Saturday, September 8, 2012

A somewhat unhappy biking adventure

I’m cheating with this blog post, a little bit.  As a 30-minute writing exercise in a journalism class, students had to think of a childhood memory for 20 minutes and then write for 10.  I had not planned to in advance—but I was feeling lazy, not like grading or doing other productive work—so while my students did this exercise, so did I.  The results are below, a somewhat unhappy biking memory, and one that I’m glad to say stands out for that reason—most of my childhood biking memories, like my adult biking memories, are happy ones.  I have done minimal editing on this essay, it’s mostly just as written, but I have taken the liberty of cleaning up some of the typos and inconsistencies, although I don’t doubt some typos remain for the amusement of my sisters.  Details of this story could be wrong, but it’s an honest memory—as far as I could recall in 20 minutes, the story you are about to read is true, with only the typos changed to protect the writer:

What do I remember and what do I recreate out of what I think I remember?

I know it was summer, and the sun was bright.  Clinton, Iowa was not a particularly flat piece of planet Earth, but from our house on Seventh Avenue South to downtown and Riverfront Park was a pretty straight shot on flat land.  You just headed east up Seventh Avenue, turned north on Third Street, and then east again, maybe on Fourth Avenue—or, just because we had lived in a rental house there when we first moved to town, Third Avenue South.

I think I was going to Riverfront Park.  I know I was alone.  I was headed east, and if it was late morning, the sun was high but in my face as I pedaled my red Schwinn one-speed, the first bike I had ever owned, a gift from my father on my eighth birthday.

But, by now I was 11.  I was big for my age, and I probably dwarfed that bike, although it was my exclusive mode of transport until I bought my first 10-speed in 1974.

This was probably a day in June in 1970, and I had not yet turned 12.  I was close to 6-feet tall, but a boy still, not yet really into adolescence despite my near-adult size.

A pudgy boy, but one who could ride his bike the 2 miles or so to visit my favorite park along the Mississippi River.

A picture of a 1958 Schwinn,
from commons area,
orignally posted posted to Flickr by Wha'ppen.
Mine was red, had fenders
and was built 8 years after this bike,
but it's still pretty similar.
As you pedaled east, the houses started fairly modest, but sizeable on our block.  West was the direction for bigger, grander houses, east was the direction where houses slowly grew smaller and closer together until they petered out at a stop light, where, once you crossed it, you were in the central commercial district, with a grocery story on your right and a big city parking lot on your left.  That stop light marked the start of block-by-block electric traffic control, pedal, stop, wait for green, pedal, stop, wait for green.

I was within a block of the library, although I wasn’t headed there on this particular day.  I don’t think I ever rode my bike there because it was not convenient to carry books, and the library seemed to be within easy walking distance.  The river and its park was a bit farther.

As I neared the stop light where I would cross Third Street and turn north, a pickup truck roared up beside me.  There’s a special terror for bikers when a pickup truck approaches, particularly one where you can practically smell the testosterone given off by the newly minted, teenage, jerk, man-child driver.

Several boys were in the bed of the truck sitting on something, maybe a tool box, so their backs were against the rear window.  The boy nearest me was lean, tan, blond, wearing a t-shirt and jeans.  He was drinking something, probably water, which was a good thing, because he took a big swig of it, looked at me, and spit it all out, an impressive ejaculation of liquid that drenched me.

From the bed of the truck and from the cab, the raucous sound of young male laughter tore at the quiet of an Iowa summer as the truck roared off.

I was stunned, humiliated, drenched.  Luckily, the liquid appeared to have no noxious smell and wasn’t sticky—just my luck that in the era before bottled water, this guy still had a canteen or some other water container to drink.

Of course, I felt powerless. Despite my height, I was not in physical shape nor experienced enough in hand-to-hand combat to challenge one, let alone a group, of teen boys.

I didn’t cry.  I didn’t even turn for home.  The truck was gone and I kept going, letting the sun evaporate the water, if not the memory.

Growing up as one boy in a family with six sisters sounds like an ordeal.  It wasn’t really, for me.  I never got into “boy” stuff that much.  I was lousy at sports, didn’t watch baseball on TV and couldn’t shoot a basketball.  None of that mattered much to me, and it still doesn’t.  I don’t like loud, boisterous, obnoxious people, especially boy bullies.

I don’t understand the pleasure that a random stranger took in spitting on a kid he didn’t know and who had done nothing to him.  I still don’t.  And, I think, that’s good karma for me.

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