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April, 2007


by Larry

I remember my first bicycle riding experience. It was when I was as yet in my terrible twos, as my mom and I were visiting relatives in San Antonio, TX, while Dad was serving overseas, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Mom had borrowed my Cousin Bob's bike, dumping me in a wire basket that hung on the front of its handlebars for an initial taste of "flying" about a suburb near my Aunt Lucile and Uncle Shelby's and my Mama Pearl and Papa Frank's (paternal grandparents') places. The thrill of that ride stays with me, and it would be refreshed at times over the subsequent decades, once I too eventually could propel myself along via such a magic contraption.

Intervening "flying" adventures were less reliably positive. I recall a time Dad was home (briefly on leave, I think) from the war and subsequent occupation of Japan and was attempting to impart to his budding young genius a knowledge of physics by having him stand in the middle of a throw-rug or, as it might have been called, a "flying carpet" while he would yank it out from under me. The expected result was that I would remain stationary due to inertia while the rug whipped by underneath. Of course, the real outcome (as on another occasion, when I was to leap toward him from a height over an ever widening gulf) was not so fortunate. I was simply jerked off my feet, zooming through the air and hitting the floor with my face. Dad enjoyed his role as teacher and liked to set up and carry out such "hard science" experiments.

His approach to teaching how to master bicycling was in the sink-or-swim school. Even if the bike's size is too great for him, make the kid attempt to master it, over and over, till he succeeds. If he cannot promptly do it on demand, then yell at him like a big, angry bear. In like fashion, he taught me to hate telephones or anything to do with business. As soon as he would come home from work, I was, from a quite young age, to daily call the Merrill Lynch brokerage office, memorize the gobbledygook of its recorded message about the day's stock market activity, and then, when I could still barely print my name, recite this meaningless gibberish back to him, about volume, shares, industrials, economic factors, closing prices, etc., till he was satisfied I had not merely gotten everything right but said it correctly, even if I had to make the call twenty times to accomplish the feat and were first reduced to childish frustration, sobs, and a nearly inarticulate stuttering as part of the process. Dad meant well. And who is perfect? It was not always pleasant, but the truth is my siblings and I did learn a lot of useful things from him. And in his later years he would become much more mellow, even sweet at times, though I would not say he was ever just a Teddy bear.

Partly because of my father's early style of giving instruction, as an independent bicycler I was a late bloomer. In fact, overall, even without any excuses about how I was reared, one might say I was kind of slow. In the hare and tortoise fable, nobody would have mistaken me for the hare! So I was not fully successful at bicycling till, at age 10, urged on toward it by an encouraging grandfather, Papa Frank (who, however, in his own youth had not been so tolerant with his son, later my father). One short lesson, while Dad was again away in the Philippines, was then all that was needed, and suddenly a new world had opened for me, one that could, once my father had returned, in a moment take me away from any pressure-cooker atmospherics at home. In a sense, I never looked back. I was hooked and seldom would be far from a "flying machine" again.

First I would ride it to and from my San Antonio school or around our neighborhood. Later, it would accompany me in a succession of other locations. In Arlington, VA, while Dad was working late at the Pentagon or fighting commuter traffic to get home after dark, I would use my bike for delivering papers on a big route. Often these ventures were the more stirring for a slushy mix of rain, sleet, and snow on the suburban streets. Great, surf like, head-to-foot drenching waves of dirty ice water would repeatedly be splashed up by passing motorists as I would glide along, my papers staying dry, though, carefully protected in their canvas bags. Or, wet hands and feet freezing, I would race down ice covered roads at potentially neck-breaking speeds to get my route finished in time for supper, finishing my homework, and watching a favorite late evening program, such as "Air Power" or "Victory at Sea," before time for bed.

