Growing up fourth in a family of five kids in the late ‘60s — the third boy, no less — my life pretty much revolved around hand-me-downs. Not so much in clothes, but rather in the important things in a boy’s life — like bikes.
The concept of brand new, especially as it pertained to anything expensive, was a foreign concept. So alien that I couldn’t dare dream about it. Thus, my fascination with old, used and abandoned items was born. We had a couple of places where these hidden riches hung out: the attic, the basement and the garage.
Living on the northern edge of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our garage was an old dilapidated single-car, detached building that was never used to shelter a car. We had too much other crap to fill it, like lawn mowers, snow blower, snow shovels, wheelbarrow, yard tools and other bizarre things like snow saucers, toboggans, cherry pickers and a rototiller. It even had a root cellar in the back where God knows what lived. Something scurried about in there one day that sent me screaming out the door. I stayed away thereafter.
An old garbage can was filled with miscellaneous sports equipment, beat down to the brink of extinction by my two older brothers, stuff like a Wilson basketball worn to a shiny, slick surface with the brand name just barely visible, its finger grip indentations ground down to surface level like a polished jewel. That piqued my interest when the Milwaukee Bucks arrived in town in 1969, along with the rusty hoop hanging on a hook in the wall.
I managed to convince my dad to nail the hoop up on the front of the garage, and bounced the ball on the pot-holed gravel driveway hoping someday I might get a net to make it look real. Never happened.
When baseball season rolled around my brother’s worn catcher’s mitt, wire mask and tattered knee protectors sparked countless fantasies. The Henry “Hank” Aaron baseball bat pocked with dents from endlessly hitting stones sparked a splinter or two as I would caress it in my hands pretending to be my hero, Willie Mays.
A filthy, flimsy Milwaukee Braves baseball cap had been abandoned when they left town for Atlanta. Either that painful move or the possible bugs living in it prompted screams from my mother if I ever wore it where she could see me. I never got the chance to play Little League because despite the mask, Tom got smacked in the eye once and nearly lost his sight, according to mom. I do remember it was quite a swollen shiner on the way to the doctor’s office.
It was a lot like my dream of playing trombone that was axed because Jim quit a few weeks after they bought him a new ‘bone. I got saddled with my sister’s clarinet — typically the only boy in that section. At least it wasn’t a flute.
Same for any chance to join Cub Scouts, Jim’s short attention span and penchant for quitting derailing many of my goals. With a lot of my dreams dashed by older sibling failings, that left my imagination as my primary source of adventure. They were also much older than me, six and nine years older.
What really made the garage my Neverland was the line of bicycles wedged tightly together to stymie me from the mere thought of even touching them, least the whole line crash to the cement floor like dominoes in a pile of debris. The gem of the herd was Jim’s golden Columbia 10-speed he bought late in his high school years that I saw him ride maybe once — again his focus on the latest shiny objective transferred to the Honda motorbike he bought next.
Almost equally legendary was Tom’s red Columbia 3-speed with twin baskets on the back. He would lure me into the baskets and then take me on terrifying rides through ditches and down “Deadman’s Hill.” Along with those jewels, we had a couple of old, broken-down bikes. Tom’s cream colored 24-incher with rusty fenders and frame that included thin red accent lines. Finally, an 18-inch beginner bike with training wheels.
With my brothers so much older, they had very little interest in anything that had to do with me, short of terrorizing — Tom and his friend Gary chasing me with a huge snapping turtle they grabbed down at the Menomonee River. Teaching me to ride a bike was never going to happen.
One day I took it upon myself to learn.
The beginner’s bike was on the outside edge, the bicycles lined up by size. It was a fixed gear to start with and also had a pedal missing, leaving it with only a single steel rod.
That wouldn’t work.
That left Tom’s 24-incher. A 20-incher probably would have been about the right size for me, since I could barely get my leg over the top tube of Tom’s bike while still standing. But the tiny bike also had flat tires and the 24-incher had solid rubber tires. A no-brainer.
I’m not sure what my mom was doing that day, but I had a brother four years younger who kept her busy inside. The morning rain had just stopped so she was anxious to get me outta the house since she was deep in some culinary project in the kitchen on the other side of the house.
I decided it was time to go for it.
I moved the trainer and pulled Tom’s bike out. It was super heavy, knocking me to the floor and nearly pinning me hopelessly beneath it. I managed somehow to escape and lugged it to the top of the hill in front of our house.
I knew very little about bikes, but I did know one thing for certain: I would never get rolling on a flat surface. I needed a push — the kind Dede Praeger got from her older sister and my best friend Jeff Ehn got from his dad when my neighborhood friends learned to ride.
I looked down the hill, which looked much like the view of a downhill ski racer in the starting gate I had seen on ABC Wide World of Sports. The tar-and-gravel road was soaked from the showers. I whipped my right leg over the top and saw my foot still dangling a few inches from the pedal. I’d have to make a leap of faith and hope my foot landed on the pedal.
Of course, it didn’t.
The first couple of tries resulted in seriously painful straddling of the top tube — the kind of move that makes America’s Funniest Home Videos at least once an episode. Eventually, I stuck it. My foot hit the pedal and I launched it downward with all my weight. The bike lurched forward. The front wheel swung wildly back and forth. Then, gravity took over.
The bike cleared the top of the hill and began to build speed. Quickly.
The speed straightened the handlebars and in a nanosecond I was flying down the hill.
For the slightest moment, a huge wave of pride washed over me.
I did it!
I’m riding a bike!!
It’s the kind of flood of ecstasy that makes seconds seem like minutes, minutes like hours, hours like — HOLY SHIT!! I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO STOP!!!
As the bike reached its top speed with me only able to push down a quarter stroke before the pedal completed its downward stroke alone, euphoria turned to terror. The road leveled off, but my speed didn’t. Or didn’t feel like it would any time soon. I could sense the safety of my home disappearing behind me in a flash as pure panic set in. I had to stop this, one way or another.
I wobbled toward the soft landing of the ditch, again with visions of that ski jumper on Wide World of Sports dancing in my head. Moments before the front wheel planted itself, I launched myself from the bike and tumbled to a stop. In a process that would be repeated endlessly through the course of my cycling life, I paused for a moment to take injury inventory. Nothing hurt too badly. I blasted out a laugh.
Not bad for a kid who was scared of heights, scared of the dark (thanks to my brother Tom and Gary constantly locking me in the dark of our basement cellar proclaiming the witch Hazel lived in there and ate little boys), terrified when Mom pulled out a needle to extract a sliver, and, well, far too many other things to list.
I never did get a decent bike to start on. My parents made me wait ’til I was tall enough to handle the 24-incher. I never revealed my covert maiden voyage. Like countless rides since, that’s between me and my bike.
Time to ride.