Learning to ride a bike is a childhood rite of passage. Fewer things build more confidence than the day that the training wheels come off the bike and you can finally ride on your own. It’s probably as close to flying as you can get while still on the ground. For some of us, though, learning to ride a bike comes with its own unique set of lessons.
My brother Jim was a fast learner. He went from training wheels to a regular bike on the first day he tried, confidently riding off down the street with his new-found skill. He had a purple Sears Spyder hi-rise bike with a banana seat and slick rear tire. My sister Pam learned to ride just as quickly on her white Schwinn bike with purple pinstripes, chrome fenders and a flowered basket.
I didn’t have my own bike yet, but I’d borrow the neighbor’s training-wheel bikes, and try to keep up with the bigger kids as best I could. I REALLY wanted to ride a ‘big-kid’ bike, so I could go to school, the store or the baseball diamond with the bigger kids.
My mom said that I could get a bike once I learned to ride without training wheels, so I was determined to learn as quickly as possible. I had to look to someone older and wiser, who already knew how. I had the perfect person in mind.
My brother Jim! He knew how to ride, he knew everything! He had to, he was already 7!
Jim said, “Training wheels just slow you down! I know how to teach you how to ride.”
When Pam wasn’t around, Jim pulled her bike out of the garage, and led me over to the tallest hill in the area, over on Waugh street. It couldn’t have been that tall, but to 5-year old me, it looked like a mountain. Jim wheeled the bike to the top of the hill, and helped me climb on. He made sure my hands were secure on the handlebars, and my feet were firmly on the pedals.
Then, he gave me a push.
At that moment, there was no stopping me.
Jim didn’t tell me how to pedal or steer. He also left out an important skill:
How to stop.
With no ability to steer, slow or stop, I hurtled down the hill, rapidly accelerating. I held on for dear life as the scenery beside me became a blur. With no ability to stop, I flew right through the intersection, which fortunately had no traffic at that time of day.
My knuckles white and frozen to the handlebars, I stared straight ahead and realized that I was drifting left across the other lane….and careened towards a red and white ‘62 Buick, parked in front of a house.
In the front yard, a family was sitting at a picnic table, enjoying a nice cookout, when, in the distance, they heard a siren-like wail getting louder and louder. As they looked up, they saw a 5-year old kid frozen in fear, rocketing towards their house, in full scream mode. They kept from the table to get out of the way, as I sped directly towards the car next to them. I braced myself for impact and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes, expecting to see blood and broken bones…and realized that I wasn’t hurt at all, but the bike had been stopped by the front tire of the Buick, with my front wheel and fender wedged tightly into the car’s wheel well, and stuck behind the tire. I was still firmly gripping the handlebars, hyperventilating from the ordeal.
The family of four gathered around to pry my fingers from the handlebars, help me off the bike and make sure that I wasn’t hurt. My brother Jim came running down the hill and helped the dad pull the bike and car apart. I was unhurt, the car was unscathed…..but the fender on the bike was bent, and the handlebars and flowered basked were knocked around a bit. Pam was NOT going to be happy.
We wheeled the bike home, and put it back in the garage, hoping Pam wouldn’t notice the damage. We weren’t that lucky. I had to hide for several hours, then avoid her wrath for more than a week.
Over time, I learned to ride better (using Jim’s bike), and eventually got my own. I still love riding today, over 50 years later. It’s the closest feeling to flying while still on the ground.
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