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Fiction #333
(published June 7, 2007)
Evel Knievel and Me
by Ray Sikes
My first bicycle was probably the type my father always wished he could have had when he was a boy. Given to me as a Christmas gift when I was six, it was a fire engine red Murray with chrome fenders and 24-inch wheels, not the 20-inchers that were popular with boys my age who were already riding their bicycles. At that point, the only bike I had successfully ridden was a little neighbor kid's 16-inch bike, and I really wanted one of those little easy to ride 20-inch models.

"It looks so big," I said, when I came out to the living room and saw it beside our aluminum Christmas tree, which had sparse branches and resembled a silver cactus with bright blue and red bulbs.

My father was haggard and unshaven, but proudly walked over to the bike and placed his hand on the red and white seat. He said, "It's a bike you can grow with." Now that I look back on it, I realize he was probably pleased to be giving his son such a fine present. At that time, however, I still believed that Santa dropped off all our gifts, and it wasn't until some years later as I looked at pictures of that Christmas that my mother explained how my father had to work late on Christmas Eve and then stayed up until the wee hours of Christmas Day assembling my bike while I was asleep. It's a shame that we always appreciate our parents more after the fact than in the midst of their patience and generosity.

Now I can understand why he was eager for me to go outside with the bike and try it out, but my little brother and I had to open the rest of the gifts, eat an enormous breakfast of pancakes, grits, eggs, and ham, and my parents had to talk with neighbors who came by bearing baskets of fruit and Hickory Farms meat sticks. It was nearly noon before my father carried the bicycle outside and waited for me to get on.

I stood there, wondering how I was supposed to get on the thing.

He smiled at me, looked at the bike, and said, "Do you want me to help you get started?"

"No, I know how to ride a bike."

"Then what are you waiting for?"

"I just really don't want you watching me, that's all."

My father stood there for a minute, like he wanted to say something he never got around to saying before he turned away. "I'll be inside, just let me know if you need help."

"I'll be okay," I told him, but getting on the bike was a serious problem. I stood on the pedal and tried to hoist myself up on the seat, but the bike simply tipped over on top of me. In my young mind, the solution seemed obvious. I needed to let myself down on the seat rather than climb up on it. I pushed the bike around to the back yard and propped it against the ladder of the swing set sliding board, climbed around the bike and lowered myself on the seat. Now it was only a matter of pushing off with one hand, then quickly grabbing the handlebars and pedaling away, or so I thought.

After rolling forward no more than a few feet, the bike pitched to the left and fell over. I slammed against the hard frozen ground and was pinned beneath my bike. My arm hurt, my head hurt, and I was unable to free myself from the Murray, so I cried in pain and frustration. My father must have been watching from the window, for he was outside in a moment, lifting the bike and helping me to my feet.

My bike stayed in the garage until spring when my father finally persuaded me to give riding another try. This time I allowed him to help, but first I made sure that no other kids were outside playing. The last thing I wanted them to see was my father showing me how to ride, a feat I assumed the other boys had learned on their own. He held the bike steady and pushed me up and down the driveway while I steered.

"That's it," he said, his voice behind me, constantly instructing. "Steer just like you're doing. Now try braking. Push the pedal backwards. That's right. Now you're getting the hang of it, son,"

"Just don't let go," I pleaded.

"I won't, not yet."

Back and forth we rode, him holding me up, me peddling, braking, and steering. "Good job," my father panted, now breathing heavily as he jogged along beside me. "Keep doing what you're doing."

When I realized he was no longer holding the bike, I wobbled a bit, but his hand steadied me. "Try it again. You were doing fine until you knew I wasn't helping you. I've been taking my hand off, time and time again," he gasped. "You can do this."

With that, he released me fully, ran beside me for a while, and then stopped. I was riding on my own. Later, he let me leave the driveway and venture down the street, and for a while, that was all I needed.

As I got older, other boys my age began trading in their little 20" bikes, not for bigger ones, but for other 20-inch bikes like Schwinn Stingrays or the more generic versions that were often called spyderbikes. Even truly big boys were riding those low-slung contraptions with high-rise handlebars and long banana seats, so I began to feel like a dork whenever I ventured out on my chrome-trimmed Murray.

One day, I took what little money I had, went to the local Kmart with my mother, and bought what I needed to transform my bicycle into something new and therefore much more desirable. Using my father's tools, I removed the existing seat, the handlebars, and even those gleaming chrome fenders. The Stingrays had chrome fenders, but they were flared and much smaller than the ones on my bike. I figured that later I could get some of those. In the meantime, the stripped look would prevail.

I was almost finished when my father came home from work.

"What did you do to your bicycle?" he asked.

"I'm making it cool," I said.

"In whose opinion is it cool?"

"All the other boys have bikes like these."

