By Mary Ellen Gambutti
Texas, September 1957
In the bicycle department at Sears Roebuck in Victoria, Dad points out a blue 26-inch J.C. Higgins cruiser he’d seen in the catalog. “Here’s the one we’ll get. What do you think?” Wouldn’t any six-year-old be impressed with such a beautiful bicycle? The purple, steel-framed tricycle I’d pedaled up and down the sidewalk at our New Jersey family home couldn’t compare to this grown-up’s bike, and anyway, the trike had been passed on to cousins. I nod and clap with glee. “Yes! I like it! I can ride it!”
My thirty-six-year-old adoptive dad, a U.S. Air Force Captain stationed at Foster Air Force Base, hoists my new bike into the ample trunk of our green Buick Special with a set of training wheels. My mother had said, “I stay away from bicycles ever since I fell off when a dog chased me on the dirt road when I was your age,” and she was true to her word. Mom would have nothing to do with my bicycle.
On the driveway of our brick duplex rental, I stand astride my birthday present, while Dad adjusts the seat, handlebars, pedals, and training wheels. “OK, go ahead–start pedaling—go slow.” I feel strong. My legs push down—right, then left. My slender fingers are wrapped around the white handlebar grips. My arms are flexed to steer forward on the sidewalk. The tall pecan tree on the next lawn looks far away. Beyond the neighbor’s driveway lies unfamiliar terrain.
“Stop here.” He helps me off and reverses my bicycle to point toward our house. Back on board, the training wheels frustrate me. “I don’t want them on. I can’t turn, I can only go straight!” They wobble and restrict my movement. Dad concedes it’s safe to take them off after two more passes to and from the Pecan tree. “Ok, push off! Pedal!” With his hand flat on the rear rack, I start out slowly, then pick up speed and confidence. He guides me into momentum, advancing me through my first imbalance.
He’s slow-trotting beside me. I laugh in the breeze, fearless. I trust he won’t let me go until the right time. I hear him coaching through my cycling stream. “Hold the grips tight, keep the handlebars straight! Turn a little to the left–to the right! Steer! Keep pedaling!” I have it. I’m ready to fly. The moment he lets go is imprinted on me.
Louisiana, summer, 1958
I’m heartbroken when we have to move from our second rented brick duplex on Dennis Street when I’m seven and have to say goodbye to Saint Frances Cabrini’s second-grade schoolmates and my Brownie troop. I’d been free to ride my bike for a year with wildling neighbor boys and girls. Wearing cowboy clothes, and carrying metal cap-shooters, we explored and breached the chain-link backyard boundary.
I am learning I must adapt or be lost, so through my tears, I see adventure on Schilling Drive in the officer’s housing complex of England Air Force Base, in Alexandria. I step into the expanse of tall, cool grass behind our tan duplex, 4009A, with the fragrant clover, and pink poppy mallows. I soon join the neighborhood boys and girls. Across the backfield is a swale and drainage ditch where tadpoles appear after rain, and where I tromp in rubber boots. I venture across this verge into a wide-open, scrubby field, once part of the cattle ranch that became the airbase and is now a jet flight path. I startle when, out of nowhere, sonic booms envelop me.
Now eight, I’m a cowgirl with a bike for a horse, riding the range of the wide asphalt roads like a ruffian. I crash when I cut a curve too quickly or hit a curb. But the smart and sting of screaming scrapes can’t keep me from my beloved blue bike. Hands, knees, and elbows take the brunt. The ouches of abrasions bring my mom’s iridescent Mercurochrome in her innocent-looking brown bottle; gauze and adhesive tape when the Band-Aids don’t hold. Scabs last weeks, since I torture and pick around the raw, raised edges. But I’m back aboard in the breeze that dries my tears.
Dad fastens a bulky lamp with a battery pack and a rude-sounding buzzer to my bike’s handlebars to keep me safe in the evening. The loose wires distress me, and I quickly lose my balance. I howl, more from frustration and fury than from pain, and fiercely kick the wobbly lamp as it lies loosely against the sidewalk. Dad comes out the kitchen door through the carport when he hears my wail. He chides me and releases the clumsy apparatus. I never see it again.
© 2022 Mary Ellen Gambutti
Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine.