Nowadays if a kid wants a new bicycle, his parents take him to a store where there may be twenty, thirty or even a hundred bikes to choose from. That’s not the way it was for me back in 1962, when I got my first two-wheeler at age 6. There were already four of us kids to support in harder times than today, especially with only my dad working while my mom stayed home with my two-year-old sister.
“Can I get a bike?” I asked my dad one sunny spring day.
“I think we may have one for you,” he answered, and walked me out to our deteriorating, detached garage. He pointed at my sister’s dilapidated bicycle that leaned against the two by four walls and my heart sank. I had already pictured myself in a new bike, gliding on the sidewalk, clutching the handlebars, breeze in my face. “We can fix this one up,” he said.
At first, I had little hope. The torn seat and rusted wheels made it the ugliest bike I had ever seen. But as my father disassembled it and meticulously spray-painted the frame a dark blue, and then the wheels and spokes silver, I began to see the possibilities. He added new fat tires and a seat cover and then oiled the rusty chain. It was not the same bike that I had first seen in the garage. When he put it all together, it looked new.
He painted the arms of the training wheels white and tightened them on. I couldn’t ride on the sidewalk yet, but I rode in circles in the garage for endless hours, day after day- right into the summer. It was similar to riding a tricycle, only bigger.
Then one warm day my dad said, “You’re getting pretty good, there. Maybe we should give it a try with the training wheels off.”
My oldest friend Pete could ride on two wheels. It looked so easy, but I knew it wasn’t. I watched with trepidation as he turned the wrench to take the training wheels off. “There you go,” he said. I looked at the bike as he balanced it on two wheels. He must have read the fear on my face. “Don’t worry. I’ll hold onto the back of the seat when you ride. If you feel that you are going to fall, just turn a little in that direction. That will stop you from falling.”
The backyard became my practice track with the low-cut crabgrass lawn becoming my cushion if I fell. “The key is to not get hurt when you fall,” my dad said. He walked and sometimes ran behind me, yanking the bike upright by the seat if I was tipping too much. I could feel his hand behind me, making me feel safe and secure. Every day when he came home from work, I bugged him to help me ride.
One warm day he said, “You’re ready to ride on your own. Just get on and I’ll hold the bike and then let you go.” I climbed on, and balanced myself with my feet down on either side of the bike. I put my feet on the pedals, while my dad held the seat to keep me from falling.
As soon as I began to move, I no longer felt his hand in the back. I was on my own! Riding the full length of the yard, I turned the front wheel and used my leg to keep me from falling as I stopped. When that leg hit the ground, I had taken my first step into freedom. I got back on and rode some more, as my dad smiled.
Now, 45 years later, I have performed the same task for my daughter and son. I wonder if my dad had the same thought that I did when I first saw my daughter riding without my help. This is just the beginning, I thought. This is just the beginning of learning how to let go.