ANYWAY STORIES: SPINNING WHEELS
The bike had no name.
Whatever nameplate existed at one time had long since disappeared from the head tube. It became, simply, “The Little Kid Bike,” for whatever novice was riding it at that particular moment in time.
Its old cast iron pipes welded together at odd angles so many years before, with a mottled skin, perhaps black once, now a green, gold, rust black camouflage design more leprous than stylish, the bike stirred in the sun of the driveway, old and wheezing, but somehow ready for one more adventure.
This bike traveled through hell to get here, carrying young riders into adventures and accidents since the early 1930’s, easy. The first boy learned to ride, hit a tree or two, then passed it on to his sister, who wanted the top tube cut off to make it a girl’s bike, before passing it on to her younger brother who demanded the tube be welded back into place in order to make it his own.
Chopped, channeled, cut and welded so many times over the years, the bike resembled a mechanical parody of Frankenstein’s monster.
I stared at the machine and pondered the possibilities.
I had just learned to ride a bike the week before.
The scab was healing nicely.
Now came the time to see what a bike could truly do.
We lived out in the country, in a development carved out of algae filled lakes and swamps near Delton, Michigan.
Between our house and the Monica’s, there was a great, empty lot with a hill. Not much of a hill, certainly, more of an annoying incline, but it still impressed me. Drop a ball at the top of the thing and it would roll unmolested about 80 yards down to the ditch next to Floria Road.
That lot, hill and all, became our go to place for just about everything: football, baseball, pitch-back or clod wars, really, the human drama of athletic competition.
Important safety tip here, kids: If you find yourself in the middle of a clod war, chucking great hardened clumps of dirt at each other, never take refuge inside a metal dog house. It may act like a tank as it scuttles across the battlefield, but the ringing of the sides with each hit will so damage your hearing that even The Who, so many years later, will not be able to break through the electric cicadas inside your head.
It was on this hill, this gentle incline down to the ditch, on which I first learned how to ride a bike.
My teacher, my older brother, Dave, had a number of bikes from which to choose for the lesson. He could teach me on our sister JoAnn’s bike, which was a big, blue Columbia that wouldn’t fit his me for at least another four years. On the other hand, Dave’s bike, a big, solid steel Road Master, which could take any hit short of a direct shot from the Army’s M65 Atomic Cannon, was completely out of the question.
After all, why should he ruin HIS bike?
The no-name, cast-iron “Little Kid” bike already intended for me had a flat, so that was out.
The only possible answer to his problem was to “borrow” Gary Monica’s bike next door and teach me to ride on that.
The Monica bike was an older, mid-size boy’s bike with big tires and wide fenders. Gary and I had painted it a vile, vomitus green a few days prior, looking to jazz it up.
It failed to jazz.
The paint, an ancient can of gutter paint, clotted on application, making the fenders and the tubes look like they had an advanced social disease.
Neither one of us knew what a social disease was at that point, but, if all those movies the Navy showed me over the years are any indication, we were remarkably close in our presentation.
Dave was convinced that if he was going to ruin somebody’s bike in teaching me how to ride, it was going to be somebody other than his, or JoAnn’s or, frankly, any bike whose ruination would get him in trouble with the old man.
So, Gary Monica’s bike it was then, and, funny enough, there the bike sat, leaning against a garage wall right next to the hill itself, as if Gary was offering up his very own bike for the day.
Dave quietly walked over, looked in a few windows, and wheeled the newly acquired ride of choice to the top of the hill.
“What do I do?” I asked. “How do I ride this thing?”
“Easy,” he said, “you sit on it. You pedal. You use the handlebars to steer. Then, when you want to stop, you pedal backwards. Simple.”
“Simple.” He smiled, showing teeth, a grim rictus of doom.
“Even you could do it.”
Dave leaned the puke green bike against his leg and helped me onto the seat.
For balance, I grabbed the dirty yellow handlebar grips labeled “Hunt-Wilde,” my feet flailing as they tried to gain purchase on the pedals.
“What do I do …”
“… now?” was lost in the ether as Dave gave the bike a mighty push that only a big brother can give.