"Oh, so that makes it cool. Don't you boys need fenders anymore? You run through any water, and you'll get soaked."

"I'll go around puddles."

"I see." My father grabbed the handlebars and pushed on them. They collapsed immediately. "Hand me that wrench and let me tighten this up for you."

I gave him the wrench, but it was the wrong size. He picked through the tools I had gathered, found what he needed, tightened the gooseneck for me, and then pulled on the handlebars again. "That's better, but it seems like these tall handlebars would throw off your balance and make it harder to steer."

"No, it's easy to steer, and you can sit back, so it's more comfortable."

"Is that the reason for the long seat? So you can sit back?"

"Sort of, I guess."

"Well, I can't see why you'd want to get rid of a perfectly good leather bike saddle and buy a plastic thing that looks like a banana."

"That's why they're called banana seats, Dad."

"I already figured that out. You'd be surprised at what I know." He pointed to the chrome bar that extended up from the rear axle to the back of the seat. "At least you've got that support to hold your seat up."

I informed him that the item he pointed to was actually called a "sissy bar." He laughed and walked away, shaking his head because he didn't understand how a thing called "sissy" could be desirable. Later, when I was older, but not that old, I had the same reaction to the whole idea of punk rock, punk attitude, punk fashion, the whole lot of it. Wasn't a punk something you didn't want to be? But I never did share these thoughts with my father, nor did I explain the real benefit of those crazy banana seats: a rider could lean back and pull a wheelie with complete ease. Between riding around with my front forks in the air and skidding to stops by locking up the rear wheel, my front tires were rarely replaced, but the rear tires were constantly wearing out.

Eventually, my little brother got his own bike, and as we rode around the neighborhood, we pretended that we were cruising on motorcycles. Just to add to the effect, we would sometimes use clothespins to affix baseball cards to our frames so they would click against the wheel spokes. The sound of a baseball player's cardboard face shredding away was reminiscent of a Harley, only much quieter.

My neighbor Frank, the only boy I knew who never had a spyder bike and could care less that he didn't, chastised me for destroying a Frank Howard card. "Did you see Howard hit that homer on TV last Saturday? He's a great player."

"You just like him because he's the only other guy around with the same name as you."

"That's not the point. He's a Washington Senator, our home team."

"I don't care about the Senators. They suck." By that time I was old enough to use off color language without it bothering me at all. "I'm an Orioles fan. We live in Maryland, not Washington."

"You don't live in Baltimore, and Washington is a lot closer."

"Maybe not, but the Senators still suck." I hopped on my bike and rode down the street, imagining myself on a motorcycle like the teenager down by the dead end who came in late with his engine hot and loud in the summer night.

The summer after sixth grade, I watched a man on TV named Evel Knievel who used a motorcycle to jump over cars, buses, and even tractor-trailers. I later found out that he had broken nearly every bone in his body performing these stunts, but at the time it all seemed like a lot of fun. The notion of flying though the air on a two-wheeled machine of any sort was attractive to me, so in the absence of a motorcycle, my bicycle would have to do.

I wasn't completely ignorant of the dangers involved, so my brother and I selected a nice soft place to jump, just in case we crashed. We found a cinderblock and a board out behind the garage, and my brother carried the board as he rode, while I did my best to ride with the awkward and heavy block. It was summertime and very hot, so the local elementary school was deserted when we finally got there. Behind the building was a long stretch of blacktopped playground that ended at a gently slopping grassy hill. I assumed that the cinderblock, despite being only eight inches high, would give us enough lift to set us far down the hill. We wouldn't have to get very high if the ground was falling away beneath us, and the fact that we would be landing on grass also seemed prudent, just in case we crashed like Evel Knievel.

After we positioned the cinderblock and board, I took the first pass at our makeshift jump ramp. Pedaling steadily, but with a measure of caution, I crossed the blacktop playground, steered toward the ramp, and hit the board dead center. My bike rose, higher off the ground than expected. For an instant, I felt the terror that is close to exhilaration, close to flight itself, but I held tightly to the handlebars, stood tall on the bicycle pedals, and landed on the rear wheel. My front wheel then touched down without incident, so I hit the brake and slid to a stop with a classic fishtail maneuver.

"That was great!" I shouted to my brother. "You try it!"

He rode across the playground, pedaling faster than I had, but those little 20 inch wheels could only take him so fast, which was a good thing. As he flew off the ramp, his bicycle nose-dived, and the front wheel hit hard. After wobbling wildly, he managed to keep his bike upright and slid to a stop beside me.

"Pull up a little more on your handlebars," I told him.

"No duh," he replied and insisted on trying again, before I jumped, just to prove he knew what he was doing. He rode toward the ramp, became airborne, and this time he landed perfectly. I took another run and landed slightly off balance, but did not fall. We kept circling around, pedaling with more and more speed, landing our jumps farther and farther down the little hill. Eventually, other boys came to the playground, and being younger and more afraid, they merely watched my brother and me as we made like Evel Knievel.

