My dad bought me a bicycle when I turned eight years old because, he said, I was a big boy already. Since then I’ve seen a million movies where the father holds the back of the bike, runs behind, and then secretly lets go and watches his son triumphantly learn to ride. This is a father-son moment I never had. Instead, my dad told me he was going to the office and if I couldn’t ride the bike by the time he returned, he would throw the brand new bike down the ravine into the creek behind the house.
He was a tough father to have. I don’t blame him though. After he left Basco, Batanes, in short pants, to study in Manila, he didn’t return home or see his father again until his senior year in college when his Papang passed away; and even then, he didn’t stay for the funeral because he had to go back to school and—this was something impressed upon all of us later—school and work always come before such sentimental things as birthdays, reunions, and funerals.
With no more financial support coming from Batanes, Dad finished civil engineering at the University of the Philippines at Diliman on time in four years flat, something not easily accomplished even today. Then, he went to work as a heavy machinery operator, building highways through the jungles of Mindanao. They carried .45 cal. pistols and were escorted by an army contingent as they worked. Their barracks had holes in the roof because it seemed like every night someone got drunk and fired off a few rounds without stepping outside first.
I wanted to be an engineer like Dad. He had mysterious radio parts stored in drawers and mason jars. He built our furniture with power tools I wasn’t allowed to touch, and he tinkered with car engines for relaxation on weekends. He seemed to have all-around superhuman abilities. At one point he mentioned that an engineer had to be able to draw straight lines freehand, and I spent a summer dashing off straight lines with a pencil on any piece of paper that came my way.
So, I desperately wanted to learn to ride that bike that day. It was a shiny blue and chrome affair with a silver spangled easy rider seat, but it was big for me. My feet didn’t reach the ground. I had been a terror on the playground on my little red tricycle, but balancing on only two wheels was something I despaired of ever figuring out, and there was no one around to teach me. My brothers were younger, barely even in school then as I recall. My sister was in high school but everyone knows that older sisters are only good for tormenting kid brothers. I couldn’t run to Mom. Big boys didn’t do that.
As I’ve said on one other occasion, I lived in great fear of my dad’s anger, until I learned to lawyer myself out of punishment. Then, I was afraid only of his disappointment.
There was an open lot covered in red gravel beside our house. Falling on the stones was painful but there was no paved area anywhere nearby and the street was off limits. I can’t tell you exactly how I did it. I kept crashing and getting back up. I skinned my knee, so I went into the house and put on long pants and got back on that damned bike. At one point, I remember being completely frustrated, tears welling up, and although nobody was watching, forcing myself not to cry. Big boy nga e. My brand new bike lying broken on the boulders in the creek behind the house was the image that kept flashing unbidden in my head. I struggled to fight the fear of falling, to overcome the natural instinct to jerk away, until I realized I had to steer into the fall to regain my balance and control—a metaphor if ever there was one.
We all face trials, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, things we don’t know how to deal with. We’re lucky if we have people around who can help, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for and accept help, but sometimes we have to deal with problems ourselves. And in the end, no one else can really do our part for us. It helps to remember that what we did as kids, what we survived in our younger days, what we know from experience, these things have made us strong. We need to face the challenge, say a prayer, and steer into the fall.
Dad became the first dean of what later became the college of engineering at U.P. at Los Baños. Countless students and professors remember him as their mentor, but he and I rarely talked and yet I’m grateful for the lessons he taught me.
What do they say about learning to ride a bike—you never forget? You never forget.