Newsletter - 2003 Archive

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How the Universe Expanded

Tom Hocking


My first bike appeared on a brisk autumn Saturday morning of my seventh year. Unannounced, my father had gone out and found a used two-wheeler to replace my neglected tricycle. I had quit riding the trike maybe a year or two before, having long outgrown it. It now sat idle in a dark corner of the cellar. I had tried to improve the appearance of that trike by brush painting the frame blue and the rusting spokes that supported its three solid rubber tyres white. But it was still a tricycle, one that had never travelled farther than the paved sidewalk of our own block-the limits of my personal universe. I had, in a childlike way, begun to sense that possession of a two-wheeler would define a difference between being a little boy and becoming something greater.

I sat cross-legged in front our black and white television with its tiny screen and perpetually snowy picture while my new bike stood poised at arm's length. While I watched the conclusion of another serial of my favourite western, my attention continued to wander to this unfamiliar and exciting addition to my life. I studied the bike for a long while. It had, I was told, 20-inch wheels. The bike was a bit big for me now, but as with so many things acquired at that age, my parents said that I would "grow into it". It wasn't all shiney and sparkling new like the ones I'd admired in the hardware store. Instead it had a purposeful, almost military, no nonsense look about it with its dull brown two-tone paint marred by a chip here and a scratch there from some earlier adventures. The saddle was covered in faded-to-grey canvas, which had been worn away on the rear so that fuzzy threads grew out of it in all directions. But it was a big kid's bike, it belonged to me now, and it stood ready to take me beyond the confines of our little sidewalk. I remember smiling so much that the muscles in my face began to ache. I sat there eagerly anticipating Dad's call to wheel the bike outside.

The year was 1951 and the Korean War was in the news. We were living on the outskirts of an older neighbourhood. Behind our house ran the railroad with its clanking steam locomotives that belched black coal smoke and hot clinkers onto the washing that my mother would hang out in the back yard. The tracks marked a physical and cultural border of the neighbourhood. Exactly what lay in the land beyond was a mystery to me. It appeared industrial in a slightly ominous way and the people over there that I could occasionally glimpse through our fence seemed somehow different from us.

Finally, Dad announced that it was time for me to try out my new bike. I bounced up excitedly and wheeled it carefully out of the living room. The thing was a lot bigger and heavier than I expected and I struggled to get this ungainly monster down the steps from our front porch.

The lesson began on the sidewalk with me seated on the bike and Dad grasping that fuzzy saddle. It was worrisome to me that I couldn't touch the pavement with both feet while seated. With Dad's encouragement, I eventually began to feel pretty confident about mounting, dismounting, and pedalling. Steering, of course, was another matter. There was no possibility of simply stopping with my feet on the pedals and lounging across the bars, the way I imagined Roy Rogers might have done. This was certainly no horse, nor was it even remotely like my old trike. No, I had to keep on steering or I would begin to list alarmingly first to one side then the other. After a countless number of unsuccessful tries, I began to feel exasperated at this unexpected difficulty. Dad decided that a break would be good for both of us and that, perhaps we'd try again later in the day.

Dad disappeared to do another of the seemingly endless chores that our house demanded of him while I sat on the porch steps, dejectedly considering my reluctant dream machine. Learning to ride was turning out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. I pondered this for a long time. The bike was awfully big and I felt very small. Maybe I couldn't do it. Perhaps I was one of those kids that had something wrong with them. As my mother called me in for lunch, my smile of the morning was gone.

Saturday was the day that Dad would walk down to the corner store located at the far end of our block to purchase any groceries we might need for the weekend. He came over to the steps where I had returned, now disconsolately eyeing that stupid old bike with its worn out saddle. Dad sat down next to me and spoke quietly. He told me that he knew I would learn to ride if I just kept at it. After a while I began to feel better and the bike was looking okay again. We went down to the store together, me proudly, yet nervously astride my new steed and Dad trotting along beside, still grasping the saddle in his strong right hand. We were travelling faster and more smoothly now but still the occasional lurch to certain disaster was saved by that guiding hand. We arrived at the store; Dad made his selections and talked with Mr. Klein, the shopkeeper, while I looked over the trading cards and candied wax lips and moustaches on display. Before we departed, Mr. Klein congratulated me on getting my bike. "Use it well!" he smiled.

The return journey changed drastically in a new and terrifying way. Dad now held a large brown paper grocery bag cradled in his left arm and a carton containing six bottles of Pepsi in his right hand. As we began the homeward leg, Dad grasped the rear of the saddle again, the six-pack swaying from that same huge hand. As we were now on a slight downgrade, our speed began to increase. I recall Dad running along beside me as I wobbled precariously left and right. I knew that Dad was beginning to have some trouble, trying to carry the groceries and Pepsi, control my wobbles, and run all at the same time. I heard him start to breath harder and say some bad words. Then the panic hit. I began to wail, "Daddy! Daddy! Don't let me go!" And Dad's response, "I…I…can't (huff)…hold…it (puff)…any…more…." I knew I was about to go into the dreaded "death wobble", but then things seemed to get easier. I'd guessed that, somehow, Dad had managed to catch up and was holding onto me tighter than before. We were tracking smooth and straight. Then I heard Dad's voice coming from far behind. "Keep pedalling!" he was yelling. "Just keep pedalling!" Instantly I knew I was doing it. I was riding alone, unassisted. I was on my own, pedalling my own two-wheeler!

Maybe I got a little bit of what Chuck Yeager felt when he broke the sound barrier three years earlier. His little rocket plane nearly shook itself to bits as it approached that threshold then suddenly began to fly smooth and silent. And now I had mastered the art of balancing a bicycle. There could be no going back to the world of trikes. My next trip was a solo down the block to show Bobby Scott how I could ride. Although he was a year older, poor Bobby hadn't learned how to ride yet but I was too overcome with joy to feel pity. The following day I rode entirely around the block. No more sidewalk riding for me. I rode on the street just like the big boys.

By summer's end I had ridden throughout the neighbourhood. I had become mobile. Dad helped me to install a wire basket on the front so I could ride to the store on my own. Some days Mom would give me an envelope that I would hand to Mr. Klein and he would provide me with the family groceries.

In grade three I rode my bike to school every day. That was the year I began to meet other kids who rode. We started to hang out together after school. Of course there were crashes, many of those awkward, low speed, embarrassing dismounts and more than a few spectacular wipeouts, but we all survived with just bruises, scrapes, and the occasional stitch. Everyone's bike took on a distinct personality and got named accordingly. My bike came to be affectionately known as Fuzzy Jones, after one of our favourite cowboy sidekicks. Our little biker gang could ride down to the firehouse where they'd let us play on the fire engines. During the year that followed, we began to explore farther afield, to other neighbourhoods and even into that strange world on The Other Side of the Tracks. My universe was expanding.