What I Did Not Want

One of my earliest learning experiences that I remember was my first exposure to the phrase, You got what you asked for, but not what you wanted. It all began when, after months of begging, teasing, and whining, my dear father bought a motor scooter for me when I was 14, clearly an age that had no reason or maturity to operate a motor vehicle. But it was legal in our state and Dad had relented, much to Mom’s displeasure. The scooter had a four hp engine and could probably reach 40 mph going downhill. Going uphill was done only with hope and a prayer. Sexy it was not. Powerful it was not. But it was mine, and it worked reliably and gave me months of spring and summer fun. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a motorcycle. Spoiled? Me? Yes, no contest. I shouldn’t have had the scooter, and I should have been thrilled and not asked for more. But I did ask. Yes, I wanted more. That scooter that had transported me happily through the spring and summer was not enough from my immature view.

Still, all went well, knowing the funds would not be available for a motorcycle…, until one day in the spring of 1955. One of my regular visits had been to a local motorcycle shop, just to look at the machines and dream. The owner knew I was just one of many teenagers to visit and dream and he was tolerant of my regular visits. But on this one day, there it was: a 1947 BSA model C11, 250 cc motorcycle. And the price was $99. Yes, ninety-nine dollars! Love at first sight. Chrome sidings on tank, black paint, raised handle bars—this was the racy, macho-looking machine of my young dreams. I immediately hurried home on my scooter, all the way thinking of how I would approach Dad on this opportunity. I was certain the motor scooter had cost more and maybe he could sell that to the shop owner and get the BSA for FREE. (Okay, to my mind, that would be free, but hey, I was only 14.)

And it came to pass. The day came when Dad and the shop owner did the paperwork and I took the machine outside and prepared to ride home, finally a real ‘biker.’
     – Choke on,
     – Ignition on,
     – Jump on the kick-starter.

     …Nothing. The engine just sat there.

     – Repeat all steps.

     …Still quiet. The engine was laughing at me.

     – Repeat all steps.

     …A rumble, a stumble, and the engine reluctantly came to life.

Whew! Just learning how to start it, I assured myself, nothing to worry about. Motorcycles are hard to kick-start and I would get better. I just knew I would. Easing in the clutch and snicking the bike into gear, I slowly pulled out into traffic in my baptism to the world of motorcycles. Hmm… Was that a slight knocking noise from the engine? Probably just the oil starting to circulate, so I decided not to be concerned with it. Twisting the throttle to leap the bike forward with traffic, there was a decided awareness of not leaping, but stumbling. Probably just the carburetor a bit dirty and would surely clear itself up within a few miles.

Coaxing the bike gently, we arrived safely home where my priority was to wash and wax this beauty and ask my brother to take a photo of the bike with me. The photo was my dream realized: me, sitting astride my macho motorcycle, although there were nagging thoughts on that knocking sound I had heard and the anemic performance of my first ride.

The next day’s ride let me forget some earlier fears as I adjusted my expectations to the reality being experienced. All went well until the clutch cable snapped, immediately eliminating the ability to shift gears, which also meant I couldn’t afford to stop unless I was either home or at a place to fix the broken cable. My thought was to return to the motorcycle shop—because I wanted to keep riding that day. The shop owner, knowing my frustration, repaired the cable gratis, but warned me that the clutch may need work soon. Being just 14, I was easily capable of not remembering facts I wasn’t prepared to address. And off I rode…

Future rides were uneventful, but I was beginning to understand that I now had what I had asked for, but not what I wanted. I had asked for a motorcycle, but what I got was a motorcycle that wasn’t reliable. In wording my desire, I had made assumptions that were not realized. My old scooter was more desirable than I had realized, but now gone from me. For the first time in my young life, I had made a decision from which I could not just apologize and be forgiven; the scooter and its reliable features were gone for good.

The dying of the motorcycle continued, until one day the knock in the engine won the battle; the engine was the loser. Miles from home and a phone call to the motorcycle shop, but the future was now unknown. Once more, Dad came to my rescue to order the replacement parts. As English motorcycles were rare then, it took two months for parts to be shipped and the machine repaired. Now with the engine rebuilt, life was looking better.

That is, life was looking better for a few weeks, until that afternoon I argued with a truck on right-of-way at an intersection and lost the battle, skidding head first into a curb. Mom stepped in at that point, selling my slightly bent beautiful machine the next day. What I had wanted was fun and what I got was what became a permanent bruise on my knee.

That motorcycle was my last for the next 25 years, as I matured somewhat, married, and had a son. My family was more important and that was my focus. What did I learn from that experience? For one, when our son became a teenager and began a repeat of what I had done at his age, I (with the assistance of my dear wife) redirected his interest to saving for a car that would provide transportation and also fun. He has fond memories of his first car and (I hope) has no regrets about motorcycles. And we have enjoyed never worrying about his discovering (and possibly losing) life on a motorcycle.

In later years, I revisited the memories of which I write here, as I had not been a spoiled child, and our family lifestyle was quite modest. What I managed to piece together was my Dad knew my brother was slowly dying. His appeasing me, although possibly unwise in retrospect, let him focus on my brother, who passed away later that same year. Had I known, I would have acted better. Spending time with my brother would have been more important. But life happens and must go on. I cannot look back.

Facing Fear

fear itselfHer name was Dorothy, Dorothy Parker. I recall she had long, brown hair and brown eyes. She sat immediately in front of me in my eighth-grade English class. To me, she was the prettiest girl ever to walk the earth. Each day, I struggled with my attempts to diagram sentences and differentiate between transitive and intransitive verbs while staring at the back of her head. Thoughts of her were always with me and I even followed her home on occasion after class—at a distance, of course. To my 13-year-old brain, this was surely love.

Now, our school administration sponsored chaperoned sock hops every Friday night in the gym to allow the students to dance and mingle. Although I had never attended, I dreamed of asking Dorothy to attend some night with me. On several afternoons after school, alone in my bedroom, I practiced dance steps while listening to pop songs on the radio. I wanted to be ready for the date. Taking her to the dance would be fun, lots of it.

That attraction began the first day of school in September and lasted until the last day of school in June. Nine months of sitting behind her in English class. Did she agree to go with me, you might ask? Were my feelings reciprocated?  I will never know, as I never asked her out.

That’s right. In those nine months of seeing her five days a week, sitting inches away from her, I never asked her out. More than that, I never even spoke to her, not a word. Fear. That was it: fear. Fear that she might laugh at me, fear that she would decline my invitation, fear that she would tell her friends that I would dare to invite her, the prettiest girl in the world, to the sock hop.

Yes, life moved on. The following year I was more socially adjusted, but there were lessons in that experience for me. My fear of rejection prevented me from possibly having several pleasant memories of that school year, memories that would have proved worth the risk of rejection. And would rejection in eighth-grade have been so catastrophic, when all of us were struggling with boy/girl interaction? Doubtful. And what she might have been thinking never occurred to me. Maybe she would have enjoyed being asked. I will never know.

Yet, the bigger lesson was how easily one accepts inaction in the face of fear when the opportunity continually presents itself. That is, when first I wanted to invite her, I would rationalize my inaction by telling myself that I would ‘ask her tomorrow.’ That strategy kept me stressed daily, anticipating that each day would be ‘the day’ to act. But, as time went on, I realize I began to accept that I wanted to ask her, but just needed more time. And, by the end of the school year, I had accepted that I was never going to ask her. All tallied, that was over 150 times I made the decision of ‘not now, but surely tomorrow.’

That one-sided love affair with Dorothy was a small part of my childhood, but the lesson remains: when there is something I do not want to do for fear of failure or embarrassment, I know that each time I postpone action, the postponement becomes easier each time, and eventually the action I wanted to do is never done. Life is short enough as it is, and procrastination always has a reason, usually fear, fear that something will go wrong, so the act is never done.

Reading this, you might infer that I no longer succumb to procrastination on life’s challenges—but you would be wrong. The good news, though, is that I now know why it is happening and I focus on the WHY. That moves me forward. I never saw Dorothy after that year, and she will never know the lesson I learned by not speaking to her. Would she have enjoyed the sock hop? Probably.