Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

Looking Up.

Under Short Stack’s bed sit his large collection of earth moving equipment, gathering dust. Next to the forgotten dump trucks, excavators and front loaders are his personal, private sea going fleet. A car carrying ferry, two landing craft made especially for him in my workshop, and a small selection of tugs, barges and whatnot, carefully painted and ready for duty. If they were not made of wood, they would be rusting at their moorings.

I blame They Might Be Giants.

These toys that have kept him happy for hours on end for most of his imagination filled life have been swept aside for a new, all consuming passion.

Space.

The passion of a four year old.

It all started with the arrival of a gift from my blood brother, The Doctor. An educational DVD by the singing duo of John and John that is punchy, fun, well paced, highly factual and was more than an instant hit with our little resident red head. It was all he ever wanted to watch and he would sing the songs with glee. Some were better than others but one came out as the clear winner. The one about the Solar System.

He’d sing about it, ask questions about it, draw pictures of it and then sing about it all over again. For a treat, Action Girl and I took him to a planetarium a while back and I think that might have cemented it.

We didn’t do it on purpose, I swear!

The notion of space in general has totally overridden all his other interests now and no boat or bulldozer has the gravitational pull of a gas giant or the light of a solar flair. They just can’t compete.

At this very moment, my wife is upstairs with him, reading bedtime stories to him before lights out. He gets to pick the book and her words, drifting down the stairs, are as predictable as they could be.

“The Earth is ninety-three million miles away from the sun and completes a rotation on its axis in just one day. Mercury, on the other hand, rotates much, much slower and…”

Our little island library has a good set of kid’s books on the planets, the sun and other celestial bodies and we’ve been systematically going through the collection over the last few months. We’ve done the books on Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Stars and Jupiter. The biggest issue I have is convincing him that we shouldn’t take the whole lot of them out at once. It’s a tough sell.

I don’t know how many times Action Girl and I have read these little space-fact books to him but I’m willing to bet he knows the text by heart at this point. I’m also willing to bet that we could “read” them to him with our eyes closed. Hey, maybe he should be reading them to us!

Then there are the rockets. Ahhhh, rockets.

Belching flames, roaring noise and awaaaaaay they go! What’s not to love?

What little kid wouldn’t get cranked watching a video of that? The object of his purest enthusiasm is for the soon to be retire Space Shuttle. For Christmas this year, “Santa” got him a little, wooden Space Shuttle that came with two detachable rocket boosters and it was far and away the biggest hit of the day and now, though only a few months old, bears the scars of high action missions throughout the house. His only objection was that it was missing the big, orange external fuel tank. For whatever reason, the manufacturers had left it out, which bugged him to no end.

“But daddy, why didn’t Santa make the orange tank? Doesn’t he know?”

“Ummm. I guess he doesn’t Short Stack. Maybe the elves don’t know about the tank. What do you think?” A long pause as he considered this brought him to an unavoidable conclusion.

“I don’t think Santa knows as much about rockets as I do.”

This statement wasn’t said with the smug satisfaction you’d expect to hear from an adult, but rather with a pained, almost regretful edge to it. Santa was missing out. How sad.

Then, the buoyant solution that brought his smile back in a flash. “Maybe I could tell him about them!”

“I bet you could, Buddy.”

To remedy this egregious oversight on St. Nick’s part, he rummaged around in his play kitchen set and came out with a wooden carrot, which made a reasonable, if not vegetable substitute. The Space Shuttle made regular launches from our living room floor, carrot and all, for about a week before I couldn’t stand it any more. One afternoon when I could safely make a racket with a variety of power tools without waking any nappers or be remiss in my munchkin watching, I pounded down stairs with the mission of making a better fit for his space exploration vehicle. A few well placed screws and magnets, and his ship was complete and correct, thus making two detail nerds very happy indeed.

The solid rocket boosters aren’t correct, but it’s what it came with and honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind, so I’m letting this one go. For now, anyway.

Short Stack has always been interested in getting thing just right, and he wants to know everything he can. I’ve been quizzed on the details of the Apollo landings. I’ve had to scrape my personal memory banks in an effort to dredge up information on the Mercury missions. I’ve explained to the best of my ability how the Shuttle works and the work that is does, and Short Stack, he just wants more.

And more.

And more.

In the past, when the questions finally wore me down, I’d come back at him with a correct but highly detailed answer in the best science speak I could muster. Normally, he’d just stare at me for a few seconds with a look that said, “ I know that what you said answered my question, but I didn’t understand it” and then go wander off to ponder. With space, that strategy isn’t working. When I try my old method, he just stops, thinks about it… and then ask me to clarify.

