Sunday, June 11, 2006

Time to take the training wheels off

As I was walking toward my apartment I was passed by two children riding their bicycles. The first, a girl, was followed by a younger boy, who I imagined was her little brother. The boy was riding a smaller bike, equipped with training wheels and we was pedaling like the devil trying to keep up with his sister.

For some reason that fleeting encounter, that little image of a boy riding his bicycle on training wheels took me back to that time in my childhood when I was learning to ride a bike.

I imagine most kids learn those things from their parents. Aren't dads supposed to be the ones who teach us things like that, especially teaching sons things like that?

Well, my dad didn't teach me how to ride a bike. We didn't play catch in the yard. There was just never time for such things. The seasons when the weather was nicest for outdoor activities were my dad's busiest times of year with his work. He was up and gone long before I got out of bed, and he often didn't get home until well after sundown.

My first encounter learning to ride a bike happened when I was probably 8 or 9. We were at a friend's house in town and the boys in that family, even those younger than me, all knew how to ride bikes. They decided to become my tutors. So I climbed up on a bike, put my feet on the pedals, and they pushed me a long. I was terrified. Telling them not to let go, over and over. Being bratty boys, they swore they wouldn't let go and did anyway, for a brief period of time, only telling me afterward.

So I got braver and they let go for longer. There was the inevitable crash, but no major injuries. And I was hooked on the thrill of riding a bike. So, I started bugging my dad to get me one.

And he did. But I was not along to help pick out my new (used) two-wheeler. The one he picked out was purple, with a banana seat and, appropriately, training wheels. But it was also a girl's bike. It even came with a white basket on the front of it adorned with flowers. I was mortified then and every time I had occasion to ride my bike with friends from then on.

How could my dad get me a girl's bike?

Fortunately, the basket was removed, but there was no mistaking the fact that the bar -- I don't know what the technical description of it would be, but we used to call the bar across the top of a bike's frame the nut-cracker bar -- was missing. Well, it wasn't missing exactly, but it was curved low so it was just above the lower part of the frame. It was more of an ankle-cracker bar.

My dad's logic was that it would be easier for me to learn to ride a bike like that. Easier to get on and off. Never mind the emotional scars that my fragile gender identity would endure.

I was determined to learn to ride the shit out of that bike and outgrow it as quickly as possible. But we didn't have a ton of money and I had to make due with that bike for a long time. Fortunately, we lived out in the country so most of my friend from school never had to see me pedal past their house on my girlie bike.

When I did finally get a new bike, and pass my old one down to my brother, I got the most butch bike I could find, long before I knew what butch meant. It was all black, BMX style, with knobby tires and a funky shock absorber thingy on the front forks. This was a boy's bike. A bike for taking over jumps. Of course the thing was heavy as shit, and you had to make sure to hank up hard on the handlebars at just the right moment when flying off a ramp, or risk landing nose-first into the ground.

But seeing that little boy on his bike reminded me of that first bike and learning to ride. I suppose it would be easy to resent my father for getting me that bike, which I hated. But now I realize, his heart was in the right place, as it usually was. He just wanted to make learning to ride easier. Maybe, as the youngest of seven kids, he learned to ride on a bike that had belonged to one of his older sisters. I don't know. I just know that easier isn't always better.

It isn't always easier either.

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