That first bike - and the feeling of freedom

Judy Tillery's prewar (World War II) bicycle weighed maybe twice as much as I did. Its heavy-gauge steel frame rested on 28-inch wheels and sported a seat worthy of a John Deere.

Just being across the street from it, unsupervised, probably without permission, made my 5-year-old heart beat faster. Hanging out with the older kids practically qualified as Nirvana.

Judy, who may have been 12, probably didn't realize how young I was. Otherwise I doubt she would have offered to teach me to ride her Hummer of a bicycle.

We started at the back of a long, unpaved driveway, with several children offering advice as Judy positioned me for takeoff. I stood astride the massive chain guard, my right foot poised on the raised right pedal and some portion of my left foot twisting on the ground. The handlebars loomed at about my chin level and extended beyond my shoulders.

Being much too small to reach the seat, this would be a stand-up ride. Judy held onto the back of the old, brownish-yellow bike to steady it - as she had contracted to do for the duration. Naturally I trusted her to follow through.

I can still hear the peculiar sound those balloon tires made as they displaced dirt and gravel at what seemed to me a breathtaking clip. Then I became aware that Judy had let go. I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom unlike anything I'd ever known.

Judy ran alongside to coach me on the finer points of coaster brakes, and to steady the hulking beast as I came in for a landing. I had ridden a bicycle - my life would never be the same.

When I insisted that I knew how to ride, my folks acquired a 16-incher with training wheels. My territory included our driveway and the sidewalk in front of our house. But I sometimes succumbed to the lure of faraway lands and, on more than one occasion, wound up at Mrs. Pace's house two blocks away. Mrs. Pace baked cookies, her husband delivered snacks to vending machines, and she sometimes worked at the concession stands at the park. How could a child resist the allure of all that glamour? Whenever I turned up on her doorstep, she'd give me a cookie and call my mother, who would come and walk me home.

I went from that little bike to a 26-inch, balloon-tire, single-speed, coaster-brake Schwinn outfitted with a luggage rack, wire basket, headlight and taillight, fringe- flapping handgrips, bell, and horn.

Much more than just a bicycle, this one became integral to my childhood and teenhood. Early on, it was my horse. I'd step into my cowboy boots, strap on my Gene Autry two-gun holster, and mount up to ride off in search of adventure. Sometimes I'd don moccasins and a headband with a feather in it, smear watercolor on my face, and ride with a great deal of stealth.

As I got older, my bike became a motorcycle. Playing cards, fastened to the frame with clothespins, flapped against the spokes, creating a pop-pop-pop that I just knew made me go faster.

By age 10, I had become one of the big kids. We'd decorate our steeds and perform circus acts for the little tykes, who sat on the curb and applauded such feats as no hands, feet on the handlebars, and synchronized riding routines.

But mostly, that bicycle represented independence. It took me on visits and errands beyond my neighborhood. And on a typical summer evening after supper, I would ride for miles just for the joy of it.

After I started driving, the bike got less attention. I'm not even sure what became of it.

Several months after Ken and I married we bought a pair of Schwinns - 10-speeds, much spiffier than my old one. We rode them for years, until our boys eventually took them over.

That was some time ago, and I haven't been on a bicycle since. But lately I've had nostalgic thoughts about riding again. All I need is a bike and a deck of cards; I already have a bunch of clothespins.

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