When I was thirteen I wanted to be Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, acting alone and vexing the authorities, German or otherwise. I also wanted what he had—a motorcycle and the swagger to prove it. I cajoled and I whined and finally my dad, who had a motorcycle license and believed in them but didn’t own anything but a helmet anymore, sat me down one evening for a side-by-side on the couch.
“Now, about this motorcycle you’ve been asking for,” he said, and something went in my gut—either I was or I wasn’t going to get it. I knew the moment had come. He looked at me. “You still want one?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to blush.
“Good,” he said. “Because I think I may have found just the thing.”
He reached into his sweatpants pocket. About 13 toothpicks and several bouquets of used Kleenex fell out, along with a piece of folded newspaper. He opened the paper slowly, like a magician might before a flourish. I looked at the picture and felt my mind shift in that old, familiar sequence—from wondering what I saw, to thinking some grand mistake had happened, then finally the fiery realization that I’d been had. With the hand he held the paper with he slapped his knee and laughed. Then he brought it closer to highlight the ad’s finer points. It was a three-wheel, motorized wheelchair with short handle bars, big chrome side mirrors, and a giant basket in front holding fresh produce and a prescription bag. The smiling old man in the plaid hat who operated it was turned jauntily toward the camera, dentures agleam.
“Tiny Baby’s classic ride,” he said, and lost it all over again.
This was a standing family joke. More, it was a series. Going back as far as I can remember, I was to hear versions of it well into my teens. They came usually when we were out and about driving, either my dad or mom pointing out the window at a shack overcome by greenery and saying, “Tiny Baby’s mansion.” Or down at a pencil-width trickle of roadside rain: “Tiny Baby’s Mississippi.” Being the youngest, I was used to the vague burn. Now, as I looked at the old man looking at me in Tiny Baby’s Classic Ride, I saw my dreams going up in smoke.
But then my dad turned the paper over—Classifieds, Motorcycles. One was circled, said “mini-bike, fast. $50 OBO.”
“We’ll go out tomorrow,” he said, throwing his arm around my shoulders. “No joke.”
The seller owned a perfect junk yard behind his house, as if the metal shed in the corner had vomited without stopping for a month. All manner of lawn implement, every device of human transportation known to man, formed mountains and hills of metal and rubber and rust. A dog huffed and puffed in the dark corners, its chain tinkling and creaking behind the great masses. The man of the house met us with a strained smile, descending a rear stairwell made inches wide by the encroaching bends of steel and spoke. Wearing slippers and a University of Oregon sweatshirt that was so tight it exposed his bulging, gray-haired, midriff, he sought the desired item. Disappearing into islands of warped sculpture via narrow foot path—the chained beast increasing in sound by what I assumed was joy—he returned pushing a motorcycle so short he nearly bent double handling it. But it had a motor; a lawnmower’s, it turned out. Shorter than my BMX, its flat-padded seat was long and wide. The rusty handle bars ended in new black grips. A foot pedal operated the brake in back, which, my dad pointed out with barely suppressed laughter, was a fresh shoe pad.
“Tiny Baby’s Harley Davidson,” he whispered in my ear.
“Here’s my sweetheart,” the man said, his stubbly jowls splotched red from the effort. He pulled the cord—smoke chuffed out in a single puff; then it went quiet. The man reached into the nearest tower of trash and pulled out a spray can, which he shook and then squirted into certain strategic places. “Humid,” he murmured. “Knee says it’ll rain.”
With another few yanks, it up and started. The engine sounded rough, like there were several small rocks loose in it. A grip lever served as the throttle, and he turned it up, showing off its accelerating capabilities until I doubt anyone in the neighborhood could hear anything else. He returned it to idle, backed away and offered me the seat. I deferred to my dad who got on and sped away down the worn path and straight through the gate like a clown on a trike. We listened to him slow down and speed up, then nothing but silence before he exploded back into the yard with a bang. He pressed the foot brake, seizing the back tire, fish-tailed before putting feet to earth and righting himself. He cut the engine and let me sit on it. I felt I might swoon in the shifting fumes. Their condescending smiles made me feel tiny and ridiculous, but I didn’t care—the Germans would be eating my dust soon enough.
Back home, we men gathered by the mini-bike—my older brother Mark, my dad and me. We set it up on its little kick stand and just looked at it for a while. The tires were squat, about the size of a golf cart’s, and its primary color was once navy blue. Everyone agreed it was cool. Then my dad filled the tank with gas, started it and stepped away. My brother hadn’t seen what it could do yet so I got on; I felt the heat of their stares.
