When my father was sixteen he asked his dad for a motorcycle.
My grandfather was very fond of motorcycles, he even ran a little repair shop for bikes out of his garage, so he knew it was only a matter of time before his son would want his own. “Have you saved up some money?” he asked. “I have about $50 saved up from mowing lawns this summer.” My father quickly answered. It was the late 1960’s, and although $50 wasn’t a princely sum, it was enough to consider for a well used bike past it’s prime. “How will you repair the bike when it breaks?” Grampy tested him. “Well, I was hoping you could teach me…” my father answered hesitantly. “Mmm hmm.” Grampy pondered, furrowing his brow “Let me think about it.”
A week later Grampy came home with a bike that had seen better days. He took it off his truck and tried to start it up, my father excitedly ran out of the house to see what was going on. After a few failed attempts and adjustments, the engine came to life and purred healthily despite the bike’s neglected exterior. “Is this for me?” my father asked with eager anticipation. Grampy smiled and looked at him in silence for a moment quietly contemplating how to answer. “No.” he finally answered warmly. “This bike needs to be restored for a friend. It has to be taken apart. All of it. Before you can have a bike, you need to know how they work, and how to fix them. So you’re going to help me. If you can do this, perhaps you can have a bike. Do you understand?” My father excitedly agreed by nodding his head. Grampy smiled “Good. There’s tools and a manual in the garage. I want you to take this bike apart completely. Every single nut and bolt. Lay them all out, clean them and mark the parts that are broken and need to be replaced. Let me know when you finish.” With that, Grampy left my father to figure out how to even start with the disassembly.
It took my father 2 weeks to fully disassemble the bike. He had every part cleaned and laid out neatly. When the last part was cleaned and set down, he stopped and surveyed his work with pride. It was a difficult task, but he had learned a great deal in the process. He confidently approached his Dad knowing that he had done the job well, and figured he would surely allow him to get a bike now. “I finished.” my father reported, beaming with pride. Grampy, sitting comfortably in his chair, looked up from his newspaper and smiled. “Show me.”
They went out to the garage where my father showed how every part was cleaned, neatly arranged and labeled by group with the handful of pieces needing repair sectioned off. Grampy walked around and silently surveyed the work. After a few minutes carefully checking all the parts, he nodded his head, smiled and made his way towards the door to leave the garage. My father, rife with anticipation, finally spoke up “So…can I get a bike?”. Grampy turned around slowly, looked at him, then looked at the parts splayed out on the floor of the garage, and answered. “Yes, put this one back together and it’s yours.” And with that he walked out of the garage, leaving my father to contemplate the monumental task that now lay before him.
It took my father seven months to painstakingly put the bike back together.
He worked on the bike every day after school, and all day on the weekends. Since none of the parts were individually labeled, it took many build attempts to even get the engine to turn over. He mostly worked on it himself with Grampy helping him when he got really stuck. At the end of the 7 months, there wasn’t a part on that bike that he couldn’t recognize with a casual glance. My father got his bike, and he rode it for many years before building another.
Although my grandfather’s lesson to my father seemed somewhat cruel at the time, my father told me it was the best lesson he’d ever received. Not only did he never need a mechanic for bike repairs for the rest of his life, but he also fostered a deep appreciation and love for motorcycles in the process. It also helped him understand how to deal with the monumental tasks that life tends to throw at you, the inevitable failures that they create, and the confidence that comes from completing them through hard work and persistence. “You just take a deep breath, and get to work. Focus on one screw at a time, get through the failures, fuck ups and the frustrations, and then one day, it’s done.”
My father passed away two years ago, and among his few possessions that I kept to remember him, my most prized is a framed picture of him on the Bike that he built. It reminds me what my father had realized in those seven months: sometimes the process is greater than the outcome and that success is more often defined by action, than result. It’s in pursuing seemingly impossible goals that we grow and become who we are, and at the end of all of the struggles and failures is a day when your focus pulls back and you see what lies before you, and you begin to finally understand not just what you’ve accomplished, but what you’re truly capable of.