Within seconds of the shove, my brain completely ceased to function. Only breathing, screaming and just the barest essentials of balance remained, along with a desperate need to urinate.
A self-generated wind roared in my ears, my vision collapsed to nothing more than a pinhole of meshed colors and blurred images. Consciousness became little more than a kaleidoscope of terror.
Adrenaline overwhelmed me for the first time in my life, which meant I had absolutely no idea what to do with it.
It was much too fast.
It was much too fast for children.
Dave, running along behind, began screaming.
But, there was no braking, as the pedals had a mind of their own. My legs were straight out to the side like short and stubby wings.
Obviously generating no comprehension from the rider on the puke green rocket, Dave changed tactics.
“Fall down! Fall down!”
There was no falling down, as that would mean a cruel and instant death.
Hell, even I knew that.
There was only faster and faster down the hill, my vision bleeding the colors of reality together into a Technicolor Time Rift, a “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” open complete with a skull and crossbones at its core racing toward me.
Suddenly, I saw the hill fall away into the ditch and, just beyond it, the asphalt death of Floria Road.
The front wheel dove into the ditch next to the road. I shot forward off the seat, gave a great grunt of surprise as the chromed steel handlebars knocked the wind out of me, flipped up and over (I think), landed feet first on the road, then, free of the machine, let momentum push me stumbling across two lanes of rocky macadam with absolutely no idea of where I was going and no way to stop.
A lady in a red on white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, thinking I had suddenly just materialized before her, screamed, slammed on the brakes, fishtailed around the flailing obstruction that was me and drove madly down the road, cursing a blue streak.
I sailed off the opposite side of the road, upended again as I hit the ditch and finally came to a stop, head first in the swampy weeds across from the house.
I lifted my head out of the muck, spit out something I didn’t recognize, and realized that I couldn’t stop shaking.
At that very moment, Dave was across the road, thinking of running for the house, turning on the TV and claiming, no, he didn’t know where Greg was, he had been watching “Queen for a Day” all afternoon.
He rose up on tip-toes to see if I was still alive.
Still shaking from the ride and the missed opportunity to become the hood ornament on a Plymouth, I rolled onto my back and slowly fell back into the water to contemplate what had just happened. The water rose up over my ears and I found myself surrounded by the music of the pond echoing off the weeds in the distance.
Very far away, Dave kept calling my name, the muffled voice wondering sheepishly if I was in fact alive, or if he would be grounded for the next 40 years.
My heart banged away in my chest, a high school marching band playing Sousa through my veins.
As I sat up, water and weeds and various forms of toad poop streaming off my head, my heart rate began slowly returning to normal, while my breath, first a wheezing death rattle, changed to sharp, deep bellows that gradually slowed with each repetition.
Dave walked up onto the road and looked down.
“Hey? You okay?” Dave’s voice squeaked.
“Okay,” I nodded, sounding more like Jerry Lewis than necessary.
“Man, I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell Mom, but this will make great story for John Van Himbergen.”
I looked up at him.
“How’s the bike?”
Dave looked back at the pile of puke green metal sitting crumpled in the opposite ditch.
“I think the bike’s okay. Why?”
I paused, my brain not quite realizing what my mouth was about to say.
“Let’s do that again.”
A week later, the flat tire fixed, I slowly rolled the cast-iron Little Kid Bike, now, officially, MY BIKE, from the garage onto the newly poured gravel driveway.
For the past few days, I had been pedaling across the lawn, around the house, wherever I could ride, the only restriction from Mom being: never, ever, ride out onto Floria Road. I also shied away from riding on the driveway, as the bike’s fat tires sank into the depths of the fresh gravel, making pedaling more like swimming than riding.
But this was boring.
You could only ride around the house so many times in your life. I could already slalom around all the little piles of dog poop that Dave hadn’t picked up.
There had to be something more to life.
There had to be another place to ride.
And there was.
From the sidewalk beside the driveway, I rolled the 80 yards down the lawn to the edge of the road.
