Most of us remember how old we were when we learned to ride a bicycle. My folks did not have the disposable income to purchase training wheels or helmets, so my first efforts to ride produced several injuries; nothing too serious, just the kind whose healing agent was an application of dirt. My “training wheels” was a patient father offering instruction and encouragement as he ran beside me eventually releasing his hold on the seat to allow free flight. Once I gained the dexterity of balance and motion, I felt a freedom and joy that was indiscernible. Mark Twain got it right, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.”
I had a few crashes on my bicycle where a treatment of rubbing dirt on the wound was insufficient; one as a kid and one as an adult. This first story returns to the time when I was a paperboy delivering the morning and evening papers in the Green Hills area of Nashville “back in the day” when it was a nondescript neighborhood with a fire station, a movie theatre, shopping centers, a couple of grocery stores, random gas stations and pubs, and a high school with a lot of open space in between. But progress abhors a vacuum and now all the open space has vanished.
Riding a bicycle with a front basket full of newspapers was certainly a challenge, but I was strong and agile and learned quickly how to maneuver around the traffic and the occasional dog that gave chase. I was always able to dodge the traffic and outrun the dog except for one incident. There was this German Shepherd on Oriole Place that considered me an invader into his realm. At first, he displayed no sinister behavior, lulling me into complacency. One day while riding down Oriole Place he trotted toward me with a casual gait. I thought, ‘Ah yes, Rin Tin Tin approaches for a friendly pat on the head.’
When I slowed down he lunged and clamped his mouth onto my right foot. I yanked it out of his fangs, and he yelped as if he might have snagged a tooth on my shoelace. For several days I escaped his attacks by outrunning him or swatting his head with a rolled newspaper. The assaults were never from the same vantage point, and the ride down the street was like entering a combat zone. When I complained to the owner, he asked with an indignant cock of his head, “What have you done to aggravate him?” Rin Tin Tin had a dark side his owner chose to ignore.
I took matters into my own hands and stopped by a hardware store near where we lived. After looking at the selection of knives, I asked the clerk to open the glass case so I could test the feel of a good knife. Terror would begat terror.
“Doing some whittling?” the store clerk asked, a bespectacled, white-haired man with a pink face and kindly smile.
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Then you want this pearl-handled fellow. Delicate balance. Solid texture.”
He cradled the knife in his hand like it was some brittle relic. The handle stretched from the beef of his palm to the third joint of his middle finger, and when he opened the blade, the polished steel glowed in the florescent light.
“Got a four inch blade; the belly of the blade will deep slice and the sharp tip will get your more delicate cuts.”
I admired his authority, and as I peered at the shiny steel, I envisioned the belly of the blade making a clean slit of my enemy’s throat.
“What you thinking about carving?” he asked.
“I like dogs. I’d like to see it when you’re done.”
I did not explain that my material would be bone and fur not pine or maple, and gave him the money sealing the dog’s fate. Except for a few dollars set aside each week for miscellaneous treats and small change tossed into the collection plate on Sunday, every penny I made went into a savings account. My first major purchase was a murder weapon, and spending my own money for such an ominous venture gave me a feeling of cocksure worldliness.
I practiced for days. From a standing position, I could jerk the knife out of my pocket and open the blade in three seconds. If I had to defend myself while riding, it added two more seconds. I became so proficient I could pull the knife from inside my pocket while riding and open it without touching the handlebars on my bike. I loved the sound of the blade snapping into place and longed for the day of reckoning when I would be the last image my enemy would see before the mist of death closed his eyes. My premeditation became an obsession. While day-dreaming at school, I drew pictures of the dog’s head in one hand, the blood-drenched knife in the other, a warrior in ancient times parading victoriously around the field of battle.
When I felt my training had peaked I sought him out. Instead of speeding down Oriole Place, I coasted, my eyes like a lighthouse beam scanning over the houses and front yards on either side of the street, but after several days of flaunting before the enemy, he never showed. I thought he must be lurking, staying out of sight, sensing deep in his subconscious that I was no longer helpless, but a foe of equal strength. In time, this became psychological warfare. I refused to become some mental wreck gasping with hyper‑fear every time I turned onto Oriole Place. I crawled inside his mind, thought his thoughts, contemplated his strategies, felt what he felt, united my lust for blood with his need to go beyond a canine’s normal diet of dog chow and develop a taste for human flesh. The more I pondered his impulses, temptations, obsessions, the more my soul fit into his; pure in the acceptance of the darker craving of our natures. I questioned all of nature ruled by impulse, and wondered if we could be blamed or rewarded for choices we had no control over.
When I heard the nails of his paws scratching the pavement it was too late. I turned just as the German Shepherd clamped his teeth into my calf. In the struggle to free my leg I lost control of my bicycle and crashed into a ditch spilling the newspapers in my basket over the ground. Blood soaked through my ripped pant’s leg. When I tried to whip the blade out of the handle, it slipped through my grasp and snapped back cutting a deep gash into my index finger. My enemies’ blood I had dreamed of dripping off my pearl-handled knife was, instead, my own. The dog stood on the road and began to bark triumphantly.
I cursed him and yanked the knife off the ground hurling it at my enemy. It flew high above the dog’s head well off the mark. I sank to my knees and remained in this contrite posture nursing my bloody finger until distracted by the sound of an engine. A milk truck approached, and the German Shepherd trotted away, pieces of my flesh and shredded blue jeans stuck between his teeth. I turned my back to the milk truck hoping it would drive by, but I heard its breaks squeak as it slowed down.
“Problems?” a voice shouted.
This was one Good Samaritan I wished had just passed by on the other side.
“No, sir.” I said. “Wasn’t paying attention.”
The truck drove on, and I wrapped newspaper around the wound to absorb the blood before collecting the scattered papers. Man vs. Beast and beast won. I found the knife in the yard across the street, wiped off the dirt and blood, and went home with my tail tucked between my legs.
There had to be some way to salvage this humiliation. My mother was soon to leave for New York City to attend a Food Editors conference, and I knew she would be riding the subway. Without telling her the original intent for the purchase, I presented her with my “gently used” pearl-handled knife, in case she needed to defend herself on the subway. You would have thought I had given her an expensive piece of jewelry, and she heaped gratitude upon me saying she hoped she would not have to use it but would not hesitate to do so if threatened.
Years later when I had my own family, she came over to my house to return the knife. It had been buried in the bottom of a “love box,” the containers she so named where she stored precious items from each of her four children. I remember a quiver in her voice and the moisture rising in her eyes as she handed it back to me remembering with fondness her firstborn’s concern for the safety of his mother. Yes, all things do work together for good.
Stay tuned for the story of my second great bicycle crash in the coming months.