Grasshopper Bikes

I knew without having to search my shelves which book I wanted to read first on my tour through old favorites.  Today I read “I Would if I Could” by Betty Miles.  I always loved this book about ten-year-old Patty, who spent her summers at her grandma’s house in 1938 Ohio.  I was fascinated with the talk of polio scares and hobos, but mainly loved this book because of the author’s vivid descriptions of Patty’s personality, hopes, and fears.  I lived through the summer right alongside Patty, feeling her friendship pangs and her desires for the perfect bicycle to ride just as she did.  The strongest connection with this story for me, however, was with the bike that Patty was given.  In the story, Patty wants badly to learn to ride a bicycle (and is behind the other children her age), as she dreams of a pretty bike with sturdy, fat wheels.  Instead, in an effort to give her something special, Patty’s aunt gives her a tall, ugly green bike on skinny wheels.  Patty is horrified, and struggles for the rest of the summer to come to terms with that bike.  This brings me back to my own childhood.  My friends and I lived on our bicycles in the summer.  I grew up in a neighborhood where all the streets were dead-ends, so we swooped around corners on our bikes without a thought to danger.  The streets were ours, and we wore out our tires riding from house to house.  I loved my bike—a pretty pink bike with a white, flowered banana seat.  But as I grew older, I longed for a more grown-up bicycle to ride.  I wanted a ten-speed.  I dreamed of riding that tall bike with skinny wheels and changing gears when I reached the big hill.  By this time, my friends and I were allowed to ride a little farther in town and I wanted to fly faster.  In my imagination, my bike was a pretty blue and had hand brakes on the handlebars.  Just like with Patty, a well-meaning relative generously offered me a used, but more grown-up bike to ride—but when I saw it, my heart sank.  It looked like a giant grasshopper!  It was an olive green color, and it had three speeds, not ten.  Not only that, but the gears were a bit sticky, so changing gears during the ride was hardly worth the effort.  I was grateful for the gift, but inside my heart was sinking with dismay.  The rest of the summer found me trailing my neighborhood friends (who were riding their ten-speeds) while I pedaled that grasshopper bike furiously and tried to coax it into changing gears.  In Patty’s story, she resigns herself to her tall green bike, and I did the same with mine.  I eventually became the proud owner of that pretty blue ten-speed and rode it through my college years–at which point I traded it back in for a smaller bike with fat wheels.  No banana seat, though!  I loved reading this book again for the memories it brought back and for the visit back to Patty’s world.  This was a book I loved to get lost in–and even now at the end I close the cover, a bit disappointed that I am no longer in the summer of 1938, on the front porch with Patty and Mary Alice Kallmeyer.   If I close my eyes, I can almost remember just how it felt to swoop around the corner in my neighborhood on my bike…

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