Bicycle Brakes: the Great Mystery of the Universe

31 Jul

Summertime: a relief from the normal routine of things, or a stressful interlude in the middle of real life? A colorful alternative to a Minnesota winter, or a hot, humid, stay-indoors-away-from-the-Minnesota-bugs season to be survived?

Personally, I think it’s a toss-up.

There are things I LOVE about summer: lightning bugs, dancing their disco-ball dance every evening over the dew-damp grass. Grilling burgers, churning ice cream, yummy salads. Baby birds, running through the sprinkler, the pungent scent of tomatoes on the vine. Sleeping in, hanging out with my children, sitting out on the deck (in the few moments when the wind, heat, humidity, or bugs aren’t too bad). I like summer parades and friends coming to visit and driving down to Okoboji, Iowa for an afternoon, knowing that no snowstorm will sweep in and wreak havoc with the roads when it’s time to return.

There are other things I totally dislike: mosquitoes, ticks, sunscreen, sweating, squabbling children, running around like a chicken with its head cut off…oh, wait, that happens all year long.

Fireflies = summer in Minnesota.

I sometimes wonder if my children are having the fantastic summers I had growing up on Orcas Island, Washington. My mom didn’t drive us around all over creation from thing to thing, but I had the run of the neighborhood, could play on the beach for hours, or ride my bike into town, or make a fort, or sleep out on the deck under the stars night after night after night.

One time I do remember going to a friend’s house to play. She was a year ahead of me in school but we had a lot of fun together. She suggested that we ride bikes – she on her brother’s, and I on hers. That sounded fine to me. We hopped on, started down her dirt road, and suddenly I realized that her road was on much more of a hill than I’d ever realized before and, as I reached for her handy dandy handlebar breaks, I found nothing but handlebar.

“Where are your brakes?” I screamed, whizzing past her on the road.

“The pedals!” she shouted back.

I remember wondering what on God’s green earth she was talking about.

“The pedals!” she shouted again. “Just back pedal!”

But by then I was far past her, careening down her hill, heading straight for the paved, heavily-trafficked road at the end of the lane, squeezing in vain at her handlebars the whole time.

I truly believe that God has a full-time angel on “protect Gretchen while she’s behind the wheel” duty – whether that wheel is on a car or a bicycle. My angel worked hard that day.

As I sailed on my friend’s bike over the main road – mercifully free of passing cars at that particular moment – I saw the trees, ditch, and fence across the road rise up to meet me.

And there wasn’t a blessed thing I could do about it.

Crang. Right into the barbed wire fence.

My friend crossed the road (after waiting for a passing car), threw down her bike and jumped into the ditch and to my side in an instant. I was, miraculously, relatively unhurt. I mean, I was bleeding…but I wasn’t even close to dead. Which was good.

“Why didn’t you use the breaks?” my friend asked as she helped extricate me from the rusty wire.

I think I said something like, “Your dumb bike doesn’t have any brakes.”

“Of course it does,” she said. “They’re on the pedals. I tried to tell you…”

But I had never heard of pedal brakes; I had never imagined such a thing could exist. What bike doesn’t have handlebar brakes? That’s just crazy.

I limped to her house, dripping a trail of blood onto the dusty road like some kind of twisted Hansel and Gretel trail of breadcrumbs…a trail for vampires, maybe.

I walked the bike, and my friend walked hers alongside me. By the time we reached her house I was laughing through my tears about my idiocy. She, who grew up with three brothers, never did understand how I couldn’t know about pedal brakes.

Her mother took me to the clinic where they gave me a tetanus shot, because I was almost due for one anyway, and, as I recall, we then went happily off to girls’s choir practice, where, I’m sure, I related my story with relish, and proudly showed off my injuries.

Yes, summer is full of memories. Some of them better than others, and many of them tinged with the scent of blood, sweat, and tears.

I still have the scars from that day. I also have the smiles.

Summer on Orcas Island…


11 Responses to “Bicycle Brakes: the Great Mystery of the Universe”

  1. whatimeant2say July 31, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Isn’t it funny how we always discover the bike brake problem when it’s already too late? Love the story and the pic. Stellar, as usual!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell July 31, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

      Yeah, it had never occurred to me BEFORE to ask!! And I am looking forward to school starting so that I’ll have time to peruse whatyoumeant2say!!!

  2. hotlyspiced July 31, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    Oh, you have ticks too. They are the worst of the parasites. Looks like you’re enjoying a beautiful summer. And we now just have one month to go before Spring. Yay! I had a bike with back-pedal brakes. But even so, I had many accidents on my bike and had stitches in my chin and a few hospital visits so you did very well to survive your high-speed crash into barbed wire. Great story xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 1, 2012 at 9:42 am #

      Yeah, probably no matter what brakes you have, you also have scars! It’s part of being a kid, yes?

      I do really, really, hate ticks. So gross. Too bad you haven’t escaped them in Australia. I don’t remember ever seeing them on the island in Washington, but I think they’re there, just not too many of them. I wonder if anywhere is safe from them? The Arctic?!

  3. gardenfreshtomatoes August 1, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    I never had a bike with handlebar brakes…they always fascinated me 😀
    As for the kids, and how they’ll remember the summers once they’re grown, we do what we can for them. They’ll take our nostalgic stories, wish they had a little of that, and wind up with memories of their own that are just as special…
    Only 4 weeks til school starts…time to get crackin’!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 1, 2012 at 9:44 am #

      School begins here soon, too. And yes, it’s comforting to know that even if I don’t think that my kid’s have quite the fun that I had, they’re still enjoying life! Thanks for reminding me!

      At least you KNEW what handlebar brakes were!!!

  4. treadlemusic August 1, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Yes, we wait all winter long for the glorious appearing of the green…..that does not come unaccompanied!!! Pedal brakes are all I knew growing up. Had no idea about any other kind!!!!! My old green Hawthorne (Montgomery Wards) was a classic!!! Thanks for the memories!! Hugs, Doreen

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 1, 2012 at 9:46 am #

      I wonder if pedal brakes were an older style than handlebar brakes? Or is it the other way around?! I’m not sure and I’m not interested enough to look it up. Ha! And yes, as for those ticks…UGH. Are they good for anything, I wonder?!

  5. Kathleen August 2, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    It was wonderful to meet you on your old stopping grounds last week.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      Hello! So glad you stopped by and yes – I really enjoyed meeting you, too! Now I’ll go check out your blog! It’s always hard to come back after something like Kindlingsfest…back to reality. I need to blog about it!!

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