Handbrakes and Gears!
I was probably 12 years old and in the seventh grade at Bottenfield Junior High. President Richard Nixon was slowly withdrawing troops from Vietnam amidst pressure from anti-war protesters. Women were marching in key areas of the country for abortion rights and the Soviet Union was testing nuclear arms. Mandated public school integration in Birmingham that year made the public school I attended a relatively unsafe place to be and, at times, there were policemen at school when I arrived in the mornings.
But on Christmas Eve, in that tiny little house at the very quiet dead end of Lynn Dale Lane, all was merry and bright. We kids (the four of us) were insulated from unrest, protected from danger and our mother, who knew how to keep Christmas more magically than anyone I’ve ever known, had celebrated the eleventh day of Christmas with us, with green vanilla ice-cream Christmas trees covered in sprinkles or gifts of brand new sets of Clackers or “jackstones” and then sent us to bed, where we would lie, fighting a battle between heavy eye-lids and wonder-filled expectation and where slowly we would finally succumb to a night of fitful sleep that would always be much briefer than any other night of the year.
“Can we get up yet?” always came from one of the two back bedrooms way before dawn. They would make us hold off and tell us to go back to sleep until, finally, somewhere around five am, they’d realize there was no more sleep to be had and they’d tell us to go ahead and line up in the hall. Daddy would always act like he was going to have to go shave before we could run in the living room. Mother would say, “Do you want me to go and see if he came?” Then she would and she’d yell out “He did!” Finally after all those predictable preliminaries and after everybody had taken a turn in the bathroom, one of the parents would count to three and we’d all scream with excitement and run, smallest to tallest, the few feet from the back of the house to the front.
And this year, there was no room to even move in that living room! Four brand new bicycles standing fully assembled and ready to ride. I immediately found my own new bike. It was the big brown Murray with a gold stripe and, “Oh look, it has three speeds and even (gasp) hand brakes!” I had never had gears and handbrakes. My last bike had been a small purple girly bike with a banana seat.
I did not know it was the height of what is termed today “America’s Bike Boom”. I did not know that Schwinn alone had sold over a million bikes that year. In my mind, even though there were three more bikes in the very same room, this was the ONLY bike on the planet. This was IT! And that little gear lever/handbrake feature was just as impressive to me then as it would be today if I were given a car with a factory television and backing camera (which is also something I have never had).
It must have been a fun sight for my mother and daddy to sit in the dining room and watch us, all four of us, sitting there around the Christmas tree on those stationery bicycles, pedaling backwards in our pajamas.
But it was an hour or two later when I was dispatched to deliver Brackin’s Christmas present. (Brackin was really Mrs. Brackin, an older lady who lived up the street and I cannot believe we called her “Brackin.” What kind of rude children call the old lady up the street by her last name with no title before the surname? But we did.) When I say she lived up the street, I mean she lived UP the street. It was a hill that was no fun to climb, but, ahhh, on the way back home, it was a glorious wind-in-your-face-keep-your-foot-on-the-brake coast and I was going to do it on my brand new bike! (It was that foot-on-the-brake thing that was going to be tricky, since, well…you know!)
So I was off. Brackin was thrilled with the jam cake or apron or whatever it was, I’m sure, and (surprise!), she had all six of our presents to send back home with me. Being the over-achiever that I am, I could do this. “Do you want to just stop by and get these later, or I can bring ‘em down there?” Brackin asked.
“I can get ‘em. Look I can hold this bag in my hand, put these boxes in my coat pocket and I’ll just put this little box under my right arm. See?”
“Okay, be careful,” Brackin said “…and Merry Christmas!”
You know the rest of the story. It all happened on the glorious wind-in-your-face Christmas morning coast. I held on tightly to each parcel, but I was NOT going to miss the thrill of the coast on that brand spanking new Murray. This was its maiden voyage and I hoped the Spences and Esteses and Shepards were all looking out the window in amazement.
And so I pedaled fast back up Brackin’s driveway to the road. No cars anywhere in sight. I pedaled harder for the first few feet of the descent to get up my speed. No cars. And then I looked up in the sky and enjoyed the high speed coast for a few glorious seconds. I was flying!
And then I knew I had to brake my speed to be able to stop. So I pushed back hard on the pedals just as I had done a thousand times before. But I pedaled backwards as hard as I could and kept speeding. It occurred to me then where the brakes were, but there was a big bag in my hand that was gripping the handlebar and the other arm was protruding out in protection of a big box. So, still pedaling backwards frantically, terror in my very soul, the boxes and bags flew into the street and scattered contents into the ditch, while I grabbed that hand brake with a vengeance. In that moment of screeching tires, screaming, scattering gravel, and that brand new bike skidding around and finally crashing to the middle of the street, I’m thinking the Spences, the Esteses and the Shepards did look out their windows in amazement. And, for sure, the Holders, at the very dead end, have memorialized the Christmas wreck and placed it in the annals of Christmas morning memories that deserve mention every now and then over the turkey and dressing at our gatherings today. And I still have the scar on my elbow to prove it really happened.
And the morals to this story are:
- Practice a bit before you launch out. It would have done me good to stop a few times, say, in my own level driveway, before taking a gift bearing excursion on a mountainside. That’s why we currently have a new converts class at West Huntsville. That’s why I present a simulated Bible study with a non-Christian at Polishing the Pulpit. That’s why the Hebrews writer referred to those who drink milk as being yet “unskillful in the Word” (Heb. 5:8). The more I practice, spiritually, the more I know that I don’t know. There’s nothing shameful about taking the time to learn to use our tools.
- Don’t insist on operating on overload. Perhaps you can’t carry the whole load right now. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for or accept help. Leave some of your burden for another trip on another day. And remember to look around for the person who may be carrying too much. This fulfills the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
- Don’t pedal backwards. Sometimes in life, we waste a lot of energy on things that are simply not productive. Put your energy into things that matter (Matthew 6:33).
- Don’t coast right down to the last second. If you coast through life without giving much thought to how it will all end, you may not have the time or the presence of mind, when the ride is over, to come to a peaceful end. And that is very, very important (Heb. 9:27).