The New Bicycle

November 5, 2008

When I was nine in 1965 all I wanted for Christmas was a bicycle I could call my own. My older sister’s heavy, bulbous Schwinn, handed down to me now that she was off to high school, simply was not the answer. On the plains of West Texas, riding a girl’s bike, readily identifiable by the lack of a cross bar in the frame, was an excellent way to get the beans kicked out of you on the school playground.

Even though Schwinn was considered the Cadillac of bikes, this model—with its tires fat as kielbasas and wide, springy seat designed for comfort rather than speed—condemned me to be a perpetual loser in any game of bike tag. I desperately needed a boy’s bike. If I’d been familiar with the Faust legend back then, I’d have gladly gift-wrapped my soul to the Devil for the ultimate in bipedal technology, a three-speed “English” racer. What’s a little eternal damnation compared with being able to outrun Tommy, Gomez, Bobby, and Ricky through the magic of a twist-grip gear shifter?

However, reality tempered my velocipedic lust. My sister had gotten the outrageously expensive Schwinn when my dad had been flush, or, at the very least, in the throes of one of his occasional “We may be poor but my kid deserves the best” bouts of angst. (For me, that thinking got me an American Flyer train set that cost a whole week’s pay—when I was only two.) Unfortunately, my lobbying for a new bike coincided with one of the many lean financial periods in my dad’s life as a long-haul trucker. I knew this because my mom had started weeks before Christmas saying things like, “Christmas isn’t just about presents, you know.” This clearly was code for “You’re gonna get clothes for Christmas and feel good about it!”

My mood grew darker when I saw the Western Auto Christmas circular advertising a sleek, black Texas Ranger bike complete with streamers dangling from the ends of the handlebars. It wasn’t an English racer, which in 1965 topped $100 (about $449,000 in today’s currency); but it was, to me, as close to the pinnacle of pedal-driven engineering excellence as I’d ever hope to touch.

As luck would have it, my dad needed a part for our aging Plymouth and was headed to the local Western Auto one Saturday morning. I insisted on going along. While he was at the parts counter I beelined to the bicycle section, spotting immediately the object of nine years of highly distilled desire. The circular’s 1×2 photo didn’t begin to do justice to this…this sculpture. The frame’s angles were anything but conventional: raked, sleek, screaming of speed, speed, SPEED! This was to bikes what those creations on “American Chopper” are to motorcycles. It had thinnish tires with nifty slim whitewalls; aerodynamic chrome fenders in which I could see every freckle of my face; a headlight for extending the day’s adventures well past dusk; and—holy Joseph and Mary and the Baby Jesus in swaddlin’ clothes!—a built-in horn button just like my sister’s Schwinn!

I nervously looked around to see if anyone was watching. The coast clear, I extended my trembling index finger to the button and pushed. BRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPP! Heads, including my father’s, snapped around in my direction as if I’d set off an air-raid alarm. My dad lasered me one of his patented “Do that again and I’ll kill you and make it look like an accident” glares. My head sheepishly pressed down into my chest. “Sorry,” I silently mouthed to him. He returned to the business at hand. I reached for the bike’s price tag to remind myself why I was living a pipe dream: $49.95. Worth every penny, I was sure; but it might as well have been a million dollars when my family of four was living on maybe $200 a month.

The two or three weeks before Christmas were one of the darkest periods in my life. My shoulders sagged with utter hopelessness and despair. The full bicycle rack at Travis Elementary mocked me every morning. I avoided all Christmas circulars in the newspaper. I barely touched my mom’s signature fried chicken, an immediate sign to her that I was coming down with polio or tuberculosis or, worse, vegetarianism.

“What’s wrong with you?” she finally asked. A silent shrug of the shoulders. “Well, maybe I should take you to Dr. Balman for a shot,” she probed.

That was the equivalent of threatening to tear out a POW’s fingernails. I spilled about the ignominy of riding my sister’s bike, the consequent threat of physical annihilation, the gulag-like existence my life had become without the Texas Ranger bike. Tears, symbols of an irrevocably crushed soul in the prime of his life, waterfalled down my chubby cheeks. My mother took my face in her hands and gazed down like the Madonna.

On Christmas Eve night, with everyone in bed, I awoke at about 3 a.m. Because I slept on a sleeper sofa in the living room of our tiny two-bedroom house, I could see the silhouette of our spindly tree centered in the picture window. In the glow of a street lamp shimmering through that window, I saw the faintest reflections, like a simple Picasso line drawing, of a Texas Ranger bike parked by the tree. I knew I was dreaming, but I never wanted to wake up as I climbed out of bed and approached the apparition, certain it would vanish if I tried to touch it. But touch it I did. Cool and curvaceous, electric and elegant, magnificent and…mine.

I can count on one hand the times in my subsequent 44 years that I have felt again such a perfect glow of contentment, such a certainty that the universe made sense after all, that bad times would be followed by good.

On election night

in Chicago,

before a hundred thousand delirious people of all colors and ages and occupations,

Obama humbly raising a hand in victory

was one of those times.

Jim Poyner

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