On My Mind

On and Off Training Wheels

October 14th, 2010 by Julie Silver

In 1974 I was eight years old and unable to ride a bike without training wheels. It was the source of much embarrassment. To make matters worse, anticipating that this would be the year I would finally balance myself on two wheels, my parents bought me a brand new bike. It was a beauty—the coolest bike I could never ride. It was purple, with a long banana seat covered in colorful power flowers. The handlebars were curved and set so high they forced your hands to rest above your head. Kickstand down, I would sit on that bike for hours in our darkened garage, dreaming of one day riding it on the streets of my town.

It stood there for weeks, teasing me, taunting me, whispering, get on—ride off into the sunset with me—leave a trail of rusty metal training wheel parts in your wake. Next to my untouched bike stood my old bike with training wheels. Like everything else I owned, it had belonged to my older sister. It was dull red, rickety, with a bent fender and plain, worn handlebars.

It was springtime and the days stayed lighter later. After work, my Dad would throw my old bike and a wrench into the back of our family station wagon in the evenings after dinner and drive us to the junior high school parking lot. He would not allow me to learn how to ride on the new bike. Learn on the old one, ride on the new one, he’d say.

I was a slow learner and my Dad was a patient man. In fact it would be on this same parking lot that, years later, my Dad would teach me how to drive a car. I ruined three orange parking cones and crushed countless tin cans during those lessons. Dad kept whatever frustration he might have felt inside, God bless him. By the time I got my drivers’ license, my Dad had gone completely gray.

One evening after pushing me off, running beside me and cheering me on, I rode–with a great deal of difficulty– the length of the Meadowbrook Junior High School parking lot without training wheels. I fell off my bike at the end, but I could hardly contain my excitement. It was my first taste of freedom, of independence, of tangible forward movement. That night we came home and told my mom the great news. “We’ll go back tomorrow,” he said plunging his spoon into a celebratory ice-cream sundae. “Proud of you, kiddo. Proud of you.”

And so it made perfect sense that I would wake up the next morning at the crack of dawn, run out to the garage, grab my new bike, all shiny and purple and calling out to me, and without hesitation ride it down our steep driveway, then turn left down our even steeper hill.

The wind blew through my helmet free hair and that feeling of freedom hit hard. Nine seconds later, I found myself lying on my back on Parker Street, a major thoroughfare in my neighborhood, with my brand new bicycle by my side. The bellowing sound of a truck horn and then a symphony of screeching brakes tore through the morning air. When I propped myself up on my elbows, there was a giant truck headlight eleven inches from my face. It dawned on me in an instant: I was inches away from getting completely run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Shaking, holding back vomiting, I pulled up my bicycle and got to the sidewalk. The wildly angry driver of the truck yelled from his cab but I was so stunned, so shocked I couldn’t understand anything he said. He wore dark glasses and had a moustache that resembled the handlebars on my bike. The truck made a loud exhaling sound as it drove forward, the driver yelling and pointing an angry finger at me the whole time.

I ran up the hill with my bike and got it back in the garage before my family even knew I had left the backyard. I never told a soul what happened.

I spent that day at school in a fog, tasting vomit in the back of my throat, biting my fingernails and reliving the short but powerful trip I had taken that morning.

On the way to my riding lesson that evening, Dad spoke in excited, hopeful tones but I heard almost nothing, only sentence fragments: forget about those training wheels…proud of you, kiddo…now the whole family’s on wheels…we trust you, kiddo. I couldn’t tell my biggest cheerleader about my near miss that morning. It will almost kill him, too, I thought.