Unbelievably, the bicycle—my first bicycle—was sitting there on Christmas morning, leaning up against the fireplace. It wasn’t a new bike, my parents couldn’t afford one, but they had managed to find a used, skinny-tired Raleigh, a 3-speed red one with white fiberglass fenders and a leather bag attached to the back of the seat.
It took me less than a week to learn to ride it without tumbling over, but then I was able to join my friends in daily bike rides, which is how I learned not just how to ride, but to actually fly.
My “flight training” started when my friend Ronnie came over one morning to coax me into joining him and six of our friends to go on an all-day bike hike. We would set off early the next morning, bringing along food and drinks and whatever we might need for the dawn-to-dusk ride.
My parents were less than enthusiastic, but finally relented. My mother even helped me load the leather bag with food and soft drinks and, inexplicably, an extra pair of socks. It was quite a load, enough to push down the back fender to within a hairsbreadth of the tire, but it seemed workable.
The first leg of our journey was all downhill, so we decided to race. First one to the bottom would get first dibs on all the food we’d brought along. So we were off in a flash, gaining speed by the second.
15 miles an hour, 25, 30, 40, 50. And I was in the lead!
At about this point, my back fender buckled, pressing down on the back tire, the friction quickly igniting the fender and spreading to my leather bag. All of which was unknown to me until Ronnie shot past me and shouted, “You’re on fire!”
I don’t remember how I got off the bike, but I do remember a brief period of flight in slow motion. Then I was in a thicket, screaming in pain and watching my bike as it blazed (literally) down the hill before leaving the road and disappearing over an embankment.
Tom Petty, not thinking of me at all many years later, got it just right:
“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing.”
Before I got on that bike, I viewed myself as invincible, a daredevil extraordinaire. Afterwards, I had no choice but to throw off that false mantle of invulnerability. Learning to fly, whatever the goal, sometimes means just surviving to fly another day—and avoiding as many thickets and flaming bicycles as possible.
Of course, it’s also good to have an extra pair of socks.