Indiana, mid 1970s. I was a sick kid. At six-months of age, I was forced to live in an oxygen tent. Day after day, week after week, month after month, if I remember correctly, and by remember I mean thinking back to when my mother explained how close I came. I would run my little finger along the zipper from the inside, trying desperately to find my way back to the outside world. The pull and burn and suffocation of severe asthma is difficult to explain in any term besides, “You just suddenly can’t breath.”
I was a happy child, always smiling but inside there was tension. Stress, nails bitten down, nervous. Unsure, sickly and weak. But my imagination was strong. Notebooks filled with fiction, daydreams of intensity. Indiana offered real seasons. Buggy summer, the smell of burning leaves in the fall and deep cold of winter. Spring was about the mud, the great melt and the slow lengthening of the days. Life at this time was about two things, mostly. Summer vacation and the drudgery of school. A nearly two hour bus ride each way to the small school serving a diverse community of middle Americans and extreme poverty. Kids with extra fingers and blue collar people who lived for their Packers and Bears.
Our grandparents were near, cousins too. We had dogs and horses and goats and a twenty pound alley cat who would disappear for years at a time only to return with new and dramatic scars. I played football, both on organized teams and in the yard with my brother and his friends. We were outside all day every day. Parameters were set. Don’t walk or ride or play on the county road. Be home at dark. Don’t venture too deep into the swamp.
My skateboard was made of wood and had metal wheels. My brother, six years older, sent away for a Dogtown skateboard (He still has it fifty plus years later.)through an add in the back of a motorcycle magazine. When the new board came, twice the width of our wooden boards and complete with real wheels and trucks and a hand drawn illustration on the bottom, we knew it was proof of a greater, outside world. Rural Indiana was where we were then but we knew it wouldn’t last forever.
My father had a wheel horse. A mini-tractor used for all kinds of things on our rural property. Moving snow, rock, mud or pulling small trailers for this or that. When my brother was small he was riding in my father’s lap on the seat of the wheel horse when the small tractor flipped over backwards. My father bailed but my brother was pinned by the steering wheel. Right across the top of his head. My father, in an epic fit of fear and rage picked up the entire wheel horse, tossing it aside to rescue my brother. Later, after the hospital trip, my father returned and could not turn the wheel horse over by himself. Fear and rage. There is no substitute.
At this time, I had no bicycle. I had a small pedal cart with four wheels and a steering wheel. The cart was slow and would bog dog in gravel, mud or even loose dirt. My brother would command the wheel horse while telling me to ride the pedal cart. Once I was in front of the wheel horse he would race up behind me, inches my my back while threatening to run me over. I was terrified. I would pedal as hard and as fast as I could but the cart would bog as the heat from the tractor crept up from behind. I fell for it again and again. “Promise I won’t do it,” he would say. Then the cycle would repeat itself.
Then one day dad asked if I wanted a bike. I don’t remember where it came from but I remember it was used. I never once thought of the kid who had it before me because as soon as dad put the yellow beast in the old Suburban I knew it was mine. Single-speed, heavy, slow and not fit for gravel or mud or anything else but it was mine. My first real bike. I grew callouses on my hands from the plastic grips. We built ramps and jumps and water crossings.
We lived in the country so our riding was limited to the unpaved parts of the world. But the county needed to replace culverts on our road so suddenly the glorious paved tarmac became closed to vehicles. Standing at the end of the driveway looking down the miles of forbidden fruit was almost too much to endure. The feeling of my wheels on pavement was a pivotal moment in my life that I still reflect upon today. Having just rolled two hundred miles on my new Salsa I can say with authority, I still feel a thrill when my legs burn with lactic acid and my eyes venture to the horizon. Dad is long gone, as is the wheel horse. My brother still rides, even more than me, and we try to get out each year but always seem to miss. He doesn’t terrorize me, however.
My memories of Indiana and childhood in general are overwhelmingly good. Life was far from perfect. There were family issues but I’m not sure how any family can escape these things. The future was so far away. There was so much time. Life was slow, smaller perhaps but so, so slow. I eventually outgrew my asthma but the memory of suffocation never leaves me. When the morning sun splinters through the green of my eyes, I appreciate what I’ve had and where I’ve been.