I developed a little mental trick for times when I would be smarting after an accident on my bike or when so cold I could no longer feel toes, fingers, or nose and still had half the route to deliver. I would imagine that I was stuck in this very experience for eternity, with no escape, and ask if I would then rather it continue or simply be dead. Inevitably, the exhilarations of even these least pleasant bicycling episodes were sufficient that I would opt for the life I had.

At the University of Texas, in Austin, I had no car during my first couple undergrad years, and my bicycle was again a regular and most welcome companion. I became expert at whizzing along the back roads, between vehicular traffic, or over the sidewalks and roadways of the sprawling campus itself, to get to and from classes or my series of part-time workplaces, at Kroger's Grocery, the UT Journalism ("Daily Texan") Building, or the University Co-op Bookstore. As always, these rides were stimulating adventures. And while racing along I would frequently discover solutions to problems, ideas for stories or school papers, or simply an invigorating release from the minor, day to day cares of a more sedate pace of travel through life.

On my bicycle too I would imagine that nobody could hear me and so, as some do in showers, would fully open lungs, diaphragm, and throat, pretend I were a great opera tenor, and bestow upon the community a rich volume of musical splendor.

Bicycling was a way of dealing also with a difficulty I had too often, especially on hot summer nights, with insomnia. I would ride around till the muscles were relaxed, then fall more easily asleep once returned.

It is almost a cliché that not every romance works out just as one might wish. Once, when one did not, I wound up with my bicycle, and almost nothing else, in Georgetown, about 35 miles north of the UT campus. I had met and courted a lovely lass, Charlotte, in my early college years. Shortly before this incident, on spring break she and I had taken a steamy vacation by bus, detouring first through New Orleans, to her hometown of Hattiesburg, MS. I stayed with her at her Mom's place for a few days. Everyone seemed to be getting along well, and I anticipated that by the fall Charlotte and I might be wed. But she was a couple years farther along toward her degree than I, and I suppose it is just possible she sensed in me then a little less maturity than she may have hoped for.

This night, out of the blue as far as I was concerned, she let me know that she had been accepted for and had firmly decided to move to the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, for a masters program in history. She would be departing in only a few weeks. I had not even known she had applied. Much as I respected her personal career choice, it was the "we should still remain friends" finality of her decision to leave just then that got to me that evening.

She would a few months later meet and fall for an Army Captain there in IL, whom she would eventually marry. Just as well, of course, or I would never have met my wife, Valerie. By coincidence, Val later attended the same University of Illinois campus.

When I got home that long ago night and had changed into just exercise shorts and a T-shirt, I was restless. I kept angrily going over in my mind our conversation on that last date. I unlocked my bicycle to go for a short ride, intending only a few blocks in the neighborhood around my rooming house. I left in such a hurry, though, I did not even have my wallet with me. I just supposed that in five minutes or less I would be putting the bicycle away and back in my room.

But my feelings that evening were rather spirited, and the more I rode, the more energized I became. Probably if I had had a Harley I'd have roared down the closest highway at 100 MPH or more. But I had only an old, single-speed, American bike (back when the Europeans were putting out classy 3- or 10-speed models). Its tires were not sleek, thin, efficient versions but thick, fat donuts on rusty rims. I had to truly work off my tensions to make any long-distance headway with it. And there was no uniformly flat, broad interstate around either. The closest thing to it was the then dark, hilly roadway between Austin and Georgetown. Going north from the UT campus, the sleepy little red-neck town of Austin seemed to end just past Airport Blvd.

In no time at all, though, my legs pumping the pedals like diesel engine pistons, I found myself out beyond city lights and in absolutely no mood yet to slow down. Shortly I was going down and then up steep central TX hill country lanes, exhilarated now with a huge adrenaline rush that likely would have bashed me into a bridge abutment or tree if I'd been straddling a hog or chopper.

I was almost the only thing human moving along the road by now. Austin was an early to bed community then, and only a few working ranches and farms, their owners apparently asleep, dotted the night landscape north of town. At intervals, outraged farm dogs would bark and leap out of the darkness at me as I rushed by. One snarling animal got close enough for me to kick at it.