Possibly five or six times.

I try not to start crying.

It’s been since some time back in November that space exploration took over our son and it shows no hint of releasing. His room, once a haven for heavy equipment and books about bunnies is now bent in devotion of the physical heavens. A picture of a rocket, painted by his own hand, hangs on a wall and just last week, a full set of three dimensional planets took their place, hung in order and radiating away from a suspended tennis ball playing the roll of “The Sun.” The books on the floor are almost universally devoted to objects in the sky.

He’s obsessed. He’s also deeply appreciative for what ever you can tell him about it. Anything. Just get it right.

That brings me to my master plan.

The Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired permanently at the end of this year and since the latest budget proposal has come out, it looks like the end of NASA powered, manned space travel for a long, long time. Like it or hate it, it is most defiantly the end of an era.

Short Stack’s birthday is just around the corner and with my deeply indulgent wife’s nod; I have something special in mind. Tonight, this very night, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is to take off on what will be the last nighttime shuttle launch. I would love him to see that and considered flying to Florida with him so he could watch, but it’s scheduled for lift off just after Four in the morning. The prospect of getting him up at that hour is to horrible to consider. Waking a four year old at two am for a four AM launch? Do I look THAT nuts?

So, I’m shooting for second best.

Tentatively scheduled for the Eighteenth of March, the Shuttle Discovery will be blasting off at around One in the afternoon. That, Short Stack can swing and so, that’s what I’m planning. I’m just waiting for the launch time to firm up so I can buy the airline tickets.

I haven’t told him yet because I don’t want to disappoint if it doesn’t work out for what ever reason. Even once the two of us go, I’ll keep mum about the launch, lest it get scrubbed. I’ll build in a few extra days and see what happens. He’ll be bonkers about visiting the Kennedy Space Center and inspect each and every display with a multitude of questions, I’m sure.

He’ll want to KNOW.
I’ll try not to break down, begging for help after a few days of this.

It’s an ambitious move on my part. I’ll be solo with one of my children, far from home and without a net. He’s a great kid and I trust him to do well. Honestly, I wouldn’t even consider this adventure if that weren’t true. Still, you just never know how these things will play out until they do.

In the end, his contagious excitement is enough to make me want to do this. For him, it’s about the love of the thing. It’s what fills his dreams at night and powers his play all day long. It’s worth the risk. And someday, he’ll be able to tell his children or grand children, “You know, I saw the Space Shuttle launch when I was just a kid. My dad took me there to see it.”

With some luck, they’ll be interested to hear more.

With some real luck, they might even put down their toy trucks and boats and be impressed.

Wish me luck.

I’m nuts, aren’t I?

Inanity Verbatim

“He seems to have a problem with remembering and memorizing.”

These are the words that made my parents twitch and fight to stifle an explosion of, “Are you joking?!?”

I was not, to put it delicately, a stellar student. I did fairly well in first and second grade but other than a bizarre hiccup where I made honor roll one year in Junior High, I spend the vast majority of my time in school just trying to play catch-up in the hopes of pulling those C’s and D’s that had appeared on my progress reports up to some more respectable C’s and a few B’s. It wasn’t easy for me, but not because I found the work impossible, but totally uninteresting.

I should clarify here that I LOVE learning. It’ one of my favorite things to do, and when I have a few precious moments to my self, you are more than likely to find me with a book on First World War Artillery pieces, manuals on how to get more out of your table saw or reading up on the best ways to set up an office server with the new operating system that came out last week. I just love knowing… stuff.

The problem is that I love knowing stuff that I feel is important to me and if what a teacher was talking about fell outside that ring, well… in my head, they tended to sound like the adults on the Charlie Brown TV specials.

Teacher: “Wa-waaawa wa-wa-wa waaaaaaaah. Did you understand?”
Me: “Ummmm. Yes?”

Toss in a hearing condition I’ve had all my life and I was pretty much doomed from the get go. What drove my poor parents and the few observant teachers I had batty was that I could dive into something with no academic merit whatever and it would stick to my frontal lobe like warm gum on a sneaker sole. Let me demonstrate.

Mousebatfolicle-Goosecreature-Ampizantz-Bong-Whappcapplet-Looseliver-Vendetta and Prang.

