Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lizzie's Bike Ride

Wooden-wheeled bike

"Mother," said Lizzie, "When am I ever going to be taller?"
Mother raised her eyes from the socks she was darning to glance at Lizzie who was perched on the edge of a kitchen chair. 
It was the last week of June and school was out for the summer.
Lizzie wore a faded gingham blouse and a pair of short trousers handed down from a boy cousin.
Her feet, in scuffed green sneakers, were wrapped around the rungs of the chair and her brown eyes were intent.  It wasn't the first time Lizzie has fussed about her height.  As Mother hesitated, wondering how to answer, Lizzie persisted, "My birthday is next month and 13 is nearly grown up. 
I"m tired of being so short!"
"Lizzie, I expect you'll be a little taller before you're done growing, but being tall or short runs in families." Mother's voice was calm. "I'm not tall and Father is not tall."
Lizzie considered this new piece of information, sitting back in her chair and swinging one foot.
"Grandpa Zeb was tall," she mused, "and all my brothers are taller than father."
"You didn't know Grandma Betsy," replied Mother. "She was short and plump. Father is only a little taller than his mother was.  Its not something we can choose. You may have to get used to the idea that you will never be very tall."
Lizzie sighed and unwound her feet from the chair legs. The screen door slapped softly behind her as she wandered out to the front porch, pondering Mother's unwelcome prediction. 

Lizzie hadn't always minded being 'small for her age.'  Her short stature had allowed her to walk comfortably under the dining room table as a little girl.  She could take her dolls and play house there without bumping her head.
When Mother worked at the wooden counter in the pantry, Lizzie could climb from a stool to sit on the counter's edge, keeping Mother company, her head never grazing the shelves above.   If Mother was sewing, she sat on the opened flap of the treadle sewing machine; her slight weight was no burden.

It had been fun when the uncles came with their families for a Sunday visit. Lizzie loved to be swooped up and swung high, while Uncle Simon or Uncle Charles greeted her in a mixture of French and English.  To them she was "petite Lizzie."
Visits from Aunt Anna were also special.  Anna was a dressmaker and often, as soon as she was through the door, she unwrapped a parcel and shook out a new skirt or jumper.  Lizzie preened, whirling so the pleats of the skirt fanned out, admired the shiny buttons marching down the front of a corduroy jumper.
'Oh, Lizzie,"  Aunt Anna would exclaim. "You are so little I can make you a skirt from the material left over when I make some large lady's dress!"
But that was in the past.
It was not fun when she had to stand in the front row with the younger children for the Memorial Day program because, as the teacher said, "Lizzie, you are so short, if you stood in the back with your own class, no one could see you."
That recent humiliation aside, there was another reason why Lizzie wanted so much stretch upward.
It had to do with the rickety bicycle which her older brothers Larry and Warren shared.

Larry and Lizze had spent more than one rainy afternoon that spring with the 'Monkey Ward' catalog opened on the kitchen table between them.
Larry read aloud the description of a sleek bike with glossy red paint, plump tires and shiny spokes.  It even had a headlight mounted above the front fender.
Lizzie dreamed of the model in bright blue--a bike made for a girl.
The ordering information stated that it could be had in two sizes, one of them perfect for a young lady who was barely five feet tall.
The dreams ended with a jolt of reality when Larry's finger traced the price of the bikes.
Few farm families in 1931 had cash to squander on gleaming new bicycles.

The bike that lived in a corner of the woodshed was practically antique--"older than I am," grumbled Larry.
Father had bought it for a few dollars when one of the city cousins saved the money for a newer model.
The bike was heavy, with narrow, nearly bald tires mounted on wooden rims.  The seat was worn and its sparse padding poked through a rip in the scuffed leather.
Larry kept the bike's chain oiled and had used stove polish to brighten the faded paint.
He rode it sometimes to school or to scoot upstreet when Mother needed something from the store.

Lizzie, well aware that the old bike was the only one the family could afford, had made numerous attempts to master it.
In her practice runs, Larry had held the clumsy bike steady while Lizzie clambered aboard the high seat.  While he pushed she tried to pedal. As the bike trundled slowly across the grassy yard, propelled by Larry, Lizzie could stretch her short legs to just reach whichever pedal was uppermost.
Straining to reach the downward swing of the pedals she inevitable slipped off the seat and
wobbled to a halt.
Now, faced with the knowledge that a girl-sized bike was forever beyond the family budget, and frustrated with the new and unwelcome thought that future birthdays might not result in a gain of height, Lizzie determined that she would manage to ride that old wooden-wheeled monster.
She would find Larry, right now, and ask him to help.

Larry looked up from the workbench when Lizzie's slender form darkened the shop door.
He frowned at her request to 'practice' on the bicycle.
"I'm busy," he stated importantly.  "Father asked me to clean and oil all the hand tools and put them away."
"When you're done," said Lizzie, "You could help me then."
"When I"m finished with the tools," Larry replied firmly, " I'm going to clean my gun.  Clarence Munger will pay me for all the woodchucks I can shoot."
He glanced at Lizzie leaning forlornly against the doorjamb, twisting one green-shod foot in the dust and added, not unkindly,
"That old bike is too big for you. Why don't you give up on riding until you've grown into it?"

