The Rusty Rat

Sean Perry (niceguyshawn), Flickr Creative Commons

Sean Perry (niceguyshawn), Flickr Creative Commons

My first bicycle was dragged home by my father, a papa cat bringing his cub a wounded mouse to hunt.

He worked as a repairman for Montgomery Ward, a job that took him into houses all over Denver. Inside those homes he fixed whatever Wards sold: televisions, dishwashers, water heaters, washers, dryers, refrigerators, freezers. His work van was stocked with vacuum tubes and other common parts along with racks of tools both common and specialized. My favorites were his oscilloscope, with its wavy green line like the monitors on Emergency!, and the striker used to light his propane torch. I loved to flick its thin silver handle and watch the sparks.

The best days were when his Wards van came home packed with frozen food, courtesy of a freezer in need of a part on back order. The company paid the customer for the contents of his or her broken freezer and the repairman dragged the food away. What they did with it was of no interest to Wards, so broken freezers became my early childhood version of a Thanksgiving food drive. I didn’t realize that all orange juice wasn’t powdered until some unlucky customer lost his frozen concentrate in a freezer failure, nor did I know that grapes could be juiced. I once was able to brag on the playground that I had an Eggo for breakfast, just like the rich kids.

Brand name convenience foods weren’t the only castoffs that my father dragged home. People were always giving him junk that they couldn’t or didn’t want to fix. Our little 800 square foot house featured a television in every room, a church organ, a console stereo, and every time-saving kitchen convenience that plugged in. He rescued them all from their landfill fates.

I assume that’s how my first bicycle came into my possession. My father tossed the rusty beast onto the back lawn and handed me a Wards toolbox. “Take it apart,” he said.

“I don’t know how.”

“Figure it out,” my father said.

Neither Mr. Rogers nor Sesame Street had covered bicycle repair. I couldn’t even read yet, though that wasn’t a pressing need at that particular moment. I squatted next to the old bike and considered my options. Inside the toolbox rested an adjustable wrench, a pair of pliers, and two screwdrivers. I knew how to turn a nut, so I went for the wrench.

The front wheel came off easily. So did the seat. The back wheel took a little longer. I probably worked on the handlebars and fork for a week, and the pedals for twice that. Reverse threads are a cruel trick to play on a preschooler. All that remained was the frame, crank, and chain.

I tried for months to remove the crank and the chain, even resorting to both hammer and hacksaw, but the solution eluded me. That didn’t matter, though. The rusty rat lay scattered all over the backyard, and the little cub was on the hunt. Forty-five years and dozens of bicycles later, few things bring me as much satisfaction as wrenching on a rusty old bicycle in need of a second chance.

Categories: Memoir

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