I looked back at the house, then, side to side. Off in the distance, Dave was digging a hole with his best friend, John Van Himbergen, in the middle of Mr. Van Himbergen’s lovingly manicured lawn.
I glanced back at the house. No Mom.
No one would ever know.
No harm. No foul.
I turned right on Floria Road, determined to make the effort up this very first hill, the one leading to the Kenyon’s farm.
Now, I read about people riding bikes up French mountains in Look magazine, climbing thousands of feet in a single ride, looking like they were about to die.
Then again, this was only a hill, not a mountain, and I was me, convinced it could be easily conquered.
I was wrong.
The hill, short and stubby, fought back.
For each push of the pedals, I felt the bike slowly crawl forward and then, roll back. I was going one foot forward, six inches back, one forward, six inches back, one forward, one back. I was going nowhere slow.
Within moments, barely moving, my upper thighs burned with a fire I had never felt before.
One stroke. Two.
Another. And another.
Oh, this is fun, I thought. This is fun.
Now I know why people buy motorcycles.
Then, I remembered that whenever Dave slowed down on his bike, he’d stand up on the pedals and sway the bike in rhythm beneath him for more power.
I stood up, unsteady, and began to push toward the top. Within three strokes of the pedals I found my rhythm and began to move steadily toward the top of the rise.
First, my lip began to sweat, then, the heat within me began to spread, to my neck, my forehead, my temples, my entire face blossoming in the humidity of a Michigan summer afternoon. Within moments, my Roy Rogers t-shirt was soaked, leaving sweet Dale Evans looking like Rutherford B. Hayes.
I discovered a deep seated hatred of climbing.
And, yet, I continued up the hill.
Top of the hill, I thought, that’s as far as I’ll go and then, I’ll turn back. Top of the hill. Top of the hill, catch my breath, wave at Old Man Kenyon and turn back toward home.
The first real hill. The first real ride.
Wow, not bad for a first time.
The crest lay straight ahead, not more than 10 feet distant.
The bike slowed to crawl as it crested the top of the hill.
One more pedal stroke.
Just one more pedal stroke and I’ll turn around.
Just one …
Too late I felt gravity bite the front tire and pull it down the back side of the hill, slow at first, then faster until my legs began pounding a staccato rhythm on the pedals. The fat, sixteen-inch tires humming, then screaming as the speed increased, the Kenyon farm passed in a blur, quickly followed by Pleasant Lake Road and a dead raccoon.
Where I was heading, I had no idea.
Still harboring the thought that I should turn back for home, because otherwise, there’d be hell to pay, I failed to anticipate the terrain, the simple notion that a short hill on one side could possibly lead to a long hill on the other. The two mile grade that lay before me led through the arched oak of a Michigan forest to a place I had never been before, simply because it was in the opposite direction of my life.
In many ways, the bike was pedaling itself now.
I took a few turns on the crank, but the bike moved forward, on its own, as if drawn by a promise somewhere down the road. What promise that could possibly be, I did not know.
The bike continued to carry me through the trees, past a new and mysterious swamp I’d have to explore, another short section of farm country that smelled of corn and manure, and up to the first road sign I had seen since the start of the journey.
“Huh,” I thought. “Never been here before.”
Delton and my school and the rest of my life were four miles back the way I came.
But that’s where I was and that’s where I stood, four miles from town, two miles from home.
And the bike had brought me.
Two miles back, where it had all begun, questions were now being asked.
Mom stomped to the edge of the hole being dug in the Van Himbergen’s front yard.
“Where — is — your — brother?” she barked at the two boys furiously digging to China.
“I dunno,” Dave smirked, looking up from the hole. Hand on his heart, he intoned, “I am not my brother’s keeper.”
“Don’t show off for John Van Himbergen! He spent last Saturday picking boogers off his bedroom wall! And you wipe that stupid grin off your face. Have you seen Greg?” she barked, what patience left in her voice quickly disappearing.
Dave nodded and pointed toward the hill.
“He rode his bike up the hill, but I didn’t see him come back.”
“Did you think to tell anyone?” she shouted.
“Damn. Damn. Damn!”
