Hours Before Dawn I Will Never Forget


Two hours before dawn on a frosty November morning in New England, I found myself pedaling an old balloon-tired bike uphill in darkness so absolute, I could not see the handlebars I gripped in numbed fingers.

An icy wind gusted in off the Atlantic, blowing straight in my face and slowing my progress, as I peered through gloom at a dim circle of light just ahead of my front tire, trying to stay close enough to the soft shoulder of the Boston Post Road.

I needed to stay close to the edge of the road, so that I could abandon the pavement a little faster next time some maniac came roaring down on me out of the night, intent on turning me into a 15-year-old greasy spot on the asphalt.

I had ridden the soft shoulder for a while, but had given it up after I was twice unseated by some chunk of trash that showed up right ahead of my front tire. And anyway, my focus was not on maniacs in pickup trucks; it was on getting a move on.

I was late.

Very late.

Maybe too late to make it on time.

Five miles ahead--five long miles--docked along the Niantic River, sat a small sailboat with a good friend in it.

I was due to be there not later than dawn, which was around 6:30 at that time of year. The darkness that night was thick enough to bottle and spread on crackers, making my chances of covering those five miles on time about as good as my chances of being sainted before my sixteenth birthday.

My eyes turned to the stars as I finally crested the hill.

In the absolute darkness, each star stood out bright and individual against a charcoal sky.

And either the wind had shifted or the road had made an unnoticed turn in the dark because cold, salt-laden air now blew from my right, instead of directly in my face.

It kept pushing me out into the roadway, but impeded my progress less. I sped up, thinking I could perhaps make it after all.

But then, I looked off to my left and saw the eastern sky, which had been hidden from me on the long climb up the hill.

A gray caterpillar crawled across the horizon, telling me all I needed to know. Barely an hour remained before dawn.

I redoubled my speed, ignoring the fact that I couldn't see a thing.

Icy salt air numbed my face and hands as I pushed that old bike along as fast as it would go.

The road curved slightly to the left and a row of trees hid the stars.

The only sound was the low crunch of balloon tires running through grit near the edge of the road. The gray caterpillar grew fatter, and a shade lighter, but none of its light found its way down the Post Road, as that old iron-framed bike rolled on through the night.

I remember thinking just then that things were going fairly well, when right straight out of hell came something that would have changed my mind if there had been time to think about it--a loud mix of barks and angry snarls, accompanied by a too-close growl and a hard yank and on my right jeans leg.

The yank jerked me to the right, off the asphalt onto the soft shoulder, where a pothole almost bounced me off the saddle.

I fought to control the bike, twisting the handlebars to the left to get back on the asphalt as I kicked at the dogs with my right leg--three of them, I think--and pedaled desperately with my left.

The kick missed, but I had no time to worry about it.

The wind chose that moment to whip up and shove me right out into the middle of the road, where something else showed up, something that came charging out of the night and made me forget dogs, potholes, wind, barking, growling, and the weight hanging from my right pants legs. I stared into a pair of blindingly bright headlights the size of trash can lids.

I swerved.

The vehicle swerved.

A horn blared. Brakes squealed.

A man's voice shouted angrily.

I cringed, certain I was about to become a bug in someone's radiator.

And then....

And then, I was suddenly alone again in the silent darkened night. No headlights, no car, no squealing brakes, and--amazingly enough--no dogs.

Where the dogs went, I have no idea. Wherever they went, I found out later when dawn broke that they had taken a ragged four inch circle of my right jeans leg with them.

Somewhere between dead scared and thrilled at still being alive, I pedaled on.

The road turned downhill at last. The fat gray caterpillar crawling across the eastern horizon metamorphosed into a butterfly, spreading golden wings into a cerulean sky.

Two hours later, close to frozen, leg muscles aching, lungs that felt like they had turned inside out, a 15-year-old blockhead reached the place where a sailboat was supposed to be moored.

It was--happily--still there.

You know what?

It may sound crazy to say this, but that was one of the best nights of my life.

For some reason, those long, cold, miserable hours had meaning, and I knew they had meaning even as I was living them.

I'll leave it you to decide what that meaning was.

If you understand life, and I'll bet you do, you don't need me to explain it to you.

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