(Originally published 8/18/2010)
Lately I’ve taken my lunch at the park, enjoying a bit of the country in the middle of the city. I’ll park my truck by the baseball field, climb a small hill to sit on a smaller bench, and stare across the street. Just to see if it’ll happen, finally happen, today.
The facelifted but tired house is home to a family I’ve never met and a young man I’ve come to know only from a distance. Ten or so from the looks of him. All boy. Grass-stained Levi’s, alternating Transformer and John Deere T-shirts, and a filthy baseball cap. Always the cap. Homeschooled too, I suppose, since he’s home every day and I’ve yet to see a truancy officer.
For about a week I sat and watched him take scraps of plywood and two-by-fours from behind his father’s shed, gather the pile in the middle of the driveway, and proceed to hammer and nail every boy’s first serious attempt at engineering—a ramp. It started small, not much more than a pine speed bump. But either his ambitions or an innate love for hammering and nailing got the better of him, and that bump got bigger. Much bigger. So much so that the upper part of the curve on the finished product nearly came to the bill of his cap.
This was someone not merely content to give a gentle tug at gravity’s suppressive bonds. No, he wanted to break them with impunity. To fly.
He hammered the last nail a week ago and then pulled a muddy bike out of the shed, backed it up a good twenty feet, and climbed on. And then climbed off. A practice run, I supposed. The next day he actually pedaled halfway to the ramp. Halfway and half-hearted. And like any act undertaken with half a heart, it was doomed to fail. He squeezed the handlebars just as the front tire went from pavement to plywood.
And that’s how it’s been since. Every day I come here for my lunch, and every day he inches closer to that ramp but never quite close enough. And right now he’s there again, sitting on his bike and staring.
I know why.
From where I’m sitting I can look to my right at a tight circle of iron tracks. The train runs at the park during the warmer months and is quite the attraction, both for the kids and the parents who once were kids.
As a child I was terrified of the train, convinced the tunnel on the far side was in fact a door to the underworld that swung only one way. Boarding it would mean the end of me. I would race through the tunnel and be swallowed by it, lost in the darkness forever. When I turned eight, I knew it was time to put up or shut up. I rode the train. I jumped. And to my unbridled delight I found that not only did the tunnel have an entrance, it had an exit as well.
And I can look to my left and see the spot where as a teenager I parked one Saturday night and listened as my girlfriend serenaded me with Poison’s “I Won’t Forget You,” promising to never-ever-ever if I just fell in love with her. I liked the sound of that, so I jumped. She forgot about me three months later.
Which is why I understand the boy’s apprehension. It’s tough to jump. Tough to gather the nerve. Because you never know what’s going to happen after. You never know if you’ll land or crash, laugh or cry. And so we all sit and stare and wonder whether the chance to fly is worth the risk to fall. The good things in life are like that. They cost much but are worth more.
I look out over the park and see him tug on the bill of his cap. He rubs his hands and adjusts the pedals, positioning them just so for the right amount of initial oomph. And just as I think he’s about to squeeze the handlebars again, he doesn’t. He pushes harder. His eyes open wide.
And he jumps.