Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Laughing Matter


By the time I inherited my brothers’ three-speed bicycle, the odometer had already recorded more than 3,000 miles. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many miles I added myself, because the odometer stopped working shortly after I began riding. If I had to guess, I’d say I traveled another thousand before the bike finally disintegrated.

Although I usually rode the bus, I did take the bike to Wilson School one morning when I was in the fourth grade, to participate in a bicycle safety program. It wasn’t until I was pedaling my way through an obstacle course of orange traffic cones that I realized just how broken down the thing was. The seat squeaked steadily, the spokes clicked, the tires were ancient and cracked, the reflectors were missing, the chain and lower part of the frame were caked with dust and used tractor oil, the paint was gone, the glass on the speedometer had disappeared, and the metal basket attached to the handlebars looked like it had been used to haul bricks.

The situation provided some amusement — to those in charge, as well as several of my schoolmates who lived in town and owned shiny bicycles that had never been off the pavement. Having lived an orderly, civilized life, they had no idea what my bike had been through — the number of puncture vines that had been pulled from the tires, the clouds of gnats and dust it had passed through, the uneven ground strewn with sticks and weeds it had been made to navigate. And so they laughed. And because it would have been ridiculous to feel offended, I laughed with them and told them they were jealous, then offered to sell the bicycle to the highest bidder.

I had no trouble passing the part of the test devoted to skill, but the bicycle itself was deemed unfit for use on the road. One of the reasonable adults on hand gave me a checklist of the things he said needed my immediate attention. I looked at it politely, folded it, put it in my pocket, and threw it away when I got home.

I saw the matter this way: The bicycle had served faithfully for years, and was still good enough to ride down Avenue 408 past the ditch by Joe Mulford’s house, then across Road 80 by the Miamoto place, all the way to the far side of the open field where the Schwabs grew melons and packed them in a little wooden shed full of black spiders. All told, it was almost three-quarters of a scenic mile, the entire distance of which I was gloriously free.

From Songs and Letters, originally published March 31, 2006.

11 comments:

Stream Source said...

Thank you for this, William. Your story took me right back to a hauntingly similar experience.

My little red bike (that was her most recent color, having had at least ten coats before it) went in for the borough's bike safety check. I rode along with my friends who, as did yours, had shiny new bikes - some with baskets and streamers from the handle bars. My little red bike had fenders crinkled like crumbled aluminum foil that had been carefully straightened out for reuse. The handle bars were rusty as the metallic finish had long worn away, and only bits of rubber handle grips remained. Such as it goes after having been handed to my two older brothers who had it handed to them by a well to do neighbor, years prior. But the tires were replaced and therefore sound and the brakes still engaged, so it was to be my bike.

They held the event in the bank parking lot, behind the borough shed. When it was my turn, I stood with the police officer in charge of registration as he fumbled to locate the serial number. After searching for what seemed like forever, he had to take out his pocket knife to scratch through the layers of paint where he thought the number should be. I don't recall, but I don't believe he ever did find it. It wasn't until that moment that it occurred to me that my bike may be substandard.

Out of sympathy, no doubt, he passed me and the bike. But I was so embarrassed by this little episode - and six year old girls don't even try to make you feel better about such things...so I got back on little red bike, who now had lost all her luster and rode home to report what had happened.

After a week or two had passed, my grandfather (I called him pappy) had scrounged the money to buy me a brand new, second (or third) hand bike. This one was blue - it had a basket and a hauler - with apparently only one new paint job and very smooth fenders. The decorative, white pin striping had been carefully applied by hand. Come to think of it, I don't really know if my pap had done all that? I really loved that man...

William Michaelian said...

And you love him still, carrying him inside you as you do. Thanks very much, Donna. There’s a lesson here for adults who, in their haste, underestimate or fail to notice the incidents and events that are shaping their children, and people their own age as well. Every day we have the opportunity to be more generous and less judgmental — to be the pappy who shines a light that lasts a lifetime.

vazambam said...

William,

If it's still got spokes, you just fly that spunky two-wheeler over here and I guarantee you there will be enough dirt roads to keep it happy well into another life. Mine has done 9500 km in this one alone--all in the past four-five years.

William Michaelian said...

Now that’s some serious riding. No, I’m afraid that old classic finally disintegrated, and was later replaced with a three-speed which was — and I know you will sympathize with this — stolen right from out of our equipment shed! Leaving me bereft and bikeless for quite some time.

Old 333 said...

Awesome. Thanks, William. A clear snapshot, much enjoyed.

Jan said...

William, you tell this story so colorfully, that I pictured you easily, going thru all the motions, and emotions, during the whole tale. I only had one little problem. I kept seeing this young boy, flying down the road on his beloved bike...now here is the problem, his beard was blowing in the wind, and getting in his eyes :D I loved the story, William~~~

William Michaelian said...

It’s amazing, Peter, the resiliency of these old black-and-whites. Thank you, sir.

I’m glad you like it, Jan. The fact is, back in my grade school days, I still kept my beard fairly well trimmed, and so it was not the reliable weather vane it is now.

Tess Kincaid said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this, since I had a love affair with a bicycle once.

William Michaelian said...

Did you? That’s a story I’d like to hear. A fine one to imagine, too.

rahina q.h. said...

beautiful story William.... free as a bird...

William Michaelian said...

Thanks, Rahina. And being free to tell it feels like that glorious bike ride itself....