To Ride, Perchance to Fly


In a recent email, my friend Gerry mentioned his old bicycle. He wrote: “As I was readying to take a left in my car, a guy who looked a little older than I am was coming up the road on a bicycle. As he passed, it brought me back. “Peugot U08, circa 1970, 25 inch frame,” I thought.  Then, I got sentimental about it. “I used to have that same bike in red.   Long gone now, though.”

What adult doesn’t remember the bicycle he rode in his youth? Gerry’s Peugot was a racing  bike- the kind with handlebars that bent down like rams’ horns. They were all the rage in the seventies.

I actually never got the hang of riding a bike with shifts and handlebars that were bent down so far you felt like your nose was going to rub the front tire. When I was growing up, we had The Bike. It was my mother’s when she was a kid, and one summer my grandmother sent it home with us. For years, my parents could not afford another bicycle, so whoever needed The Bike most was the one who got to ride it. The rest of us walked.

I learned to ride a two-wheeler on The Bike. I remember propping it up against a tree, and pushing off, wobbling over the bumpy sidewalk, until I fell. I tried and fell, over and over, determined to master the skill like my older sister had, for to ride The Bike meant to fly. And I needed to fly.

The Bike was a dark green Columbia with narrow tires and a wire basket just big enough to hold a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Most of my friends had red Raleighs or blue Schwinns with hand brakes, bulky fenders and a thumb shift for their three speeds. The Bike had foot brakes and one speed, but it was swifter than any bike around. 

I lived at the top of Green Street, a long hill lined with Dutch elm and maple trees. When asked to ride The Bike to the store, I pushed off from the front steps, peddling as fast as I could so by the time I was half way down the hill, I was moving so fast that the pedals  disengaged from the gears. Coasting at full speed, I would cautiously remove my grip from the handlebars, knowing that to fall meant that my knees and elbows would require more methiolate and gauze than I could imagine. In a moment of fearless abandon, I’d raise my hands above my head and then quickly grab the handlebars again, just in time to stand on the brakes, announcing my entrance to Main Street with a loud screech similar to the sound of an angry blue jay. No doubt it was dangerous. It was great fun.

By the time I was in my early teens, somebody gave us an old blue Roadmaster with balloon tires, and shortly after that, my younger brothers and sisters received wheelie bikes with banana seats and sissy bars. They were shiny and new, and they got a lot of use, but to me they didn’t compare with The Bike.

As the years passed, bicycle wheels turned to car wheels and nobody rode The Bike any longer. The fenders were gone, the dark green paint chipped and faded and eventually, it went to that secret place to which old and broken toys disappear.

I never owned a bike again. Years later, I watched my own children ride their bicycles down the hill in front of our townhouse.   Abby and Gabe had their own bikes, but Elizabeth had only a Big Wheel, and she was too small to reach the handlebars on the scooter sitting in the front yard.  I watched her big eyes wistfully following the other kids zoom down the hill. She was skinny. And sick. And more than anything else, she wanted to fly.

Buckling a helmet under her chin, I placed her on the scooter, and stood in back of her, pushing us off with all my might. We flew down the hill, cheered on by the astonished neighborhood children who had never seen a mother on a scooter before. It was perhaps, a little dangerous. It was great fun.

Sometimes you just have to fly.

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