The First Date

Yes, I’m talking about my first date. No, not the first date with any particular girl; the first date itself. Sixth grade, that time when boys typically think they know all about the opposite sex and decide to enter that world of understanding them.

Some background is necessary, especially for you of the opposite sex who may not understand how twelve-year-old boys act. First, I had never spoken to the girl. What would I have said? Boys and girls just did not talk to each other. Did NOT. But among the boys in my class, they all knew that she was ‘David’s girl friend.’ Did the girl know? Do sixth grade grapevines work or not? Of course, she did.

A month or more went by, while I discussed with other boys what dates were like (although, since none of us had ever been on one, you can imagine the advice I received wasn’t that useful). And the day finally came; my D-day. With sweaty palms, I picked up the phone and dialed her number. When she answered the phone, I hurriedly mumbled my name, something about going to a Saturday afternoon movie, my dad driving us, and a date and time, probably all spewed out in one incoherent sentence. She apparently was able to interpret my invitation because she agreed to go. I was now committed to the date. No more talking about it, the date was set.

The day came and I was already wondering why I was doing this. Dad was encouraging, promising to not tell any of his jokes while driving us to and from the theatre. Mom gave me several tips on being a gentleman, opening doors for the girl and the like. A high spot was standing on her front porch and watching her come out, wearing a pretty dress and a smile. Maybe this wouldn’t be a bad idea. Dad had a four-door car, so she and I sat in the back seat, she on one side and me, far way on the other side. The silence was deafening and it seemed we would never get to the theatre. Oxygen must have been in short supply because I couldn’t breathe at all. She seemed so relaxed, and I was a mountain of stress.

Once at the theatre, although my friends’ advice (remember them? the guys who had never been on a date?) was that we should sit in the balcony where we could have privacy, I decided to find seats on the main floor, feeling that leading her to the balcony may send a message I wasn’t ready to do.

Finally, a milestone reached: sitting together in the theatre. What now? My friends’ advice was to put my arm around her or hold her hand. That sounds easy when sitting around with the guys, talking about girls, but when I was actually there, actually THERE, nothing seemed right except to sit with my arms at my side. This all felt spooky. For the next hour, all I could think of was what I should be doing. Eventually, I decided that if I placed my arm around the back of her seat (without touching her, of course), it would be a romantic sign. And that went better than I anticipated. Stress was diminishing slowly.

In what seemed hours and hours, the movie ended. No, I have no idea what the movie was about, not now and not then. We emerged onto the street, where Dad had agreed to the time he would pick us up. There we were, standing silently on the sidewalk, waiting for my Dad, just like we were two children. (Well, we WERE two children, being just twelve years old, but that awareness escaped me at the time.)

The ride to her house wasn’t so bad. Dad asked about the movie and she happily shared some of the story with him and I managed to chime in here and there with a mumbled response. When we arrived at her house, I walked her to the door (as Mom had instructed me) and thanked her for the date. (No, I didn’t hold her hand and kissing her was not on my mind, and I’m sure not hers.)

We never talked again, although she remained ‘David’s girl friend’ through the rest of the school year. Her family moved away that summer and we never spoke again. Her name was Sandra Kidd and, although that date was stressful, I’m glad I attempted it. However, it would be three more long years before I ever asked a girl for a date again. That early exposure to the world of girls taught me that there were other activities I much preferred at that young age. Girls could wait.

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.

The Ride to Walmart

“Let’s take a drive to Walmart today!”, exclaimed my dear wife, with a dreamy look out the kitchen window. Immediately, our faces met and shared a smile together, knowing together exactly her desire. Her statement had nothing to do with Walmart or shopping of any kind. Couples who share their lives develop code words and private expressions and signals and this is one of those.

What is it about private signals that makes them special to us? Is it the exclusivity of a private message? Is it knowing others don’t realize a message has been passed? Or is it the fun of having a secret code? For me, it’s all of these and more. Such encoded messages reflect memories, commitment, a deep understanding of values shared with another person, and a trust that the message continues to be understood and accepted as part of the relationship.

For me, some of the most special private signals are those not even spoken. I recall being in a large gathering, where my dear wife was on the other side of the room when a piece of music was played to the group. From across the room, our eyes immediately locked to each other while shared memories from that music filled the room in our hearts. No one knew, no one saw, no one realized the unforgettable moment that had just occurred. Sweet.

That signal, Let’s take a drive to Walmart? To us, it speaks to the need for time to rest, time to escape from the daily tasks, time to take a relaxing ride through rural Central New York, time to share bits and pieces of our day as the car takes us down two-lane blacktop that eventually ends up in a small community where a Walmart serves the area. And that often results in picking up a deli sandwich to bring home to enjoy a dinner sans preparation. No cooking, no cleanup, just us and the sandwich and comments on the drive’s scenery. Was Walmart the goal? No, only a milestone to establish a destination. The journey was already defined.

This has been a long day and I would write more, but my dear wife is sending a signal that it’s time for a drive.