By the time I started first grade, my eyepatch was history. I had thick, bifocal glasses and was still the second shortest kid in class. But, where the eyepatch just made me look goofy, the glasses helped the other kids to see how smart I was. While they were still working on counting past twenty, I had mastered fractions. I had a head start. Although mom bought me workbooks and helped me learn to read and multiply and match my socks, dad taught me fractions.
When I was three years old, he’d hold three fingers up and say, “Jim, how many?”
“Two and a half, dad.” I tried to teach Jean to count, too, holding up three fingers and telling her it was two and a half, but Micki said that only worked for dad.
I was five before I realized that dad was missing half of a finger. A lawnmower ran over his hand when he was young and cut off half of his index finger on his right hand.
After I had learned, I’d bend my finger in half before I’d go up to Jean and say, “Jean, how many?” But she knew the answer because dad had already showed her.
He had a business doing van conversions and putting sunroofs in cars. He was a Cardinals fan. He liked the horse races and took Jean and me there sometimes to watch them.
Every day, I’d wait for him to get home so I could quit throwing the ball against the wall and start throwing it to him. He was left-handed and had a sweet wind-up when he was throwing. He’d arch his back a little bit, step with his long legs, and toss the ball in a textbook overhand motion. My glove would pop when dad threw it. Right at my chest. We’d play until mom called us in for dinner. Jean, Jamie, and I would eat steak and garlic bread, and salad while mom, dad, and Micki ate liver and onions. This wasn’t every night, it just seemed like it.
After dinner we could watch one TV show and then it was bath time. Jean, Jake, and I would bathe together. We’d dry off, though not very well and then run naked back to mom and dad’s room for our pajamas. Our pajamas were dad’s t-shirts.
We’d run to bed and mom would get us water as dad started our stories. Jean and I were the heroes of the stories because Jake fell asleep. Dad would leave and Jean and I would talk about the story until we drifted off.
One afternoon, I was throwing the ball against the wall in the backyard while Jamie road his bike around. He bragged because I only had a tricycle and he could ride with no training wheels. We were arguing as to whether Bo or Luke Duke was cooler. Jamie was wrong so I threw the ball at him. I went to go pick the ball up when we heard the van pull up. “Dad’s here!” I ran and got his glove and met him at the door. He opened the door and my mouth fell open. “Whoa,” I said.
He was carrying a shiny, chrome and green bicycle. “Look what I got you, Jim!” I jumped and clapped and screamed all at once. Jean and Jamie came to look at my new bicycle. She went over to touch it.
“Don’t touch it, Jean, I don’t want you to hurt it. This is mine, but in a couple of years, when I get a new one, I can teach you how to ride it and you can have this one if you give me some money.”
“Can you teach me to ride, dad?”
We went outside, but the seat was too high for me to get on. Dad lifted me up. Jamie started to ride circles around me. I pushed on one pedal and leaned to the left on the training wheel, but couldn’t reach the pedal when it went to the bottom.
“It looks like the seat is too high for you, let me adjust it.” Dad went to the garage.
“It’s because you’re too short,” Jamie said. He asked Micki, “Mom, can I go across the street and ride down the dirt hills?” There was a housing development beginning across the street. About two months before, the trees were taken out and the dirt was piled high in certain spots.
Micki responded, “Sure Jamie, but only until dark.”
Dad returned from the garage, “Can I go, dad?” I pointed across the street as Jamie road to the gate.
“No, Jim, not while you still have training wheels on.” He lowered my seat.
I was able to climb up on the bike. I pedaled, the bike rolled, but again I couldn’t reach the pedals when they went down. “Well, dad, I think I’m ready for you to take off the training wheels!”
Dad tried to adjust the seat again, but it was as low as it could go. He pulled the whole seat out. “I’m going to get my hacksaw.”
“Yep, the hacksaw sounds good.” I figured it was a special tool to take training wheels off.
I heard the sound of the saw in the garage. I brought my bike over there because he forgot the training wheels. He had the seat on the edge of the washing machine and was sawing away.
“Dad, the training wheels are here.” I pointed to show him.
The bottom of the seat clanged on the garage floor. Dad walked over and put the seat on. “Climb on,” he said.
I climbed on and began to pedal. I could reach the pedals all the way around. Jamie came back because nobody followed him. I rode my bike toward him, still leaning to the left on the training wheel.
“Look, Jamie, I’m riding a bike!”
“You’ve still got training wheels on and you’re using two hands.” Jamie took one hand off.
I practiced racing and braking. I went in between the orange trees. I raced toward Puddles and watched her run away. I raced toward Jean and hit her. I rode until dinner and I rode some more after I was excused from dinner.
That night, at story time, I asked dad to tell the story about when I got my training wheels off.
The next day, after school, I rode the bike instead of played baseball. Jamie and I raced around the yard. I lost every time.
Jamie showed me wheelies and how to make skid marks.
“It’s those training wheels slowing you down,” he said. We got the hacksaw, but couldn’t take them off.
Dad came home and I asked him to take them off again. “Let me see you ride.”
I showed dad all my new tricks. I raced around the yard, using orange trees as slaloms. I went around the peach tree in the corner and stood up as I raced back toward him. I drew close to dad and I locked the brakes back, skidding to a stop right at his feet. I smiled ear to ear.
He nodded. “Ok, Jim.” He got a wrench and took the wheels off.
I got back on the bike, but fell before I could pedal, scraping my elbow and cutting my knee. Jamie pointed and laughed. Dad picked up my glasses.
Knee trickling blood, I got back on. And fell again.
“Jim, let me hold it for you when you get on.” Dad stood the bike up. I climbed on. I pedaled and I was riding! I felt like I was riding slower than when I had the training wheels on. “You’re doing fine, Jim,” dad said from right behind me.
I turned and saw dad. “Dad, let go!” I yelled. Dad let go and I fell in the grass. The grass was softer but the fall was harder because I was going faster.
I started to cry a little bit. I looked back at dad and he had the bike standing again. I climbed back on. I rode for a while with dad holding on. I braked and leaned to one side so my foot would catch me. Dad didn’t let go. I rode, braked, stood. Rode, braked, stood.
Dad showed me how to stand in front of the seat and get my pedals in just the right position so I could begin without his help. I stood, pedaled once, braked, and fell. Stood, pedaled once, braked, and stood. I practiced into the evening. By bedtime, I could stand, pedal four times fast, brake hard, and fall. I slept soundly that night, grass stains on my legs.
Early the next morning, Saturday, Jamie and I left before anyone was up. Across the street to the home development. It was all dirt. There was no soft grass in case I fell. I practiced on the flat land: stand, pedal, brake, stand. Braking was a little harder on the dirt. Jamie went down the hill time and again. “It’s easy,” he said.
I watched him and told myself I could do it. I was shorter, but smarter. I walked to the edge of the hill and looked down at it. My heart beat fast. I straddled my bike. Put the pedal in the right spot. I put my right foot on the pedal, looking down the steep hill. I held my breath and squinted my eyes. I told myself I had to go for it. I pushed hard on the pedal and…