The front wheel spun right down the middle of the double yellow lines. The rush of air in our ears was the best indication of our speed – and it was exhilarating. We rode while the city slept. Down Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill. Over to Grinstead Drive and up to Bardstown Road. Out Bardstown Road toward Beuchel and our accidental bounty: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
We had to spend the night at my house. Chip’s parents were strict, and wouldn’t have let us get up at 3 in the morning for a bike ride. We thought we’d just sneak out and ride, but I told my parents what we were doing. Our defiance was intact. Everyone else was sleeping. Even kids who got to stay up late, or kids who spent their evenings looking for trouble, had finally spent themselves.
We felt liberated. A bicycle had always been my golden ticket. It started with my star spangled red white and blue bike with the banana seat and coaster brakes. I rode it the mile to Field Elementary during first grade. By the time I transferred to St. Matthews Elementary in third grade, I moved up to a ten-speed. I paid a dime to ride the city bus, or when the weather was good I rode the 4 miles to school with my friend Mike Grabhorn. The traffic along Frankfort Avenue required that we ride carefully, and in accordance with rules that others understood. We had to comply. We occasionally bailed out to the sidewalk. I collided with an older lady and her groceries one time. I realized the responsibility implied by my speed.
I had friends, and childhood crushes, in other neighborhoods. My bicycle took me across the city to those places. I would ride across Cherokee Park and visit Joel Morrill, a fun kid, younger than me. I liked his sister Whitney, who I got to see when I was there. She laughed at my antics, like when I carried Joel piggy-back while running around the block.
Our midsummer’s night ride was free of any objective, and any need to worry over the daytime rules of the road. When we stopped for doughnuts, joining a sleepy policeman, I was reminded of the other sides of the freedom die. This was the second time I had been there. The first was when my family visited my older brother at Boys Haven, after he had run away from home. I can’t recall that he ever lived with us again after that.
Freedom for me is good lungs. When we played capture the flag at camp Piomingo, the counselor for an opposing team warned his kids not to bother chasing me. When my younger brother wrecked his bike a distance from home, or my friend Mike got in a serious rock fight at the railroad tracks, I ran – long and fast – for help. When my family got home from a long trip together, I went running. I just ran until I got tired. Then I turned around and started running back home.
I would regularly ride with Chip to where our friends lived in the Highlands neighborhood. Tyler had a basketball hoop set up behind his house. His buddy Willy would join us for two-on-two. Willy was a wise-cracking, prep-dressing, trouble-causing neighborhood prankster. To this day his compelling personality keeps old childhood friends in touch. At the time, though, I had little patience for his shenanigans. He had an especially annoying habit of getting goofy when the game wasn’t going his way.
I don’t remember what started it, but one time Willy hit my bike with a big stick. It was lying next to the basketball court. We had probably gotten into an argument – I remember often getting angry with him if he was on my team and I thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. He hauled off and hit my bike – the real and symbolic measure of my freedom. I could feel the blood rush to my face and limbs. I ran straight for Willy, yelling “my bike!” He bolted. He ran like he was being chased by a rabid junkyard dog. Down the alley, over fences, and across the yards he had grown up around. He tapped all his athleticism. He needed to. Eventually the pursuit bled off some of my heat. I circled back to assess the damage to my bike.
As I approached the guys I saw a nickel in the alley and picked it up. I tossed it up in the air. My limbs, saturated with blood and adrenaline, were still ready for a fight. I could scarcely feel the weight of the nickel. I said I was glad I hadn’t caught Willy. Tyler still likes to tell that story. My bike was fine.