Bike by Bike:
Reflections on Bicycles and Life
The Early Years
I started pedaling through the world when I was three years old. My first pedal-powered vehicle was a metallic purple tricycle with a white saddle, white handlebar grips and sparkly white streamers. It had a small silver bell on the left side of the handlebar, and a step on the back onto which I often attached a handkerchief full of lollipops, Matchbox cars, Playmobil figures, and other sundries. Of course, I rarely got very far on my little purple tricycle. My “travels” were generally the made-up itineraries of a tyke on a bike with a rich and textured imagination. Usually I didn’t venture past the boundary of our driveway, or the tree-line on the other side of our backyard. But, one day, according to my mother, I got adventurous.
I’d only had my tricycle for a few months before I set out on my first cyclotour. It was the middle of summer, probably sometime in July. I was playing outside in the yard, when my mother called out, “Julie, come inside.” She was taking my younger brother upstairs for his late morning nap and didn’t want to leave me alone. I certainly don’t remember what was going through my head at the time. But, when we got upstairs to my brother’s room my mother remembers that I asked for a few lollipops. “Why do want them?” she asked, to which I nonchalantly replied, “For me and Holly.”
Holly was my cousin. She was a year older than me, and before my younger brother was born we’d spent hours playing together while my mother and aunt drank coffee and talked. Holly and her parents used to live down the street from me. But then they moved, way over to the other side of town.
The lollipops I requested were kept in a small blue glass container on the kitchen counter. “I only want two,” I told my mother. And, in her focused state, trying to get my brother changed and readied for his nap, my mother hurriedly told me to “Go ahead and get them.” So, I toddled down the stairs, ran into the kitchen, pushed the small white stool from the corner up to the counter, and proceeded to help myself. Then I headed for my tricycle, removed the handkerchief from the little step, and wrapped the lollipops neatly and securely inside.
An hour later some friends of my parents’ picked me up a quarter of a mile from my home. I was on my way to Holly’s house, on the other side of town. Evidently, when my mother realized that I was missing from the house and the yard, she panicked (of course!), called my father and remembered that I had asked for lollipops for Holly and me. Then she realized that the only route I would have known for traveling to Holly’s house was by way of the interstate. Fortunately, we lived at the top of a hill, in a neighborhood with several windy roads. There was only one way that I would have known to get to the interstate, which was four miles from my home. And, that road ran past father’s work.
When I close my eyes today I can easily recall my father nervously pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace in our family room, while my mother cuddled me on her lap. I don’t remember that I was crying, but I do remember my mother’s red, swollen eyes, and the moisture that kept running down the side of her face as she hugged me close. Neither of my parents punished me, or threatened to take away my tricycle. In fact, I was out exploring my world the very next day. Though the rope that my father strung across the driveway before he left for work in the morning did make it difficult for me to set off for my cousin’s house alone.
Beyond the Driveway
My first “big kid” bike was a green Schwinn Stingray with a white banana seat, high handlebars and coaster brakes. No sparkly streamers hanging from the grips on this one, but it did come with a small, plastic handlebar bag in which I could stash loads of candy from the little grocery at the bottom of our neighborhood hill. When I was growing up there were no cell phones, and my parents, though interested in where I was going, were not particularly concerned that I might get lost or taken when I crossed the threshold between our yard and the street. (This is pretty impressive given my trek “almost-across-town” when I was three). Perhaps they trusted that the neighborhood parents were watching out for us kids. At least one parent—usually the mother—was home during the days. And, neighbors knew one another back then; they called one another; kept tabs on whoever was playing in their yards. Though we kids never felt like Big Brother was looming above us, we were clearly being watched…most of the time.
My Stingray was the first bike I used to venture beyond the confines of my neighborhood. It was my first “commuter” bike. I rode it to school, and to visit friends; I pedaled down the hill to collect a gallon of milk for my mother if she needed, and trekked over into the cemetery on the other side of our hill for afternoon respites when I wanted to be alone. My Stingray delivered me to the pay phone across the street from the grocery when I was grounded from talking to my friends. And, it transported me to calmer, safer dwellings when my parents were fighting, yelling and eventually divorcing. I didn’t wear a helmet back then. In fact, I didn’t own one. My clothes were nothing special: jeans or shorts, t-shirts, sneakers, and maybe a windbreaker when the winds were blowing. I had a battery-powered light on the front of my bike, but no “blinky” on the back. My bike was pretty simple. It got me where I needed to go.