Ahead of me stretched the furrowed grass road past our gravel drive that curved up to our barn and was bordered by the pasture’s hogwire fence. I put my hand on the throttle and felt it stiff with rust. I tried imagining Switzerland, and wearing a stolen Nazi’s uniform, but their eyes were bright coals on my back, the pressure too real. The throttle wouldn’t budge, so I followed our family law—if something doesn’t work, force it—, and that’s just what I did. The motorcycle went from being idle to wide open in all of a second, and before I knew it, I was vertical. I forgot to turn the wheel and drove up against the fence and backflipped. The bike fell with me, where it ran wide open at my side. I stared at its workings, chugging and spitting, a foot away. My dad turned it off, filling the place with silence.
In the few seconds I had on my back, I tried imagining I was Steve McQueen entangled in barbed wire before his capture. I willed myself to be hurt, too, but as my dad helped me up on my feet I realized I was fine, hardly a bruise, and the only capturing going on was from that old burning foe—my personal shame.
My dad gave me a hug and held me up close to his scratchy face. “Tiny Baby’s Grand Canyon daredevil feat!” he said, the force of his laughter shaking me like a doll.
Afterward, I stood spooked, trembling on the lawn while watching my brother ride around our property, doing tricks and acting silly. Sure, like so much else, he had it mastered in a matter of moments, but he didn’t know Steve McQueen like I knew Steve McQueen. No, The King of Cool would never pretend to be asleep at the wheel or kick his legs out nor make faces or go over mole holes on purpose. I needed some time alone with the machine, to free myself from the eyes of nonbelievers, of these common German soldiers. It was my sworn duty to escape.
I don’t know if it was the eyes looking at me, or just the possibility of being seen, but I tried two more times in the light of day. Alone. I hit a ditch and sailed over the handle bars first. Next time, I turned too sharply and skidded out, the whole thing falling on me and burning my calf. My BMX was looking better all the time. I was about to give it up forever when I got a phone call that very night from Trevor Meyer, a guy from school I always looked up to—he was confident, and everything he did was cool and unforced. He was a red-headed Steve McQueen.
“Hey, Eric,” he said, his voice sounding weathered and older. “Drove by your house the other day and saw someone riding a sickle. That you?”
The two-lane highway below our property enabled people to look up and see us not exactly as ants and Hot Wheels, more like midgets and go-carts. So I had a couple ways to go here. Say it was my brother and remove at once any assumptions about me being able to ride anything, let alone a “sickle.” Or I could tell him the truth—it’s a mini not much bigger than a toddler bike that I struggle to stay on for more than three seconds at a time.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was me.”
“Cool,” he said. “Very cool. What’s your ride?”
“Yeah, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda?”
Again, I could tell him the truth—old man lawnmower parts and shoe pad. Or, I could play it cool. “Uh,” I said. “One of those, probably. I didn’t pay much attention.”
“Very cool,” he said. Then he asked what I thought he’d never ask: “My birthday party’s this weekend and we’re gonna rent some movies, get some pizza. Wanna spend the night?”
“Sounds cool,” I said.
“And we can ride sickles, too.”
“Oh, excellent,” I croaked.
Cool guy that he was, he said “cool,” then hung up without even saying good-bye.
* * *
The Meyers were a family of redheads. They had land and an orchard and a big enough house to warrant an intercom system. Thankfully, Trevor’s mom said it was too late to ride sickles; it would have to wait till morning. So we played basketball outside on Trevor’s full-court blacktop, complete with glass backboards and painted lines, until his dad—an older version of Trevor and about four times as wide—was ready to go into town for a movie rental and to pick up the pizza. The other two invites rode all the time and were also cool. In class, they laughed at my reckless smart cracks and teacher impersonations. Once they learned I could ride, though, they liked me for real. In a garage built just for motorcycles, Trevor showed me their collection. They were the real deal, standing tall and with shocks and knobby tires and more than one gear.
“Cool,” I said.
The pizza was pepperoni and the movie was porn. I’d never consumed either. All forms of pig were banned in my house because of the teachings of my dad’s fundamentalist church. These were the days before the Internet, so porn was impossible, at least of the moving variety. You had to be of age at your local family-run video store to enter the rear saloon doors and grab one of the extra-big VHS boxes with the pink print. Trevor’s dad was only too happy to oblige.
