And here's my answer:
Biking for six, seven, even eight or nine hours a day—often on seldom-traveled roads in wide-open landscapes—I had to invent ways to keep myself entertained and distracted.
For instance, I’d make up little stories about the things I saw on the side of the road.
A water bottle filled with cloudy yellow liquid became a trucker’s emergency bathroom, filled while driving and then tossed out the window. He’d been breaking the speed limit all night long ever since he’d checked his phone in Phoenix, saw that his daughter had left a message, and heard only part of a garbled sentence—You’d better get back here fast—then nothing else.
A plastic triceratops was a teenage boy’s revenge on his younger brother, who was getting all the attention on the family vacation and generally making the car trip miserable. I could almost see the younger brother napping, the older brother snatching the dinosaur and then dropping it out the window of the moving car.
A broken syringe was cast off from a young couple—rail-thin and heroin-addicted—on their way south, following the road by day and wrapping themselves in an old blanket at night.
During a five-mile stretch near Jacumba, California, I spotted a red onion or two about every hundred feet. The reality was that they had probably squirted loose from some truck’s cargo, but reality can be boring. I preferred this: a husband and wife are on their way home from the market, where they’ve stocked up on red onions for pickling. The basket sits between them in the front seat. The wife looks out her window while her husband divides his attention between the road and the back of her head. He’s losing her, he knows. In fact, he’s pretty sure she’s already gone, thinking of someone else. He reaches a dirt-caked hand into the basket and pulls out an onion, feeling its heft. He squeezes it and asks a question. When she answers with what he suspects is a lie, he tosses the onion out of the window and grabs another. Onion after onion out the window. I was just getting to the part when that basket is empty, but then the road dipped precipitously and I suddenly had other things to worry about.
These were games, and I’ve always loved playing games—especially with my older brother, Vince. “Ker Plunk,” “Sure Shot Hockey," or "Life.” Home Run Derby with a wiffle ball and bat. Nerf football outside with some of the neighborhood kids. Vince, being several years older and wiser than the rest of us, was always head coach and quarterback. We’d invent games back then, too. Once we found an egg-shaped superball. It was as hard as a little rock and bounced in violent, unpredictable ways. So naturally, the game we came up with involved throwing it at each other. I stood at the top of the stairs, Vince stood at the bottom, and we whipped it back and forth for either a direct or ricocheted hit. We called the game “Acid Egg,” and if a guy got hit, he had to writhe around on the ground for a few seconds as if his flesh was burning.
There were no acid eggs on the trip, but there were awful winds, and during one brutal stretch in Kansas, I decided that the thing to do was sing every television theme song that I could remember as loudly as possible. The trick was not to swallow any bugs. I started in on the easy ones first, shows that Vince and I had spent hours watching together, sprawled across the gold shag carpeting of our living room. Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres. Next was a Norman Lear medley. All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times. After that, random songs that I knew most of the words to. WKRP in Cincinnati, Welcome Back Kotter, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat. When the words escaped me, I’d make something up. My brother has always had a gift for getting all the words to a song the first time he heard it. Naturally, he hated when I improvised. Pedaling into the wind, cornfields on both sides of me, trying to remember exactly why Chico shouldn’t be so discouraged by the Man, I could hear Vince’s voice cut through the whistling in my ears.
If you can’t sing it right, then don’t sing it.
But my favorite game, which I invented on my fourth day out while riding from Glamis to Blythe through southeastern California, was called “Godfather Time.”
About seven miles into the ride that morning, I was already tired, fighting the strongest headwinds that I’d ever experienced. I had a long way to go that day, and as I stopped to catch my breath, I took note of the time: 7:00 on the head. Later that morning and still far from my destination, I stopped again at the ominously-named Three Slashes Road. I checked my clock again: 9:55. I’d gone a little over twenty miles in two hours and fifty-five minutes.
The exact running time, coincidentally, of my favorite movie, The Godfather.
I could have watched the entire Godfather in the time it took me to bike those twenty miles in that desert wind tunnel.
From then on, when I needed to distract myself from some pretty miserable biking, I’d measure out the ride in Godfather units.
Less than a week later I was headed to Tuba City, Arizona, through desert terrain in high-90 degree temperatures, approaching the end of my first eighty-mile day. I saw a billboard for a Tuba City McDonald’s proclaiming that it was JUST 15 MINUTES AWAY.
In a car, schmuck!
I looked down at my speedometer. On an uphill grade, as loaded down as I was, as tired as I was, my top speed would barely reach above four miles per hour. Just fast enough so that I wouldn’t tip over into the ditch. I was looking at about another hour, assuming the grade didn’t get any steeper—an assumption, I’d learned, that it was neither safe nor smart to make.
