I learned to ride a bike when I was five years old. This is how I learned: My best friend and next-door neighbor Ed Caspers was the first kid on our street to get a bike; it was a small, cheaply built wobbly red thing with white-painted rims and as I recall, a purple lightning bolt on the crossbar. We lived on a hilly street with a back alley, so I watched Ed push this piece of crap up to the top of the alley and try to make it back down to his garage. Then he let me take my turn. I think I was wearing shorts, but I’m not sure I was wearing shoes. I for sure wasn’t wearing a helmet or safety gear of any kind. I wobbled my way down the alley, swerving around potholes and gravel patches, and fell near the bottom. I remember both my hands got scraped and started bleeding. Ed asked me to wrap something around the handlebar grips so I wouldn’t get them bloody. I got some newspaper from our trashcan, sandwiched it between my palms and the grips, and took a few more turns. I didn’t fall. I didn’t get blood on Ed’s handlebars. And then I could ride a bike.
I didn’t get my own bike for another year and a half. By then we had moved to another house a few blocks away, and finally for Christmas, I got a Huffy from Pep Boys. It wasn’t a Schwinn, but it did have a number plate (66 – I remember it like it was yesterday), and it was painted black, with flames on the chain guard. I was ecstatic. In my eyes, that cheap auto parts store bike was a magical fire-breathing dragon, a motorcycle, a black stallion and a rocket ship all rolled into one, because it represented freedom. Back then, a bike came with your parents’ tacit permission to ride as far from the house as your legs could pedal. It meant being able to ride to school, to 7-Eleven, to Thrifty Drug Store for a 10-cent ice cream, or to the bridle trails to test your off-road skills. To my mom, it meant I need never dirty the upholstery in her car again – I could get myself to the library, the Boys Club, and baseball practice under my own steam. I was free to ride the mean streets of Fullerton just as long as I washed my hands when I got home. I loved it – the wind in my face, the exploration of new neighborhoods, and the knowledge that I could just get lost in the world for a little while.
It’s as unbelievable now as it was true then – as long I was home by dinner, I could pretty much go wherever. It was as if my parents had some sort of innate trust that their son, who was often so lost in his own imaginary world that he once left the house without pants, was somehow going to be safe sharing the street with cars. And I should point out that this was the same year that Jimmy Morgan, a kid from our neighborhood, was hit and killed by a truck while riding his bike six blocks from our house. This was before stop signs were a prominent fixture on our streets, so nearly every residential intersection was a free-for-all. The old ladies of the ’hood largely drove their giant Chryslers and sea-worthy Buicks slowly enough for us to avoid, but this was also the age of muscle cars and lowered El Caminos and high school kids newly in command of their parents’ station wagons. There were no early warning systems or anti-lock brakes, just a lot of American- made steel that took a quarter of a mile to come to a stop.
So what were my parents thinking? Who knows? They’re the same parents that wouldn’t let me go to rock concerts until I was 18 because they were “dangerous.”
Now, of course, everything is dangerous; we all know it, and we are terrified to let our kids do anything. When I go on a bike ride with my kids, we put the bikes, water bottles, gloves and helmets into the minivan and drive to the bike path. There is no freedom, and little spirit of adventure. We are riding bikes only in the most perfunctory sense. We never leave the house without checking the tire pressure, and we ring our bike bells when we make passes on slower riders.
But last weekend was different. We took the bikes downtown to CicLAvia Los Angeles, which is a lovely new event where L.A. city streets get closed to traffic and you can ride your bike down the middle of Broadway and over the 4th Street Bridge to Hollenbeck Park in East L.A., and various other routes through downtown. We started in Chinatown, and as we joined the flow of thousands of bike riders I saw my daughter’s eyes light up with excitement. She was cruising down the middle of the street, weaving in and out of other riders, and picking her own path through the city. I was the overprotective parent, calling out potholes and trying to create a buffer zone around her to protect her from other riders. About 10 minutes into our ride, a guy on a very tall, old-fashioned bike that matched his mustache took a big tumble right in front of her. He went down hard, and there was probably blood. I could see my daughter realize that the stakes had just become a little higher. We had peril. We had adventure. We even had a picnic lunch, which we ate after riding about six miles to Hollenbeck Park. As we were cruising over the 4th Street Bridge a bit later in the day, it occurred to me that I had stopped worrying about her crashing, and that I was really enjoying myself. My daughter’s face was a mix of elation, confidence and wonder. Her expression told me that a chapter in my parenting is ending. Pretty soon she won’t want me to walk her into her classroom, or ask for one last hug and kiss before I leave her there. She’ll probably stop unconsciously reaching for my hand when we walk down the street. And she will have secrets.
My job will be to let her out into the world and accept that I can’t be there at every moment to protect her. Ironic, isn’t it, that that reality is 10 times scarier for a parent than it is for the kid who might potentially come to harm? Of course it’s because we just can’t imagine – never even want to imagine – waking up without them. So what can we do? The only thing we can do. I will wait at home with the Bactine and hugs while my daughter pedals forth and learns to protect herself. Because she deserves the same freedom that I first felt on my fire-breathing Huffy, and I’d never deny her the joy that comes along with it.
– Sam Jones, November 2015