Friday, December 21, 2012
MY FIRST TWO-WHEELER
“Now you own a Schwinn Bicycle!” the announcement, circa 1960, began. Coiled into a tiny tube and tied tightly with curling ribbon, the owner’s manuals for our new Schwinn three-speeds hung among the branches of the Christmas tree like an ornament.
December 25th dawned and brother Beebo and I awoke early, as young children still close to single digits in years are wont to do. We tittered and giggled and fingered the bounty of wrapped packages beneath the tree until Mom and Dad wandered in, bleary-eyed this Christmas morn. Their arrival signaled something akin to the bugler’s call at Churchill Downs. Within minutes I was in possession of a new cap six-shooter, a felt cowboy hat, a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, I suppose, a mom-sewn shirt or a pair of Towncraft jeans from JC Penney. Likewise for Beebo. It wasn’t until the last of the wrapping paper had floated to rest on the floor that Mom and Dad reached into the branches and pulled out the coiled manuals. Cluelessly, we leafed through them briefly and shrugged thinking, “That’s really odd. We don’t own Schwinn bicycles.” We tossed the brochures amongst the mountain of wrapping paper and returned to pointing our six shooters at each other.
Breakfast was served on the former screened in porch between the kitchen and the patio and it wasn’t until halfway through a waffle laced with bacon and drowned in Log Cabin syrup that Mom’s patience ran out. “Why don’t you boys just stop and look?” she asked with a familiar tone of exasperation in her voice.
She was pointing to the patio. Outside the window rested two brand new Schwinn Bicycles: the Racer models with Sturmey Archer three speed gears and skinny tires beneath pinched front metal fenders. These bikes were likes of which big kids – college kids! – and adults rode. Heck! Dad commuted to work at the Post Office every day on a Schwinn Traveler model quite similar to these beauties.
Still clad in pajamas, we bolted out the back door. Beebo claimed a big blue one and a slightly smaller red one waited for me. We kicked up the kickstands, pointed them to the gravel drive and began pedaling out toward the road. Pride of the neighborhood, we now had means of personal transportation to and from school, over to the CARD Pool, down to town for a Saturday matinee at the El Rey, on rides through Bidwell Park with Mom and Dad and the freedom to go just about anywhere in the world we wanted. (I even rode mine up the Honey Run – and I do mean up – to neighboring Paradise, California, some 16 miles away one spring day to see a girl who’s door I ultimately didn’t have the courage to knock on.)
A couple of summers later we used Dad’s 8N Ford tractor and a wooden skid to grade a racetrack around the perimeter of the four-and-a-half acres of almonds out back of the house. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the narrow tires of our Racers didn’t handle the dust and dirt clods of the orchard too well.
One day, a neighbor kid named Curtis came by on his new Sting Ray. A Sting Ray was a bicycle built on a tiny frame using small wheels with fat tires. It sported an elongated “banana seat” molded to look like tuck ‘n’ roll. Its high-rise handlebars wore sparkly grips the same color as the frame. No three-speed, this single-geared, coaster brake marvel took to the dust and mud like it was engineered for it. On our racecourse, Curtis stood on the pedals and cranked them round and round. When he came to the curve at the far corner of the orchard, he boldly put his foot down and bat-turned like he was pivoting on a peg. Then down the straightaway he’d race. Neither Beebo nor I could catch him.
Awe struck, we knew what we needed to do. Much as we were to revere our big Schwinn Racers, all of a sudden, they simply didn’t cut the mustard.
Vern Pullin had owned a bicycle dealership in downtown Chico for about 160 years. It was said that the local Mechoopda Indians bought bikes from him before the white people settled the area. Why would we not believe this? His shop was located at Eighth and Broadway.
The front room was a neatly arranged row of Schwinn’s latest offering. The back room was a dark tangle of used frames, derelict wheels, seats, forks, and various parts. It looked like a rat’s nest, but Mr. Pullin could burrow into that thicket and, within moments and without exception, return with exactly the part the customer needed.
Setting our bikes on their kickstands out front, we entered Vern Pullin’s ancient shop. First in the neat row of shiny two-wheelers was a clutch of Sting Rays: red, green, blue, gold, every color imaginable. I ran my hand along the length of the white vinyl banana seat on a metal-flake burgundy ‘Ray’ several times. Mr. Pullin stood behind the worn oak display counter, ages-old grease ringing his cracked and weathered fingers. He was flipping through a ledger of some sort and barely looked up. Apparently little boys frequenting his store, pining for the latest and greatest Schwinn was nothing new to him. After a time, he asked: “Help you boys?”
“We… we… we wanna swing a trade for a couple of Sting Rays.”
Vern looked us up and down. “What cha got?”
We retreated to the sidewalk and began to wheel in our Racers. He stopped us. “Whoa, boys. Whoa. Them’s two mighty nice machines you got there. I’ll bet they was Christmas presents not too long ago.”
“They were,” we unisoned.
“Well,” he said, scratching a gray stubble that looked permanent, “I’m not so sure Santee’d be too pleased if you was to give up a present he picked out special just for you.”
“I’m too old to believe in Santee,” I blurted, figuring it was far enough away from next Christmas for Santa to remember I might have said this.
Mr. Pullin dug at his chin a bit more. “Tell you what. I’ll call your mama and let her know how much I can offer you’n trade.”
“But she doesn’t…”
Raising an eyebrow, he turned to his ledger, leafed through a page or two and rattled off a phone number. “I’ll call your mama.” Unstated was and that’s final, boys.
We pedaled home. Mom must have heard the crunching of our bicycle tires up the gravel drive. She dropped the laundry she was hanging out and met us before we could settle the Racers on their kickstands. The only part of the tirade I specifically recall was: “I’ll not have you roaring through the neighborhood like some damned motorcycle gang member!”
Fifty-plus years later, somewhere out behind Beebo’s house (on acreage similar to Mom and Dad’s) there is a collection of old bicycles gathered from years of our riding and then our children riding. Deep in that pile of frames and wheels and rotted Brooks leather saddles, I suspect, one would find remnants of the old Schwinns. With a little bit of grease and Tri-flow and polish and care, I’d wager they’d be fit to ride again.
Should that happen, I know one of Santa’s elves – an older one named Vern – will be viewing the scene, scratching his stubbly beard and smiling.
Church of the Open Road Press