Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Tuesday, April 23, 1996

The Wheel of Fortune Doesn't Bother to Count

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
Paris -- My midlife wheel crisis began a little more than a year ago.

When my 3-year-old son and I went to Paris's annual competition car show in February 1995, he discovered the first go-kart in which his feet could reach the gas and brake pedals.

I had been driving the boy around on my knees on karting tracks since he was 2, with him steering. He kept asking me at what age he would be able to reach the pedals. The kart at the fair answered this, and also showed us its hefty price tag.

I am a Formula One fanatic, and this may explain in part my son's interest. His first day home as a swaddling babe was the Sunday of the 1991 Grand Prix of Monaco, and he must have heard the sound of Ayrton Senna's engine as the Brazilian swept to victory.

So when he sat in that kart and reached the pedals, I vowed to save up my money and buy the kart at the next fair, February '96. I knew that both Senna and the current world champion, Michael Schumacher, had started karting at age 4.

In the meantime, my son had to content himself with learning to ride a bike. And something was eating me. Senna died on May 1, 1994, a few days before my son's third birthday. Even before little Jessica Dubroff died in the cockpit of the plane she was supposed to be flying, I worried about the wisdom of encouraging him in such a dangerous sport.

At the next year's car fair, the sport had grown so much that there were now three brands of baby karts to choose from. My son begged me to buy him one. A little voice came to me. I said to my son, ''Paul, I want you to make the decision.

''We buy the kart for you now. Or, we go to a bicycle shop and buy you a new bicycle. You get one or the other, but not both. Which do you want?''

The answer came out in a flash: ''A new bicycle.''

I felt enormous relief. My boy's life would not be eaten by the passion of car racing, and I would never have to worry about his dying on a race track.

We went to the bike shop where he chose a red bicycle with bigger wheels than his old one. And I saw something else there. Something from my past. A unicycle. I used to ride one as a teenager when I worked in a circus. I bought it.

Thus began several weekends where my son, my daughter and I would go wheeling around the parks of Paris, my daughter on three wheels, my son on two and myself on one. The danger of karting and car racing seemed very far away.

Wrong. On a recent weekend, I was riding through a park on my wheel, my son on his bike, when a very nasty-looking Rottweiler caught sight of me. He'd obviously never seen a 40-year-old man on a unicycle. He perked up his head and then bounded straight at me, going for my throat.

Fortunately, his master had some power. He cried: ''Jaws! Jaws! Down!'' The dog obeyed.

My son did not see the attack and continued riding straight ahead. He has not mastered the art of stopping the bicycle, and does not yet use his brakes. He was heading for a parking lot, and beyond that, a highway.

I had to calmly walk away from the dog, then leap on my seat and ride the wheel as fast as I could, all the while yelling at my son to brake. He got through the parking lot without encountering a car, and I managed to get level with him and stop him just before he reached the highway.

I thought about how close both of us had come to mortal accidents on wheels.

The risk is everywhere, the risk is anywhere, and it is unpredictable, as Jessica Dubroff could testify. One wheel is no safer than two and two wheels are no safer than four.

The other day, my son asked me again to buy him a kart. And I thought to myself, I just may do so. The second anniversary of Senna's death is coming up on May 1, and that might be a good day for a kid who is almost 5 to have his own baby kart.

Then again, it might not.

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