Just before it was time to leave for diner, Robbie McCabe showed up. His hair was long and perfectly groomed, and he rode the coolest Stingray I'd ever seen. He seemed to take great pleasure in showing me his bike, and he kept looking, perhaps contemptuously, at my modified Murray. Green metal flake in color, Robbie's had a chrome fenders and a shift handle mounted on the frame that looked almost exactly like the shifter in my uncle's Mustang. It even had a red indicator needle that pointed at one of the five gears that Robbie had selected. "It's the next best thing to a car,'" he said, and that was the first time we actually talked, even though we were in the same grade together. Robbie was one of the cool kids, and I wasn't. He had spoken to me only once before, in the context of a group, when he was bragging about his acting career. He was showing off his Actor's Guild card during lunch in the cafeteria and explaining how he had done two television commercials, which I never did see, so I doubted what he was telling us was true. After all, we lived in Maryland, not Hollywood.

The only acting I ever saw him do was the part of Romeo when our teacher decided we simply had to do the play Romeo and Juliet, probably because the movie version was hot at that time. One of the boys in our class had seen it in the theatre and told us Romeo was naked in bed with Juliet, and you could even see his bare butt. Robbie, on the other hand, never got in bed, nor did he bare his derriere, but he did kiss — directly on the lips — Juliet, who happened to be Kim Davidson, one of the prettiest girls in school. My mother thought the whole thing was ridiculous, that sixth grade was way too young to even be thinking about Romeo and Juliet, let alone staging the play. Perhaps she poisoned me against the whole project, because I settled for Tybalt's understudy, and I was glad I didn't have to memorize all those lines. Still, when it came time to kiss Kim and get all the applause, I wished I were Robbie.

Sure, I was jealous, so I couldn't help gloating when Robbie came down the blacktop too slow and afraid, nearly missed the ramp completely, and dumped himself at the bottom of the hill. On his way over the handlebars, he caught the shifter with his groin and wound up in a fetal position next to his bike. Robbie moaned and even cried a little, rolling around curled up on the ground as the rear wheel of his upended bike still spun beside him. The sight of it all was something I cherished for a moment before I went down to do the right thing and see if Robbie was okay. He wasn't, and the last I saw of him that day, he was pushing his bike and limping on home.

By then it was time for my brother and me to go, too, so we stashed our block and board in the little wooded area beside the playground and pedaled away, the opposite direction from where Robbie had been headed.

Early the next morning, my brother and went back to the school, retrieved our board and block from the woods, and set up our jump ramp. Like the previous day, we started to draw together a group of little kids who stood by, watching us jump, obviously in awe of our abilities. My brother and I kept jumping, and the little kids would cheer and even clap as we landed jumps farther and farther past the base of the hill. They started placing leaves and twigs on the ground to mark our touchdown spots. Of course, I went farther than my brother, who was younger than I was and had that 20-inch bike. It seemed that my father was right after all, and the 24-inch bike was better. That big wheel gave me the edge.

An older boy named Eric joined the little kids and stationed his bike along side the ramp to watch us taking our jumps. He was only a fifth grader, but when he folded his arms across his chest, his biceps and triceps were already pronounced. Even though he was younger than I was, he still intimidated me. He was a star fullback on one of the Wheaton Boys Club football teams, and I was a second string tackle.

Eric finally yelled at me, "Hey, you mind if I take shot at this? I think I can jump farther than you can."

Guys like Eric always ticked me off. They were trying to prove they were better than me, and usually they were. "Go ahead and jump. Knock yourself out," I said, hoping he would do just that.

"Let me practice first," he said.

"Fair enough," I said. "This one doesn't count."

Eric cruised his Stingray up to the end of the playground, turned and pedaled for the ramp. He hit the middle of the board, rose, and landed perfectly, less than a yard from the leaf that marked my best effort.

"I'll beat you the next time," he said.

I feared he would as I watched him pedal furiously down the blacktop. Once again, he hit the ramp just right, and his landing would have been perfect, except that his back tire blew out right then, and his bike tipped over. Eric, ever the jock, hit the ground, rolled, and stood up as if nothing had happened to him at all.

"You almost went as far as he did!" one of the little kids said, pointing at me and shouting to him.

Eric picked up his bike and walked it over to me. "I've got a patch at home. I'll fix it, and then we'll see who can jump the farthest.

"I don't know how long I'll be here," I told him. "It's getting hot. I'll probably go to the pool."

"Aw, come on. Stick around for awhile," Eric said.

"I got places to go," I told him.

"Well, at least let me use your ramp."

