An unreliable memory: The day I learned to ride a bike

The memories are vague, the proverbial fog of time that clouds perception and mixes memory with desire and cliché.

These facts I know: An afternoon, sometime around 1975. An Air Force Base in Blytheville, Ark. Me, 5 years old. My street, the one that ran along the edge of the neighborhood. My neighborhood, its identical houses repeated for blocks and blocks, assigned with military efficiency to service families like so many freshman dorm rooms. Most of the service members then were dads, few moms. In my neighborhood, they were non-commissioned officers with ranks like airman first class and staff sergeant, like my dad, men in their late 20s or early 30s, a few years into their service careers and marriages. In the daytime, while they worked, we lived on a street of children playing all over, moms inside doing whatever it was they did.

From here, the memories fade. I don’t know why my bicycle suddenly had no training wheels. I don’t know what I was doing with it in the street. I don’t even remember what it looked like. Maybe it was my older brother’s. I must’ve been trying to get started. One foot on a pedal, one foot on the ground. A transition impossible to understand. That’s when the dads started arriving home in their uniforms, often the green fatigues, the more casual ones, but sometimes the dress blues, to houses that bore their names and ranks over the front doors.

One of the dads came over and gave me a push. Not mine. I remember his uniform, the green one, with the narrow hat that came to a crease on the top. He took it off, folded it in half and tucked it in a pocket, and then ran with me.

A push, and a ride. I rode for the first time with ease, and I immediately loved it. The speed. The wind. The thrill. Another push, another ride. I worked my feet on the brakes to figure them out. A third push, a third ride, and I didn’t need any more pushing. I’d figured it out. One moment I couldn’t, and the next I could. The flip of the switch. Light.

Memory is unreliable, but I remember with that third push my father coming home too, driving down the street toward me as I rode toward him. We passed on the street, me with a big grin, him waving with a bigger grin. He parked, perhaps in the driveway, and came over to watch. I am riding, and I am proud. And he is too, watching amazed in his green fatigues with the stripes of his rank on his shoulder, his own creased hat.

And this part cannot be true, but it is also my memory. My father speaking with the other dad, the airman with the other creased hat who’d pushed me. My impression of sadness, that my dad wished it had been himself pushing. That he’d been the one home 10 minutes earlier, the one pushing me and not the one driving by and waving as I rode. And I remember my regret, that I’d ridden without him, but the knowledge too that he was thrilled to see me ride. A moment missed, a milestone gained.


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