This two-part story was first posted on the late, unlamented (trust me, I saw the stats) Felloffatruck Publications blog on 20 February 2007. I’m reposting it at the request of a friend. Who knows, maybe I’ll start a series. OFP’s Greatest Mis-hits. Why not? There’s a precedent.
I grew up in permanent green-eyed envy of kids who had asphalt. Their Tonka trucks rolled true. So did their marbles. And their Superballs actually bounced.
We had dirt.
My Superball, when it had been evicted from the living room (the floor area of which might have been big enough to hold a postage stamp; it certainly wasn’t large enough to hold a Superball, the two good lamps, and an imperious maternal unit all at once), didn’t bounce. It hit the dirt of our driveway and sat there, arms folded in sullen disgust. Or struck an embedded rock and careened off into the mountain laurel. If I was lucky. If I wasn’t lucky, it bounded away and crazybounced, like Superballs do if they actually get a surface they can work with, down the street and into the next county. And since the street was verboten, I would have to wave “happy trails” as the rubber hit the road, and hope to find a replacement in my stocking next Christmas.
Our benefactors next door had a blacktopped driveway. Our neighbors across the street had a blacktopped driveway. All of our neighbors down the street had blacktopped driveways.
We had dirt. In that neighborhood, it was a badge. Maybe not one you wanted.
But I didn’t know this at the time. I had more important things to deal with, anyway. Like learning to shovel snow off a dirt driveway without shoveling the dirt too – or, if the dirt was frozen, learning to scrape off the snow without having the shovel strike an embedded rock and drive its handle through my stomach.
And, learning how to ride a bicycle on the driveway’s uneven, shifting surface.
Which I did. Slowly and painfully. I did mention that was one heavy machine, didn’t I? Just checking. Didn’t wish you to forget just yet.
And finally, I was ready to leave the driveway and head out into the world.
Only one problem. The road to the world was paved, and led into the next county, where that Superball went. The street. But the street is verboten. Here I am, all dressed up, wheels at the ready, and noplace to go.
Well, not quite.
Our Benefactor’s family owned a large parcel of land. It’s all been sold off now, and it’s got houses on it. But forty years ago, it was covered with forest, and dotted with the holes that the antique bottle hunters had dug in it – a large part of it had been a dump in the early 20th century. It was crisscrossed with fire trails. And it backed on to what had been the railbed for the Old Colony Railroad, long abandoned and now a dirt road.
It was onto these trails that I ventured. Each day a little further. Until finally I took my courage into my hands, and exited the forest onto the old railbed.
At last! A long straight stretch of track on which I could work up some speed without having to worry about verboten roads, or curves in the winding forest trails, or inconvenient trees. Endless vistas stretched before my eyes – which for the moment forgot about that sled jump and the lessons it taught me.
For that apparently hard-packed trail through the sand and gravel of the eastern Massachusetts coastal plain was deceiving. It was, after all, early spring in eastern Massachusetts. That period of time between the melting of the snow and the burgeoning of the summer grass. When the sand and gravel, and the silt and the clay, unbound by the new roots of the vegetation to be, still holds all its winter’s water.
That lovely straight, hard-looking dirt railbed was a morass of sand piles, swampy puddles, and embedded cobble boulders. And after my initial burst of energy, I was soon laboring.
Trouble was, that initial burst of energy had taken me well into uncharted territory. I didn’t know where I was, but I was unwilling to struggle back the way I came. That would be work. There had to be an easier way. I kept on going, hoping something would turn up.
And behold, it did. Off to my left, the road back to my house appeared. The blacktop road. The verboten one. But it was asphalt. Hard. Immune from waterlogged sand and gravel. The parental units would understand, especially after seeing the evidence of mud season with which I was already thoroughly spattered. All I needed to do was cross this flat expanse of sand between the railbed and the road, a mere 100 yards, and I was as good as home.
That dead-flat, easy-looking path to my salvation wasn’t sand.
It was mud.
Deep, sticky, miry mud.
It wasn’t immediately obvious that I’d been had. The first 50 feet or so wasn’t awful. The surface was slimier than I expected, but, well, it was mud season. And then, I started getting into the real mud. I could no longer pedal the bicycle, I had to dismount and try to drag myself and the bike along. The mud went up to my shoetops, up to my ankles, up onto my calves. I kept on slogging, thinking just one more step and I would be out of the mire and back onto something resembling terra firma. But it kept getting worse.
And that bicycle was heavy. Remember? See, it pays to remember things. It was bad enough clean. Now it was slimed and caked with mud. Mud on the tires, mud on the wheels, mud on the fenders, mud on the frame. That sucker weighed a ton, and was getting heavier by the second.
I am smack dab in the middle of that 100-yard expanse. Mud to the left of me. Mud to the right. Mud in front of me, and mud behind – scarred with the tracks of a pair of feet and a pair of wheels. I am stuck in a bullseye of mud. Or quicksand. I had just seen, on television, an old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie. One featuring a pit of quicksand, in which a number of characters had met their demise. And I saw myself in that pit, going down for the last time.
And I responded.
I cried. I screamed. I wailed for my mommy. I wailed for help. Somebody. Anybody. I racked up enough man card violations to last any self-respecting male three lifetimes.
And a self-respecting male responded.
I don’t know who he was. If I’d met him before or since, I can’t call it to mind. Doesn’t matter. Whoever he was, he came, an apparition out of the wilderness, complete with divine aura, slogging through the mud and mire to get me and my bicycle out of that plain of death and onto Ferry Street. And he didn’t even call me on the man card violations. Needless to say, I thanked him profusely, then whacked as much of the mud off my machine as I could and made my way home.
The red Columbia survived the mud ducking and lived long enough for me to be the last guy in my class to still be riding a bike with coaster brakes. My younger brother had already discovered the Sting Ray family of bikes, and wouldn’t be seen with me. (Years later, he met his Maker astride his cherished Harley.) Everyone else, it seemed, had a bike with at least 5 gears and drop handlebars, road-racer bikes being all the rage at the time.
I finally was able to convince the parental units that I needed a new bike. After all, by this time I was biking 3 miles each way to the golf course to caddy and, eventually, mow grass. I had the opportunity, if not to keep up with the Joneses, at least to keep them somewhat within cooee.
I chose a Schwinn Collegiate. Heavy. Five speeds (the absolute minimum possible in derailleur gears). Upright handlebars.
A complete absence of cool.
– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.