THR Web Features   /   June 21, 2020

My Father Was There When I Really Needed Him

A lesson in what it takes to be a father, and why a kid might want to have one.

Matthew B. Crawford

( Bicycle leaning on a wall. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

In my town there was a notorious gangster named Troy. Word on the street was that he had done hard time, some said for killing a man. He must have been about thirteen, I was eight. One day I saw a crowd outside my house, which was at the bottom of a steep hill. I went outside and learned that Troy was at the top of the hill on his bike. His minions and groupies had set up a ramp, followed by about ten full-sized trash cans. This was going to be some real Evel Knievel stuff, right in front of my house! What I remember vividly is that as Troy came screaming down the hill, he was pedaling furiously. He launched, cleared the garbage cans for the most part, and landed in a great shower of sparks, visible even in the daylight. There was blood. It was really bad. It was also the most awesome thing I had ever seen. It put me on notice that there are human beings who belong to a whole different order of badass.

Around this same time (it must have been about 1973), I had come into the unprecedented sum of twenty dollars, a birthday present of cold cash from a mother with a bad conscience. Of this I had nine dollars and eighty cents left, which I kept in a Donald Duck coin purse. I needed to go across town, to my dad’s apartment on Carleton Street, and I distinctly remember fretting about the money, about the wisdom of transporting such a sum on my person. I decided to risk it. And sure enough, I had gone about three blocks when Troy and his thugs rolled up on their BMX bikes and proceeded to box me in. I was very afraid. Troy was still in bandages, which only made him look more hardcore.

“Nice gooseneck,” he said, eyeing my bike. Indeed it was. It was “heat treated” (for extra strength), which you could tell from the flat black finish. Apart from the motocross handlebars, this gooseneck was the one item of trickness on my junkyard-salvaged Stingray, and Troy’s eye had gone straight to it. “Can I have it?”

I honestly don’t remember how that part of the conversation progressed. But by the time I was on my way, I had been relieved of my $9.80.

A fatalistic child, with no habit of seeking adult succor, it was only by some slip of my tongue that my father learned of the theft. He was outraged. He demanded to know where the thief lived. I tried to tell him, Dad, you don’t understand. This is Troy. This is not somebody you go looking for. But he persisted. We drove to the house of a kid who might possibly know where Troy lived. We were standing on his porch at night, and he wouldn’t give up the information. He seemed to be physically sick at the demand, but my father kept grilling him. This seemed madness to me. Adults can be so clueless about the real hazards of the world.

The house described was more like a shack behind a proper house, in somebody’s backyard. My dad pounded on the door and after a long pause a woman opened it. The air wafting out of the house had the smell of cigarettes. He told her the situation angrily. At this time my dad was about the same age I am now, and in 1973 he looked like a Hell’s Angel. He was nothing of the sort, but he was kinda scary looking, with long, straggly hair, unwashed clothes, and a big mustache. Troy’s mom was apologetic. Clearly, she was ready to believe any accusation against her son. There was no father. She summoned Troy from elsewhere in the shack (he had probably heard the whole exchange) and out he came. The person who presented himself bore little resemblance to the fearsome gangster. He seemed to have shrunk into himself, with downcast eyes and a barely audible mumble in response to the interrogation. The mom produced some money, saying “How about I just give you ten dollars.” I clearly remember my dad’s response: “I don’t want to rip you off.” It was the sound of righteous justice. At this point I was feeling a little bolder and found my voice. I offered that, well, there was also the cost of the Donald Duck coin purse, which according to Troy was long gone. This seemed to resolve the issue of the twenty-cent differential. My dad took the ten dollars and we were on our way. On the way back to his car, he handed me the money.

I was stunned. The episode remains for me a lesson in what it takes to be a father, and why a kid might want to have one.

I have one other memory of my dad rising to the occasion in this way, and oddly enough it too involved a bicycle. He had gotten me a new one after the one I had was ripped off. I’d had the new one only a few days when it too got nabbed, despite being locked. With shame and trepidation, I told him what happened, and during that very conversation I happened to be looking out toward the street through the narrow driveway hemmed in with bushes when, for a second or two, I believed I saw my new bike rolling down the street, accompanied by another. I told my dad. We sprang into action and ran to his car, a red 1963 Ford Fairlane convertible with a top that didn’t go up. Rather than open the door, he vaulted into the driver’s seat while I ran up the trunk of the car and hurdled into the passenger seat, like Batman and Robin. We were off, and took a lucky guess: toward San Pablo Avenue. We hadn’t gone maybe three blocks when we spotted the two kids rolling down the center of the street. My dad pulled up right next to the kid on my bike and grabbed him by his backpack, then slowed to a stop. His partner kept going, pedaling like mad and looking back in terror. Now, I don’t condone this, running down a kid on a bike in a car. But this was a different era, and people did things like this, I guess. In any case, I had my bike back, and how sweet it was.