“I study war so that my children may study peace and my grandchildren may study poetry.” —John Adams
It was on a cool March morning nearly 20 years ago that I rolled into the visitors’ center of the United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. I was there to meet up with my UMASS teammates for the first race of that year’s collegiate racing season. After collecting everyone, we would drive onto the campus and begin warming up for the day’s opening event, an uphill time trial through the campus of West Point.
With nothing else to do until my somewhat disorganized band of teammates arrived, I decided to tour the visitors’ center. As any visitors’ center should, it filled me with a sense of grandeur for the place I would soon witness.
During my visit I ran across a quote—the epigraph above—by John Adams. It stopped me in my tracks. I would revisit the display featuring the quote three more times and ultimately, I would commit it to memory.
You see, at the time, I was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Massachusetts. My father had served in the Marine Corps in peace and later went to college on the G.I. Bill. My grandfather did not serve in World War II, but one of my great uncles did. That quote spelled out the privilege of my life and filled me with a sense of obligation. If I was to pursue the arts, I should recognize the fortune of my circumstance; I should apply the whole of my self to the endeavor.
Later, when I entered the campus and the imposing granite structures shaded my path, I commented to a friend that West Point was a place of such precise majesty that I would easily have defended it to my last heartbeat. It occurred to me that for the students there, West Point was one place you just didn’t screw up.
Back then, my fitness was unimpressive but Adams’ quote instilled in me fresh purpose, that whatever I did, I would do with the whole of my will. I can recall few races in my life where I dug as deep as I did during the uphill time trial that morning (an ascent of 750 feet in only 1.75 miles) or the crit that afternoon. I remember getting tunnel vision at the top of the wall in the crit and sprinting through the start/finish with everything I had just not to get dropped.
At the end of that day, I had an entirely new sense of what bike racing really is.
That Red Kite Prayer exists, that I’ve been able to choose to write about cycling for nearly 20 years, that I was able to choose to study poetry, that my father believed in me and my abilities enough to suggest I go to graduate school and that he served his country in a time of peace, I owe, we owe, to those who served our country when times were most dire, when the price of freedom was often mortal.
Originally published November 11, 2009.