Learning to Ride a Bike

Learning to Ride a Bike

      Eastridge Street, in the acute angle produced by its intersection with SW Wilshire Street, marked the southern boundary of the post-World War II apartment complex, and it was not just an arbitrary designation. The north side is where we lived and shopped. The south side presented perhaps the last remaining undeveloped forest area in the neighborhood, with rambling bushes, toad stools, tall second growth fir and pine, and the stumps of large first growth trees that had been logged off to build the city of Portland years before. For us kids in our pre-teens, it was a magical wilderness that seemed to go on for miles at a towering height. Mom was inclined to restrict me to the north side of the street, but Dad believed in the pioneer spirit and self-sufficiency, learning by doing and making mistakes. Unless specifically told to stay nearby, I felt free to roam and explore, but always with an ear out for Dad’s loud and unmistakable quasi-bobwhite bird-whistling take-off.
      The summer of 1955, when I was seven going-on eight, Dad figured it was time for me to become a bike rider, and to that end, he brought home a simple second-hand, one-speed, balloon-tired, dusty-blue bicycle. It must have been late in the work week, because I don’t remember having to wait for the big day; Saturday seemed immediate and the time was now. He flipped it upside down on the front porch and showed me how the kick stand was going to work, as well as the pedals, chain, sprockets, coaster brake and steering. He showed me how to check and tighten the most important nuts, especially the axle nuts, with his trusty Crescent Wrench. I helped him oil the chain with his favorite: 3-In-1 Oil. The tires felt a little soft under his squeeze, so he showed me how to use his old air pump. He warned me about riding over nails and glass, anything that could cut or puncture the rubber. He felt that it was important to “bond” with the machine by understanding the details of how it was designed to work, some of which I had already absorbed in previous encounters, but some of which were new to me. Now I was picking it all up like a sponge.
      Finally, he said, “Well Timboy, it’s time to give it a whirl.” Whereupon he flipped the bike right-side up, carried it down the three steps to the sidewalk, hopped on and pedaled away like the wind. He made one pass around the Big Circle, then came down the walk toward our place too fast – it seemed to me – to stop where I was waiting. I jumped out of the way, but to my surprise, he put weight on the back pedal and skidded to a stop right where he intended. His point was that this was no toy, but a device to be admired, cared for and mastered en route to becoming a man.
      Next, he had me sit on the seat as he adjusted the height, so my legs would almost fully extend when the pedals were down, for maximum thrust when it was needed. Then he looked me over and nodded with approval that I already had my jacket on, just a bit of protection for the arms and torso in case of a bad fall. No mention of helmet or gloves, not in those days. (These days I always wear them, and have been very glad I did, on occasion.)
      Then we walked the twenty yards or so to Eastridge Street, where there was essentially no traffic, and he had me get on the bike. He held it upright while moving it ahead. “Remember this,” he said. “You will nearly always be falling either left or right, it is no big deal. Simply turn INTO the fall and you will always catch your balance. It will become instinctive, like walking and running. Very soon you won’t even think about it. OK, so do that now.” And I practiced turning the same way I was tipping. Indeed, it seemed to work, sort of, at that low speed.
      Eastridge Street had a mild rise going east, and we walked up it until we were near Wilshire Street on the flat, where we turned around. The hill looked scary, not due to steepness but to extent: I really would need to use the brakes if I were to avoid hurtling down and ending up in a painful heap. Dad didn’t wait for second thoughts, he just began pushing me, gradually accelerating toward the downhill spot until he let go, saying, “Bears in the circus can ride bikes and you’re smarter than any bear, but don’t go too slowly; you must have some speed to maintain balance.”
      That first ride down the little slope was a unique thrill, it was so new and daredevil, senses hyper-focused on balance, steering, staying near the middle of the road, the wind, the acceleration … squinty-eyed, tight-lipped, right foot on the rear pedal doing a sewing machine dance on the coaster brake, gaining confidence in my speed control.
      All too soon I reached the point where the sidewalk to our apartment made a T intersection with Eastridge, and I was tempted to stop. But I had not yet used the pedals for their main purpose, so I decided to keep going on the flat. Suddenly I felt the rush of acceleration control, applying more cranking force, while keeping near the mid-line to avoid parked cars – mostly on the north side – bringing my speed back up and feeling some manmade wind in my hair.
      Eventually I needed to turn around, but slowing enough to do that meant losing my balance and having to stop and put my foot down. Would I need to walk back, or could I just get on and ride? There was a curb on the south side of the street. I walked over and pushed off from it. But my thrust was insufficient, forcing a full stop to avoid falling over. The second try was more energetic, and the ride resumed. I looked up, and Dad was finishing his jog down the hill at a leisurely trot, with a big smile. I had succeeded in a rite of passage that had been crucial to him as a boy a couple of decades before.
      We joined up where our sidewalk met the street. Dad gave me a hug then started toward our apartment at a brisk stride while I lifted the bike over the curb and began pushing it. But I immediately stopped to make a stab at starting a sidewalk ride. I made a little run, then hopped on and managed to pedal up my speed. Beginner’s luck, I knew. This was a new kind of fun and also a real challenge, since the walkway was far narrower than the street. However, I soon had to slow down as I approached Dad, and I found it more and more difficult to stay balanced, until … I lost control and fell to the right – into the blossoming arms of a big rose bush armed to the teeth with take-no-prisoner thorns. I let out a little yelp and Dad turned to look. He could not suppress a sympathetic laugh as he moved to lift the bike away and help me to my feet. “Hey, old pal, did I mention not letting your speed drop too low?” He quickly examined the little red dots of blood on my hands and added, “Good thing you had your jacket on. Gloves might have helped too.” I just nodded, more embarrassed than injured.
      I wonder in hindsight if the memory of that day would have imprinted itself as vividly if I had not suffered, in a slow-motion fall, the opposite of my exuberant success only minutes before.

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