Last week I dropped my daughter off at third grade. Cars stretched for blocks to drop off children. There were no kids walking to school or riding bikes. This got me thinking about my first day of school in second grade and how different my world was then from my daughter’s today.
I was seven on my first day of second grade. My parents told me I could ride my new bike to school, which was only a mile away through a residential neighborhood – not much traffic. It was thrilling to be given that sort of independence, to get myself to school and back on my beautiful Red Western Flyer bicycle. Oh, she was a beauty. All decked out with chrome, or faux chrome – don’t remember for sure which. The night before, I cleaned her up and polished her and even mounted playing cards in the spokes to create that motor-like sound. But my dad said no to the deck of cards.
The next morning, my Western Flyer looked magnificent in the bright Texas sun, all shiny with the basket on the front holding my books. This was well before anybody thought of the brilliance of backpacks for such cargo. The books were wrapped in brown paper from H-E-B shopping bags. I had on blue jeans and a freshly-ironed cowboy shirt with snap buttons and brand new U.S. Keds high-top sneakers. My friends asked me that day if I could run faster in those new shoes. The answer was yes.
And I could pedal faster, too. On my way to school I was looking down, admiring my cool shoes – unblemished white canvas and laces – and admiring how fast I could pump those pedals. I was flying through those back streets on my Red Flyer at 7:30 a.m. Amazing now to think that my parents would let their second-grader ride alone to school, but it was common in a small town in 1962.
On this morning, as I pumped those pedals ever faster, I anticipated arriving early enough to show off my new bike and run around the playground and get my new clothes dirty before the bell. But I looked down at my shoes a few seconds too long, because suddenly I noticed a red shadow eclipsing my upper vision and glanced up to see a huge red Mack Truck parked in my way. I reversed the pedals in an instant and stood up to brake as hard as I could. The bike slipped sideways, which was good, accidentally good, and I was saved from hitting the pavement by slamming into the massive bumper of the truck. My shoulder slammed pretty hard against the grill, too, and my second-grade reader – “Fun with Dick and Jane” – toppled out on the ground into a greasy spot under the truck. My my straw Stetson fell off as well. (Did I mention the hat? That was an important accessory to go along with my steel horse.)
I felt lucky to be alive – sure that if I’d been a millisecond later in seeing it, my head would have been implanted in the radiator and I wouldn’t have learned a thing in school that day, or perhaps ever. As it was, “Dick and Jane” got the worst of it with a little oil stain on the cover. Nobody saw me do battle with the Mack Truck. It was a privately witnessed near-death experience. I didn’t even tell my mother for fear she would have grounded me and my Western Flyer.
I think of that moment quite often – appreciative at 67 of the many oh-so-close calls in my life that fate has been generous enough to let me escape from, unharmed. Count your blessings, my friends, and watch where you’re going.