She turned on her heel and marched toward her car, muttering all the way. She wrestled the old Ford into gear and tore off onto Floria Road, shooting a large swath of the newly poured gravel driveway across the lawn.
(I’d be blamed for that, too.)
“I didn’t know you could squeal tires on gravel,” John said, watching the car disappear over the hill.
“Of course you can,” Dave replied, “The guy on ‘Highway Patrol’ does it all the time. Onwards!”
And the shovels bit into the soft ground once again.
The canopy of green stretched off into the distance, rising and falling with the rolling hills, as I turned back toward home.
I rode silently through a living cathedral.
I had failed to realize it on the way down, but the gentle hill that had brought me to the village limits of Hickory Corners had to be negotiated in reverse to return home. Geography is a bitch, I realized, and not just because Mrs. Milton taught it.
Gliding down through the forest had now become a journey up.
The ride wasn’t terrible, thanks to the gentle incline leading into town, but it became just enough work to make churning the pedals memorable.
My right leg, I realized, was the dominant leg. It was doing most work and gave the most power to the pedal. My left leg, like the left hand of Chico Marx on a keyboard, was merely along for the ride. I centered myself on the seat and shifted my weight slightly with each stroke. With both legs working together, I began to move faster. Maybe not as fast as the ride down, but certainly better than that first mile back.
This was fun.
I had just found the rhythm and a comfortable pace, when, in the distance, I heard a familiar jamming of gears and saw the nose cone of a blue, 1954, rusted-out Ford Custom-line coming toward me over a distant rise. As the car approached, I could see two tiny hands in a death grip on the steering wheel, and two glowing red coals staring at me through the wheel just over the ridge of the dashboard.
I had seen such things like this in “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, but never in real life. Now, it was real. And it would give me nightmares for weeks.
“Oh, crap,” was all I could get out before the wheezing yelp of the car’s horn cut through the silent afternoon.
I pulled to the side of the road.
There was no sense in pedaling another stroke.
I was toast.
And the Devil herself was going to do the toasting.
With the no name, rusted-out cast iron kid’s bike stuffed into the trunk of the car, I sat quietly in the back seat while Mom unleashed upon me a torrent of fears and frustrations, pent-up anger and glorious Catholic righteousness.
“Do you have any idea what could have happened to you … any idea what might have happened on that narrow road … there’s no room for a bike on that road, especially a bike ridden by someone who has only been riding a bike for a week … you could have been killed and it would have served you right … I can’t believe you were stupid enough to go all the way to Hickory Corners … NO PERMISSION … doing it on that bike … you could have died and I wouldn’t have known and your body would be floating in a swamp or God only knows what … you are really going to get it Mister … “
The sound continued from the front seat unfiltered, unchecked, unending.
I sat silently, hearing every third word she shouted. There would be a price to pay for this, I knew that, and, I would very likely “get it,” though neither Mom nor Dad was big on spanking. I’d get a stern talking to, be made to feel bad because I had broken their sacred trust, DISAPPOINTED THEM, and then, I would face some time off the bike, but that was all to be expected.
I could do it.
It gave me more time to find out about bicycles and Batman and Bugs Bunny and The Haunted Tank and MAD magazine and whatever else caught my ADHD supercharged fancy for the next week.
“And as God is my witness, you are never going to ride that bike again for as long as I live …” she shouted with a dramatic finality.
I knew that wasn’t true.
I’d ride that bike again.
I’d ride to Hickory Corners again.
I’d ride to Kalamazoo on M-43 and steal two Burma-Shave signs that Dad would find and take back in the middle of the night, having to explain to a Barry County Sheriff what he was doing there with a crescent wrench and a flashlight in his teeth..
I’d ride the Rockies, up two lane mountain passes, chest heaving, and down others at 65 miles an hour, eyes wide, brain screaming, my heart threatening to burst from my chest.
But she was already too late.
We pulled into the driveway, half the newly poured gravel spread like a river delta across Floria Road.
Mom didn’t realize it, but in that short ride, a two mile coast to a town I didn’t even know was there, I discovered something I never knew before and would never abandon again.
I discovered freedom.
And my world spun on as never before.