You have to take my word on it, but I just typed that from memory. I may have gotten the spelling wrong here and there but otherwise, I do believe it’s correct. What is it? Easy. It’s the name of a marketing company used in a Monty Python skit. I’ll spare you the details since nothing clears a room faster than a careful recounting or reenacting of a Python skit, but trust me, it’s in there. Not only have I not seen that skit for easily fifteen years, but the name is mentioned only once during the entire thing.

Once!

And yet, it is seared into my brain cells. I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to… which, I must confess, I don’t.

This might sound like fun, but I have the overwhelming feeling that mental garbage like this is the reason that I can’t ever seem to remember to get my car registered on time or when my wife is scheduled to work tomorrow or when in God’s name is my anniversary!

I find it annoying.
Those around me, I believe, have been plotting electroshock treatment.

It’s an interesting way to go through life, to say the least. There are perks. I tend to be the one who people call with nagging trivia questions that are driving them nuts. It can also at times give me the illusion of being smarter than I feel I actually am. Not bad, really. Where it never stood me well, was school. The rigid set-up, the chapters to read, the homework never quite completed and the utter and total lack of classes on Monty Python, made my education mostly an arduous torture. I can clearly remember counting the number on months I had left of my educational experience… when I was in ninth grade. I can actually remember that! See?! But ask me anything about the three years of Latin class and all you’re getting is, “Gallia est in Europa”

The weird thing is, I love history. I love language. I love… well… learning! Just not learning “The System’s” way. This is where my kiddos come in; Short Stack, at the moment, Lulu Belle, possibly later.

They say that the apple doesn’t land far from the tree sometimes and with him… boy! Do they ever have that old chestnut right. Sometimes with pride, sometimes with worry, I see myself reflected in his little three year old actions and ideas. He can’t remember to wash his hands after I’ve drilled him about nine hundred and thirty four times about this, BUT he can remember that there used to be a plant in the window at a friends house. A house we haven’t visited in easily a year. When we went over last week, what were the first words out of his mouth?

“Where’s the plant?”

It wasn’t a big plant. It wasn’t the only plant.

It was the MISSING plant!

+4 points for observation skills, I suppose.

Ok, ok. So the kid’s good at noticing things, (with the obvious exception of his younger sister whom he mows down with startling regularity as he careens around the house like a bat on fire) but that’s just being visually observant. Right?

How about this one:

Mercury
Venus
Earth
Mars
Asteroid Belt

Ceres
Pallas
Vesta
And a bunch of other stuff.

Jupiter
Saturn
Uranus
Neptune
Don’t forget about Pluto
Eris
And a bunch of other stuff…

Not only can he run through this list like it’s nothing, but he can quiz you on what color the various planets are, if they have rings and which ones have moons. He can also tell you them out of order and which ones are next to which. How? Because of this…

Essentially, this is simply the School House Rock of my children’s generation. Think about it. Remove the folksy guitar chords and soft lyrical voices of the seventies, substitute with amps, electric instruments and vocals by They Might Be Giants, and you’ve got it! Learning never looked so fun!

I don’t know what it is about music and cartoons that makes stuff like this stick, but it works! To this day, I can securely say that the only reason I know the preamble to the U.S. Constitution is because of Saturday morning TV. Now, with kids of my own, we don’t have a TV and don’t plan to get one any time soon. School House Rock is still available on DVD or the Internet, but lets be honest, we watch it mostly out of my own need for nostalgia. I subject my children to it from time to time but when it’s done, Short Stack wants me to pop in the “Science is Real” DVD and watch John and John sing about meteorites, the scientific method or how cells grow. You might suggest that it doesn’t mean much to him beyond the fun video and songs, but I’ve already been commissioned by him to construct his own solar system in his bed room and he gleefully points out the different things that are made of cells as we walk to the store. He gets it.

So, why can’t he remember to wash his hands!?!?

Some day, shockingly soon, it will be time for Short Stack to begin his school career and I for one am truly apprehensive. He’s not so good at focusing, following directions isn’t his strong suit and he’s prone to periods of gazing off into space, lost in a world of his own making. Getting good marks is going to be a challenge… unless that is, it’s what he wants to do. For me, it’s like looking into a time machine, except this time around I have red hair and freckles.

It’s going to be interesting. In the mean time, I just hope they come out with a really jazzy way of remembering times tables and parts of speech. If they don’t, I’m just popping in disk one of the complete Monty Python collection. It might not get him a job, but he’ll be able to quite British comedy at length.

In my book, that’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.

That, and I’ll finally have someone to do the Dead Parrot Sketch with.

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