John Buultjens: Life turned on a twist of faith

The life story of John Buultjens is an improbable story full of triumph over adversity, buckets of grit and hard work, and thankfully a good ending, writes Suzanne Harrington.

John Buultjens: Life turned on a twist of faith

The life story of John Buultjens is an improbable story full of triumph over adversity, buckets of grit and hard work, and thankfully a good ending, writes Suzanne Harrington.

We all love an improbable story full of triumph over adversity, incredible luck, buckets of grit and hard work, and a good ending. Meet John Buultjens — formerly John Craig, aka Scottish John, a wee boy from the harshest of places — whose life has been extraordinary enough to warrant a film and book, Ride: BMX Glory – Against All The Odds.

Buultjens is a former BMX star who is now global brand manager at Haro, the most famous BMX company of all. That in itself is interesting enough — like skateboarders and surfers, the skills of BMX riders are mesmerising — but what makes his story remarkable is the fantastically unlikely trajectory of his life.

How he survived his first decade, was rescued by an amazing couple, and given the opportunity to take a different direction.

John Craig was told by a social worker that he would be dead by the time he was 16 if he made the wrong choice. That choice involved returning to a children’s home in Glasgow, or staying with the couple who wished to adopt him and his younger sister.

Demanding to be taken back to the home for the toughest, most violently messed up kids in the city, the social worker told the 10-year-old boy that his adoptive parents were his only chance of survival.

Something right there and then clicked and I realised it was this, death or prison.

He chose to stay with his adoptive parents, recreating himself as a new person and changing his surname, so that he could leave his horrendous past behind and begin a new life.

John Craig was born in 1972 in a poor part of Glasgow to an abused woman and a violent alcoholic. His earliest memory is as a toddler rushing to greet his father on his return from work, and being picked up and hurled against an electric fire, melting his foot.

Such was his father’s violence that the children — he had three siblings — spent much time away from the flat, eating out of bins.

Before he was seven, he was bunking the train into Glasgow and begging on the streets. He was sexually abused by an older girl whose name he burned onto his arm with a match, spelling Yvonne ‘Evon’, because she was “the only female I was able to relax around.”

On Christmas Eve, 1979, when John was seven, he attempted to stab his father, who was violently assaulting his mother to the point that John thought he might kill her. His father knocked him unconscious.

This incident prompted his mother to put him and his two-year-old sister into care the very next day — Christmas — when they were taken by the police and social workers to a children’s home. They never lived with their birth parents again.

He recognises now that his mother probably saved his life by having him removed from the family home; that his father would have ended up murdering him.

John loved the children’s home. Traumatised, violent, and illiterate, he was with other kids who were the same. It was “a jungle, dog eat dog.” He had found his tribe.

A female night nurse sexually abused him and the other boys, yet he didn’t regard it as abuse. His older siblings were already in detention. It looked like he was on the same path.

And then came a pivotal moment that redirected his life on an entirely different route.

After three years at the home, an academic couple, Eldridge and Marianna Buultjens, fostered John and his younger sister.

Initially, it did not go well — Eldridge was a scientist from Sri Lanka, John a small racist thug from hell who refused to be seen in public with Eldridge, because of Eldridge’s skin colour.

Yet when he stole money from his new parents, they responded with unconditional love, tolerance and acceptance.

John chose to stay with the Buultjens permanently. He began to experience normal family life, so that his violence and racism abated. And then in 1982, there was another pivotal moment — his adoptive parents took him to see ET.

“I was transfixed,” he writes. “I came out of the cinema with BMX burned into my brain.”

Little did he know that the main stunt rider in the film, Bob Haro, who would go on to found the global BMX freestyle brand, would one day become Buultjens’ boss.

Or that the director of the film, Steven Spielberg, would hear of Buultjens’ story and allow clips of ET to be used in the upcoming film Ride. Back then, John was still a 10-year-old kid in Scotland.

He was now, however, a kid with an obsession, and a kid on a mission. His adoptive parents got him his own BMX for his 11th birthday; it was the first thing he had ever owned.

“I was hooked,” he says. "It was freedom. It was enjoyment. It was about me expressing myself. All the things my life had lacked in my earlier years, I was experiencing right there on the saddle of my Piranha."

From stealing wood to make his own BMX ramp in Dundee, to being the boss of the best riders in the world at Haro in San Diego, Buultjens travelled from Scotland to California via Australia.

Leaving Scotland in 1995 as a qualified chef, he arrived in Sydney and ended up working as an extra on the soap opera Neighbours.

He continued his BMX riding, building, buying and selling, his obsession having turned him into a massive bike nerd; his BMX connections led him to a surreal encounter with porn actor Ron Jeremy, and travels in New Zealand.

In 2005, he got married, and two years later became a father. (It didn’t last — his wife divorced him and he hasn’t seen his daughter since she was four. “I chose BMX over my marriage,” he writes, adding how his book was written in part to communicate with his child, so that in the future she may want to know him.)

After 18 years, he left Australia.

In 2012, Buultjens moved to southern California to work for Bob Haro. This job led to celebrity connections — and the movie, Ride, which comes out this year.

The rapper and actor Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges plays his adoptive father, with Buultjens himself playing his abusive biological father, who died in 1997, and with whom he never reconciled.

The film is not set in Scotland, but has been relocated to California, and by Buultjens’ own admission, his BMX skills have been somewhat exaggerated. Although not his incredible journey.

A letter at the end of the book written to his five-year-old self, while still John Craig, says “You have to keep believing. Things can change in the blink of an eye.”

Ride: BMX Glory – Against All The Odds, by John Buultjens with Chris Sweeney, £16.99 Pitch Publishing

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