My 1974 Schwinn Suburban 10-speed gave up the ghost last week.
The bicycle served me well for 39 years. It was a beauty when I pedaled it out of the little bike shop in Corpus Christi, Texas.
It was red, with skinny tires, fenders and a couple of big reflectors that let you know I was out there in front of you on the road.
It wasn't one of those fancy road racers that was aerodynamically built for speed. But then, neither was I. It was just a good, solid bike that got me where I wanted to go, and let me have a lot of fun getting there.
Lately, however, the old Schwinn was trying to tell me something. That nice red bike I had bought many suns ago, had faded to pink. "Nice pink bike," a buddy kidded me once. "Did your sister let you borrow it?"
I left him in the dust.
In the last year, a pedal broke off mid-ride. The back wheel was out of round. I could count on three of those 10 gears -- at least some of the time. And the brakes screeched like a banshee.
Old Pink finally made the decision for me: It's time to get some new wheels.
It wasn't easy. I had only three bikes -- correction, one was a trike -- in my lifetime. And they were more than just wheels. They were my buddies.
My earliest memory is when I was 4 years old, riding a hand-me-down tricycle up and down the sidewalk in front of our house in Mascoutah. Up to the corner. Turn around. Down to the big ditch that ran along one side of our place. Those were my limits because that's where Mom could see me from the porch. But to me, pint-size legs pedaling as fast as they could, it seemed I was riding like the wind to kingdom come.
My brothers and sisters had started back to school. The house that was usually buzzing with activity was dead quiet. Just Mom and me. When we'd stir cookie batter or hang wash on the line, I'd have Mom all to myself.
But in between, I always came back to my wheels. Up Independence Street and back. Up and back. It was a 4-year-old's version of pacing. Sometimes I was Pop's big electric company work truck. A race car. A spaceship with one-eyed aliens. Neighbors, like Mr. Malacarne, became one-eyed aliens. The bakery delivery truck that brought "kuchen" (cake) bread loaves on Tuesdays. Of course, my kuchen loaves were big rocks from the ditch that came without cinnamon, raisins and icing, but Mom didn't seem to care.
Finally, I was a school bus. I would meet a brother at the corner and slide his books in a bag hanging from the handlebars. He would stand on the platform on back and push with one foot because I wasn't strong enough to pedal him. One sibling at a time. All of a sudden, there was lots to do, so I parked the bus on the porch.
When I was old enough to go to school, we lived in a new town (Highland). I had new friends but old wheels. My brother's bike that was handed down, down, down, down finally became mine. It was a Western Flyer, the envy of the neighborhood in its day, but several brothers had ridden it to smithereens. It had big ol' balloon tires, rusty handlebars, no fenders. Kids with new skinny-tired Schwinns made fun of me.
For my birthday, I got a new bike. Well, it was the old Western Flyer, but Pop had completely rebuilt it. He put silver fenders on it, painted the frame black and white, attached a red reflector and a cool mud flap on back.
An enclosed part between the two frame bars had a button I thought was just for looks.
Turns out, the button used to honk a battery-operated horn. It hadn't worked forever. Pop fixed that, too. As a finishing touch, on the advice of my sister, Pop attached those handlebar grips with flowing red, white and blue streamers that stood straight out when I rode like the wind.
When I showed up at the school bike rack, kids' jaws dropped. One Nelly Olsen-type kid said it was still just an old bike with big ol' balloon tires. I honked the horn. He shut up.
Those wheels were the best birthday present I ever got.
Bikes come and go. But you never forget them. I'm thinking about donating Old Pink to a program that shows kids how to fix bikes. But, for now, it's is still hanging upside-down in the garage, right next to the brand-new black bike.
It's not a fancy racing bike with the curled-under handlbars and state-of-the-art derailleurs that cost as much as a small car. But it has a heck of a lot of gears. I've had the chance to try only about twentysomething so far, and they all work. It's a good, solid bike that will get me where I want to go and I'll have fun getting there.
It'll be easy to recognize me on the road. I'll be the one riding like the wind to kingdom come.