Before the advent of mothers losing years of afternoons shuttling their kids to countless practices and activities…before the days of carefully planned play dates…before the invention of the game console…there was the bicycle. And the bicycle was integral to the workings of the suburban family. In fact, it was indispensable. This two wheeled invention kept non-working mothers more or less sane. It got the kids out of the house… and not for just ten minutes or even a half hour. If the sun was shining on a Saturday morning, it was the entire day. At that time in suburbia, the handy morning instructional was, “Go out and play and be back home when the street lights come on.”
For the kids, the bicycle was freedom. You could go where you wanted to go without a care in the world. Not that the streets were always safe. I remember walking back from a boy scout meeting with a buddy of mine. There were no sidewalks in this part of the neighborhood, so we walked side by side in the street. A car stopped twenty or so yards ahead of us. That seemed odd to us, but we continued to walk on. Then, like a scene out of Christine, the engine revved, the tires squealed, and the car flew towards us. We dove out of the way, clearing the curb as the murderous car blew by us. We landed safely on the grass. You’d better believe I told my parents. And they did…nothing. It’s hard to blame them. Back in those days, reports of lethal lunatics didn’t make the news. The blood and gore stories were limited to body counts coming out of Vietnam. I had no proof that this life-threatening event ever happened. My scout uniform wasn’t even wrinkled. So after listening to my fanciful tale, Dad took the dog for a walk and Mom tuned in to I Spy.
My favorite bike was Silver. I named it after the Lone Ranger’s famed horse. The bike wasn’t silver in color. It was gold. When you’re color blind those details don’t really register on you. Oh, how I loved that bike. It was sturdy, heavy and dependable. Nothing could do “Silver” any harm. That’s what I thought…right up to the moment when Uncle Walter ran it over in our single lane driveway. It was at least partially my fault. It was a Saturday, and Walter was dropping his wife, my Aunt Zaz, off to spend the day with my Mom. I returned home after he arrived, left Silver on the driveway and ran into the house. Now, Uncle Walter should’ve seen my bike. It would have been smack in the middle of his driver’s side mirror. But Uncle Walter was in a hurry and understandably so. If he didn’t get the hell out of there, my mother and his wife could have gotten in an argument…not an unusual event…and Zaz would be coming home with him. And Lord knows, he didn’t want that. Besides, that six pack of Ballantine Beer in his refrigerator wasn’t going to drink itself. Uncle Walter was sorry about the accident. Of course, he wasn’t as sorry as I was, although once Zaz got him home he might have been quite a bit sorrier.
It was only a bike, and although Silver’s demise was a disappointment, I wasn’t physically hurt. I wasn’t always that lucky.
I remember racing off to a friend’s house. I was moving along at a pretty good clip down the narrow driveway [the site of Silver’s untimely destruction] and made a hard left turn onto the street. Just then, my mother came out of the house and onto the porch and yelled, “Richard!”
Instantly, I snapped my head to the left and yelled back, “What?”
And that’s when I slammed full force into the neighbor’s parked car and landed on the trunk of the big ass Buick.
“What did you do that for?” Mom yelled at me.
I slid off the car and stood up a little wobbly. “I was looking at you and…uh…”
My mother gave a disgusted wave, shook her head and went back into the house. I didn’t dent the neighbor’s car. Automobiles were built like tanks back then. My bike also seemed fine so once the fog in my head cleared, I rode on. Funny, I never found out what my mother wanted when she yelled at me from the front porch. By the time I asked her about it, she didn’t remember. I guess it wasn’t important.
Now an incident like that could happen to anyone…anyone who wasn’t looking where he was going. What I mean is…anyone like me.
Not every off the wall mishap in my life was my own doing. Most were, but sometimes, things just happened. My Dad had a way of summing up this type of situation, “Some days, you can’t pee a drop.”
It was a bright sunny day. I was heading to a friend’s house and pedaling along at a pretty good clip when a dark cloud rolled across the sky and headed in my direction. I heard a strange sound behind me and looked over my shoulder. A wall of water was coming toward me. Not a few sprinkles, not a light sun shower, a wall of water. The type of thing that would have made Noah scream, “Oh shit, here it comes!”
