Childhood Lore

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This is the tale of a storied man’s son, on a quest to re-live a fabled 1930’s adventure of his father and his bike… 

 

Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather walked into the downtown Greensboro, N.C. Sears, to buy his young son the machine of his dreams. In doing so he forever changed my life. My grandfather’s giddy delight in giving over-the-top gifts kept him from maintaining secrecy for any length of time. He needed to get straight to springing the surprise. The bicycle he bought that day, though intended to be my father’s Christmas gift, was revealed to him almost immediately. A little Elvis-like, the smoothe southern gentleman, loved nothing more than having and giving the latest gadgets and slickest toys—using them to perform his, “Red Neck with new money” version of shock and awe. So, to the dismay of my grandmother and without her knowledge, he gives the bicycle to my dad weeks before Christmas, swearing my father to secrecy while all along having the cheek to film the occasion. Once my grandmother saw that movie, I’ll bet there was no fat back in those boy’s grits for weeks!

 

Sitting here today, surrounded 

by the aging, musty boxes of my grandfather’s 8mm home movies—I’m consumed—I’ve taken a southerly turn on the compass of normalcy. I need to find just one frame amongst all the old reels. Reels, pried from my father’s overly-protective care, while I reassured him that no harm could possibly come to them during my search. Unfortunately, improperly stored, old celluloid does tend to crumble in one’s overly-anxious, child-like paws. Continuing my unnecessarily frantic behavior, I’m seeking just one image to provide me with actual documentation of the make and model of my father’s first childhood bike. 

 

Up until now, my attempts to positively identify his bike have failed. I’ve used an internet-obtained bounty of images, cross referenced against the Sears catalog of the day, to make photo line-ups. Showing these selections of bikes to my dad, yielded only some shaky assurance from him as to which bike he actually owned. (What does drive people to post and maintain such obscurities online? I don’t have a clue, but I’m grateful). Speaking about what drives someone to go to seemingly insane lengths…where is the mirror? I think at this point, the only thing keeping me from my own “OCD” label is just a formal diagnosis and prescription. But enough digression! Just one clear shot of his bicycle, will put an end to my relentless questioning. Why all the drama, you ask? For me, my dad’s first two-wheeler has currently taken center stage in my ever evolving, life long love of bicycles.

 

So, what is it that draws an individual into a life-long love affair with bicycles? Maybe it’s a combination of the freedom and thrill, or perhaps it could just be the beauty of a man’s interaction with a machine of such pure simplicity. As cyclists, I’m sure we all differ in our reasons, but surely not in our desires to ride. As a child with barely a sense of balance, I came into a life centered around two wheels through an unlikely medium—story-telling. You see, my love of cycling was mostly an adopted one, belonging originally to my father—who regaled me with stories of his youth—many of which, were inevitably attached to either his bicycle or brush. His passionate recollections, unintentionally became the basis of my lifetime romance with bicycles. Truth be told—even before I had my first bike—I was convinced of the glory of cycling by his unbounded enthusiasm, (certainly not his actions). To this day, I’ve only seen the man ride a bicycle three times.

 

One of his childhood adventures always shaped my ideas of cycling; The tale takes my eleven-year-old father and his 1937 Sears & Roebuck “cruiser / fixie” on a 220 mile, 2-day trip in early July, across North Carolina. Fueled only by the fad of the day, (a bag of peanuts poured into an 8oz bottle of Coke), he pedaled from his family home in Greensboro to his Uncle’s farm in Mars Hill. As the story goes, my father and his Elgin made this voyage without any mechanical failures—and as he likes to say, “I pedaled the entire way.” “Pedaled the entire way,” does not exclude one from stopping to catch their breath. Probably necessary when you have only one gear to climb the “formidable” Black Mountain: a 2,200 ft vertical ascent with as far as I can discern—a maximum grade of 6%. Yeah, yeah, I know what you crazy-dedicated, 160 mile-per-week people are saying… that’s barely a “Cat 4” in grand tour terms (and no, I haven’t tested it with my Citroën). But hey, those guys don’t ride 1930’s era department store bikes. And, even when they did, I recollect reading about a whole lot of walking! 

 

The aforementioned climb ranks high on my personal list of childhood traumas—this being one of terror. Terror, resulting from my dad’s unconscious need to see if the descent of this mountain pass could be made driving in his 29’ Winnebago. I, as the trusty sidekick, got to view the very reason that you don’t let a guy who is blind in one eye pilot an 8-foot-wide overheating camper with undersized brakes—down (or up), a two-lane mountain pass. Let alone, allow this to occur during road construction activities (the NC DOT must have realized that the road had no shoulders just before we got there). I clenched at the armrests, wondering if those large piles of gravel could really stop a runaway camper before it plummeted into the fog. At that moment, I was beginning to believe the claim he made—stating that on the descent he and his bike outpaced a bus the entire way down. Likely true, ‘cause I’ll bet all the bus drivers of the day were terrified too.

