared,” I said, “if you want to go home you have to do this, and I’ll run next to you.” I rolled his bike backwards and this time he did not stop when I let him go.
Over the first hump he lost his feet from his pedals and let out a single plaintive sob but he didn’t stop. “Pedal, pedal,” I yelled at him, and he made it up the first hill.
“I’m doing it!” he screamed, and then he rode down the back of the hill, gaining momentum, threatening to lose me as I ran beside him, slowing up the next hill but not enough to make him fall. Through the turn I shouted wordless encouragement and finally the first jump of the second straight was in front of us, a step-up, and he rode up the front with plenty of velocity before stopping easily before the second crest. He looked back at me. “Now,” he clarified, “I want to go home.” There were small red stains on the grips of his bicycle.
Still, I made him wait a minute and watch another child jump. Finally, I cajoled him into riding the “Dragon’s Back” rhythm section on the third straight.
“I could ride it again,” he said afterwards, “but I’m a little tired and thirsty.” He flapped his hands like a small bird, trying to make them stop hurting.
Then and only then did I pick him up, hold him, tell him he was brave and that he’d done everything I’d asked him to do. For fifteen years I rode at that BMX track. Five nights a week some years, plus the races on the weekends. I was there on the day they cut the ribbon for it and I suppose I’ll go back the day they plow it under. In the middle of those years I won some big races there, beat some decent riders. Left a lot of skin and blood and disappointment there. Always self-motivated. My parents despised what I did, the BMX thing, they had contempt for it. After I broke my neck and my leg nobody thought I’d come back and race there, much less win, nobody encouraged me to do it. I wish I’d quit sooner, wish I could stand or walk without pain, wish my neck didn’t make popping noises, wish I didn’t have to piss all the time because something got messed up in there a long time ago in a crash and it never got right again.
Still I worry that John’s life is too easy, that there’s not enough blood and unhappiness in it, that he’ll be soft and cowardly and weak like most of the young people I meet now. That some day he’ll have a genuine problem to solve with violence or courage and I’ll be long dead, cold in the ground, unable to stand up for him or help him. That the only help I can give him is right now, in his sixth year. That what I do now with him makes all the difference in the world.
Driving away from the track, I asked him what he thought about BMX.
“It was okay,” he said, “but I don’t want to go back.”
“We don’t have to go back, ever,” I lied.