I must have been far more fit in those days, for in the early hours of morning I found myself riding down the then single main thoroughfare of Georgetown. I parked at the open-all-night chapel of Georgetown University for a long, cool water fountain drink and a stop in the restroom. I must have been a bit spacey by then, and my legs were rubbery and hardly holding me up. I was surprised to discover that the electric organ and sound system were both turned on, though the place was deserted. There was enough rheostat adjustable light to see the keys by, so I pretended I knew what I was doing and created a few loud, discordant chords. But it dawned on me before long that cops might come to investigate if I kept that up. I imagined, finding me with neither money nor wallet, their suspicion might be I was there to steal.

I got on my bike again and tiredly headed farther down the main road toward central Georgetown. Then I heard a train coming on the tracks I had just crossed. I knew this must be the same train that a couple times a day would be pulling into Austin, on the Missouri-Pacific line that a decade or two later would parallel or run down the center of the new automobile speedway we now aptly call "MoPac." So, on wobbly legs and as if in a surreal dream, I raced back to the railroad route and began waving my arms wildly to flag down the train. I figured I would just abandon the bicycle, hop the train, and ride home in hobo style.

The engineer saw me. He smiled broadly and waved back as he went on by, never slowing down of course.

As luck would have it, a little air-conditioned Laundromat was open. I rested the bike against the front, went in, found there was a really comfortable upholstered chair behind a counter where people could also leave dry cleaning, and promptly fell asleep in it.

Awhile later, I woke to find a uniformed policeman standing in front of the counter and looking at me in the manager's chair. He was kinder than one might expect under the circumstances but did not seem to like my answer when he asked for my ID and I told him I didn't have any. Thinking on my feet, so to speak, while still sitting in the chair, I explained that I was a member of the UT Bicycling Club and was just a typical jock out preparing for the next big long-distance cycling event by doing a few laps before bed, but that I had so gotten into the competitive mood that the next thing I knew, here I was in Georgetown. I had just needed a little rest, I said, before heading home (though thinking there is no way I can ride another mile, much less 35 miles back, up and down hills, tonight!

He must, before I had woken up, have taken in something of the true situation. A glance at me and the old, single-speed bike would have told him I was not a young Lance Armstrong. So, he told me to get on the bicycle and follow his patrol car. He set off down the road the way I had come, with me tailing along using legs and arms so mushy that, all but toppling, the bicycle meandered wildly over the lane behind him.

He had not said where we were going, but I assumed it was to the police station where who knew what fate awaited me. Arrest for vagrancy? Matching my fingerprints with the new ones on the chapel organ keys and then charging me with unauthorized play in a holy place? Interrogation for hours under bright lights and with electric shocks, rubber hoses, and pliers? I was too tired to care. It was all I could do, I thought, simply to stay reasonably near the rear of his car without falling asleep again.

About a mile and a half down the road, he turned left into the lot at a not yet open cafe and parked alongside two other police cruisers. He had me go with him over to the front door and knocked gently. We were let in by the apparent proprietor, who locked up again behind us and seemed in the midst of getting the eatery ready to serve breakfast patrons. A wall clock said it was almost 5:00. We joined two other policemen at a table, and "my" cop introduced me to them without sarcasm as Larry who had bicycled up from UT that night. There was not even any lifting of eyebrows from the other officers. I guess they had this kind of thing there all the time.

The first policeman ordered himself breakfast and me coffee. When these came a few minutes later, I thanked him and stirred in about a tablespoonful of sugar. I did not know what was coming next and was not about to ask. Maybe he had not decided either, and, depending on how things went in the next few minutes, I would either go to jail and have to call my folks to bail me out and pay a fine, be released with a warning, or be forced to do community service as part of a chain gang for a year or so.

