Almost one a year ago to the day, I received an email from a reader telling me that a friend of his had been killed riding his bike a few days earlier.
A link to a Facebook page brought confirmation that Doug Caldwell, a popular local cyclist and scientist, had been killed, and another man, Scott Evans, seriously injured.
In the flurry of angry comments that followed, I was surprised to see Stephen Caldwell jump into the fray to challenge those who claimed his brother’s death was nothing more than just an accident.
Afterwards, I offered him the use of this site if he ever wanted to tell his story, or simply remind us of the man Doug had been.
This past weekend, Stephen took me up on my offer — exactly one year after his brother was struck down on Foothill Blvd.
To My Brother
For a boy, a bike means freedom. With a bike he can ride to a friend’s house or explore new neighborhoods on the weekend. He doesn’t need his parents anymore to drive him to school. He can, if he wants, ride to the beach. Were he a surfer he could devise a means to carry his board.
I think of my own boyhood. Few were the consecutive days when I did not ride my bike. Indeed, I took it so much for granted that recently I tried to remember the bicycle I used from the 7th through the 11th grade. Though I can specifically remember the Centurion ProTour I purchased just before my 12th grade year – the year I started driving – I cannot remember the prior one. I think it may have been light blue. I think it was a Schwinn. But it was my freedom. And I often rode with my brother.
For an adolescent boy-becoming-man, a car means freedom. He can go to the same places he went on his bike, but now more quickly. He can take girls on dates. He can drive to work at night. If he persuades his parents, he can drive to a city he never could have reached on bicycle. Greater freedom and a larger world.
For the adolescent with car keys, the bike takes on new meaning. Now a bike becomes simply a means of exercise. Or a way to feel the wind in his hair. (We lived at a time when helmets were rarely worn.) Now it is not primarily a means of transportation, but of recreation.
For some at this stage, the bicycle recedes into the past. They take it out again when they have their own children, or perhaps when they are on vacation and pleased to enjoy a summer boardwalk in a carefree way. For others, bicycles rise to the racks atop their cars, now transportable to scenic roads away from the busy city. For a few, bicycles become symbols of something greater, of greener worlds and healthier humans.
As boys, the bicycle demonstrated the sort of men we might become. The steep hills were our crucible. At the base of the hill one had three choices: push the bike up while walking beside it; zig zag up to decrease the effective grade; or dig deep into oneself and learn to dominate the hill by going up it straight.
For the first boy, the ride down is but a lazier extension of the walk up. It is remarkable only in that it might not have been at all, close as the boy was to simply turning around at the bottom to look for an altogether easier route. For the second boy, the ride at the end is a reward for his labor. The gravity he once resisted now serves for his relaxation. But the rest is short-lived. Another hill will come, ever a burden.
For the last boy, the ride down on the wings of gravity is like a hero’s flight on the wings of victory. He has triumphed. He does not dread the next hill but seeks it out. “I defy you,” he thinks. “Indeed, though you may be even steeper and longer, I shall learn to ascend you faster.”
In a way, the three boys so described are three types of men. One cruises along in society, often at the expense of others. Another makes his way, but with only enough energy to provide for himself and the small world of his affections. The third is the sort who leads. Metaphorically, he has the power and strength to ride a tandem up a hill even doing the greater share of the peddling. Indeed, he can push himself to great heights because he knows that life is like the hills he conquered in his youth.
As a man, he must drive his car to his place of work, the place where he rides metaphorical mountains straight up. As a man, he sometimes rides his bicycle to work, a bit of a boy still in him. He enjoys the exercise which stills his busy mind, his mind which at his place of work he exerts for developing concepts or equations and for leading others to do embrace a vision. He enjoys the open road with nature to his side – at least as much as he can experience in the city. He feels the air on sides of his head, but not the top, for now he does wear a helmet.
He is free for one last time. Ironically, on this day he is riding up a slight hill without exertion. He has many mountains yet to climb, in tandem or as vanguard, showing others the way.
He is a man for one last time. And then a driver, proving only a simple law of basic physics – that energy times mass equals force – lays that man, my brother, to rest beside the road.
Like that. It ends. And we are left groping for answers.
Douglas Caldwell, a lifelong cyclist, was an eagle scout, a nature photographer, and a UCLA Ph.D. He had spent many years advancing space exploration, but in recent years had shifted his focus to alternate energy development. On August 20th, 2010 he was riding to his new job at JPL where he would have led a program to develop smart grid technologies for a greener planet earth. A driver straying into the bike lane struck him down. Douglas died the following day.