What My First Bike Taught Me

I definitely, positively, honest-to-God did not want a bike; my world was rather full, what with school and learning to play the trombone. Sixth grade is tougher than it looks. But mostly, I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to balance a bike. It looked like a million skills were needed to make it work, and my attempt at roller skating had been a dismal failure. My older brother had received a bike from our parents when he was 11 (and I was 10). It was a bare bones, J.C. Higgins, red. Everything in our world came from Sears & Roebuck, so the J.C. Higgins was a no-brainer. I ignored it. I didn’t want a bike. Just ask me and that’s what I’d tell you.

But then the English invaded our shores. Suddenly, there was an ad, right there in my copy of Boy’s Life magazine, for a Raleigh three-speed bike. An English bike. Wow! Brake levers on the handlebars, just like on motorcycles, and a gear shift, also just like on motorcycles, and skinny tires, and pin striping, and a rich deep red color. And it even had an air pump. That bike was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. That was the bike for me. I had earlier seen a comic book ad for a Schwinn, but the English racer captivated me. I couldn’t wait for Dad to get home from work to show him my dream bike. Wowee kazowee! This was the bike for me. Why would anyone want an American, heavy, big tire bike when this beautiful lightweight speedster was available? No, sir. The Raleigh was the bike for me. The wait to show Dad seemed to take hours.

But then my brother saw the ad. Yes, dear reader, he now wanted one too. But he already had a bike (which admittedly looked like a real loser by comparison to this Raleigh beauty.) This wasn’t fair. He already had one. Instead of having Dad all to myself, there was my older brother also anxious to greet Dad and talk about a new bike. Darn. I wanted that bike for me, just me.  And yet, deep inside, I was already grasping that if either of us received a Raleigh, it would be my brother.

Still, Christmas was coming soon and I continued to hope and wish and take every chance to hint about that Raleigh. The magazine ad was now taped on the wall where I could see it every morning as I dressed for school. I was in love with that bike. Until Christmas came, my priority was to get Dad’s help in learning to ride and I well remember the many trips around the back yard as I fumbled and stumbled and wobbled until I finally managed to ride the bike for 20 feet by myself. Success (success being a relative term).

Now, I knew my family wasn’t rich, but we got along. No vacations, no special expenses, but Christmas was generally a time for finding one item special for a gift. Bikes were expensive and I knew if one appeared under the tree, it would be my only gift and there would likely be no birthday gift in coming year. But that was fair to me. The prior Christmas I received a used, rental, trombone until one could be found in coming year that was affordable. And I knew some gifts were never going to happen. That 22 rifle I had earlier wanted was a big big NO and I wasn’t going to walk down that path again. That NO came with its own sermon on the dangers of guns and threats to society and the importance of obeying the law and probably much more that I didn’t understand. But a new bike seemed a possibility.

And then it happened. One Saturday morning, Dad took me, just me, downtown to the Schwinn bike store. (Yes, dear reader, in 1952 there was a real Schwinn store, right on main street.) This did not seem good news to be at the Schwinn store. There was much I didn’t know at my tender age, but I did know that a Schwinn store wasn’t ever gonna’ sell some uppity English racer bike that made everything in its store look like losers. Dad paused at the entrance and gave me a speech I’ll never forget. It went something like this:

David, I know you want that English racer bike, but I think you’re too big for it. You’re bigger than your brother and it would break. You’ll be happier on a bigger American bike, so that’s what I may get for you and that’s why we’re here today.”

What could I say? I was just 11 and ill-prepared to debate the merits on a bike’s strength and durability, issues I had never considered. I now knew I would probably get a bike for Christmas, but not the one I wanted.

Christmas morning came. And, yes, there was a Schwinn bike for me, as anticipated. And there was also a bright red, beautiful Raleigh racer for my brother. My brother had won. Like I already knew. I thanked my parents and was glad to have a bike to ride to school and secretly admitted the Schwinn looked pretty good, even if it didn’t have red paint, a gear shift and handlebar brake levers. I would make it mine, but my eyes kept turning toward that Raleigh.

Now, our house was situated on a slight hill, just enough to prevent my riding the bike up the hill with my initial awkwardness at riding. As my brother easily rode up the hill by shifting gears, I would push my bike to the top and then hop astride and pedal off. As time went on, I eventually managed more proficiency.

Fortunately, my love of that Raleigh slowly faded into history as that Schwinn and I explored a bigger world together than I had ever known. Saddlebags were soon added as I began to appreciate its carrying ability. Washing and polishing and tweaking and oiling became a religious experience, practiced weekly or more often. Air pressure checks were performed regularly, as were checks on chain slack and axle lubrication. In hindsight, my zealous maintenance was likely doing more harm than good, but you would never have convinced me of that. The Schwinn was indestructible and reliable to my every need. Eventually, I even added a basket in front of the handlebars so I could do small shopping trips for Mom. If a kid could love a bike, that bike knew true love.

Years passed. And a family tragedy caused ownership of that Raleigh to be transferred to me. For months, I stayed away from it, but one day Dad suggested I take it for a ride; that removed my discomfort about the bike and knowing why it was now mine. Several discoveries I made: it was lighter and easier to pedal, but didn’t ride as softly and didn’t absorb bumps as my Schwinn did, but the gear shift was fun.

It was a few days later that I was riding that Raleigh up a hill, pushing hard on the pedals and holding the handlebars for leverage as I had learned to do—when suddenly the handlebars collapsed. Collapsed! Like a pretzel, the handlebars folded from my exertion on them. Dad was right, I was too big for this bike. This was the thought that filled my young brain—Dad had been right all along. The Schwinn, the bike I had not wanted, had proved to be the reliable piece of transportation that had expanded my world.

The Raleigh received a new handlebar and a new home, and the time was near that I would no longer rely on my Schwinn for routine transportation. Within a year, the Schwinn was spending its days sitting idle and my parents found it a new home. My life was moving to a new level and I was to relearn the lesson many times over in my life of finding value in what I had, but didn’t want. It is in making the best of where we are that is the foundation of who we are. My dear wife sums it up with an old motto:

     Use it up, wear it out,
Make it do, or do without.

That Raleigh and that Schwinn are a distant memory, yet both of them aged well, as I’ve seen them both commanding high prices on the internet. It was a period of growth, of developing introspection on the importance of respecting what I had and was doing, not on what I did not have or was not doing. Whiners are never welcome. A good lesson.