A contributed perspectives piece by Joe Laughland
In 1957, at age eleven, all my friends rode bikes but me. Even though my older brother offered his bike, he never had time to teach me how to ride it. My friends pretended to fly fighter planes using their bikes. Laminated cards attached to the frame flapping against the spokes simulating the noise of propellers. Each kid with his own interpretative sound of machine gun fire, “rat tat tat tat tat” as they maneuvered behind each other, going in for the kill.
One day, Jeff brought his bike over to me. Being a small kid, he had a small bike. Jeff challenged me to try to ride his bike. With great trepidation, I walked Jeff’s bike to where the sidewalk slightly declined towards the street corner. At first, I just sat on his bike with a death grip on the handle bars. Jeff began laughing, calling me a scaredy cat, the worst thing a kid could say to another. I had to ride this bike, regardless of the consequences.
Aiming down the slight hill, I let the bike coast forward, my feet dragging along the sidewalk to prevent a catastrophic fall. At first, I couldn’t believe I had coasted down so easily. For me, the ride represented the Wright brothers’ first flight . . . short but amazing. I even turned at the corner and coasted further down the sidewalk. I repeated my coasting several times until Jeff took his bike back.
So I ran home and got my brother’s bike. I returned to my friends and coasted the bike down that sloping sidewalk over and over. Eventually, with practice, I could pedal, brake, and steer.
My brother’s bike had seen better days. Fenderless, worn tires, one gear, a foot brake, and a wobbling handle bar. I bought a basket, a light, a horn, two yellow reflectors, and a lock. No special riding attire needed, just a t-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers.
When school started, I’d coast down the four city blocks to school. Soon, I learned to go ‟no hands,” just like my buddies. Of course, when school let out, I had to peddle up hill those four city blocks.
My grade school had a large asphalt-covered play ground. Large enough to really play fighter plane without having to dodge cars in the street. My friends and I divided into squadrons, attacking each other, “rat tat tat tat tat.”
One warm Saturday morning, my friends and I bicycled outside of our neighborhood along a city avenue. I’m guessing we rode about five miles. I brought water in my brother’s Scout canteen and several Musketeer candy bars. Quite an adventure to see neighborhoods change from single homes to apartments, duplexes, and stores.
During the early summer evenings, I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood pretending to be a jet fighter on patrol. As the sun set, with my light turned on, my patrol ended by skidding to a stop in the alley behind my house. I then secured the bike against a metal railing using my bike lock.
Sixty years later, my wife and I ride our bikes next to each other on a wide, rail-to-trail. My bike has 21 speeds, two hand brakes, thin tires and frame, a computer measuring miles, and a cushioned seat for an old buttocks. A large soft leather bag strapped to the rear fender contained granola bars, trail mix, and a silver metal jug containing filtered water. I’m wearing a gladiator-like helmet, spandex shorts, and a light-weight, day-glow orange, moisture-free t-shirt. I suddenly make a circular maneuver to bring myself behind her. In the youngest voice an old man can make, I call out, “rat tat tat tat tat.”
Joe Laughland, a retired management analyst, moved to Harrisonburg in 2010. He is a member of JMU’s Lifelong Learning Institute’s Writers Group.