Tuesday, May 26, 2015

In Harm's Way

He's a good kid. I've known him his whole life. And I trust him.

But when he asked my youngest daughter if she could lie in the middle of our quiet street, if she could stay perfectly still on that asphalt, while he rode his BMX bike toward her and jumped over her, without a ramp, to fly over her small, frail body, at a speed that was as fast as his peddling legs could propel him, I had to speak up.

I trust him, but only so far. And even less so when my child's safety is at risk.

I've seen him cycle up and down our streets countless times, over the years. Watched him handle jumps with coordination and skill, almost with a certain amount of grace. I knew that he would often go to the BMX park, where other enthusiasts like him tore up the dirt and flew over obstacles. Last year, I had asked him if I could accompany him to the park, so that I could capture him in various acrobatic and aerial stances, with my camera.

An opportunity never arose, though I'd still like to photograph him at the park, some day.

No, he's a good kid, and he's skilled with his bike, but when he wanted to jump over my daughter, I had to say no.

"No," I said, "but if you want to jump over someone, you can jump over me. And I get to photograph you as you do it."

I thought he'd decline the offer. Dad's aren't cool. I was much bigger than my daughter, and he might not want that large an obstacle.

"Sure," he said, with enthusiasm.

By the time I came outside with my camera bag, several kids were out on the street to watch the show. One of the parents in our circle was out and had heard the news, had her smartphone at the ready.

Our cycling daredevil—I'll call him M—was already streaking up and down our street, launching himself and his bike from the pavement, jumping imaginary people.

I took a deep breath. It wasn't just myself that I was putting in harm's way, though I was considering the size of M, the size of his bike, how much they weighed together, what sort of compression my body could withstand, should M misjudge and come down on me with full force.

Where would he land? Would he hit me in the chest? In the head? Would he come down on my throat? Did I want to put that kind of burden on him, should he maim me, or kill me? It would be my own fault, of course, for laying myself on the road for him. But how would such a catastrophe affect this young teen?

There was also my equipment that was put at risk. My new camera body, now broken in, with a super-wide lens. Some $2000 worth of equipment could be smashed, should his rear tire come down a few inches too early, clearing me but knocking my Nikon from my grasp.

I went to my garage, fetched a partially filled yard clippings bag. I lay it length-wise along the road, mimicking how I would stretch out on the pavement.

"If you can clear this bag five times," I told M, "I'll lie down."

He cleared it on the first attempt with little effort. On the second pass, he also made the jump look easy. On his third try, the rear tire clipped the bag, ever so slightly, but the stiff paper echoed like it was protesting the collision.

"Five more," I said. "You have to clear the bag five times in a row, without touching it."

Five more times, M jumped that bag. On the fifth attempt, the wheel gently came into contact with the bag, but the bag didn't move, had barely made a sound.

"Close enough," I told M. "Let's do this before you run out of steam, and can't jump high enough, and before I change my mind." I moved the paper bag to the curb and took my place in its stead.

I lay perfectly still. My camera was set for high-continuous shooting, meaning that I would snap five or six frames each second. Because I didn't want to move, I kept my head faced skyward, listened for the sound of approaching tires on pavement. When the sound was very close, I started shooting.

With a sudden shadow appearing in my peripheral, I instinctively closed my eyes.

I felt a push of air as the sound of tires disappeared, and heard the solid connection of bicycle meeting ground on the other side of my head.

M had cleared me, easily.

I looked at the photos I shot: lots of sky, with the top of the tree in front of my house. And then, a front tire, followed by a perfectly squared bike, and then a rear tire, and finally, more sky. The third shot, while perfectly framed, was somewhat blurred by the sheer speed of M in flight.

"I want to do it again," I told M. "If you're up to it. This time, I'm going to face you, so I can get the road and a better angle."

We set up for the shot again, and this time I was able to start shooting when the time was right. There would be no wasted shots.

Watching M racing towards me, the adrenaline was flooding my heart. The temptation to move, to try to protect myself, was overwhelming. I desperately wanted to get out of the way. M was coming way too close to me.

My wife captured the moment that M started lifting himself off the ground. This time, his rear wheel seemed more delayed at rising up.

I've known M his whole life. He's a good kid and I trust him.

I will do a lot to get the shot that I want. I have stood at the edge of a tower, with gale-force winds, my wife holding tightly onto my belt, herself hugging a solid object, to prevent me from being blown into oblivion. I have stood out in torrential thunder storms. But I have never lain on a roadway while a vehicle has attempted to jump over me. I have never before put myself in harm's way like that.

Do you know what?

It was worth it.

I see that I need to adjust my shutter to a faster speed. I need to trust the auto-focus settings, to try to get a sharper image.

I'm going to follow M to the BMX park sometime this summer. I'm going to get closer, get better pictures.

Because I trust him.

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