Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

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Quiet Friends

It’s the high season in Maine and it seems like every advancing wave on the beach washes up another family toting cameras, sunblock and a cooler big enough to put a complete thanksgiving dinner for twelve in. I don’t begrudge them their visit. It’s beautiful here! If it wasn’t already my home, I’d probably be tromping up the sand, ready to lay claim to some quiet corner of costal summer with my own sofa sized cooler. As it is though, we, the locals, get used to being the only ones here for much of the year and it’s always a little jarring to suddenly have to share. We know each other, who’s doing what and most importantly, where we need to stand to be out of the way.

No so, the tourist. They are everywhere and move about the place like a bunch of deranged and possibly concussed, chickens. Trying to get through our little downtown area gets aggravating but trying to drive out by the shore practically becomes an Olympic sport. Out on the ocean road, away from the docks, piers and tightly placed houses, tourists travel in packs of four to fourteen and decorate the roads. Blind turns and crests of hills become extra exciting when driving along these stretches. At the last possible second, the tourists will look up and gasp in disbelief that someone would actually choose to drive a motorized vehicle on their chosen path. Only begrudgingly will they make room. This is usually accomplished by the flock splitting in two like an amoeba and lining both sides of the road, thus insuring that if another car is coming from the other direction, one of you must stop and let the other go first.

For this reason, I try to take my bike as much as possible. That, and the fact that gas is now… what? Sixty two bucks a thimble? The reason for all the driving or bike riding is my son, Short Stack. You show me a two year old who can be successfully “put down” in his own bed for an afternoon nap and I’ll show you a bottle spiked with vodka. It’s out of the question. At least as far as MY two year old goes. What does make for a successful nap? Two things: lunch and motion.

After feeding him one or two of the six food items that he will let pass his lips, I take him out for a ride. He’s wise to this as a nap inducer, so I usually have to mask our trip as an adventure.

“Hey, Buddy! Let’s go see if we can find the sea ducks!” or…
“Hey, Short Stack! Do you know where the blue boat is? Let’s go find it!”

You get the idea. He’s only mildly interested when I’ve pointed out ducks before and as far as the “blue boat” goes, I just plain made that up. We might spot one but it would be pure luck. The point is to get him ramped up to go out. Nap? Who said anything about a nap?

So, since it’s not blowing snow in my face at the moment and I’m starting to feel a bit fluffy around the middle, I decided to pull out the bike trailer and my trusty mountain bike. The trailer is a really nice, top of the line “Chariot” which I was able to afford only because it was last years floor model. The bike… Ah, the bike…

My ride is a Gary Fisher Tassajara that has done some serious thundering over the years. Its been dumped off rock faces, gone end over end due to the roots of old and malevolent trees, been wheel deep in questionable brown water and carried my butt while flying through the air and praying for a solid landing, wheels first, if at all possible. The mud that has covered its frame could have build your dog an adobe house of their own. Action Girl and I have had some fantastic times flying through the forest at break neck speed. Now, it sedately tows my sleepy son as he questions me about the location of these dubious ducks.
He’s asleep within five minutes.

The crowds are pretty think and just trying to navigate amongst the day-trippers is starting to frazzle me. That, and the alarming frequency of having one yell to another of their group just as I pass with my snoozing cargo. I have to find a place to hide.

The beaches are, naturally, packed so I have to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path. The problem is that even the unbeaten paths tend to be filled with berry pickers or teenagers testing out what they learned biology class last year. Where to go?

I pedaled along for a while longer and then thought of it. In just a few miles, I quietly pulled into my favorite, secluded cemetery. I parked the bike and Short Stack in the shade, got out my book and leaned against a stone. After some time reading in the July sun and listening to the ocean breeze blow through the trees, I put the book down and simply soaked up the moment, place and peace.

I love a well kept cemetery. I find them peaceful, welcoming and above all, full of wonderful stories and affection. The white marble stone I was resting against belonged to Margaret C. She was born is 1842 and died in 1922. Not a bad run at all. She had lived through the American Civil War, had seen the first automobiles, watched the boys come home at the end of The Great War of 1914-18 and lived in the era of the giant airships. Across the top of this monument, even above her name, was simply inscribed, “Mother”. This was someone’s mother, and here I was leaning against her monument and looking at my sleeping son as father, born long before Margaret was gone. I smiled and pointed my boy out to her as if she was sitting next to me and in a quiet voice, told her how special he was.

Short Stack woke up about an hour later and once he got his bearings, we spent some time poking around this grassy place of memories. He’s been there many times with me and so knows what to look for. The puddle that’s ideal for tossing pebbles into, the best walls for walking on and even the which stones he can hide behind. We spent some time soaking up the sun and running over the short, mown grass. Eventually, we packed up and headed back to the house, weaving our way between the wandering sunburns and returning home to play with Lulu Belle.

It was a wonderful way to spend some time with Short Stack and I fully expect to do it again. Our friends at the cemetery don’t talk much, but their epitaphs say volumes. That’s the kind of folk who always make me feel welcome.

When the visiting tourist and summer crowds get too deep, it’s always a safe bet to look for us at Margaret’s. She’s always there and I hope, happy to see us. Also, she has the best place in town to nap under the whispering, July trees.

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