I was only a couple of blocks from my destination, so I kicked myself into high gear. I pumped my pre-teen heart out and my legs burned. I was winning, or so I thought. I looked over my shoulder and to my oh-so-dry horror I saw that the edge of the storm was about five feet from me. I turned back to continue the race but the cloud was tired of toying with me and instantly overtook me. I stopped pedaling and coasted for the next block. The rains stopped almost as quickly as they began. Yes, it was a short-lived cloudburst but it lived long enough to soak me to the skin. When I arrived at my friend’s house, the sun was smiling again. As I stood in the entranceway of the home with a puddle forming around me, I felt obliged to explain my appearance to my friend’s mother. She listened politely then shook her head and said, “Only you, Richard. Only you.”
By then, my reputation proceeded me everywhere.
It may be tough to outmaneuver a thunder cloud that’s out to get you, but for almost everything else, a little bit of sage advice goes a long way.
When the voice of reason speaks, listen.
It was a wonderful spring day. I ran into a buddy of mine about a mile and a half from my house. It was an odd situation because I had my bike and he was hoofing it. I soon tired of pushing my bicycle and came up with a brilliant idea.
“Hey, why don’t you get on the handlebars and I’ll ride us to my house.”
“No way.” As stated earlier, my reputation for mishaps was well known among my friends. And they had no desire to become collateral damage.
“No. Forget it.”
“I don’t see what your problem is.”
It was at this point I remembered being driven back home, perched on the handlebars, after a “touch” football injury. “It is not,” I said. “I’ve ridden on them before. It’s no problem.”
“Good for you,” he said and kept walking.
I was determined. Why? I don’t know. Death wish maybe.
“Okay, how about this? I’ll get on the handlebars and you pedal.”
My buddy was a bright guy. He stopped and studied me for a couple of seconds trying to decide if I was nuts or just stupid.
He made a choice. “You’re insane.”
I kept on about it, arguing my case like a high paid attorney until my pal got sick and tired of trying to talk sense into me.
“Fine,” He said.
I was delighted.
He straddled the bike and I mounted the handlebars, putting the edges of my sneakers on the axle stubs of the front wheel. It was a wobbly start, but after a couple of pumps off we went.
I was right, I told myself. We’ll be at my house in no time at all.
We came around down Skyline Drive, then on to Hilltop Avenue and made a right onto Ridge Road. Although we knew the neighborhood streets we never gave a second thought to the names. Builders will often name streets after family members or other special people. My hometown has a Schindler Road named after the Nazi who saved over a thousand Jews from the gas chambers during the Holocaust. The builder was one of those lucky souls.
Not every street is named after a person. In the neighborhood we were moving through, the street names were simply descriptive. So, when we made that right turn we were coming off a hilltop and down a ridge.
We started picking up speed. I began to see the folly of this venture. I had nothing in front of me but air and speed. The bike began to shake as my buddy made a brief, and I mean brief, attempt to slow us down. Then I heard the seven most frightening words imaginable.
“I can’t control it. I’m getting off.”
And that’s just what he did.
Now I was flying solo, desperately trying to steer with the handlebars under my ass as I raced down the hill. I wasn’t very good at it. The bike swerved right, then left and then went into a death spiral. Around and around I went in tighter and tighter circles until finally gravity brought me and my bike to a very loud and abrupt stop. I was sprawled out on the pavement with the front wheel spinning next to me.
Miraculously, I didn’t break any bones. But it’s not like I wasn’t hurt. Asphalt isn’t forgiving. I looked like I had just finished battling a bear.
That pal of mine, who had managed to extract himself from the two wheeled devil without even scuffing his shoe, strolled up to the accident site. You might think that, considering the circumstances, he would feel a bit guilty or at least a touch concerned about the bodily harm I suffered. You would be wrong.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” he said.
And he was right. He had told me and it was a bad idea.
I should have learned something that day as I picked myself off the street and walked the beat up bike home. I didn’t. I was a slow learner.