It occurred to me the other day, as Riley and I paused our walk to watch the hockey players at the ice rink, that the only thing that stood between me and a life of athleticism was the proper equipment.
Despite growing up in northern Minnesota, where winters are long and cold and often slippery, I never became a strong skater. But then, I never had my own skates. My older siblings did--dirty white figure skates for the girls, and tough black hockey skates with double blades for my brothers--and when my turn came to teeter around the ice, I was expected to find a pair that mostly fit, and put them on.
The skates lived in the basement-way, tied together by their grimy cotton laces and dangling from hooks where we also hung our jackets and scarves. So there was always a lot of rooting around among wet, wool-smelling outerwear and cold swinging blades before I found a pair that would work.
I always picked the biggest pair available--usually those belonging to my oldest sister, Kristin (pictured above)--but the hard, unyielding leather of the boot still pinched my toes. The pressure made them feel instantly cold. I didn't like the rough red plaid flannel lining of the skate tongues--fabric that promised softness and warmth but did not deliver. I didn't like that my small fingers were not strong enough to pull the thick laces tightly around my ankles, and so the skates buckled and sagged, and so did my feet.
And I did not like, once I pushed myself out of the warming shack onto the rough gray ice, the hockey players. Them I disliked most of all, even though some of them were my brothers. Short and fast, they zipped across the ice, weaving in and out of the other skaters, competently whacking those hard little pucks back and forth as they pumped by. More than once, the thunk-thunk-thunk of the puck against the sticks startled me, causing me to stumble and lurch and stop, and more than once my unexpected stopping disrupted their pattern, and one of them would have to quickly veer around me, or pull up short, and then skate on, glancing over his shoulder with annoyance as he flew past.
I had weak ankles, or so I had been told, and I lived in fear of getting smacked by a puck. My brother had once smacked my ankle with a baseball--I was sitting on the front steps of our house, and he was practicing his control for that afternoon's ballgame, throwing the ball closer and closer to my foot, seeing how close he could get without hitting it, when, of course, he hit it. My ankle swelled up immediately, and I was on crutches for days. He was consumed with guilt and spent a lot of time hanging around and accusing me of faking it, which I understood to be his way of apologizing.
So during my trips to Longview skating rink, I kept to the edges, where the ice was bumpy and ridged. I never learned how to pump my legs and get up a head of steam, never played crack-the-whip, never learned to stop gracefully by touching the serrated toe of a blade to the ice. I glided along stiffly upright, perfectly straight, afraid to bend into the movement, afraid I would fall. To stop, I simply changed direction and allowed myself, by force of momentum, to slide into the snowbank. It seemed much safer, and provided a natural cushion, if necessary.
I did not, until two things happened: My little brothers wanted bicycles, and Sting-Rays were invented.
Ah, Sting-Rays, with the nice safe low banana seat, and no gear shifts, and brakes where god intended them to be--on the pedals, not the handlebars--and fat bodies and fat tires and fat handlebars that one didn't have to lean over (thus risking falling on one's head) and low to the ground and not all that tippy. They were built for someone just like me, someone short and intimidated and unaccustomed to fast movement or anything requiring balance.
My father took the four of us down to Stewarts' Wheel Goods on Superior Street and allowed us to pick out two bicycles: one for the twins to share, and one for me to share with my little sister.
As I remember it, the boys picked out a blue one, and Heidi and I got a purple one, though it might be that it was the other way around. The blue one was named "Bluebell," and the purple one was named "The Purple Phantom," which gives you an idea how young and fanciful we all were. My father paid for the bikes and then said, "See you at home." One brother and my sister got into the car, the other brother pedaled away, and I was left alone on the sidewalk with a bicycle that I did not know how to ride.
I am not sure what my father was thinking, but he was probably thinking that any American child who has reached the age of 12 or 13 must already know how to ride a bike. He did not stop to think that this particular child was shy and bookish, had no rowdy, bike-riding friends, and was singularly lacking in any kind of physical grace or skills. He just got in the car, backed out of the Stewarts Wheel Goods parking lot, and drove off.
I think what saved me was the fact that the trip home was nearly all uphill--four blocks straight up the steep Duluth hills from Superior Street to Fourth Street, and then ten blocks east, up a slight incline, from 14th Avenue East to 24th.
The secret to learning how to ride a bike--at least, it was for me--is to keep pedaling. Pedaling keeps you moving forward and thus remaining upright.
Downhill--well, downhill is folly, kowabunga-shouting, feet off the pedals, hair flying in the breeze folly, sure to end in a heap of blood and wails at the bottom. But uphill--toiling away, steadily pumping, not shrieking with fun but not wailing in pain--that I could manage. I slung my leg over the support bar of the Purple Phantom, my feet found the wide white plastic pedals, and I slowly wobbled home.