Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Fastest Human in History

A small voice said, “Don’t let me fall, daddy.”

She was on the bike, wobbly, her confidence gone with the training wheels. I was holding her, gently pushing her forward.

“I’m falling!”

“I’m still holding you.”

“Hold me tighter or I’ll fall!”

I don’t remember learning to ride a bike. I only remember the moment of transition, when I realized I was doing it. The memory has no visual component, but I imagine my father trailing off behind as I self-propelled forward.

On October 14, 1947, a B-29 bomber dropped test pilot Chuck Yeager from 20,000 feet. Yeager was in the Bell X-1, a rocket with wings. Clear of the B-29, Yeager lit the engines.

The X-1 shot upward an additional 20,000 feet, accelerating to 0.92 Mach, 92% of the speed of sound. Then the shaking started.

Other pilots had hit this resistance, which they called the sound barrier. It got worse as you got closer to the speed of sound—how much worse at the extreme, no one knew.

The shaking intensified as the Machmeter read 0.93, 0.94, 0.95, 0.96. The X-1 engineers built the plane for this, but even they didn’t know exactly what this would be. The only way to find out was to go there.

Yeager did, as the X-1 blew through its own shock waves, past the speed of sound. A sonic boom echoed across the desert. Inside, Yeager recalled, it became so smooth that “Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade.” At that moment, he was the fastest human in history.

The B-29 that launched the X-1 trailed off, mission accomplished.

We had already done the preliminaries: scooting the bike with her feet, coasting a bit from a small push, and pedaling as I jogged along holding her. All fine. But we were stuck at my letting go while she kept pedaling.

“I don’t want to fall!”

I convinced her it was okay for me to let go a few seconds at a time as she pedaled. Yet when I tried to stretch the counts, she would put her feet down, her shoes skidding the bike to a stop.

She knew she needed to keep pedaling, that more speed meant more balance. But knowing and doing were different things.

Amid growing frustration, a friend of hers happened by. A recent success story on two wheels, the friend had a simple statement: If you want to do it, you can. With that, the friend rode off matter-of-factly.

It was the right message, from the right messenger, at the right time. As she watched the friend ride away, I could see my daughter reframing the problem in her mind. It was no longer about wanting to learn, like at school; it was about wanting to graduate.

In our next pass down the street, she pedaled faster. She trusted me to let go as long she was staying up, allowing my catches to steady her as she continued pedaling. She was beginning to instinctively adjust the front wheel for balance.

Then I was hands-off for five, ten, fifteen strides. “You’re doing it! Keep going!

She did, accelerating.

I kept running with her, a few steps back. In the retelling, I imagine myself trailing off as she self-propels. At that moment, in our little world, she is the fastest human in history.

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