It is an evening early in the summer. My father has spent the afternoon working on his dirtbikes, or “wrenching”, by perching his red Honda CR125 on a stand and himself on a crate outside of our tiny garage which holds no cars and at this time two or three dirtbikes. This particular wrenching session is for an outing we fondly referred to as the “Father’s Day Race.” My dad often forewent attending church with us on Sundays to go to motocross races in with his friends (and sometimes their sons) and the third Sunday in June, or Father’s Day, was the one occasion that my mother skipped church for us to attend them. Myself, my brother a combination of any of the neighborhood boys—Taye, Willie, Aaron, Antoine, Javon, Pop, Mike, Fellah, Tahjee—filter through to stop and watch, chat, loiter, before heading on to their respective destinations. We spent all afternoon out on the street in the sun; taking seats on the mangled humps of tree roots lifting the planes of the sidewalk, old crates and boxes strewn around the garage and occasionally the idle basketball making its way back home after a few hours of games in Boo Wilson Park. Sometimes on bikes qe venture to the corner store for Cheetos, Hot Fries, Funyuns and the chubby 25cent drinks with the peel-off aluminum foil cover you that tastes like melted popsicle and makes you thirstier than when you started. The sun warms the scene like a filter, everything gilded, sepia, warm.
Cliff, you gotta let me ride. You gotta take me ridin’, Cliff, they say to him and my dad laughs and never outright refuses, telling them they must ask their moms because he can’t be taking anybody’s kids anywhere just in case they get hurt. C’monnn, Cliff, I don’ got to ask her, I won’t get hurt, I know how to ride! Yeah, I ride my cousins’ all the time!
When the sun starts setting, it is the perfect time. With no shirt, my dad slides on a pair of riding pants over his shorts and boots. He swings a leg over the bike and the boys’ and mine eyes widen in excitement. He revs up the engine and it roars to life, confirmation of a job well-done, then turns out into the street. The bike flies up and down the road with, and the whole lot of us watch him go back and forth, zipping past down the long street, laughing and cheering as he zooms around the corner.
By time he comes in, both legs on one side like he’s riding side-saddle, we hear the wail of sires in the distance. The boys disperse to their homes, back down to the projects and my brother and I run into the house while Daddy locks up the bikes, the garage door and cleans up the mess we leave of black bags with empty bottles and rags. A police cruiser with his lights flashing and now-silent sirens drives by and dad nods. It trolls the neighborhood until no one is left in the streets.
The races were in a small town in Northern New York called Newburgh. They took place in a fielded plot that been converted to a practice and racing track for motocross riders throughout the region. The heat in Newburgh was similar to the type of heat I would later encounter in central Washington, an anomalous, countryside heat where the temperatures deviated around ten degrees higher during the day and fifteen degrees lower in the night relative to the closest metropolitan city. The sun and its accompanying heat was relentless, impartially beaming down for nearly 12-hours of the day, blackening shoulders, reddening necks.
Other than watching the races, our main occupation during the day was at the site of a man-made, rain water-filled pond located in a ditch at the bottom of the woods that stretched deep around the far periphery of the race track. The pond was shallow along the sides and only stretched six-feet deep in the middle, so it was innocuous enough for even the youngest attendees to play in and near it without much supervision. Its inhabitants were usually the bored children of fathers and siblings of older brothers who were racing and wrenching all day and whose mother’s and sisters had given up on trying to entertain them and were under their tents drinking beers, smoking cigarettes, lying on a folded beach chair facing right up to the sun until they were dripping sweat, then rotating to the other side, repeat.
As a result of our parents’ preoccupation, the average age of the inhabitants of this pond was somewhere between seven and nine. Additionally, given that the pond was not ruled by adults, for the most part, there was no deference to race or class, but status was liberally granted on the basis of simple meritocracy: for how long could you hold your breath under the dirty water, how fast could you swim across the pond’s breadth, how big was the frog you caught relative to your palm, how high was the branch from which you could jump. There were boys that swung from low hanging tree-branches or twisted vines into the center of the pond, sucked into the center into the darkness, then emerged, sometimes looking like sea monsters covered in slimy algae and the freshwater kelp that grew in long tuffs along the bottom. On many accounts, my brother and I failed within this meritocracy. Mostly from our inability to swim or unwillingness to jump from known heights to unknown depths. We had a backyard of reasonable size, but no consistent access to water such that we could surpass a personal best of six or seven skips. But on equally many accounts, we did not.