Tuesday, May 15, 1982
In cleaning out the garage one Sunday afternoon I come upon my red Raleigh bicycle, a three-speed with coaster brakes. Now the gears are frozen, brakes locked, tires flat. Spokes have popped. Shoots of grass sprout from the leather seat. When I bought that bike, Eisenhower was president.
In my unsentimental out-with-the-crap mood, I toss the bike on top of the pile of garbage - old sinks, a warped door, shredded screens - in the back of my truck. Which is where my son finds it.
Jesse is all of five years old. His eyes are wide: "What's that?"
"My old bike. From when I was a kid. Tomorrow it's going to the dump."
"You're throwing it away?"
"It's a wreck, Jesse." Frame rusty, pedals stuck. Like my body.
"Aren't you going to fix it?"
"It's too old."
"If I fix it, can I have it?"
From birth my son has grown up watching me fix things. He simply believes I can repair anything - or at least that I'll make an attempt. Now he wants to try.
"Jesse, this bike would be too big for you even if you could fix it. I got it when I was twelve years old. It'll be seven years before you could reach the pedals."
"I'll let you use it. Until I can."
"I think it's beyond help."
He scrapes at it with a screwdriver, bangs it with a wrench, rubs it with an oily rag. He has no effect. The pedals are frozen in place. With no idea what to do, he pounds on random parts, squirts random WD-40 or sits, chin on fist, studying.
I do yard chores. Jesse works on the bike. For three hours.
Three hours! This is a child in kindergarten.
At supper it's all he can talk about. My wife and I try to guide him down, lower his expectations. We talk about the value of experience even when you don't succeed. He won't listen. My wife asks me, "Do you have to dump it tomorrow?"
"I'll leave it here."
The next day, Monday, there's little time after school. Jesse flails at the bike. More oil. More banging. I'm too busy to see exactly what he's doing.
Tuesday there's more time after school. I go out to the driveway and help. Or at least ease the pain of failure. Oil has been wicking, penetrating for two days.
He's standing on a pedal with both feet, jumping up and down.
"What are you doing?"
"If I can loosen this pedal, maybe the wheels will move."
"It's not the pedal. It's the axle bearings."
"If I could just move this pedal." Now he bangs on it with a hammer.
I'm fond of this old machine. From age twelve I rode it in an expanding circle over the streets of suburban Maryland to the baseball diamond, and later the movie theater, and later to the house of a girl. Eventually I rode it on some mean streets in Philadelphia and then - strapped to the back of a Volkswagen - the Raleigh moved across a continent. For three years I rode it to my job on the graveyard shift, a midnight ride covering ten miles. I'd operate a computer through the night, then pedal home another ten miles at dawn. I was riding an anachronism, a three-speed with coaster brakes in a land of ten-speeds with hand brakes. And I had married that girl.
To Jesse I say, "You need some Liquid Wrench."
I squirt it into crannies and orifices.
Bracing my feet on the frame and my back against the garage, getting a good grip on the wheel I pull with all my might.
"Help me, Jesse."
He puts his weight into it, all forty pounds.
It moves! Was it the wheel that groaned, or was it my spine?
More oil. A loosening and tightening of bolts. A flooding sensation of relief, of peace: I fix things. We fix things, my son and I. We'll have to buy a new front wheel. A new tire for the rear. Probably have to replace that old Sturmey-Archer three speed shifting lever - do they still make them? No matter, we'll find a way. Bless the children for their foolish hope.
"You got yourself a bike, son."