The right to assembly


September 20, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT WAS LATE on a school night. I was down in the basement, screwdriver in hand, trying to remember a vestige of the French I had studied in college.

I was attempting to put a rear rack on a kid's bicycle. The bicycle needed the rack so it could carry the camping equipment that one of our sons was going to lug on a four-day bike trip he was taking with his class.

The instructions on how to attach the rack to the bicycle were written in English and French. The English -- "screw up stay ends to bicycle" -- had me baffled. I was working on understanding the French: "Fixer les extremites des tringles sur le velo."

The sheet of instructions had an illustration showing me how to "fixer les extremites." This illustration made perfect sense if I was working on another bicycle. The bicycle I was trying to "fixer" the rack to didn't look like the one in the illustration. Its parts were in different places.

The situation felt both frustrating and familiar. I had been in this predicament before, the clock ticking, the instructions baffling, the mind failing. When the kids were younger, I had spent virtually every Christmas Eve struggling as I pieced together toys. I had thought the frantic assembly stage of my life had passed. Obviously I was wrong.

I did take some comfort in the thought that others were in a similar predicament. I smiled at the notion that in basements all over the state, parents were "gearing up," preparing the piles of equipment that their kids need to make forays into the great outdoors. This is happening because in Maryland, fall weekends are prime time for outdoor excursions. The woods are lovely, dark and knee-deep in youth groups.

Like most parents who share their home with pre-teens and teen-agers, I am strongly in favor of sending youth into the wild. I am willing to make the trade-off that these expeditions require. In return for a few days of relative peace and quiet on the home front, I am willing to spend several weeknights assembling the gear needed so the kid can commune with nature.

And so it is that on these crisp fall school nights, parents of hikers search for authentic backpacks, the kind with metal TC frames. Parents of canoeists seek big, tight-fitting, waterproof bags. Parents of cyclists search for rear racks and "panniers." Everybody tries to find a tent.

As a first-time parent of a cyclist, I didn't know what "panniers" were. I looked it up in the dictionary, which informed me that panniers were baskets. I surmised that the modern-day bicycle version of panniers were saddle bags attached to a rack over the bike's rear wheel. Looking this stuff up was an educational experience, I told myself. Too bad my teen-age bike rider couldn't be in on it. He was in another part of the house doing his homework.

News that the bike needed panniers and a rear rack reached me when the list of suggested equipment surfaced on our kitchen table. The list, issued by the school authorities organizing the trip, had probably been around for at least a week. It appeared at our house about 72 hours before the cyclists were scheduled to depart. I have a theory that kids keep these lists, and other important papers, from their parents to exact revenge. We parents regularly tell our kids to get moving. But the minute that a kid presents us with one of these equipment lists, parents are the ones who have to get cracking.

I immediately dispatched our would-be cyclist to a bike shop. I gave him the list and orders to come back with a rear rack and some panniers. This was the very same bike shop that I had visited the day before, when I did not know the list existed.

In an ideal world, the bike shop would have assembled and installed the rear rack. This bike shop was willing to do the work; the trouble was that their mechanic couldn't get to the job until next week, when the bike trip would be over. This bike shop, and I assume other shops as well, were brimming with business because in the fall virtually every school-age kid in the state wants his bike worked on before his class goes on a bike trip.

And so, late on a school night, I found myself facing the many pieces of black metal that, when assembled, would form a new rear bike rack. I puzzled, tugged and fumed. My oldest son, the bike rider, offered to help me. But he could make even less sense of the instructions than I. Moreover, his homework beckoned, so I dismissed him. My younger son dropped by. He was lending this bike to his older brother for the trip and was pleased that I had decided to buy, rather than rent, the equipment. This meant that after his big brother returned, he would inherit the rear rack and panniers. But as the kid watched me struggle, he seemed doubtful that the new equipment would ever end up attached to his bike. From time to time my wife would come by and ask if we still had time to find someone to work on the bike who really knew what he was doing.

Thanks to perseverance, a powerful electric drill, and a willingness to bend parts until they fit, I got the rack on the bike. Once the rack was on, the panniers were soon in place.

I do not have total confidence in my work. Everything is in place, but I am not sure how stable the parts are. But if luck is with him and if a couple of 16 mm screws don't come loose, the kid will have a good ride in the woods. And if anything goes wrong, he won't be able to call me.

Pub Date: 9/20/97

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