First-Bike Lessons from My Big Brother

Eight was the standard age in my family for getting on two wheels. I had to wait, however, another year, until we had moved back to Ohio’s capital city from a two-by-four-block town near Lima. It was the early 1960s, and I was a girl, and that was probably all that was needed to explain the delay.

It’s only on looking back that it strikes me as ironic that I was deemed safer in one of the nation’s ten largest cities than out there in the countryside. Of course, we didn’t live in what was just becoming known as the “inner city,” but in one of the north-end suburbs that had been absorbed and remade as neighborhoods. And we had lived at the very heart of Allentown, in the parsonage directly across the two-lane state highway from the “carryout.” My parents had seen what that could mean in our first summer there, when my bike-equipped, ten-year-old brother rode off for whole days of independence in the woods and fields, or to the quarry to swim. That was just not appropriate behavior for a girl in that era.

The bike itself, probably received on my ninth birthday in early July, just weeks after the move, was a full-sized, single-speed machine with coaster brakes. I remember it as a lovely blue. It was probably from Sears, Roebuck, because we lived deep in that culture. There was never even any discussion of training wheels. I learned to balance, steer, and stop it in the driveway and in the alley that ran parallel to the main north-south artery of the city, just on the other side of our immediate neighbors, the Turkopps. The alley was straight and flat, but when you did fall, it was gravelly. Our street went too immediately up a hill, and from just the third house in from High Street, making a left out of the driveway carried the risk of collision with one of the cars that too often turned in to Arden Road and zoomed up the hill, heedless of little girls who might be wobbling out on their first bikes.

For some time, I was limited to the one short block of the alley, unless I was with my brother. Yeah. Imagine the 12-year-old, after two summers of rural freedom, saddled with his little sister. He was actually pretty good to me, considering. Well, he was good about letting me start out with him, but rather intolerant of whining about hills or whimpering over falls and shins scraped when a sneaker lost traction on the pedal. He did lecture once or twice about wearing sturdy jeans as he did instead of my adorable matched shirt-and-pedal-pushers sets. Why did he think they called them pedal pushers?

Jeff was also intolerant of embellishments to the bike held over from tricycle days. I could not come with him with streamers on my handlebars or a playing card clothespinned in my spokes to make a sound I imagined to be like a motorcycle. I could not endanger his acceptability to city kids. If we met other boys on our rides, I had to move off until almost out of sight, and of course say nothing to Mother.

A Change of Roles

Around the middle of August, however, I got the chance to show I had some value in the bicycling enterprise. Jeff wanted to show me a breathtaking hill ride he had discovered in the course of scoping out bicycle routes to what would be his Junior High. It was in a leafy green area, on a road called Overlook. The climb to the top of the hill was spread out over three or four times the precipitous descent, so I might even make it without getting off to walk.

It was too hot and humid for jeans, so Jeff had on madras shorts. I remember long athletic socks. Boys always wore socks in their canvas sneakers then, high-top or low. Girls usually wore anklets, but might go sockless if they didn’t have big ankle bones that knocked and scraped on the tops of the pedal cranks.

We paused at the top of the hill, I gasping at both the climb and the prospect before me, Jeff grinning with the promise of testosterone storms to come. He pointed out that one must veer smartly left at the bottom, pedaling, or crash into the woods, and insisted we descend side by side, although I remembered well the safety lecture about riding single file. When he asserted that one should not brake, I knew there would be no problem dropping back. After counting “ready, … set, … GO!” as if we were starting a race, Jeff actually began pedaling madly. When he dropped over the edge, shouting for me to “Come on, fraidy cat,” I saw his legs extend straight out from his bike’s seat. His “No bra-a-a-ki-i-ing” trailed behind.

I was less than a third of the way down when Jeff literally hit the bottom. He veered left, but his bike laid down and headed wheels-first for the trees. Jeff rode through the turn on his left knee.

It’s a terrible dilemma for a sheltered nine-year-old to have to consider whether the risk of releasing her coaster brakes was worth the few seconds it might grant her in getting to her erstwhile protector. I opted for my brakes, but I must say hopped off with little regard for my bike when I did reach the bottom. There was bloody gravel smeared across the bend in the road. Jeff rolled over onto his bottom, and together we observed what seemed like an equal amount of gravel embedded in the shreds of flesh that had been his knee and upper shin. We watched the blood ooze into his sock.

I couldn’t imagine how he could even get up off the ground, but followed instructions to bring the bikes over and set them on their kickstands. He inspected his for damage, but the only apparent mechanical injury was a chain off its sprockets. That seemed to reassure Jeff that the fall could be blamed on the bike. I didn’t know any better. He tried to sit on his bike, but the dragging chain kept catching. So he walked home with my bike substituting for the bad leg, and I clumsily pushed his.

When we got to our block of the alley, I disobeyed orders and stood Jeff’s bike against a wall so I could run ahead and alert Mother. I glanced back at the blood trail behind us. Charley, our little brother, and I were sent to the Turkopps’ while Mother piled Jeff into the car and made for the pediatrician’s office. I did not like the set of her jaw.

They were gone almost two hours. Mother apparently had done her yelling at Jeff in the car, but I got a minilecture about having some sense of my own. I knew better than to try to point out that I had successfully negotiated the hill. Daddy helped me clean the blood off my bike, and as soon as Jeff could bear to bend his knee again, he and Dad got his bike back together. We never went back to Overlook on our bikes, or I didn’t, and I cultivated my own little copy of Mother’s glare, for the times when Jeff suggested something I found too daring. It involved a fist on my hip that my own children still recognize, and a pointed glance at Jeff’s left knee before I met his eyes. It worked about half the time.