Episode XIX – Built to Last

Rust has a distinctive odor. There is a slight bouquet of decay, a dash of iron, and the unmistakable smell of metal. I knew the scent, because rust essence was oozing out of my protesting pores. It was charming. It was the perfect aroma to go with my grease stained shirt. The rust had come off the bike in defiant layers as I had scrubbed furiously with the steel wool. The motion had been a repetitive “Up/Down” pattern, much like “Paint the Fence” in the Karate Kid. Unfortunately, unlike the movie, I had not gained any super-ninja skills. I sighed, and transferred the steel wool back into my stripping hand, feeling the individual steel bristles bite my flesh as the last spot of rust crumbled off. I stepped back and viewed my handiwork.

It had been worth it. All of the chrome on and around my wheels shone with the burnished brightness of two used nickels. The soft glowing chrome even obscured the scratched and faded blue paint. It even distracted the eye from the dents on the frame. All of my afternoon’s work of tuning, adjusting, and stripping had made the bike look almost like a 1970’s racing Schwinn, rather than its original vintage, which was a 1969 model, or at the oldest a 1968 model.

I didn’t mind that the bike was used, although I was curious about the relic’s history. There was nothing stylish about it. It handled poorly. The handlebars were slightly askew. At high speeds, a menacing rattle came from the gears and chain, and it had been missing a pedal. It did have positive aspects. Because of the bike, I learned the art of maintaining a 1960’s piece of machinery. This skill would come in handy if I invented a time machine, or if the apocalypse occurred. No one would ever steal it, as it was a step away from being a collection of parts in a junkyard.

Most importantly, it was heavy. The frame was pure steel. Or something equally weighty – like lead. I didn’t take an assay of its parts, so even I was unsure of its exact composition; but it wasn’t a light-weight composite that would blow away in a breeze. Its frame was so heavy it would take gale-force winds to blow it away, assuming that mere wind could lift it. Its weight was an asset because it was a great workout. If my legs could get the colossus moving up a hill, it was a victory that Sisyphus himself would have been proud of. Since my area was chock full of hills, it was a borderline torturous activity.

Minor torments were far from my mind as the clunking chain shifted under me as I cruised down my favorite route, Del Dios Highway. Del Dios is a winding, curving, narrow road with no bike lane. My bike was ideal to preserve my existence on Del Dios. Since it was a tank, its leviathan frame made drivers think twice about running me off of the road without sustaining serious structural damage to their expensive foreign cars. I could rumble along at my own pace, knowing that on the narrow stretches, cars would have to draft behind me, fuming and impotent, rather than attempting to crush me against the guardrail.

I shot out of the mottled eucalyptus branches that covered the early stretches of road, and was accelerating with slow haste down the long slope before the dam that appeared out of the dusty hills. My wheels were spinning in a pinwheel blur, and the wind was pushing me along with the striped clouds that interrupted the clear blue sky.

A cacophony of pain erupted from my right side as I lay splayed out on the narrow shoulder of the road. Mercilessly, the sedan that had shadowed my last several turns blared its horn at my prostrate form. Quickly, I scrambled off the road, shaking my fist and shouting several vulgar comments at its speeding tailpipe.

“Damn me!” Were the next words out of my mouth, as I surveyed my gory arm, which was covered in road fill, broken glass, and small rocks that were embedded in my perforated flesh. I took stock. Everything still moved, and I didn’t seem to have broken anything. My leg had the same classic road rash as my arm. Calmly, I picked out the largest offending objects from my wounds. I attempted to wipe sweat from the side of my face, only to find that it was mildly mauled. Everything was a real grisly mess. Blood was dripping off odd places, mixing with sweat, rust and grease and dirt. I peeled off my helmet. Broken like an egg.
“Better it than my head.” I mumbled to myself. I continued over to my bike. The back tire was shredded, flayed out like my right side. I remembered. I had been bent over the handlebars, as aerodynamic as I could hope to be, legs churning to pick up maximum velocity to escape Mad Max behind me, when there had been a catastrophic bang from the rear, where, due to my displaced center of gravity, it had lifted, and the bike had begun to spin in a decidedly unfriendly end-over-end motion, I had then bailed out, only to be caught decisively by the cold ground after a short flight, and arrived at this moment, staring at the shredded back tire while my shirt soaked up blood like a ugly sponge.

I was well prepared for this disaster. I had a half-empty water bottle. I had a dime. I had no identification. My clothes were smelly and now severely stained. There was no one at my house. I had a spare tube, but no pump, and no tools to change the tire with me. What had been a minor inconvenience with just a series of piddling scratches was quickly turning into a major debacle. With nothing but desperation left, I stuck out my thumb. After five minutes and eleven cars had passed, I realized that I would have a better chance at being helped if cars saw my healthy, non-mangled side. I then tried again with similar dismal results.

I then had a quandary. I could walk the five miles home, and later come back for my bike. The walk would be uncomfortable enough with all of the new ventilation holes I had in my skin. I hesitated to do this, because I didn’t want to leave my bike. It was like not leaving a fallen comrade behind. I knew it was an inanimate object that was now closer to being a pile of junk; but it still felt wrong to leave it there, especially after all the futile work I had put into it. I also realized that it was a possibility that I had a head injury, as I was anthropomorphizing my bike.

With all of that in mind, I made the expected rational decision. I hefted its weight onto my back, winced, and began to limp home, one slow step after another. Surprisingly, no one stopped to help a lurching bleeding young man carrying what appeared to be a pile of trash with wheels. When I made it home, one thing was clear: should the bike be handed down again, this story was coming with it.