 

Talking terror… a “Cats and the Cradle” kind of guy, my father did his best to assure that I wanted for very little. So a string of bicycles paraded through my youth. Though ever limited by time, he sporadically tried to teach me how to ride and later to rid me, one at a time, of my training wheels. But alas, to no avail… he unfortunately missed out on my first minute of self-balanced riding. Ironically, the duty fell into the less than cautious hands of my babysitter. In a moment of her 10-year-old genius, she coaxed my six-year-old blind faith into believing that she would hold me up while I pedaled sans, the extra wheel. Gleefully riding along, I looked back to find her quite missing from this arrangement. Looking ahead, I saw nothing but curb and telephone pole. We all know how this ended… Even now, it still amazes me that I ride at all! But, ultimately, my first basic “life lesson through cycling” was learned. Look where you want to go. 

 

Often while pedaling through my own life, I’d reflect on his 1930’s journey to a summer’s vacation with his cousins. As a twelve-year-old, I would dream of riding to far destinations, just as my dad did. However, my thoughts were fantasies in nature, as I was living the far more protected youth of the 70’s. Though ever seeking adventure, escaping parental control to ride a mere 20 miles with a friend seemed daring.  Today, with my added age and greater understanding of cycling and its modern conveniences, the focus of my thoughts regarding his ride have shifted. I ask myself… just how did the tarheeled kid do it? I’m sure all of you hard-core folks will be laughing at this, but give me some slack. I just keep going back to the elements in play—the heat, the roads, the backpack and luggage, carrying Coca-Cola in glass bottles and then…THE ONE GEAR!  From my saddle, I question any climbing without 30 gearing choices and a liter of water at my hands. All of this speculation leads to the questioning of myself. Could I make his ride today, under the same conditions as he did almost 75 years ago? How could he have done it on a bike weighing 50lbs with one gear and 2”-wide tires? Again, maybe in his recollection of the story, reality is being just slightly bent through the prism of time?

 

For one to understand the what would lead an adult man to wonder if his father’s tale is wholly fact or somewhat fiction, a bit of background information is in order: A mildly famous man in his field, my dad brought ink to paper most every day of his life, to illustrate fantasy and fiction. So, realistically, is he truly a reliable historian of his own youth or is there potentially some embellishment in his tales? My father was one of those dads whose wardrobe was the talk of the other neighborhood kids. Out in our yard, he could be spotted from the end of the block. Really, for some years, I didn’t understand that it was a fashion “NO” to wear brown polyester suit pants with aging black holy-soled leather loafers and complement the ensemble, with a day-glo orange and white hawaiian shirt. Nor, did I grasp how problematic it was to top off this outfit with a plastic pocket protector, stuffed with every kind of pen and receipt imaginable. Okay, I’ll admit—maybe on some level—even my child-self knew that this was not proper apparel for lawn maintenance. 

 

Regarding stature, he was a bit taller than most other dads—not heavy nor thin—with large square hands and broad shoulders. Certainly, nothing about his appearance would lead one to believe that there was any significant amount of athletic prowess within this soft spoken, southern gentleman. As a youth, the only physical activity I ever witnessed him partake in, was in fact, cycling. Even so, this was at a very pedestrian-pace, on-board an Atlantic City boardwalk rental bike. His physicality aside, and onto what I believe to be any cyclists greatest attribute; their minds. Mentally, he had a “never say die” attitude that went well beyond that of the most persevering souls one might meet. Could this innate attitude enable him to overcome any pain or desire to give into failure? Or was it was just plain old circumstance that forced him to complete his voyage? At the time it’s doubtful that any of his tobacco-farming relatives even owned a car to come pick him up with (they hadn’t yet gotten to installing electricity or running water). So, am I right or wrong in questioning the facts of his fabled trip? I think the only way my curiosity will be truly satisfied, is to take the ride myself.

 

For now, its back to the “tapes” (or films), I should say. After identifying his bike, I can continue my pursuit of the truth and my own self measure. I plan to find and restore a bike like my father’s childhood cruiser, start my Coca-Cola/peanut-fueled, training regime and in the summer ride the entire trip as he did (using the same roads and equipment of the day where possible). For the record I’m not a highly conditioned rider—I probably wouldn’t even get the “weekend warrior” nod. In other words, I love to ride—I’m just not “all that.” The reality of my cycling abilities is driven every-so-gently home, each and every time a bunch of 60-plus-year-old guys fly past me on my weekend rides. The sound from their almost synchronized flowing chains, deftly throws any bit of self esteem I may have ever developed, directly under the proverbial bus.This might just be a really tough ride! But when its over I’ll be able to put to rest—once and for ever—any question, as to whether or not, at forty five-years-old, I can fill my father’s childhood shoes. 

 

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