A few years back, as my birthday was approaching in mid-May, it dawned on me that I needed to reconsider the core concept of this annual event.
For 40-plus years, close friends and family had marked my birthday in the usual manner by gathering together, cutting a cake, offering up a few gifts and singing the traditional Happy Birthday song – sometimes even in the right key.
Though I’m grateful there are at least a few people who feel my presence on the planet is worthy of a yogurt cake, a knit shirt and a three-pack of skivvies, it finally occurred to me that this personal rite of spring needed to be reconstituted.
Instead of receiving gifts from my family and holding a party in honor of what my life means to them, I figured my birthday should be a time to celebrate what their lives mean to me…and I should be the one doling out the gifts.
So, even though my wife still insists on the yogurt cake and BVD value-pack, each year I present a special gift to a special person as a gesture of thanks for infusing my life with joy and meaning.
Well, this past May marked a personal milestone, the big 5-Oh, as in Oh, $&*#! Grateful to still be on the sunny side of the soil, I decided to celebrate the occasion by throwing deep and buying my son the one thing he’d been craving for more than a year: a dirt bike.
The story of how I beat the bushes on Craigslist to score a well-running, pre-owned Honda XR80 suitable for an 8-year-old beginner is one I’ll save for another day. I’ll also save the story about how I was able to win my wife over on the idea, though I’ll mention it included an assurance that there will be few times in our son’s life when she’ll see him in such a sheer state of uninhibited rapture as the day he gets his first dirt bike.
Men may or may not remember their first date, their first kiss or their graduation speaker, but they always remember their first motorcycle. It’s a guy thing, so I wasn’t surprised when my wife got that crinkled up, smelled-a-rotten-egg look on her face as I tried to explain it to her.
And I wasn’t surprised that Austin dang-near exploded with delight when I rolled out that old hand-me-down dirt bike. I opened the door to the garage where I’d been hiding it and he bolted toward it with a big beaming smile, almost wept as he settled in the saddle and said “thank you” about a thousand times. It was, to be sure, the perfect 50th birthday gift to share with my son.
As it turned out, it was a gift that kept on giving when a month later I celebrated Father’s Day by taking him out to the Full Throttle MX Park in Loranger. Austin was eager to take his maiden voyage on a bona fide dirt track and try his best to emulate all the pro riders he’d seen on YouTube, and I was eager to serve as pit crew chief of his race team.
Here I use the term “race” lightly because the only contest he has encountered so far is trying to get his bike all the way up to fifth gear and back down without boogering up the clutch. He also encountered a challenge when he took his first spill, falling over on a hairpin turn. I scooped him up, dusted him off and looked through his goggles and into his eyes to see if our father-and-son dirt track days had come to an abrupt end. But he gave me the thumbs-up and got right back at it. That’s my boy!
Be assured that I take my pit crew duties very seriously. There are lots of details to cover. I’ve got to make sure he’s got his gloves and helmet, his goggles are cleaned off, his carburetor is finely tuned, his tires are pumped up, the water cooler is full, the gas tank is topped off and my debit card is readily accessible and well-lubricated.
Spending Father’s Day hanging around the pits at Full Throttle MX Park, it was apparent the dirt bike scene is far different than when I was tooling around the neighborhood park on my Honda QA 50. That was back in the ’70s when millions of TV viewers became spellbound watching Evel Knievel every time he’d hurl his Harley over a dozen old jalopies.
Back then, catching a little air was a big deal. These days kids with braces on their teeth can jump farther and higher on a skateboard than Evel ever jumped on a motorcycle. Little boys – and little girls – who can barely hold a mini-bike upright would be waving at Evel as they went soaring over his head while pulling off a double backward cliff hanger, straight into a nifty nac nac and greasing into a pillow-soft, rear-wheel landing.
When I was a kid, most mini-bikes were fashioned out of a lawn mower engine welded onto a rudimentary frame that someone’s father made back in the work shed. Today, the competitive motocross subculture is replete with powerful, souped-up, tricked-out, rocket-jet, two-stroke engines that youngsters learn to ride not long after they pop their pacifiers out of their mouths.
Parents spend lots of money sending their kids to high-dollar riding academies and customizing their engines to gain an edge when cash prizes or endorsement deals are at stake. Many complain MX is an expensive sport, but I’ve found it depends on how fast you want to go.
I’ve also found that the gold lies in the fact that for this summer Full Throttle MX Park has become a field of dreams for my son and me. He dreams of future MX glory while I hope and dream he doesn’t get hurt, and I try to dream up something to say to his mother if he does.
As for Austin, his third-hand, four-stroke (an ancient Sanskrit term meaning “slower than a snail”) trail bike works just fine…at least for now. After getting smoked on the track, he’s already nagging me about getting him a faster bike, but that’ll have to wait. Heck, by next year he may have abandoned this particular hobby and I may be in the market for lacrosse equipment or a new ping-pong table.
Every time he bugs me about a new bike, I just tell him to chill out and I give him this advice: “Maybe one day you’ll get a new bike, but remember that your favorite bike should always be the one you’re riding.”