Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Perfect Birthday

I ran across a photo on an Internet site that reminded me of my eighth birthday, my best birthday ever, and my first true love.

I learned to ride a bike when I was five, on my own. My parents had bought my oldest sister a red Schwinn on her sixth birthday, and my other sister Sue and I spent the afternoon running behind my father as he attempted to mentor Amie in the art of cycling by holding the bike with her on it, running with it for a few steps and then launching her to wobble across the drive. She never really took to it and the bike ended up in the garage, unused. Sue never expressed any interest in the bicycle and so it languished for over a year until one day, after watching some of the older boys in the neighborhood ride and pondering on the subject I decided that I was going to learn.

I spent a few days on the sidewalk besides our house, starting at the top of the block and coasting down, dragging my feet at first until I finally figured out what to do in order to keep from falling... turn in the direction that the bike starts to lean. Shortly thereafter I was up and running, or cycling. I spent the rest of the summer cycling on my own without anyone being the wiser... and as the youngest child and the only boy that is just how I wanted it.

A week or two after school began, I made an offhand comment as we passed a bicyclist on the way home in the car with my mother and sisters. "What do you know about bicycles?!" Sue challenged. "Why, I'm a year older than you and I can't ride and I know more about bicycles than you do!" "I can too ride a bike!" I responded. "No, you can't!" And so on, until my mother told us both to stop arguing.

I slumped back in my seat and challenged her, "I bet you a quarter I can ride!" Now, a quarter was a lot of money in the mid-1960s. It was two week's allowance, and would buy five Cokes in those little glass bottles, or five candy bars, or any combination of the two. We're talking serious money for a five year-old... or a six year-old, for that matter. Sue had to put up, or shut up... and, really she had no choice; I had called her bluff. She could hardly wait to get home to take my quarter.

The car had barely stopped before we all piled out. I ran across the yard to the door under the porch and pulled the bike out, and then proudly rode it across the yard and up to the car. My mother was speechless with astonishment, and both of my sisters were calling, "Teach me! Teach me!" (I tried for a few minutes, but they wouldn't listen, and I eventually realized that they would have to learn on their own the same way I did, although being outdone by their younger brother was powerful motivation. I don't remember getting the quarter.)

A couple of days later, my father pulled up while I was sitting on the back steps. He stepped out of the driver's seat and pulled a brand-new 24" boy's bike out of the back. I was totally surprised; I guess my mother must have mentioned that we would need at least one more bike. This was a typical Sear's cruiser with lots of chrome plating, the taillight behind the seatpost, a swooping gas tank on the main tube, a headlight and a big spring shock absorber on top of the front fender. I immediately tried to ride it and ran into a problem. Either Dad overlooked my height, or lack of it, at five years of age, or more likely he bought a little bigger bike figuring I would grow into it. My father showed me how to start by stepping on the left pedal with my left foot, scooting a few steps, and then swinging my foot over the main tube, and I was able to ride it, but even at its lowest I couldn't pedal while sitting. I quickly learned how to stop the bike and get off without falling; ride into our hedge and then climb off as the bike was held up by the front wheel!

As you can imagine, with very little clearance between the top tube and sensitive portions of my anatomy, not being able to sit, and having to find a hedge in order to get off, I quickly parked the new bike under the porch and returned to riding my sister's 20" candy apple red Schwinn mixte (girl's bike). It didn't help that a few weeks later some cretin opened the door under our porch while we were out and made off with the bike. I was upset, but more with the idea that it was stolen than with the fact that I couldn't ride it anymore.

A while later, my father came home with a decades-old mixte with 20" balloon tires, painted pea green with a brush. I hopped on and rode it and fell in love. Everything fit, it was comfortable, no bar to crunch myself on, and it was mine. I don't think the manufacturers even considered using anything besides the same stuff you'd find beneath your bathroom sink for frame tubing, and the bike had to weigh at least 50 lbs. It was ugly, but it never let me down. I rode that bike for three years, until my eighth birthday... the best birthday of my life.

All that fall I had been entranced, dreaming of a bike in the Sears catalog. As you may remember, Sears had a good marketing habit of having at least two items in any category and often three... "Good," "Better," and "Sear's Best." The bicycle marketer must have understood small boys, because he had two Stingray-type bikes in full color. I lusted after the "Sear's Best" model, the 'Scream' with its butterfly handlebars, its 5-speed shifter in a console on the main tube, its banana seat, and its dragster-type slick rear tire. It was too much to hope for, but I would hold the catalog and walk in circles around my room at night when I was supposed to be in bed, dreaming. I literally prayed about that bike, even offering to take the "Better" model if that's all God thought I deserved... but I really figured there was no way I'd get any bike for Christmas. After all, even the cheaper model was $50 and the "Scream" was $80. The number was beyond comprehension to a person who got a quarter for his allowance. It might as well have cost a million dollars.

I remember my birthday, that December day in 1969, very well. It was raining and cold, and my father wasn't home for dinner so we all ate and waited for him to start on the cake. I heard my father pull up around 6:30 and ran to the front door to open it for him, and as I did the bike of my dreams appeared as he wheeled it inside.

I couldn't believe it. If you've ever really wanted something, figured you'd never get it, and then, lo and behold, it's yours, you understand. Nothing would do except that we go outside and ride it, in the cold December rain at night, so we did. And then we brought it back inside and I lovingly dried it off with a towel. My father even brought it upstairs that one night so I could sleep with it in my room. To this day, it was the best birthday present I've ever had.

But, like most love stories it ended badly. Six months later I went up to stay with my stepsister and her husband for a couple of weeks. Despite my repeated demands, backed up by my parents, that my bike not be taken out while I was away, my sisters did take it out, and left it out for a couple days in the rain. By the time I returned home it was rusted, the chrome flaking off. Once the paint blisters and the steel corrodes there is nothing that an eight year-old boy can do with Naval Jelly to restore his pride and joy. I still rode it but things were never the same. I'd look at the rust and the flaked chrome and alternate between depression and anger. A year later someone stole it from our garage, and although we came across the thief on the bike and stopped him, I could not get my father to take it from him even though I positively identified every scratch and defect down to the traces of Naval Jelly still remaining on the chainguard. We went home and called the police but the thief had hidden the bike by the time they came and I never saw it again. I was heartbroken.

That was the last bike I owned until I was an adult. I had forgotten what it looked like until I ran across a picture of it while Googling random stuff. Here it is... my first love.

I know, it looks ridiculous. I wonder what I ever saw in it. And then I realize that when one is in love common sense goes out the window. I've owned several bikes as an adult, some costing in the thousands, made of titanium with top-end componentry... and yet, no bike has ever made me happier. No photo can possibly reproduce the experience, the emotion, of owning my dream bike. Laugh if you will, but how many of you would have given everything for such a bike when you were eight?

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