Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Big Bike

My first two-wheeler bike was a J. C. Higgins purchased through Sears and Roebuck. It had a stunning deep blue metallic frame with a two-tone seat of blue and white. Like typical bicycles of that era it came with standard coaster brakes, tire fenders, a battery-operated headlight, and the luggage rack over the rear tire. It was a ladies bike with the cutaway steel frame and 26-inch diameter balloon tires. This was a really big bike.

So you may be curious about my apparent obsession with the size of this bike which otherwise seems to be fairly standard. It was given on my eighth birthday in 1961; and it was a bike intended to last me the rest of my life. Now this bike would have been large for even the average eight year old but I was on the smallish side, and even though my birth month put me back a year I was still the smallest second grader in the school.

The size was not an immediate issue because the bike was received in the dead of a Pennsylvania winter, in February to be exact. So after a few minutes of admiring it and saying “thank you” the bike was returned to the cellar to await the arrival of spring. Of course that made the part about “take good care of it” fairly easy in the beginning because the bike was just sitting in the cellar. Although I suppose one could wonder about the risk of rust since bikes in this era were generally made of steel and the cellars of old farmhouses tended to be wet or at least very damp.

Eventually spring arrived and, with the warm weather and longer days, the time came to bring the bike out of the cellar for the inaugural ride. It never occurred to me, and apparently not to my parents either, that living at the end of an unpaved gravel lane should pose any difficulties to learning to ride a bike. After all Timmy Martin (Lassie –TV show) did it every Sunday night at 7 o’clock; although the fact that his bike was sized for an eight-year-old might have contributed to his success.

Once the bike was outside in the daylight two things stood out. First, it was a shinier than I remembered. Second, it was bigger than I remembered; a lot bigger. In fact it looked daunting but I was eager to get on and ride, and so it began. Training wheels had been deemed frivolous so dad held the bike steady while I climbed onto the pedals. Humph, even with the seat at its lowest setting I could not reach it while standing on the pedals. However, not to be easily dissuaded, the fact that it was a ladies frame made it possible to stand and ride until I would get tall enough to reach the seat and pedals at the same time.

So, after managing to get onto the pedals with my arms outstretched to reach the widely-spaced handle grips, it was time to pedal. It had looked so easy, so effortless, when other people pedaled bikes but pushing down the pedals that day was hard, really hard; and it didn’t go very far on one pedal-push. Remember this was a full-sized ladies 1-speed bike with a standard sprocket and a heavy steel frame on balloon tires trying to get traction in loose gravel.

Now you recall that my dad was holding the bike so I could get on? Well, he was now required (vis-√†-vis: the no training wheels) to stay with me and hold the bike upright until I “got it.” So he was holding the back of the seat trotting along-side as I struggled to pedal down the graveled lane. We were not exactly the picture of grace in motion, but there we were: he at 200 pounds, sweating to keep the bike - and me – upright as his feet rolled and shifting in the loose gravel, me at scarcely 50 pounds, lost on the huge frame of this bike struggling to steer through the same gravel while remembering to pedal and to center my gravity – whatever that meant.

Finally though, after a few weeks, the day came when I succeeded in getting on the bike, going the length of the lane and returning in 10 minutes, in one piece, all on my own; and much to everyone’s relief and satisfaction. It would be almost a year before I would be able to sit and ride like everybody else but I was riding and that was the important thing at that stage.

It didn’t seem to matter that except for up and down the lane there was nowhere to go. What mattered was that I could go relatively fast and I could go without the younger siblings who were too small to even walk the lane without getting tired before the halfway point. It wasn’t terribly grown-up at the time, but it was just enough.

This post was written for Scribbit’s February Write-Away Contest: “First Bike.”

When I find a snapshot to scan I will post it. Until then a similar bike can be seen in this person’s Flickr album: trialxerror


Scribbit said...

The way you painted the picture of that beauty I could see it so clearly--what a great looking bike that was!

7sky said...

We always remember that first bike. Mine was red and white.

Daisy said...

My daughter remembers her first "big bike" - a banana seat bike from a rummage sale. Her best friend was jealous; her family had loads of expensive toys, but my kiddo's bike was unique. I think it cost $7.

MoziEsmé said...

Sounds like a classic! I'm impressed you got it going that first year!

Margaret Cloud said...

I checked out the picture of the bike, and all I can say is Wow. what a bike. I liked your story, I like reading about peoples life experience, thanks for sharing.