I grew up without a television.
That’s only partially true, actually. For the first five years of my life, we had one, before my mother cast it out declaring, ‘TV is the playground of the devil!’ I have faint memories of fights with my sister Laura on which show we would watch – I wanted to watch Zorro carve his signature Z into the backsides of Spanish soldiers, while she had a propensity for Little House on the Prairie.
She won often. At least three nights a week, I was subjected to imagining life in the late 19th century as a farmer in Walnut Grove rather than as a wealthy, clever-thinking, freelancing, crime-fighting-bandito in the Spanish colonial era of California.
In addition to systematically suffering through multiple episodes of watching Laura Ingalls churning butter, at age six I made the mistake of allowing my mother to catch me standing in the doorway of my room, peering down our narrow hallway to sneak a peek at my dad watching his favorite show :: The A-Team.
Usually, I was a TV-watching-ninja. Like Don Diego de la Vega, I would fulfill my civil duties (in this case, going to bed on time), knowing that as night fell I could become an action hero. Each time I donned my Superman pajamas (velcro-attached cotton cape included), I knew I could not be stopped from watching Mr. T and company defeat the ‘bad guys’ in high-octane combat scenes.
I would stay up and watch the show – commercials and all – peering out from behind my bedroom doorframe through the darkness with one eye. I stood there soaking in every bit of it, feeling slightly rebellious, half of my body hidden from the light of 80’s TV explosions.
Half of my body. The other half was lit up like a Christmas tree.
One fateful night, my mother happened to glance down the hallway to catch a glimpse of me darting back into the darkness. I could hear her sprinting toward my room. That was the end of my late night affairs with the A-Team.
Our television was picked up by the garbage men the next morning.
Though I couldn’t watch them anymore, I still had a fascination with the A-Team, and Mr. T in particular. His dangling feather earrings, excessive gold chains and tough attitude were all truly bad-ass to me, overcoming the fact that he was afraid of flying.
I wanted to meet him.
I got my wish when Mr. T came to our hometown of Warren, Ohio to give some kind of a cheesy pep talk at our local K-Mart. I don’t remember a thing he said. I do remember that he was wearing a jean jacket with no sleeves, gold chains and those dangling feather earrings.
And I remember thinking he sounded tough.
My dad bought me a balloon with a cartoon image of Mr. T on it, and I couldn’t be happier. It was the perfect day. The sun was shining, I heard BA Baracus talk to a parking lot full of K-Mart shoppers and had a balloon to prove it.
When we got home, I hopped on my fairly new electric blue Huffy bike along the sidewalk around our neighborhood, gripping the ribbon that led to my shiny Mr. T balloon with my little six-year-old hand.
I was beginning to get comfortable riding, even though my sister occasionally made fun of me for still having training wheels. She said they were ‘obnoxious.’ I wasn’t sure what that meant. I just thought they were loud.
The summer breeze blew against my back, pushing Mr. T in front of me as I rode. I had a consciously firm grip on the ribbon and my handlebar. I wouldn’t lose my balloon to the wind.
I pedaled faster and faster along the sidewalk, enjoying my perfect day, when the unthinkable happened.
Going over a bump in the sidewalk where slabs of concrete meet one another, I nearly lost my balance and steered my bike down a driveway, into oncoming traffic. I wasn’t allowed to ride in the street, and certainly wasn’t allowed to play chicken with the oncoming Chevy pickup truck. Not to mention the balloon might pop on impact.
I gripped my handlebars and jerked them hard and to the left, steering myself out of harm’s way. The truck roared past. Not to brag or anything, but my stunt was pretty extreme. Even Evil Knievel couldn’t have kept his balance.
Neither did I.
I knew I needed to fall away from the Chevy. Flying horizontal from my Huffy, I felt like an honorary member of the A-Team. If they had tryouts, I think I would have had a shot.
As my body sprawled evenly between the grass in my neighbor’s front yard and the concrete slabs of sidewalk, I realized in all the excitement I had let go of my balloon.
It was floating on the cool summer breeze, bouncing its way down the street.
There was no time to lose. I hopped back onto my bike and zoomed down the sidewalk, ignoring the stinging pain of my freshly skinned knee. Mom would squirt Bactine on it later, which was likely to sting even more. No matter. After all, I was now an honorary member of the A-Team. I rode along the sidewalk, following the balloon as it skipped down the road, Mr. T taunting me with a big toothy grin and his damned dangling feather earrings as if he knew I wasn’t permitted to ride into the street.
As I peddled in a panic towards our house, I called out for my sister, who’s name was still difficult for me to pronounce.
‘Whoa-wwa!’ No response. I yelled louder. ‘WHOA-WWA!’
She was nowhere in sight. I rode faster, keeping an eye on Mr. T as he scurried down the street. I thought about going after the balloon – disobeying the rules to achieve what needed to be done. I could reach Mr. T before he escaped down Bennett Street.
But I didn’t. Breaking the rules and riding into the road was too risky. Instead, I headed to my house and ran inside. ‘Whoa-wwa! Help me!‘ My sister quickly ran with me to her pink Barbie bike, plopped onto the banana seat and rode down the driveway and into the street (after looking both ways, of course). I watched with tear-filled eyes.
We were too late.
By the time we had emerged from the garage, Mr. T had ascended to be with God the Father in heaven – or at least several blocks away. Laura rode after him, but didn’t make it in time.
My knee started to hurt.
It was in that moment that I made myself a promise – I would never let the rules of where to ride hold me back again.