I felt my stomach tightening with every mile closer to his house we got, the smell of parent-sanctioned sin and cured pig wafting the interior of the big American truck that somehow possessed a full back seat. As we pulled into the drive, I saw their pasture in the headlights with its sculpted trails and jumps and knew I was going to die in the morning, either from a crash or outright embarrassment. I ate a lot of pig pizza and drank tanks of root beer to relieve my stress.
We gathered on the floor of his parents’ huge bedroom, home of their optimal big-screen, and spread around with space between us on big pillows and plush blankets. His mother retired to some more peaceful wing while as a warm up we watched Night of the Living Dead, laughing all the way through to the end credits. Then the big moment arrived. Trevor’s dad slipped the tape in and put on pajamas and got into his hewn-oak, four-poster king bed. When the lady opened her violin case to piece together her complicated dildo, he let out a “whoop!” so loud my eyes vibrated. Then he instantly began to snore like a bear, and we were left alone in the dark.
In the morning, I woke up to Trevor’s dad getting ready for work, farting like a moose and humming oldies as he shaved. I pretended to be asleep as horror dawned on me—too much soda pop makes for a very, very wet Tiny Baby. My whole middle was soaked. I had always been a bed-wetter and would be into high school. But I went through these dry stretches where I thought I had it under control by not thinking about it. Not so this night. Everyone was asleep still. After Trevor’s dad left, I drifted out into the hall, and it didn’t take long before I was detected. I will always be as thankful as I was mystified by the kindness of Trevor’s mother. She floated toward me like some kind of Nordic angel, sweats in one hand, an empty plastic bag in the other. Her eyes were a shining blue.
“You’re burning up,” she said, actually touching my forehead. “You’ll be better once you get outside in the fresh air.”
I wasn’t feverish in the least, but she was right about the fresh air. Sure, I was wearing borrowed sweats and carried my underwear and jeans in a bag at my side like a shameful toddler, but at least I’d escaped the humiliation of trying to ride their monster dirt bikes. I felt great. Great, that is, until I got close to home twenty minutes later. I walked up our drive hearing the sounds of a real motorcycle that I thought might be a bad joke until I saw my brother Mark zoom down the side lawn and turn up our gravel drive in a cloud of rocks and dust. As it cleared up, I saw him dismount and begin pushing this bigger new ride through the gate and into the pasture. It stood high as a ten-speed, like Trevor’s. He killed the engine when he saw me coming.
“Dad and I went all the way into Estacada to buy this from a guy that used to race,” he said, breathing hard and grinning. “It was his son’s. It’s got tail lights and a license plate, look.” He gripped the brake and a little red light blinked on and off above the back tire. “Dad already rode it to the store for a six-pack. He brought out his old helmet, but screw that. Wanna try?”
I looked at the skid marks he’d left behind and smelled the heady exhaust lingering in the air, and declined.
“Mom and dad went out,” he said, and suddenly and for no apparent reason, removed his shirt. “Dad told me not to ride in the pasture, but no way am I missing out on these jumps. See ya!”
I watched him go on his bare-chested way, so wiry and fearless, through the untrammeled pasture. He stood up as he rode, sat down, climbed and popped wheelies. He descended like a stone, turned, kicked out, and resumed his blitzing tear. So like McQueen, I realized, so very much like McQueen. And shame was keeping count for me, too, compiling an album of greatest hits such as this, mood music to my bleaker days that lie ahead. But for now I walked away.
Had I heard something about a helmet? Sure enough, I found it lying in the grass. It was black with sparkles, sported a visor and a clear plastic face shield. With it strapped on, head and face enclosed in the stillness of my imagination, the property was mine save the distant whine of my brother’s machine;, and the motorcycle-phobic, bed-wetting, Tiny Baby of Boring, Oregon all but burned away. I walked around practicing my German to various trees and shrubs, fooling every one of them until I fell for the oldest trap in the book, replying, “You’re welcome,” as I took my forged papers back. I was forced to run.
I annexed an old mag-wheeled BMX and a can of gasoline from some Kraut’s garden shed. Across the gravel drive, I poured a generous strip of gas. I set the better end of a plywood board on a Coleman cooler and put lit match to fuel. On the bike, I got a good distance away, fiery tongues licking just beyond the ramp like glistening barbed wire. The Germans were getting close. My capture felt inevitable. I pushed off, pedaling toward the jump and fire, T-shirt rippling in the wind as I pumped, and I rose up that board and flew, weightless over the flames and beyond.
Story image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Jereme Rauckman 2