Against my better judgment, I told him: "If you're not here when we leave, we'll stash the stuff in the woods. You can use the ramp, but put everything back where you found it."

Eric said he would, and he wasn't gone long before I left with my brother. I wasn't really in a hurry to get out of the heat, but I didn't want to have a little jumping competition with Eric, who would find a way to win. The lucky bastard always won, and I never saw my ramp again after that day. The next time I ran into Eric at the playground, he told me he never fixed his bike that day because he didn't have a patch, but there he was, sitting on his fine store-bought Stingray with a perfectly good tire.

"I swear to God, I never borrowed your stupid board," he said.

I always got a shiver when people swore to God, especially when I thought they might be lying. "Well, do you know what happened to it?"

"I guess some of those little kids stole it."

I wanted to call him a liar and punch him in the face, but I figured a second string tackle might loose to a first string fullback, even if he was a grade behind me in school.

For a while, I forgot about jumping bicycles and returned to the routine of simply riding and racing other kids on the streets Those little 20-inch bikes were no match for my 24-incher, so I always won. By that time, I was too grown up to put baseball cards on my spokes, but in my own mind I was always cruising on a motorcycle, and I kept modifying my bike to look more and more like something with an engine. I changed out the low sissy bar that came only to the height of my seat for a taller one that rose up like a backrest. It wasn't comfortable to lean against, and it made getting on the bike a chore, but I liked the way it looked.

When the neighbor down the street put his kid's little 16-inch bike out for the trash man to haul away, I salvaged the front wheel and fork, and with some determined pounding and banging and wrenching, I added the whole works to the front end of my bicycle, creating a rough version of what we called a chopper. With the extended forks and the small wheel, this design owed much to motorcycles popularized in the movie Easy Rider, a film about drug-using hippies that my father hated.

He didn't like my bike either. "I know you can't steer that thing worth spit," he told me.

"It's not so bad," I said, even though I had already discovered that cutting the wheel too sharply caused the tire to bump up and down impotently while the bike still maintained pretty much a straight course. Turn a bit sharper, and the bike would dump me.

My brother spoke up in my defense. "Old bonehead can ride it okay. Besides that, it looks so damn cool."

"Don't talk that way," my father said.

One day I was with my brother and some of the kids down the street. We were parked in a driveway, sitting on our bikes, lined up in a row like we were part of the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. My brother started talking about the jump ramp we had set up earlier in the summer, and everyone was bored, so they listened. The more he talked, the more everyone wanted to start jumping our bikes.

Then Frank, the only one without a spyder bike, became the voice of reason. "It sounds like a sure way to break bones."

"I guess you could," I conceded, "but we were up at the school for a couple of days, and no one got hurt, at least not really bad."

"That pretty boy crashed pretty bad," my brother said. "You know, that kid who did the Romeo thing we had to sit through in school, he busted his nuts and was crying like a baby."

"Yeah, he wracked himself up pretty good," I said.

"But my brother never crashed," my brother said. "He jumped farther than even Eric, and you know what a jock he is."

"Yeah, I was pretty good," I said, feeling good about my brother actually admiring me.

"Mighty good for a bonehead," my brother added.

The other kids, little Ricky and David, wanted to see me jump my bike, and Frank said he'd watch, just in case I needed someone to run and get help.

"Thanks for caring," I told him

"Don't mention it," he said.

It took a while for us to get another board and cinderblock, so to save time, we set up the ramp on the pavement at the bottom of the hill that was our dead-end street. We didn't bother dragging the whole works all the way to the school where the grass was softer and the grade was not so steep.

I pedaled up the hill, all the way in front of my house and stopped in the middle of the street. After looking down upon the ramp and the handful of boys who lined up beside it, waiting for me to jump, I pulled a wheelie and started off down the hill. Pedaling and gaining speed, I thought I heard the boys chanting my name. It wasn't until I was nearly upon the board that I heard what they were actually saying: "He's gonna crash, he's gonna crash, he's gonna . . . "

Undaunted, I hit the ramp, stood on my pedals, and pulled up on the handlebars. The front wheel rose, then dropped suddenly. My landing was completely off balance. The wheel struck pavement, the handlebars jerked sideways, and I somersaulted over the front of the bike. It was one of those moments where everything happened in slow motion, and I actually had time to realize how much it was all going to hurt before I hit the cruel rough street and slid on my back and shoulders to a stop. The pain was sudden and awful. I screamed and cried before trying to save face with profanity. Frank was right there, asking me if I was all right, wondering if I could get up. I rose slowly, discovered I was able to walk, and then I ran, as if I could leave the pain behind me. I scrambled all the way up the street and lay on the lawn in front of my house, face down in the grass, my back stinging and bloody. Trembling with pain, I lay there for a long while, feeling at one with Robbie McCabe, our class Romeo, and Evel Knievel, my former hero.

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