My bicycle has helped shape and form my life. I determine whether it is a good day if I can ride my bike or not ride it. When I say my bicycle, I mean the bicycle at the time. I had my first bike at seven and now at 67 I have two bicycles, a road bike and a mountain bike. My bicycle is my salvation. I don’t say this lightly. I’m not a Tour rider or a competitive rider, though I ride hard. I say it is my salvation because it offers me freedom when I need it, it provides transportation when I need it, it provides joy and adventure when I seek it, it has provided me vitality and life when I am sore for it, and therapy sessions at the most crucial parts of my life. My life would not be the same if I had never ridden a bike.
When I was seven I received my first bike on my birthday in the fall, a season known for when bikes are put away for the winter and saved until the spring. My dad patiently walked and then ran behind me on West Parish Road in Westport, Connecticut holding the back of my seat and letting go when I got going faster then he could run so that I could wobble down the street for those few fleeting moments of joy and wonder that I was riding before I tumbled over in a heap by the side of the road. My mother was incredulous that I kept at it and pleaded with my father to separate me from my bike. They both learned that wasn’t going to be possible. Even when my dad chained the bike to a post in the garage, I used a hacksaw to free it and eventually me from its chains. I’d spend afternoons learning to ride the bike and soon was all over my neighborhood in the mid 50’s visiting friends and riding to and from elementary school. A favorite destination was the firehouse because it would take me on a long journey from home and seemed acceptable to my two working parents. My dad worked during the day on Madison Avenue and at night as a professor of business classes at local colleges, while my mom was an economics teacher at two local colleges. I was a latch key kid in Westport in the mid fifties. It was a safe time then, unlike the times we have evolved into.
Two neighbor boys had bikes and the three of us would ride the roads like we owned them, down the middle until a car came up on us or towards us. We were the kings of the road. We seemed to threaten lone bike riders who always pulled to the side of the road to let us pass without joining us. We were looked up to, even admired it seemed to us as we rode by the gaping and big-eyed biker on the side of the road staring after us. I remember in third grade when a classmate was upset with me for stealing the attention of a young girl in our class. His response was not to hit me or beat me up; instead he took the air out of my tires and twisted the handlebars to make it impossible to ride. As I walked my mangled bike, I cried all the way home. My thoughts were that the bike was dead. Dad took it to Western Auto and a day later it came home whole. I rode the bike back to Western Auto to ask them what they did, and that was when I began to learn about bike repair, first about air in the tires and then how to change a flat tire. Although it would not be for another thirty years before I would actually change a tire on the road, I could fix my own flats once I got the bike home. I spent many miles walking a bike with a flat. That was the cost of freedom as were the falls that caused nicks and bruises and loss of blood. I was learning how to ride a bike.
I’d ride my bike to the local dairy, before the Connecticut Thruway cut through the fields and caused the closing of the dairy. I’d go to watch the bull in the field and even get in the pen to see how brave I was with him in his realm and as I tempted fate by challenging him to duals. He never got that close as I was always back over the fence long before he was close enough to smell me, but it was an adventure into danger for me and my bike got me close to that danger.
Later I would use the bike to escape my human bullies when I was in middle school. For now, though it was my sole and favorite companion. I’d often use different routes home after school to discover where classmates lived or just for the adventure. On one such occasion, I recall finding a satchel containing two Nazi armbands, one white with a black eagle on it and an orange one with the swastika. I was scared because these were bad symbols and I knew it. I was careful with them and stored them away with my treasures until I couldn’t bear it any longer and couldn’t sleep knowing they were there. I showed my mom, who was shocked and aghast at my find and wanted to know everything about them. They even had the police come over and have me show them where I found them. It was a big deal to them for some reason I never knew, but to this day suspect was to find the owner who may have brought them back as souvenirs or were owned by a Nazi. It was a scary red scare kind of atmosphere with McCarthyism still in the air and an actual NIKE site in Westport. I do remember I was sad to see them go and thought them prizes.
I used my bike for clandestine purposes. The thruway was in full construction and large trucks called Euclids were destroying much of our playground and woods. I would ride out to these behemoths, climb into the cabs and take the large metal balls on the gearshifts and throw them into the woods, thinking I was disabling the giants. I didn’t and the road was eventually built much to my chagrin. To this day, I rarely drive that road because of the rage I held for it as a youth. I always prefer the Merritt Parkway or the more northern road, 84 when passing through Connecticut.