The others began talking shop. These were white cops, and there was a smattering of racist chatter about this or that infraction by members of the Black community, though that is not how they referred to them. A Black prostitute with whom they all seemed to be familiar was discussed in patronizing terms. It occurred to me later that all this might have been for my benefit. It would not have taken great insight to figure me for a rather typical naive liberal white college kid, involved in the then heyday of the Civil Rights Movement though I really knew few Blacks and even less about growing up Black in the U.S.

They talked about the "whore" having been drunk and disorderly after one of her "Johns" had cut her up pretty badly during this just ending shift for the cops and how she had kept yelling to be taken to the hospital. The cops thought it served her right and were not speedy about helping her out till their paperwork had been properly completed. At the cafe, the men now chuckled about per predicament. I decided it was not the best time to mention my connections to SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

The policeman who had found me at the Laundromat noticed I had finished my coffee and asked if I thought I could stay awake now. "Oh sure!" I lied.

"Well, you'd best be on your way then. Maybe you can make it back to Austin in time for your first class," he suggested. I left in as dignified a manner as my penniless state, still rubbery legs, sweaty T-shirt, and faded shorts would permit, got back on the bike, and rode out into the pre-dawn, giving myself such "Let's roll!" pep talk as I could muster.

The last phase of that strange trip will never be very clear. I was so exhausted and at times also so thirsty that it is not surprising in retrospect that I began having hallucinations or misinterpreting what occurred. As the sun was just coming over the horizon, 18-wheelers began more frequently to pass me, heading to Austin or points south. Probably from my wobbling way of riding on the shoulder, only feet or inches from them, the drivers thought I was about to veer into their lane.

In any case, almost invariably they gave long, loud blasts of their horns as they approached. In my altered state, I assumed all these responses to be friendly, cheering signals of their support, urging me on to my now well known and supposedly superhuman feat. So, I would grin up at the drivers like a drunken fool or wave enthusiastically, if by then I were taking things a bit more easily, walking the bike, as I did by then on each of the many upward inclines.

A few miles into the return journey, the sun a huge orange red ball a little above the horizon, I noticed how luxuriant the grass was along the steep banks or drop-offs adjoining the shoulder. Then, to my astonishment, I saw the first of many brightly colored, furry creatures. They looked like cuddly balls of hair, with cheerfully chattering sounds coming out of mouths in perpetual grin, kind of like the pesky groundhog I would later see in the comedy movie, "Groundhog Day," or the small, happy, primitive, musically talking, energetic beings in the 2nd or 3rd "Star Wars" sequel, except these Disney cartoon-like animals were, so I thought, vividly real and alive. They seemed aware of my presence and would chatter gleefully as they scurried about on the grassy slopes, sometimes just a few feet away from me. Even now, I am not certain there were not some rodent-like mammals really there, probably not brightly colored, thickly furred and grinning or chattering away at me, of course, but just perhaps some wild rats or mice out getting breakfast before the worst heat of the day.

Badly sunburned and dehydrated but otherwise healthy, amazingly having avoided both a hospital room or a jail cell, I reached my room about 10:00 that morning, having walked back, pushing and leaning on the bike up nearly every hill or slight rise, at least a third of the distance from Georgetown to Austin. Forget classes. Forget meetings at the Methodist Student Center I had earlier planned to attend. After a shower, a snack, and drinking about a quart or two of water, I went to bed, sleeping through both the mid-day heat and the cooler evening hours, then the whole night and into the following morning as well.

There would be many more peak bicycle experiences over the years, on a borrowed 10-speed as I raced about the Berkeley, CA, hills, for instance, but none when I would surpass that supremely wasteful expenditure of 19-year-old energy as a college sophomore, "flying" to and from Georgetown.

Since early in my marriage, when we were first living here, when Val, for one birthday or anniversary or another, helped me buy a quite nice and special model bike I could ride in the house, my cycling days have continued. I've "clocked" thousands of miles on it already and hope to add a good many more. After all, I'm in training. It is my fond wish one evening to ride off on it into a perpetual sunset.

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