When I was nine years old, I won a bicycle at our church bazaar. I say I won it, but all I had done was place a coin on a number, and when the big wheel stopped on that very number, I had a brand new bike. It was blue, with 20-inch tires, a light in front, and a push-button horn built into the chassis between the seat and handlebars. I remember the details clearly because that bike was the last thing I ever won. And because I almost got killed on it.
The streets in our neighborhood ran slightly downhill. It would be barely noticeable now, but to a little boy on a big bike with pedal brakes, it seemed steep. I was going too fast and no matter how hard I tried to press on the pedals I continued to race downhill toward the cross street. At some point I knew I wasn’t going to stop. High hedges on both corners blocked my view, and if a car were going by in either direction I would get hit. We didn’t wear helmets back then; I don’t know if they even existed. I remember imagining myself being struck from the right side, flying through the air, and cracking my head open on the sidewalk. The last thing I saw was a big red stop sign as I hurtled past it.
As you may have guessed, I wasn’t killed that day. The bike went over the curb, into the intersection, across the street, and up the other curb. There had been an unusual break in the traffic, caused no doubt by God’s infinite love for new bicycles. I also believed He was sending me a message, but what could it be? I hadn’t gone to Confession the previous week. I had told my little sister to shut up, and had several bad thoughts about one of our neighbors. What if I had been hit by a car and killed? Would I have gone straight to Hell? Now it was my mind that was racing like never before. Something significant had just happened, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I got off the bike and walked it home, and never told anyone about the incident.
Maybe God was trying to tell me that sometimes it was safe to take a risk, that possible danger doesn’t mean assured injury or death, and that unlikely victory doesn’t necessarily mean defeat. Maybe he wanted me to be brave.
TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER. I was driving alone to Cape May, New Jersey, to spend a couple of nights at a bed & breakfast. As I neared the exit for Atlantic City, it occurred to me that I’d never even been inside a casino. My gambling career had waned since the church bazaar, the hot streak beginning and ending with the new bike. I had entered the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, probably a dozen times, carefully affixing the proper stickers and inserting my entry into the Yes envelope; I even mailed it by the Early Bird deadline, which guaranteed me a chance to win an extra hundred thousand dollars. I bought raffle tickets from anyone who asked, lured by the possibility of a dream vacation or hundreds of other great prizes. I entered contests that required me to roll something up or scratch something off or peel something away. Always the message was the same: Sorry. Try again.
I did try again. Over and over. If the result varied, it was in the wording. Sometimes it said, Not a winner.
So it was with resigned pessimism that I turned off the exit that day and headed for the casinos in Atlantic City. I parked the car at Harrah’s, pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet, said my final goodbyes to the money, and went inside. I thought it was somehow worth twenty dollars for the experience.
The slot machines called to me, maybe because they seemed private. I could lose my money and no one would have to know. After exchanging the bill for a handful of silver dollars, I watched a few other gamblers for a while. One lady had her leg up on a stool and was playing two machines at once. Then I chose my machine, inserted a dollar, and pulled the handle. I’d noticed the lady had been putting in more than one coin at a time. I tried that, and was rewarded; the machine kicked out a bunch of silver dollars. Then I saw that you could put in up to three coins. It seemed crazy, but again, the machine paid out. It was rewarding my courage, telling me that it was safe to take a risk. Soon I was playing three dollars on every pull. And I was winning more than I was losing. I had figured out the system. You had to take a chance. I did just that, and the new message was clear: Congratulations! Try again!
But I knew that if I continued to try again, sooner or later I’d lose. I cashed in the mound of coins and walked back to my car with forty-six dollars.
The following year, I got married. That summer my wife and I were driving through New Jersey on our way to Georgia. As we neared Atlantic City, I asked Maria if she’d ever been to a casino. She said she had, and that she liked the slot machines. I told her the story about my big win and how I’d discovered the secret.
“You played the dollar machines?” she asked.
“Yes. Why? What about you?”
“I always play the nickel machines.”
“Nickel?” I was incredulous. “Nickel? Does the government even produce nickels anymore? I thought they melted them all down to make bicycle helmets.”
I told Maria that I could win enough money to pay for our next motel room. She seemed hesitant, but I remained confident.
“Trust me,” I said. “I know what to do. The machine rewards courage. The more you put in, the more you win.” A billboard for Harrah’s advertised the hundreds of millions of dollars the casino had paid out in winnings. Included in that sum, I told her, was forty-six big ones that I’d walked away with. “Believe me, this will not take long.”
And I was right. After taking two fifties from my wallet and exchanging them for a hundred silver dollars, I picked out a machine and began to insert the coins, three at a time. Maria tried to discourage me, sputtering something about nickels again. I shushed her with a manly assurance.
“Just watch,” I said.
Five minutes later, the hundred silver dollars were gone. Well, not gone, exactly. I knew where they were. The slot machine had devoured them, not even bothering to keep me interested with an occasional winner. It was as though a vacuum cleaner hose had emerged from the machine and sucked the coins right out of my hand. Five minutes. A hundred dollars. Gone.
“That’s twenty dollars a minute,” I said, thinking that maybe I could impress her with my math skills. “A dollar every three seconds.” Maria wasn’t listening. She had already headed for the door. On the way out, we passed the nickel slot machines, which she gestured toward with her thumb as she walked. But I had lost interest. My gambling career, short-lived as it was, ended right where it had begun.
SEVENTEEN YEARS LATER. I’m driving our son, Shaun, to high school. On the way, there’s a road that crosses the one we’re on. It’s a long road, this other one, with stop signs. We have the right of way. As we approach the place where the roads cross, we head down a steep hill. There have been many accidents at this intersection, because drivers unfamiliar with the other road sometimes don’t notice the stop signs. High hedges on both corners block my vision, so I can’t tell if an inattentive driver may be crossing my path just ahead. I press hard on the brakes, slowing to a crawl.
As we pass through the intersection, I glance right and left one more time. I’ve explained to Shaun why I do this, how you never know. “It’s like gambling, I say. Every time you get behind the wheel, it’s like you’re pulling the handle on a slot machine.” A hundred dollars in five minutes, that’s one thing. Throwing away some money on raffle tickets, not something to dwell on… I’m not saying this last part out loud, but thinking it, because he isn’t listening anyway. What I’m thinking is that even though the bike at the church bazaar was a big win for a little boy, I’ve had much bigger ones since then. No, not the car. True, it has sixteen-inch wheels, lights in front and back, and a horn right there on the steering wheel, as well as a CD player and fold-down rear seats. But I’m talking about the people who ride with me in that car. My wife, our kids, our grandson. There are things I’m just not willing to gamble with, and life doesn’t always give us a chance to try again.
I’ve won all the prizes I’ll ever need. I hope you have, too.