In Godfather time, an hour would stretch from the film’s opening line—I believe in America, delivered in blackness—to roughly when the crooked cop McCluskey breaks Michael Corleone’s jaw.
In other words, a long god(father)damn time.
In the time it took to climb to Wolf Creek Pass and reach the Continental Divide in Colorado, I could have watched from the opening line to just past Sonny’s brutal death on the causeway. One hour, fifty-seven minutes.
In the time it took a biker I’d met to explain his philosophy of nutrition to me one endless evening in Missouri, I could have watched up to the scene where movie producer Jack Woltz finds his beloved horse’s head in his bed. After thirty minutes of this guy prattling on about sugars this and breads that, I was picturing his head—and not the horse’s—lying on top of Woltz’s bloodied silk sheets.
In the time it took me to bike on the I-40 in Arizona from Ash Fork to Williams, on a grade so steep that I passed two semi-trucks catching their breath on the shoulder, I could have watched up to the scene where Don Corleone calls in his favor with the undertaker, Bonasera, showing him Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse. Look at how they massacred my boy...
And in the time that I spent climbing on the Cherohala Skyway, a punishing ride through the Appalachian Mountains that twisted and turned through what seemed like eight hundred false peaks, I could have watched The Godfather twice. Twice. The whole time climbing.
Anything five minutes or so—pedaling from one end of Dodge, Kansas, to the other on a quiet Sunday morning; getting from the Longbranch Coffeehouse to the Bicycle Surgeon in Carbondale, Illinois; taking a bathroom and sunblock-reapplication break near White House, Tennessee—was a “Baptism of Fire.” To the uninitiated, that’s the five-minute bravura sequence near the end of the movie that crosscuts between Michael in church, standing as godfather to his sister’s newborn son, and a series of violent gangland executions that he has ordered.
I saw this scene for the first time at some point in the 70s, when The Godfather made its network television premiere. The piece that struck me the hardest was when Moe Green, naked on a massage table, gets shot in the eye. One lens of his glasses spiderwebs, blood flows from beneath it, and his head slumps forward. I’d never seen anything like it, and for a second I kind of believed that they’d actually murdered a guy on camera.
“What happened?” I asked Vince, who was watching with me.
“Easy,” he said, shrugging. “Blood pellets.”
It wasn’t much of an explanation, but I felt lucky to get a verbal response at all. Most of our conversations at the time went like this: I’d ask a question and he’d make a face. College was on the horizon for him, and I was still in grade school, so while I’d be looking up to him, he was looking somewhere else—probably at a future that didn’t include an annoying little brother.
Despite its impact on me, the “Baptism of Fire” sequence is not my favorite part of The Godfather. Neither are any of the film’s other famous scenes. No, my favorite part is one that most people don’t notice, and the scene itself doesn’t even last long enough to serve as any kind of useful measure in my little game. It doesn’t, in fact, really mean anything the first time you watch the movie; it’s only when you watch it a second time do you become aware of the loss that it registers.
About halfway through the film, Sonny and Michael are going over the final details of their plan to kill Sollozzo, the drug dealer who put out a hit on their father. In a few minutes, Michael will be picked up by Sollozzo and his bodyguard for a sit-down where the two of them are supposed to negotiate a truce. But a gun has been hidden for Michael at the restaurant where the meeting takes place, and he’s going to use it to kill the two men. Right after, Michael will be whisked off to Sicily to hide out until everything blows over. Before Michael leaves for the meeting, he says goodbye to everyone, saving Sonny—his older brother—for last. Sonny agrees to “smooth things over” with both their mother and Michael’s girlfriend. The two brothers look at each other and then embrace.
As they hug, Sonny and Michael think that they have all the time in the world, that somewhere down the line, they’ll get together again.
But they don’t; a few scenes later, while Michael is in Sicily, Sonny is gunned down, and that embrace of theirs turns out to be the last time that they see each other. Whenever I watch that scene, I tighten up.
For me, it’s not as much about death as it is about drifting. When we’re young, the world sometimes seems like an endless series of games. Everything makes sense and problems can be solved by checking the rules on the inside of the box top. That security is a sham, of course, but it’s easy to fool our younger selves with tidy explanations. Easy. Blood pellets.
But things change when we get older. We have to work harder to explain the things that confound us. We gather obligations. Our lives become messier. Through all of this, brothers can drift apart. I think about this with me and Vince. I think about this with my sons, Nick and Tony. Like me, like Vince, the two of them have only one brother.
So is there any other way I can watch that scene in The Godfather? Sonny and Michael hug all too quickly, and I want to say to them, to those two brothers, “Pay attention, guys. It might not ever be like this again.”
Sorry…what was the original question?