Most of my buddies got their bikes as major presents at Christmas. If they scored big they would get a Schwinn Phantom or Panther cruiser with the spring shock absorber on the front and the box that looked like a motorcycle gas tank with an electric horn in it. These were the newspaper boy’s choice in the day. Or maybe they would be real lucky and get a Raleigh “English Racer” (as we called the roadster models) with Sturmey-Archer 3-speed internal gears and a Brooks saddle. I got my Raleigh, finally, when I was turning fifteen and the only problem was I couldn’t ride it on Christmas day because the streets were heavy with snow.
My first bicycle came as an unexpected gift when I was twelve. That first 26” bike was a red Schwinn Paramount, a road bike with skinny tires and a coaster brake. It had belonged to my friend Joey, the son of one of our neighborhood barbers. Joey had drowned “down the shore,” as we say in Philadelphia, when a strong undertow off Atlantic City had sucked him out beyond his abilities. His father gave me the bike with tears in his eyes in the autumn of the year as the leaves began to fall. “I know he would have wanted you to have it,” he choked out. It was the first truly bittersweet moment of my young life. I didn’t have a 26” bike and desperately wanted one, so I was made happy by his generosity; but it meant Joey was gone, really, and that made me sad.
Joey’s dad was not exactly up on the newest styles in haircuts in the fifties, so I would go to Tony, the younger barber in his shop, to get my D.A. haircut. But it was the same shop and so I was always able to talk to Joey’s dad. I would ride the bike over to the barbershop and he would always ask me how I was, how my family was, and how I liked the bike. I always expressed my gratitude and said how I was keeping it in good shape and how much I loved to ride it.
I got the Raleigh some two and a quarter years later for Christmas. I asked Joey’s dad if he wanted me to return the bicycle and he said no. It would be too painful a reminder of a life cut short at fourteen, so he told me to keep it or find some other kid who needed a bike and give it to him.
I kept Joey’s bike in our basement until after college, and then I gave it to the son of an older friend I’d just met, without reciting its history. The boy took it with a happy gleam in his eye.
Life is made up of vignettes like this. It’s a ragged tale that doesn’t have a necessary theme, a single story line, or exhibit a great deal of logic. Like a red bicycle that came into my life, so to speak, by accident.
I’ve never told this story before. No one remaining in my family would know it and Joey’s family is all long gone. Even the kid I gave the bike to – he got a number of my special toys – is now sixty and lives far away.
Joey lives on silently, however, present in my heart and in my memory. He remains a stronger image than many whose physical lives extended much longer. It was the bike, of course, the red Schwinn single speed. My first real machine came wrapped up not in Christmas ribbons but in a true drama. You never forget your first bicycle.