The Safety Dance

May Men's Room

When I was thirteen, my parents levied a draconian order: As I rode my bike on the busy roads between our house and the pool (where I spent most of my summer days), I would be required to wear a helmet.

I could imagine no worse humiliation.

To appreciate my distress, remember that things were different in the ’80s. People rarely wore seat belts in the back seats of cars, children played unsupervised with fireworks, and you could still smoke on airplanes. No one wore bike helmets except men in spandex shorts and faux Tour de France jerseys. And I sure didn’t want to be lumped in with that bunch.

Helmets were lame.

But my parents would not be deterred, so I resolved to stash the helmet in my backpack once I rounded the corner at the end of our block. Unfortunately, my parents were one step ahead of me.

“We’ve spoken to the neighbors,” they warned. “If you’re spotted without a helmet, you’ll lose bike privileges.”

The trip to the pool was an easy ride, but it would have been a long, boring walk, and I didn’t even want to contemplate how early I’d have to wake up to make 8 a.m. swim practice.

Trying to ease the sting, my father bought me what he considered a “cool” helmet. But there weren’t many to choose from in those days, and I was a self-conscious adolescent. I hated that kids from school might spot me wearing something resembling the institutional head gear worn by epileptic toddlers with unnaturally soft craniums.

To be seen in such an apparatus would surely mean social death.

My parents said I was being ridiculous, but during an early trip with the helmet, a Jeep-load of popular upperclassmen pulled up next to me at a stoplight. Eva, a gorgeous cheerleader, recognized me, waved, and laughed. As the Jeep whizzed off toward (in my mind) an epic party straight out of a John Hughes flick, I cursed my parents. Did they even care that their helmet rule had destined me to play the Anthony Michael Hall nerd role in the movie that was my adolescence?

Decades later, I still struggle with helmet compliance, just not my own. I wear mine religiously. These days, it’s my father who won’t wear a helmet during his rides to his neighborhood pool for early morning laps.

My dad’s in great shape, but he’s no spring chicken, and I worry about the consequences of even a moment’s inattention. After reading a book on brain health, I shared with my father how even minor head injuries can cause significant brain damage. He was unfazed. Then I bought him a fancy new helmet for Christmas, but since that day, it’s hung from a hook in the garage gathering dust.

“I don’t need it,” he argues. “The speed limit’s only twenty-five. Plus, it’s early. No one’s on the roads.”

But I think I know the real reason my father refuses to wear a helmet. He was raised on James Dean and Brando movies. Cool guys like them didn’t wear helmets.

Helmets were lame.


Dylan Patterson is a writer and filmmaker who teaches English at Cape Fear Community College.


To view more of illustrator Mark Weber's work, go to