Reflections from the Swamp
Last spring, I discovered that three of my granddaughters, aged five, seven, and nine, still couldn’t ride a bicycle without training wheels. I told them that everyone in Holland could ride a bike by the age of two. Kids who couldn’t ride a bike by the age of three were deported to Upper Slabovia, a place with no Christmas and a steady diet of broccoli and pickled herring, their least favourite foods. I offered them all a dollar bill if they could ride their bike, without training wheels, within two weeks, and offered
to help. They knew I was kidding about Slabovia, however, they all succeeded in the task (in reverse chronological order) and received their crisp new one dollar bills.
This is a story about how my Oma, and a pack of boys and dogs, taught me to ride her 1930s Gazelle girl’s bicycle.
There were no parents where I grew up. Kids wandered the neighbourhood at will and often ventured into unchartered lands beyond. The art of exploration was enhanced by the invention and mass distribution of the bicycle. The world was our oyster, and the paths through the prairies were as unlimited as the prairie skies.
We didn’t wear helmets in the ’50s and ’60s and looked for hills and cliffs to jump off. There was a hill nearby called Suicide-Hill. Rumour had it that there were hundreds of kids buried there that had had toboggan or bicycle accidents in the pioneer times before they invented cemeteries. We excelled at popping wheelies, biking down staircases and weaving our way through traffic. Hand signals were optional. Hitching a ride by grabbing onto buses and milk trucks was reserved for older boys with even fewer brains than ourselves. A boy’s intelligence seemed to be inversely related to age. The smartest boys lived in playpens and had their knees and elbows intact. We rode our bikes as though we were Junior Hell’s Angels, through stop signs, red lights, sidewalks and flower gardens. We were immortal.
I had the best and biggest tricycle in the neighbourhood. The prestige of being the fastest tricyclist dissipated when my friends started getting bicycles. I felt like a guy having a mule and cart in the age of the automobile.
We’d meet out at the baseball diamond across the road. There’d be five or six guys on their new bikes surrounded by a pack of No-name brand dogs without leashes. We didn’t have a dog because, according to my mother, dogs had hair that would fall out all over the chesterfield. We did have chickens. They didn’t have hair and didn’t come in the house unless they were decapitated and eviscerated. I wanted a dog so bad that I gave all the chickens’ dog names. We had, Lady, Spot, Rin-tin-tin, and Lassie. Even more than wanting a dog, I wanted a bike. I was the last six-year-old boy on the planet without a bicycle. This unbelievable fact was probably written in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I didn’t have a bicycle or a dog and felt like a loser, hopelessly lost.
Bringing a chicken out to the baseball diamond instead of a dog on a tricycle didn’t cut the mustard. I watched the boys on their bikes from a distance. I envied boys with bicycles. I found myself playing with my little sister and her dolls. Oh, the shame to have fallen so low. I would have given anything to have fallen off a bicycle and been able to show-off my mangled knees like the other boys.
Obviously, my parents loved my older brother Arie more than me. Some guy named “Juvenile Delinquent” stole my brother’s bicycle. Served him right, he never locked it. His bicycle was to be handed down to me as an inheritance if he died or got a new bike. So in a way, Juvy stole my future bike, and my dreams. For a brief moment, we both felt the loss together. Then, instead of letting him reap the results of his negligence, for his 13th birthday, my parents got him a brand-new CCM Continental three-speed bicycle! A bike slathered in chrome, with all the bells and whistles. It had a generator light and a rat trap carrier over the back wheel in case you found a girlfriend on the way home. The bike sported whitewall tires, an attached pump, and a water bottle.
Our parents believed that a kid shouldn’t get a new bike until they had practically stopped growing. I’m surprised that we didn’t walk around barefoot until our feet stopped growing before we got our first pair of shoes. When my brother got a bike, and I didn’t, it felt like he was Joseph, from the Sunday school class story, with the coat of many colours while I was a brother left to plot his demise. I dreamed of convincing my brother to ride down Suicide-Hill on his new bike. I’d doubled dare him to do it blindfolded. Then at his funeral, I’d cry the biggest crocodile tears known to mankind and drive off into the prairies on his brand new CCM Continental. My parents would be so devastated that I would have to console them. “Oh, this is so sad. Let’s get a yellow lab puppy, and call him Arie so we’ll never forget him. I’ll look after him and treat him better than a brother”.
I never got anything new. I was probably wearing Arie’s old pants, shirt, and underpants as the Hudson Bay truck, dropped off his glimmering bike, and drove away back to bicycle –land. Take me with you please! I’m dying out here without a bike! Save me!
Dad told me that I’d get a new used bike when the policemen had their stolen bicycle auction in a month. Purgatory would have been a shorter duration than waiting a summer month for a bicycle. Suddenly, I remembered we had my Oma’s old black 1930’s Gazelle bike somewhere in the back of the shed! I ran back to the hut and started pulling out the old barrels and lumber until I could extract the Gazelle. The tires on the huge girl’s bike were soft but not flat. I pumped up the tires and somehow moved the monstrosity out into the yard.
I didn’t ask if I could use Oma’s bike. This had already been discussed and ruled out because the bike was just too big. When the coast was clear of any parents, Oma’s bike was walked out to the field. I chose to live with ridicule rather than not have a bike. The boys laughed hysterically, but were surprisingly helpful. They held the bike up as I straddled the low bar and planted my feet on the pedals grabbing the handlebars far above. I couldn’t sit; the seat was way too high. The boys dragged me to a gentle slope and ran along beside me as I pedalled. I watched the wheels turning, towering over my friends and moved faster than many of them could run. The grass got blurry as I moved so quickly that all the boys let the bike go, and I sailed off into the fields like a prairie schooner followed by a pack of dogs. I was flying and felt the invigorating joy of speed. Nothing, besides that barbed wire fence, straight ahead, could stop me now.
There were many bloody falls. Fiercely, I’d crawl back onto that Gazelle and try again. Oma helped me; somewhere up beyond the clouds she believed in me as only Omas know how to do. I trembled, watching that front tire turning, knuckles turning white from clutching the handlebars so tight. (My mind filled with instructions from Oma. Turn the handlebars slowly, stay away from trees and fences. Keep pedaling or you will fall over. Don’t wiggle so much, keep her straight but move the front wheel gently back and forth.)
.After a week, of steadily improving skills, I could ride with the rest of them. Soon, we were venturing out into the prairies like a herd of buffaloes, followed by a pack of dogs. We lived fully in an environment where we belonged. We were wild and free!
Gaze out toward the prairie. See the boy riding his bicycle with his arms upraised towards the heavens like the wings of an angel. The world and his Gazelle are in perfect balance. The wind blows through this immortal spirit as he closes his eyes. He has seen the wind, and the wind is always at his back. His journey through life is just beginning, and oh how joyfully he is embracing it.