This story is probably the best example, taken from my youth, that demonstrates my character. When I decide to do something, it gets done. I seldom give in and, with few exceptions (my divorce being the most glaring), I generally persevere to the end of whatever I undertake. I’ll even finish a book that I’ve started even if I don’t like it. I suppose I’ve a bit of a stubborn streak. My mother would have said I was Pig-Headed. Anyway, that’s a little introduction for those who don’t know me well.
If you’re thinking that, because of the title of this little story I taught myself to fly, you’re wrong. Read on.
Back again to my first life. I was 8 or 9 years old and the thing I wanted most I n life was to have a bicycle. A bike to me represented freedom, much like 6 or 7 years later, a car would. I could ride around by myself. I would learn every part of the city, even go to downtown Boston. Of course, I wouldn’t be advertising these thoughts to my parents!
My older brother, Tom, who was 2 years older than I, had his own bike, but the family finances didn’t permit more than one bicycle at a time. I watched as my father instructed Tom how to change the bike tires, how to patch the inner tube, how to pump up the tires to the right pressure, how to adjust the chain, and even how to adjust the brakes. I learned that you had to register your bike with the Police Department so if it were stolen, they could recuperate it for you. There was even a little license plate they gave you. Just like registering a car! But I doubt they ever recuperated any bikes!
When Tom wasn’t using his bike, I occasionally took a little spin for myself. Once again, not advertising my intentions. Although Tom was only 2 years older, he was pretty big for his age and I was pretty small, so riding a “boys” bike was a bit difficult. I had to shift my weight from side to side in order to reach the pedals and that damned cross bar kept challenging my virginity! But I managed! And when I got my own bike, I would make sure it was a “girls”.
After learning the basics of cycling, I decided it was time to get a bike for myself. I had a few dollars that I earned by running errands for my aunts next door.
A few blocks from my house was the local junkyard (yes, it was that kind of a neighborhood). I began visiting there and scouting around for bike parts. I saw may possibilities. It seemed people would just throw away perfectly good-looking bikes. I found a frame that was more or less straight, a couple of wheels with most of their spokes and a not-too-rusty chain with all of its teeth that I could clean and oil up. The tires were OK but I had to patch the tubes. I knew my brother had some patches in his repair kit. So there it was! I could build my own bike! And it cost nothing! The guys at the junkyard said I could have the parts, since they didn’t think they could sell them anyway. I invested what little I had in some blue paint and Voila! I had my bike!
Freedom! I could go anywhere I wanted. Didn’t need bus fare! Life was good. Also, my mother was happy because I volunteered to run errands for her, whereas before I would always complain about having to go to the square for something she needed.
One summer day, my mother asked me to go to the hardware store and get some coasters. No problem! Happy to do it! I mounted my trusty bike and took off up the hill to the Square. It wasn’t very far, perhaps a quarter mile to the hardware store, but it was up hill all the way and I remember thinking that my next bike would have three gears, thus making the hill climbing easier.
At the hardware store, the man asked what size coasters I needed. I didn’t know they came in different sizes. My mother just showed me one that was being used under one of the living room chairs. I didn’t think to bring it with me but after he showed me the different sizes available, I saw one that was the same as the one my mother showed me. So I told him I needed four of those. He started to put the coasters in a bag, but I told him I had my bike and didn’t want to have to carry anything. I put the coasters in my jeans pockets. One for each pocket. Two in the front and two in the back. Then off I went on the easier leg of the trip…downhill.
Not only easier, but also faster. I loved flying down the hill. Ever conscious of the rules of the road, I stayed on the right side until I approached my street, which was a left hand turn at the bottom of the hill. My house was on a street that ran along the railroad tracks. Just beyond my street was a railroad bridge.
The bridge was slightly higher than the street, so there was a short rise where the street met the bridge, creating a blind spot for drivers crossing the bridge. The left turn onto my street was in the center of that blind spot.
The car and my bike hit head-on. The laws of physics sent me on my First Flight, over the top of the car. I landed on the other side of the street. I actually don’t remember the impact. I only remember waking up to see my aunt Katherine and a man (the driver of the car) standing over me. I heard my aunt cry out “Oh my God! It’s Katherine!” (Katherine was her daughter. We were about the same age and we both had blue bikes). Then with relief in her voice, “Oh it’s only Mary”. Then “Oh no! It’s Mary
I remember the panic in the voice of the driver of the car. The pain hadn’t yet set in and I hadn’t yet seen the condition of my bike, so I felt a little sorry for him. They piled me into the back of his car and drove up the hill to the hospital. I don’t know how they informed my mother of what had happened. We didn’t have a telephone. So probably one of Aunt Katherine’s children (she had 14 or 15 of them) or some neighbor ran down the street with the news.
I had a broken leg and a concussion. So they sent me home in a cast. My bike was beyond repair, so it went right back to the scrap metal yard. This was the thing that bothered me most. Plus, with a cast on my leg, I wouldn’t be going to the swimming pool. My summer was completely ruined. But the four glass coasters in my jeans pockets survived unbroken!
Some 15 years later, I took my first ride in an airplane. Perhaps remembering my First Flight, it was a white-knuckle ride until we landed safely.
GLOSSARY FOR MY ITALIAN FRIENDS