Riding Henry

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I still remember the first time I got on Henry’s back. He was a bright shiny new blue two wheeler bicycle with classic balloon tires. My feet barely hit the peddles. But it was OK; the training wheels would keep me safe. As I recall, they weren’t on too long. Between my dad and one of my friends, I was free of them in no time. Furthermore, I was free to roam. In those days (1960s) Oak Lawn was a safe community. As long as I told mom where I was going, I just needed to be back by dinner. The few little detours, I took were better kept secret. I was particularly fond of the prairie near Stony Creek. It was there I invented BMX biking. That’s right! It was me! My course had ramps for jumping, sharp curves, hills and valleys, and even a water hazard (Stony Creek) to be jumped. I never got credit for the sport because I couldn’t tell anyone.

Mom knew better than to press me on the bumps and bruises. I did my best to maintain Henry. Bending the metal was easy with dad’s pliers. The broken spokes were a different story. Still, Henry always got me wherever I needed to go. I went all over within about a mile and a half radius. The pet store was one of my favorite stops. About a mile from my home, in addition to a wonderful selection of fascinating animals, it also had the best local assortment of penny candy in the area. Whenever I could scrape together a quarter, I was off to the pet store.

In the spring of 1967, I was riding Henry back from a Scout meeting, when a tornado hit Oak Lawn.  There is a chapter in our book dedicated to the ordeal. To make a long story short, I was fine, but Henry got a few more bruises. It was shortly thereafter that Henry retired as his replacement arrived. By a strange coincidence he was named Henry too. He looked nothing like his predecessor. Henry II was a sleek red 10 speed road bike with ultra thin tires. He was built for speed. I once got him up to 40 mph on level ground. However, he didn’t like my course at Stony Creek. I can’t remember a time when the front wheel rim wasn’t bent. He still rode just fine.

Henry II allowed me to extend my biking radius. Several times a summer I would ride out to the Forest Preserves about five miles from home. I always love the forest. Once, my mom accompanied me. I couldn’t understand why she had so much trouble with the hills; or why she complained about soreness the next day…..Now I get it.

My biggest adventure with Henry came during the summer of my 16th year. My friend, Mark, and I took a fifty-four mile trip (one way) to Starved Rock State Park in Kankakee, IL. I learned a lot on that trip. During the first mile and a half, I learned that riding with a full knap sack on your back is not a good idea. The extra weight and racing seat reminded me, in an extremely uncomfortable way, of my manhood. Fortunately, the knap sack strapped nicely to the rack on the back of the bike. Secondly, as we passed our first multiday old road kill, we realized what we had been missing all those years as we quickly passed in a car. Thirdly, was that wet brakes don’t work. I slid into a car on my way home.

Finally, I learned what I had seen, but missed my whole life. As we went on our route of back roads and former major thoroughfares, state routes, and county roads, the world appeared somehow different. Our journey took us through seemingly endless corn and soy bean fields and through meadows, pastureland and groves of trees. It gave us a renewed feeling of appreciation for how truly great this country really was. We stopped at a somewhat dilapidated truck stop for lunch. The concrete and asphalt was all cracked and the building itself in desperate need of repairs and paint. To us, however, it was an oasis. As we enjoyed our burgers, we talked to the waitress. She was impressed with our adventure. She told us about how this diner had once, before the interstate, been a Mecca for truckers.

The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful. The last few miles seemed to take forever. I still remember our relief when we finally entered the park. We paid the two dollars for the camp site, pitched our tent, and gathered firewood. Mark’s parents and my mom drove down to meet us for dinner (I cooked). Then they drove back and we spent the next day exploring and rock climbing above the Illinois River.

After a second night of camping, it was time for our return trip. We set a fast pace, covering the first 21 miles in an hour. The trip to the park had taken around five hours. We made it back in just three. It pays to have a few adventures as you grow up.

I kept Henry II through our marriage. As the girls grew, we would ride together. He went with us as we moved from Illinois to Michigan to Indiana and finally here in Ohio. His front wheel was still bent and at best half of his gears worked. Over the years, I rode him on average maybe once or twice a summer, but never far. One day, a couple of years ago, an older man with  ragged clothes and a scraggly beard was passing by and noticed him in the garage. We talked for a while. I asked him if he wanted Henry II. He seemed thrilled. While I never saw the man again, I like to think Henry II is still being ridden around somewhere.

Mark and me at Starved Rock

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2 comments on “Riding Henry

  1. My bike was Clara Belle but I didn’t get one until my 16th birthday. Probably could tell you of a few excursions that I wasn’t supposed to go. Those were the “good ole days”

    • Those were the good old days. Clara Belle sounds like a kindred spirit to Henry.

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