Lizzie flounced away up the path and Larry hoped she would find something to do in the house with Mother.
Lizzie, however, wasn't about to quit.
She recalled that when Larry had pushed her around the yard on the bike, the best times had been when they headed down the slope of the driveway.  The down hill momentum had helped to turn the wheels faster  and Lizzie could get in a sturdy swipe at the pedals as they flipped around.
She would find a hill and ride the bike!

Larry wiped the oily rag over the last tool and hung the cross-cut saw on a nail above the workbench.
He wanted a drink of water before he cleaned his rifle--and maybe he should see what Lizzie was up to.  She had seemed awfully down-hearted.
Pausing outside on the path, he called her name.  No answer; she must have gone in the house
 to help Mother.
Striding toward the back door he registered that the bike was no longer leaning against the side of the woodshed where he had left it at lunch time.  Struck with a sense of foreboding, he pivoted slowly to look up the gravel road.  Lizzie, pushing the old bicycle, was on the bend of the road near Mr. Munger's place, headed toward Dagnealt Hill.
Larry sprang forward.
"Lizzie!" he bellowed.  "Wait!  Lizzie!"
He thought she heard him, but her determined pace didn't falter.  As she rounded the curve in the road, Larry launched himself after her.
"Lizzie," he yelled, "Don't be stupid!"
Better to save his breath for running after her.  With any luck he could catch up with her before she got hurt.
Larry thundered past Clarence Munger's place at speed, his shoes crunching on the road's gravel surface.
Lizzie had reached the mid point of the steep hill, turned the bike around and was trying clumsily to get astraddle of the frame.
She managed to get her trousered bottom onto the high seat, her feet in the shabby green sneakers stretched toward the pedals and the bike began to roll down the incline.
For a few precarious seconds Lizzie clung to the handlebars, her feet flailing at the pedals.
The bike wobbled, gaining speed.
Larry, breathing hard, pounded his way up the hill, even as Lizzie and the bike hurtled downward.
He was close enough to see that her feet were dangling, making no contact with the pedals. The bike lurched and he heard Lizzie's choked cry as she went down, heard the scrunch and skid as the bike slid to rest in the gravel.
He reached her before she could move, flinging the bike aside into the ditch, crouching over her.
She looked so small, sprawled face down in the gritty dirt, her shoulders heaving with sobs.
"Gee-Hover Crimus, Lizzie," he swore as he pulled her into his lap.
Her chin was scraped and bleeding, her nose was running.  Larry yanked his handkerchief from his pocket--never mind that he had used it along with his rags to polish tools.
He blotted tears, blood and snot from Lizzie's face, turned her so he could assess the rest of the damage.
Both knees of the detested hand-me-down trousers were torn through, shreds of fabric clinging to Lizzie's bruised and bloody knees.  He winced at the thought of the gravel that would have to be delicately picked from the abrasions.  One elbow had taken a beating and both her palms were raw.
Larry struggled with exasperation at Lizzie's stubborness, shied away from the engulfing shame that he was somehow in part responsible for this calamity.
A few minutes of his time, a quarter hour of patient practice with the bike on the grassy lawn and this might never have happened.
"What will Mother say?" gasped Lizzie.  "And Father---is the bike wrecked?"
"Never mind the old bike!" retorted Larry, his voice gruff with tenderness.  "I guess I can fix the bike.
Can you stand up?  I've got to get you to Mother to be patched up."
Somehow he got Lizzie to her feet, heaved himself up out of the road.  Lizzie looked down at her bleeding knees, touched a trembling hand to her bruised chin.  She looked as though she might collapse
back into the gravel.
Larry turned, bending his shoulders.
"Climb on my back," he ordered.  "I'll carry you home."
Lizzie obeyed, snuffling against his shirt collar as she wound her arms around his neck.
Larry got his balance, gripped Lizzie's legs, careful not to touch her poor scraped knees.
"You won't be riding that bike for awhile," he predicted.  "But when your knees have healed up, I'll cut some blocks of wood to raise the pedals so you can reach them.  And I'll push you around the yard on that blasted bike until you get the hang of it.
Right now, I'm glad you're so small I can lug you home!"

Cousin Tom Archer told me of this incident which took place when his Mom [Lizzie] and my Dad [Larry] were living on the Old Hack Farm at the foot of Daignealt Hill.  Lizzie  included in the notes she prepared for me the details of being 'small for her age' as well as the memory of the boy's trousers and the hated green sneakers which she wore for play during the summer months.

Bike photos from dorsetfinds@wordpress


  1. Oh, I remember being the smallest, even now I'm only 5 ft. tall. Our poor daughter wanted only one thing as she grew older, to be taller, she didn't make it, she's only 4ft.10in.
    Loved your story.

  2. I was never tall either. My dad wouldn't let me have a bicycle as he said the roads were too dangerous (and this was 50 years ago!) I did, however, have a similar experience to Lizzie, only with a Moped, when I let the clutch out too quickly and it roared off, reared up and took inches of skin off both elbows and hands . . . Owwwww!