November 9, 2008

Bikes of Terror


I can’t remember the last time I rode a bike. My best guess is that it was that long summer I was working at the video store in Green Bay. I was nineteen or twenty at the time, and rode my bike to work every day. It was a five mile ride in either direction, three of those miles along the shoulder of a busy highway that took me past the slaughterhouse. I spent most of the ride screaming, as on my way in I had to contend with a parade of roaring cattle trucks full of live cows, and on the way home a parade of cattle trucks filled with bones and entrails and skins. It wasn’t a fun commute.

            From the time I was very small I wanted to get along with my bikes, but it never happened. Part of that may have to do with the fact that until I was in my teens, all my bikes were hand-me-downs. And girls bikes to boot, inherited from my sister or a neighbor. No matter how much I covered them with manly stickers and dents, there was no disguising the fact.

            My dad taught me how to ride one afternoon by bringing me to the parking lot of the church across the street, plopping me on the banana seat, and giving me a mighty shove. The momentum carried me a few yards before I tipped over. Then he repeated the process for several hours until finally—more out of fear and blood loss than anything else—I finally got the hang of it.

            Not long afterward I entered my Evel Knievel phase, working out little stunts and building a makeshift ramp out of a sheet of plywood and some bricks. I spent long afternoons going over that ramp, more often than not ending up on my back in the driveway, with the bike either in the street or the neighbor’s yard.

            Since the streets around our house were busy and unbelievably dangerous, and the driveway was, well, about as big as a driveway, if I wanted to let loose and tear around a little I went back across the street to the church parking lot. It became a daily destination for me. The parking lot was usually empty, so I’d scream around and practice my stunts with abandon until I was finally forced to limp home, scraped and bleeding, only to return the next day.

            Now, our neighbors at the time had a kid my age named Eric. He was a foul-mouthed lying little thug, but he lived right there so we had no choice but to be best friends. One day he decided that he was going to get on his bike and join me in the parking lot, where we’d usually end up racing. He had a much nicer bike than I did. Not only was it red, white and blue—it was a boy’s bike with knobby dirt-bike tires. In spite of the bike advantage, he was still much chubbier than me, so when it came to racing, we were pretty evenly matched. We tore around that parking lot most every afternoon during the summer.

            Then without warning, and much to our dismay, the day camp that was held five days a week in the church basement decided to let all the kids play outside in the parking lot whenever the weather was nice. Not only did this mean the once-empty parking lot would be swarming with about fifty five and six year-olds—the day camp organizers were even setting up games for them to play.

            Now where were we supposed to ride our bikes? The parking lot was the only place where we wouldn’t be run down by cattle trucks or afternoon drunks. My whole summer was suddenly screwed.

            So I thought, anyway.

            Eric, nasty kid that he was, took it as a challenge. Not only was it no problem, he said—it would be even better than it was. Riding around a parking lot full of screaming children would be a hell of a lot more fun than riding around a boring old empty parking lot. (Death Race 2000, remember, was very popular at the time.) So sure enough, the following afternoon we hopped back on our bikes and went roaring into the parking lot, speeding through dodge ball games, clipping the occasional slow child, taking the occasional spill. The teachers tried to chase us away, but we were much too fast for them.

            It was so much fun, we went back the next day and did the same thing. That second day the pastor himself came outside and tried to chase us too, yelling and screaming and shaking his fist—and he was old. It was getting better every day!

            Eric and I had so much fun terrorizing the children in that parking lot that we began working out schemes to make our presence there even more obnoxious. We mapped out daily game plans and considered pooling our allowances to order sirens and flashing red lights from the Johnson Smith catalog to attach to our handlebars.

            Then one day after about a week of showing up like delinquent clockwork to buzz the youngsters, we arrived to find the people from the day camp had stretched a piece of tape across the entire parking lot, dividing it in two. One side was for the kids to play unmolested, the other remained empty for us to ride our bikes without endangering anyone but ourselves.

            It was an absolutely rational and thoughtful compromise on their part, I thought. It was a big parking lot, after all. It made perfect sense and left everyone happy.

            Which is why, of course, Eric and I ignored the tape completely. Didn’t even consider for a second cooperating with those stupid day camp people. We just ducked down low, slipped neatly beneath the tape, and started herding screaming five year-olds again.

            Yes, it was good fun.

            How that old pastor found out our names and phone numbers I don’t know (though the fact that we lived directly across the street couldn’t have hurt). So he called our parents, we both got whupped but good, and that was the end of our reign of terror in the parking lot.

            Given my iffy history with bicycles, I still have to wonder why, two years later, my dad got me a minibike. But I guess this was the same man who got me a Chicago Bears uniform to wear in Green Bay. Sometimes I really have to wonder about him.


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