Rituals were embraced by following the lead of older brothers and sisters. So each Spring, every bicycle needed a cleaning, maybe a fresh coat of paint, and a mechanical overhaul – tighten and oil the chain and put air in the tires for sure. Maybe the bicycle had just been passed down from an older brother or sister or someone in the neighborhood. The ritual included taking the bicycle all apart, getting rid of the old grease, oil and grime around the sprockets, and maybe getting it ready for a new paint job. Tires were patched and spokes were replaced. You see, old bicycles were treasured, never trashed.
Our ‘go to’ bicycle shop was owned and operated by Alfie Ryan, an Irish wordsmith and story-teller. When weather permitted, Alfie could be found sitting on a stool, in the shop doorway replacing a spoke or patching a tire. Inside the shop, somewhat dark and cluttered, was an assortment of bikes in various stages of repair, a work bench covered with specialty tools and small parts, and shelves of more small parts. Only Alfie seemed to know where things were.
A diminutive, gregarious fellow with a full mustache. Alfie had a loyal clientele, and using his Irish ‘way with words’, added colour to the community, whether you rode a bike or not. Passing by the shop one day, my mother remarked, “Beautiful morning, isn’t it, Alfie”. She and Alfie had been in the same class in grade school. “It is, indeed, my dear, since you passed by” – a pickup line my mother never forgot.
For a twelve-year-old, Alfie had stories of adventure and courage, each told with gripping emotion. Like the time he was at sea, and the ship and crew were enduring a terrible storm. Alfie was below deck, and fearing the ship would break apart, attached a double cable from port to starboard. Then using a steel bar between the two strands, proceeded to turn the bar. As the cable twisted and tightened, it shortened, bringing the sides of the ship together and keeping them secure. Meanwhile, on the bridge, the captain was praising Alfie’s ingenuity. ‘That Alfie Ryan, smart fellow he is”, said the captain. “Alfie saved the ship, the crew and the cargo” Even in the half-light, Alfie glowed with pride as he quoted the captain.
If sea-going stories weren’t relatable to his audience, then how about the wild west where in the dead of winter, Alfie was leading a cattle drive on horseback, moving hundreds of cattle, in a driving snowstorm, out of the foothills and back to the ranch. “Cold, bitter cold,” he said in pained gasps. “Men dropping like flies.” He cupped his hands, blowing to warm them up. “I pressed on. You couldn’t see your hand in front of you. Terrible blizzard. Cold, bitter cold.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “We believe you, Alfie. Don’t cry.” “Out of the foothills I rode,” he whispered, “the cattle, we never lost one.” We stood entranced in the drama.
I only want a few spokes, Alfie tells another story. Maybe more than one. It’s hard to tell where one stops and the next starts. Alfie is the hero, every time. I understand that. I find what I need, pay and head out.
Next stop – McHardy’s Hardware. Buy a can of silver enamel for my new bicycle, and a small paint brush. Of course, McHardy’s has everything a boy needs for adventure – rope, fine wire, copper BB’s, hunting knife with a leather sheath, hatchet, and maybe a knapsack. These are acquired over time, never in one visit.
I make my way home. My bicycle is in pieces on the basement floor. The frame has been stripped, except for the peddles and is hanging by two cords from the open floor joists above. I pry open the paint can, stir with a nearby stick, dip the brush gently into the can, and without dripping, begin to paint. The dark blue, chosen by the former owner and the colour of my bike until now, is slowly giving way to a bright silver. I see immediately that, after drying, it will need a second coat. Maybe tomorrow.
After I do both coats and the paint is dry, I reinstall the seat and handle bars, Then I lower the frame and stand it upside down. I install the front wheel first, then the rear wheel with chain and brake arm. The slack in the chain has to be just right. And the brake arm can’t be tightened until the chain is set. Both wheels have to be centred and held securely as the wheel nuts are being tightened. I try again and then again until I get it right. I test the brakes. Then I attach the kickstand. Everything works. Up the stairs and outside for a test run.
The next day is a school day. I ride to school and park my bike in the ‘Big Field’ as the playground was called. After school, I head up the stairs to the Big Field to get my bike and ride home. Among several hundred bikes, I can’t see mine. I remember about where I parked it, but no, it’s not there. I panic a little. Where is it? I go back down the stairs and into the school. “Miss Hicks, my bicycle is gone!” “Are you sure?” she asks. “Go back and have another look” I pause, ‘OK.” I leave the school again, up the stairs and onto the Big Field. By now, the number of bikes has dwindled to a dozen or so. There is no blue bike. As panic is about to set in again, I suddenly remember. I painted my bike. I’m looking for the wrong bike. Standing there, upright, kickstand still holding was my new bicycle, not dark blue, but bright silver. The lost is found. I sheepishly climb on and ride for home. Turn the kaleidoscope and you will see things differently.