Wednesday, May 15, 2013

First Bike, Marion Avenue, and Earning Respect

My first bike was a Huffy. Thunder Road 42, to be exact.  It had blue fenders and a number plate on the front of the handlebars, but it wasn't a real dirt bike.  It was in that transition from early 70’s banana seats to real BMX bikes for kids.  I got it as a birthday present when I was 5.  I was too young to ride it, so Dad put training wheels on it.  Training wheels weren't meant for the sidewalks of Malvern.  People walking were hardly meant for the sidewalks of Malvern.  So it was a few days of boring circles in the driveway, and then the luster wore off.  

One day, my Dad took the training wheels off of the bike, and Mom wanted to work with me on my balance in the backyard.  Our yard sloped from east to west-right to left as you looked from our deck.  She started me at the east end of the yard, hanging on to a bar that was at the end of my bike seat, jogging behind me, keeping me upright as we quickly picked up speed.  I clung tight to the handlebars, my eyes fixated on the wheel in front of me, head down.  I didn’t hear a peep from my mom as I caught the view of the steel pole of the clothesline.  My mother and I managed to run into the one obstacle in our backyard, a two and a half inch diameter clothesline pole, as square as I could possibly hit it. I went face-first into the pole. I had a fat lip. Tears ensued, and a long hiatus from attempting to ride my bike settled in.  It wouldn’t be until after we moved from the house on 7th Avenue to the stucco house on the other side of Main Street before I figured it out with the help from some friends in the neighborhood.  

The best stretch of street for riding was Marion Avenue It runs the length of town from north to south, from the high school to Hays' grain bins, on a gentle sloping grade. In three of the seasons, it's shaded by a canopy of century-old oaks and maples, exploding with color in the Fall. I could cover a lot of ground on my bike up and down that street, as the elementary school playground was one of the few playgrounds in town. Chantry Elementary sat two blocks east of Marion Avenue. It was a hot spot for basketball games for us younger kids. The older kids played their basketball at the court next to the swimming pool. Granny Ocle's house was home base, on 3rd street, just a block east of Main St. No street or alley in town was spared from the ramblings of the Huffy Thunder Road, But Marion Avenue and it's cool Summertime shade and smooth, blacktop road condition made it my favorite street to ride.

I was riding north up Marion Avenue towards the railroad viaduct, where I saw Andy. He was a grade ahead of me, but light years ahead in athletic prowess. It was the Summer between my 5th and 6th grade years. Andy was moving on to junior high. At the time, I would've called us just aquaintances. He had never been invited to my birthday parties, and I wasn't to his. Birthday parties were a good indicator of your true circle of friends in grade school, and were typically only for kids in your same grade. You either had to be a cousin, or have an extremely good case made for being in a different grade and invited to your birthday party. We struck up a conversation at the viaduct. I don't know what it was about. Maybe swim team, or that Summer's hot lifeguards at the pool, or the Kansas City Royals. He had a 10-speed bike, a red one. The steps up from the sidewalk to the walkway across the viaduct were significant. It probably needed four steps. It only had two. It was more than a two-foot drop from the walkway to the sidewalk, and Andy was jumping off of the viaduct onto the sidewalk with his bike with the ease of Evel Kneivel. I knew what was coming, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to get out of it. I had to try to make the jump. "Dude it's not that hard. You can do it, just make sure you have enough speed." There was some serious street cred that came with a successful jump like this, especially in front of a kid with the schoolyard prowess of Andy. He wasn't cocky or a bully, but he had the healthy respect of every school-age kid in town. 

I had plenty of speed as I pedaled closer and closer to the edge of the walkway, the smell of the heavy tar of the railroad ties baking under the July sun. The one element of a successful jump that Andy didn't share with me was that when I got to the very end of the walkway, I needed to pull up hard on the handlebars, keeping the wheels even on impact. I was airborne for all of a fraction of a second as my front wheel came nose-diving towards the sidewalk below, my back wheel coming off the walkway behind me. The cheaply-made front rim of the Thunder Road bent with the force of impact, my body came crashing down hard on the handlebars. My knee hit concrete first, then my head, and I was tossed over the handlebars, falling in a heap in the adjacent yard. The yard I landed in was once our yard. It was the yard of the house I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born. Maybe the house wasn't finished with me, making one last indelible memory. I was too young when I live there to have any memories at all of the house. I tried not to cry, but the pain was intense. I had pebbles embedded in my knee from the sidewalk, a knot and scratch near my temple where my head hit the pavement. I was woozy from the impact. Andy was consoling me as I wiped away tears. I told him I was okay, and that I needed to go to my grandmother's house. I pedaled away down Marion Avenue, my knee searing and bleeding, my head swimming and throbbing. The air was cool against my knee, keeping the sting somewhat bearable. I got cleaned up at Granny Ocle's house, and I lied down on her dining room floor, a wet wash cloth draped over my forehead, her house always cool with air conditioning. My eyes were closed, and I was seeing flashes of lightning behind my eyelids. I'm pretty sure I had a concussion.

I don't remember when it was that I saw Andy next. It must've gone well, and he had to have felt bad for seeing me fail so completely at the viaduct. We were pretty inseparable the rest of that Summer. He was reuniting with his old flame Emily, a girl of staggering beauty. He was a rock star, and he had the prettiest girl in school again. I felt out of my league just being in the same company with him, but I made him laugh a lot, and that was enough for me to swallow my insecurities and just roll with it. One night, we were fortunate to catch what turned out to be one of those life-changing moments in adolescence. I was staying the night at Andy's house. It was late, and we were up talking about life, and our place in it. Andy loved talking about big, sweeping subjects like that late at night. It was stoner talk, only we had no idea what being stoned was, and we were genuinely curious about life, and our place in it. At least he was. We heard voices, car doors, and a commotion from outside his bedroom window, coming from the swimming pool parking lot. RW Brown was, begging....Brad, the star quarterback, his teammate, to fight him.We snuck out and ducked behind Andy's shed as RW went on and on, doing everything he could to invite a physical reaction from Brad. Epic lines of bravado and cockiness poured from his mouth like poetry, and we were mesmerized, doing everything we could not to make a sound. We knew RW had a reputation for such things, and he had done some boxing training by then. This was the first time we had actually seen it in person. To his credit, and his physical well-being, Brad refused to fight. He was called a pussy, among other things, but even we knew it was the right thing to do. The die had been cast, however. It was a molding moment for us, especially Andy. RW, and the crew he was there with was a group that you needed to earn respect from. Andy would have no trouble doing so in the years to come.

Making my adolescent bones on Marion Avenue with my worn out Huffy Thunder Road is easily my most vivid memory of my bike as a kid. If I hadn't followed through with that jump, I wonder what would've been different about that Summer. I know I wouldn't have had a new best friend, at least not until school started back up. Then, who knows. I earned Andy's respect. Best friends are pretty subjective, and they can change as often as the seasons when you're that age. We wouldn't always be best friends, but we were always in the conversation, always close. He had my back from that day on. I'd give anything for that jump again; I know what I did wrong the first time. The results may be the same, though, in both respects.

Painting by Zack Jones