This story first was first published more than two years ago, but it is one of my very favorite for Independence Day. How better to celebrate the birth of our nation than with an inner tube race down a local creek. Enjoy!
I love Independence Day. Christmas is a fine holiday for sure, and Thanksgiving has its positive attributes, but from the time I was about eight years old, the Fourth of July has been my favorite.
Maybe it’s the idea that all Americans have the same stake in the celebration or the fact that each year, my parents granted me a little more personal independence, but make no mistake – parades, picnics and fireworks served up in the early July heat are my idea of a good time.
Over the years, the standard Penfield New York Independence day has been made up of some combination of the following:
- Early morning race of some kind
- Late morning or early afternoon parade
- Late afternoon into early evening picnic
- Evening activities at Harris Whalen Park
- 10:00pm Fireworks on the hill
For several years there was a four-mile running race called the “Four For Fun.” It never really caught on and eventually died off in the face of more popular races in neighboring towns.
When I was eight or nine, I was allowed to ride my bike with my friends to the parade, but we still met up with my parents and sat in the same place. However, there is something about controlling your own comings and goings, which makes you feel much more grown up.
When it was time to go to the park each year after dinner, my parents would establish a base camp up on the hill, and then we’d be released to frolic among the booths, food vendors and other entertainment in the lower part of the park. There are typically 20,000 people in the park, so to be allowed to roam around unaccompanied was a really big deal. We were expected back at the family blanket on the hill before they turned out the lights and then… fireworks!
When I got a little older, we used to get up before sunrise on the Fifth of July, and ride our bikes back to the park. When 20,000 people gather in one place in the dark they drop stuff; good stuff. Additionally, we would look for dud fireworks, or as they call them in the military, “unexploded ordinance.”
In 1979, the Penfield Recreation Department announced that there would be a race on the morning of the Fourth of July. It would not be a running race, oh no, they were planning a half mile inner-tube race on Irondequoit creek.
To say the least, I was excited. This struck me as something I might be really good at, and certainly an event for which I could properly prepare. Some of my friends from the neighborhood agreed to race with me, and we all began making a plan.
I decided that I needed to do more than just float down stream with a single tube, so I sat down with a pencil and got to work.
I took two inner tubes and lashed them onto the top and bottom of a piece of plywood. Once that was complete, I cut another piece of wood in the shape of a rudder and attached to the back of the plywood platform with a hinge from an old cupboard door.
When my friends and I gathered on July Third to make our final arrangements, it was clear that I done the most work. Tim Buzby, one of the friends prepping for the race said:
“Either Nazarian is going to crash and burn or whip us all, I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
The day of the race came, and we piled into our respective station wagons to drive down to the creek. The start line was back behind the Oldsmobile dealership, and before we got into the water, I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter.
The reporter asked all kinds of questions about my vessel and my plan, and as I descended the bank into the chilly water I was convinced that victory was soon to be mine.
Then, in a moment, everything changed.
We all stood, holding our tubes against the current when the starting pistol was fired. Before any of us could move two, tall, skinny high school kids shot down the side of the creek, with bicycle tubes slung over their shoulders. Within the first minute I tore off my rudder and the rest of the race was a combination of painfully slow floating, and even more painful carrying of the contraption I had so lovingly built.
Here’s the thing; since “local creek inner tube racing” doesn’t exactly have a national governing body, the rules are a bit loose. In fact, if memory serves, the rules of the race may have been as simple as “participants will race ½ mile down the creek using inner tubes.”
If that was the case, the two clever teenagers were certainly within the letter of the law. Whether they adhered to the spirit of the law was a subjective call nobody was willing to make, though you did have to admire their ingenuity. I don’t remember what place I came in, but I do remember going home feeling both disappointed and a little cheated.
That was the last time Penfield staged an
inner tube race on the creek.
The next day I awoke to the newspaper sitting on the kitchen table. In the wake of the disaster the race had become, I completely forgot about being interviewed.
While writing this story I visited the Rochester Public Library to sift through reels of microfilm looking for the article. When I walked into the “local history room” I didn’t remember what year all this had happened, but I did know that day I was looking for was July 5th, so it didn’t take too long.
The reporter did a fine job of balancing the efforts of the twenty-five legitimate tubers and the surprise arrival of the two teenage runners. My favorite part of the article was the place where the reporter described the scene as the gun went off:
“They bolted off, forcing everyone else to follow suit, including young Nazarian, whose craft was a sorry load to carry.”
I learned several things that day, but if I had to narrow it down to one, it would be this. In every situation in life, there are some things you can anticipate and some that you cannot. For the things you cannot, sometimes your circumstances allow you to adapt, and sometimes they do not.
There is a scene in the 1981 movie Body Heat, where a character played by Mickey Rourke is discussing arson with the character played by William Hurt. Rourke says to Hurt:
“Any time you try a decent crime you’ve got fifty ways you can mess it up. If you can think of twenty-five of them then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.”
I don’t know if I was a ten-year-old genius or not, but that day was my first lesson in realizing that you can never be prepared for more than half of the variables in any situation. The best you can hope for sometimes is the knowledge that surprises are always just up the creek.
As you return to your routine this week, don’t limit your attention to only the things you know. As you sit in a meeting or have a conversation, pay close attention to both what is being said, but also what is not being said. Set aside time and resources for the unexpected. Think of it like the shoulder on a road. Most of the time you don’t need it, but when you need it you really need it.
If you plan your day expecting some things to go wrong, you’ll have that extra margin should it be necessary. Even better, on those days when everything goes according to plan, all the extra time you’ll have will make it feel like your birthday. And who doesn’t want that?
Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved