Saturday, May 27, 2017
The first bicycle I had wasn’t the one I wanted. By American standards, I wasn’t a spoiled child and tended to be openly grateful for everything I received—especially because I heard a lot from Whitie, my father, about how lucky I was not to have grown up in the Depression, the way he did, and about how “kids nowadays didn’t know how good they had it,” and how everything he was doing for us (my sister, my brother and me) was a major sacrifice so we needed to be more appreciative—but the bike wasn’t the one I’d had in mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t throw a tantrum or anything. I smiled and hugged my dad and thanked him and yelled, “Oh, a bike!” when he brought it home. But there was a nasty little lump in my throat and a sinking feeling of certain disappointment in my gut when he raised the trunk lid on his ’52 Chevy and I could see more of it than just the two wheels that had been sticking out when he pulled into our driveway and drove up to the back steps, where I was standing.
The bike was meant to be a surprise. My mother, Reba Mae, must have talked Whitie into it. His theory had been that since I was big for my age, there wouldn’t be any need to transition from a “training bike” to a bigger one if he waited long enough. Up until then, while we still lived on South Pine Street, before we moved to the big house on West Auglaize where we lived now, he’d had my older sister, Darla, share her bicycle with me. While we were on Pine Street, our little brother Jim was still too small to be concerned with grown-up stuff like bikes, so at least Whitie didn’t have to worry about his wanting one yet. Darla had gotten a full-sized bike right away. No training bike for her either. She’d gone from the oversized tricycle she and I shared to a twenty-six-inch bicycle. By now she could, stretching a bit, reach the pedals from the seat without having to ride standing up all the time. But in my case, the twenty-six-inch two-wheeler was still too tall to sit comfortably and pedal. Learning to ride involved learning to do so in a standing position, only sitting on the seat to coast. But that was okay, Whitie reasoned, because it was a girl’s bike, so no crosspiece to worry about. Practical.
It wasn’t the first time Darla’d had to share with me. It seemed that “since she was older” it was important for her to “learn to share,” and since I was younger, my lesson appeared to be that I should be content to borrow certain things (expensive things) from her. It had begun with her allowance. My parents had instated a sort of “seniority” system by which Darla’s “being older” entitled her to a bigger allowance than mine, but that right also burdened her with an obligation to “share with her brother,” precisely because her allowance was bigger than mine. So if we went to the grocery store to buy penny candy or a popsicle, it was understood that my sister would have to buy something for me too because, on my allowance, I couldn’t afford the same stuff she could.
Darla was an incredibly good sport about all of this—even if it often seemed quite apparent to me that I needed to be prudent in my attitude toward her whenever we were doing something in which she was obliged to share with me, because there were times, I felt sure, when she would gladly have shoved me under the wheels of a passing delivery truck as I tagged along to the corner store. There were a number of lessons encompassed in this binary process. I was learning to be patient and my sister was learning to be generous, or so we were told. Whether those lessons were accepted or not without a constant state of mental rebellion was an altogether different affair.
Along with Darla’s two-wheeler also came the responsibility of passing on what she knew. I remember Whitie impatiently teaching her to ride her bike. When she first got it, it was way too big for her, but Whitie subscribed to the One Bike per Life Theory. Eighteen or twenty-inch bikes with training wheels were for sissies, and, more importantly, were a waste of money, since kids quickly outgrew them. I recall our father holding onto the tall seat of my sister’s bicycle and impelling her forward, steadying her to keep her up, while she stood on the pedals, pumping away with strength and courage until Whitie let go, stopped trotting beside her, and watched her ride shakily off on her own. Darla was a good student and fiercely independent. Once she had it, she had no further need or want for parental help. She was free-wheeling.
But I was a different story and when it came time for me to learn, parental authority was delegated to my older sister, who was eight at the time. It was important, she was told, for her to “take some responsibility.” She was the oldest and as such, she needed to “learn to take care of her little brothers.” In my case, learning to ride a bike was the same as having learned to swim: Whitie gave Darla her first lessons and it was then up to her to give me mine.
In her precociously didactic way, Darla’s cycling lessons were as precise and no-nonsense as had been the swimming lessons she’d given me in the public pool. Off we went with her enormous bike to the elementary school playground across the way and down a short alley from our house on Pine Street. She warned me that I’d best pay attention and be a quick learner because she didn’t plan to “waste her entire summer” jogging around the playground teaching her idiotic little brother to ride. Despite the admonition, however, she put her heart into it, like everything else she did, and, with the help of her steadying hand and shrill orders, I was soon pedaling my jittery way around the playground blacktop and I heard Darla shout behind me, “Way to go, Dan! You’re on your own.”
As I gained confidence, I became more and more enthused with the ride, and my sister became more and more bored standing around watching me. It was as I was making my shaky umpteenth pass of the First Grade wing of the building that Darla said, “Oh look, there’s my old first grade teacher.” She waved and shouted, “Hello Miss Long!” as I saw through the windows that faced onto the playground, a portly middle-aged lady with her hair put up in a bun, apparently preparing her classroom for the coming school year. The woman waved back at Darla and Darla turned to me, and said, “Wave at Miss Long!” Being left-handed, I smiled and took my right hand off of the handlebars to wave at Darla’s former teacher and immediately veered sharply south and crashed into the brick side of the school building.
Carrying out a quick damage control while trying not to cry, I realized, with a mixture of relief and self-pity that I had fared far worse than the bike, having sanded the skin off of my knee against the wall and having seriously hurt my opposite elbow, which was already swelling to twice its normal size, by landing on it with all my weight against the surface of the blacktop. My sister’s bicycle, thankfully, only had a small scrape on the back fender. But she was already there recovering her two-wheeler and vowing she would never let me use it again, as she hurried me off the playground and back home, where it was left to my mother to patch me up and comfort me.
But Darla did let me use it again...repeatedly. In fact, I used it a great deal more than she did, even though I was the target of scorn among other boys for riding a girl’s bike, until Reba Mae finally talked Whitie into getting me a bicycle of my own. It was a twenty-four-inch bike, slightly smaller than my sister’s. I guess Whitie figured I could reach the pedals despite the crossbar and once I grew into it I could keep on using this medium-size bike forever. The size seemed fine to me, but it wasn’t the shiny new Schwinn or Huffy that I’d been expecting “any time now” to show up on by birthday or for Christmas during the couple of years while I was sharing with my sister. Nor was it the “English bike” I’d dared ask for on numerous occasions. The term referred to any bicycle with razor-thin high-pressure tires, hand brakes and three gears. They were usually black or deep dark green, and seemed so sleek and cool to me when I saw my wealthier classmates riding them, compared to the stocky American bikes with their big balloon tires, heavy frames and back-pedal brakes.
But I’d given up on the dream of having one of those. Whitie thought they were sissy and impractical for sure. You couldn’t run a paper route on one of those, and as soon as I was old enough, a paper route, he made it clear, would be in my future. My bike needed to be a practical one.
To be continued...