I had a hard time learning to ride a bike. I’m not sure why, because I have always had fairly good balance, but bicycles had a mental block for me. My parents tried to teach me by running along and pushing. As long as they kept the momentum going, I was fine, but once they ran out of wind, I ran out of hope. I remember one time my mother running and pushing the back of the seat. I pedaled as upsidedownbikefast as I could while Mom gasped for air behind me.
As I pedaled along, I realized this was my longest ride yet. I called over my shoulder, “Don’t let go.” No answer. “Mom, don’t let go,” I said. Still no answer. “Mom?”
I looked back and saw my mom cheering me on from a half a block away. Realizing I was on my own, I flopped over and crashed. When Mom got to me, I said, “Why did you let go?” I apparently mistook my mother for a marathon runner.
“Why did you quit pedaling?” she asked in return.
That was a silly question. Of course I had to crash if someone wasn’t holding the seat. Several pavement smacks later we took a break from learning to ride. I just wasn’t getting it. Since we didn’t have bike helmets in those days, learning the bike was a bit hazardous at times. Soon my bike was placed in the storage room as a trophy of failure.
We moved to Marietta shortly thereafter. All the neighborhood kids rode bikes and yours truly (captain wipe-out) had to hitch rides. Stewart was the biggest kid in the neighborhood, so I usually sat on the back of his bike. One day he started pedaling before I could get in place.
Let me digress for a moment. I had a nasty wart on the side of my foot, just below the ankle. It was very bothersome. Shoes would wear on it and often caused me a lot of irritation. But Stewart discovered the cure for warts. When he took off, I lost my balance and my heel banged into the spokes of the back wheel. Then one spoke plunked off my big ugly wart. It bled quite a bit and I was mad at Stewart for taking off too soon, but when it healed, no more wart.
Stewart, if you read this, I never properly thanked you for your medical intervention. You are still the best wart remover I’ve ever met – even if your surgery methods are a little unconventional.
My best neighborhood friend was also named Eddie. Everyone called us Eddie and Eddie. We were playing at the house next door with the Tuley girls. Everyone was riding bikes down the sloping driveway, around the carport, and back up. I retrieved my bike from the trophy case of failure and rode it down the driveway. I couldn’t pedal up, but I could get a little momentum and coast down.
I still remember the moment it clicked. After a dozen coasts down the driveway I felt something in my noggin click. It was like a switch flipped. Or maybe a strand of idiocracy broke. Just as I reached the bottom of the slope I felt it. I turned to my friend and said, “I just learned how to ride a bike.” I hadn’t tried pedaling yet, but I already knew I could. The balancing pendulum in my head was now swinging freely, so there was nothing to stop me. I pedaled up, down, and joined the ranks of the free riders. Stewart’s limo service was now obsolete.
It wasn’t long before I was riding hands free and going on adventures. This was also when Evel Knievel was at the height of his popularity. Though he failed to successfully jump the Snake River Canyon, we were determined to complete the mission. Ramps became a normal routine for our bike riding. For some reason, the casualty rate for neighborhood bike riders seemed to rise during this time.
Eddie and I built the mother of all ramps. It was beautiful. It wasn’t very well thought out. It also had a slight design flaw. Because of the material we used, the ramp couldn’t reach the height we needed without a 90 degree turn. Oh yeah, and this turn occurred half way up the ramp.
Eddie wanted to try it out first. Since most of the materials came from his house, he claimed the right to pilot the test. With reluctance I gave in. We had the perfect testing ground. My dad parked a bus in the middle lot for a while and he laid down a driveway of fine gravel. It had packed over the years and the lot had a gentle slope. The long driveway was perfect for getting traction and gaining a lot of speed. It wasn’t a good place to crash unless you could get to the grass. But crashes don’t always allow for a controlled landing.
With hair flying in the wind, Eddie blurred past me, hit the ramp and made the 90 degree turn. Or at least his front tire did. He disappeared over the mother of all ramps. Then I heard a noise that echoed between the houses that strangely resembled a ten year old boy being ground into the grassy dirt. Then a wheezing emerged from behind the mother of all ramps. It sounded like a ten year old boy trying in vain to breathe. Kind of like what you would expect if you beat said ten year old into a divot with the metal frame of a bike.
The dust cleared. The sounds were exactly what they appeared to be. Something revolutionary occurred to me. The ramp had a flaw. When going 30 miles per hour, it wasn’t possible to turn a bike 90 degrees in the space of 5 inches. When Eddie regained consciousness, he also agreed with my analysis. We had to make the ramp straight. High, but straight. After much scavenging, we had the materials to redesign the mother of all ramps. It was beautiful. It was high. It was my turn to test pilot.
I positioned my bike at the highest point and stared down at the mother of all ramps. A voice materialized in the air around me. I thought it said, “This isn’t a good idea.” I waved my hand to disperse the voice of deception. Of course this was a good idea. In fact, it was a great idea. And now the ramp was well designed, straight, and strong. What could possibly go wrong?
I began my descent. I pedaled faster and faster. The ramp grew in size as I approached. I lined up my front wheel with the center of the ramp. Too bad I didn’t fix those handlebars.
Oh, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? After many wipeouts and ramp jumps, the stem that held the handlebars in place became stripped. At one point, I could push them over with a nudge. I borrowed Dad’s adjustable wrench and made the bar as tight as my 10 year old arms could make it. They were still a little loose, but wouldn’t go forward without pushing hard on them. Kind of like the force generated when you hit a ramp at high speed.
Sure enough, when I hit the ramp, my body lurched forward and I pressed hard on the handlebars. They betrayed my confidence, for the bar bailed out without much effort to save me. The handlebars were suddenly beside the bike wheels. Since I had a grip on them, my arms were also down there. I had the strange sensation that I was upside down. Then I saw the sun rotate under me. That couldn’t be a good sign. That means the wheels must be above me. Which also makes the hard packed gravel below me. Or should I say, behind me.
I forgot to mention one other minor detail. In the summertime, I always played shirtless. And this was during the summertime. I imagined myself landing hard on that gravel. The thought was so real, I actually felt the air go out of me. With vivid sensations, I imagined, and felt my bare sweaty back grinding across that gravel. I could even imagine the smell of gravel dust swirling around me. And the stinging of skin being replaced by tiny little rocks.
When my fantasy came to an end, I staggered to my feet as I tried to gasp for a breath. The flames shooting up my back told me that this might be more than childhood fantasy. Faintly I heard my friend Eddie’s voice say something like, “Man, you skidded a long way. Look at your back!” I tried to look, but I couldn’t get my head to rotate 180 degrees.
I ran for the house to look in the bathroom mirror. The moment my feet crossed the threshold of the door, I heard Mom say, “What’s wrong?” Why did God give mothers that intuition? Now she’ll be chasing me with a first aid kit. Just what I need. More pain.
“Nothing,” I said. I was already in enough pain. I certainly didn’t want a mother with cleaning solutions chasing after me. My evasion didn’t work. By the time I got in the bathroom, Mom was already in hot pursuit.
“Good heavens!” she said in horror. I looked up. She had peroxide in hand. I pleaded for mercy, but she would have none of it. My shredded back would be cleaned. She poured a cap-full on my back and pain bubbled out of my mouth.
When I regained consciousness, I was confessing every sin I could remember. It didn’t help. The last thing I heard was Mom saying, “Now that it’s clean, I need to put on something to disinfect it.” She poured something on a cotton swab and reached toward me. “This won’t hur…..” Then the world faded to black.