With another Fourth of July celebration behind us I was inspired to blog about independence of a different sort. I’m talking about riding a bicycle, a formative experience known to people throughout the world, for well over a century now.
My mom took the photo of me and my dad in the yard of our home in a small Pennsylvania town. I’m perched on the saddle of my very first bike, face alight with the pride of owning such a snazzy vehicle. The passage of time has leeched most of the color from the snapshot but that bicycle’s appearance is as clear in my memory as it was when the image was taken: bright red with chromed fenders and whitewall tires, it boasted a pair of “headlights” that one turned on and off by switches beneath the battery housing. My chariot’s speed relied solely on the force with which I pushed the pedals.
The photo brings back a host of other memories, too. The building on the left was the education wing of the Methodist church we attended. On the right is the apartment block where my best friend lived in Apartment 4B, a guy I tracked down last year on social media and spoke with on the phone – after a fifty year gap. Out of the shot on the left is the fenced-in playground. In winter snow from the parking lot was plowed into the playground. The white stuff was packed in so tightly that it was easy for us kids to tunnel through it, making an impregnable fortress. It was the kind of reckless adventure that is supposed to give Twenty-first Century parents the willies.
I’ve returned to my birthplace several times, and find it surprisingly easy to remember how to get around. Yes, essential landmarks of my youth remain intact, including our house, the church and apartments and the elementary school I attended. But I think another factor in retaining this familiarity is the time my friends and I spent pedaling through the town’s streets on carefree summer days. They provided my first taste of independence, bringing a realization that I could determine the direction my life could take.
I recall the various bicycles I owned through the decades, with each one being a little more technologically complex than its predecessor. Of course, bike-riding as a regular activity eventually gave way to owning automobiles. Though riding in cars broadened my horizons, it also cut me off from the sounds and sensations of taking in the world from a bike saddle. I don’t mean to romanticize that: I only want to say that the means of transportation yields a different perspective on getting from Point A to Point B.
All that being said, I still own a bicycle . . .