As far back as I remember, there was a bike hanging on the wall of our family’s garage.
The yellow paint had faded years before, any brand name that may have once marked its frame had disappeared in the many days since its manufacture. Its three speed gearing had long ago locked in place; the improbably narrow tires hadn’t seen air in decades.
In its day, it was a racing bike.
One that carried my father, in his own youth, on journeys to countless cities surrounding his northern Colorado home, often dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of miles on a single ride.
And usually without permission.
Where it came from, I don’t know. It may have been a gift, possibly from his own father, before he abandoned my grandmother and her children on an isolated farm on the eastern Colorado plains in the midst of the Great Depression. Or it could have come after she quit the farm and moved her family to the then small town where I grew up.
Maybe he earned the money himself. Or it could have come from some other source.
My father described himself as a bad kid when he was growing up; one who knew every cop in the area on a professional basis. When asked, he told us that meant smoking, drinking and staying out past curfew. But I often thought there might be more to the story he wasn’t willing to confess to his own children.
One thing is certain, though. He vowed that, unlike his father, he would always be there for his own children. And even though he was far from a wealthy man, they would never endure the hardships he did growing up.
And he more than lived up to that.
To be honest, though, all you really need to know about the kind of man my dad was is contained in one simple story.
He started smoking when he was just 12 years old, and continued his pack-a-day habit for more than 40 years. He often said the only thing that got him through the horrors of World War II — first in Europe, then the Pacific preparing for the planned invasion of Japan — were cigarettes and letters from my mother.
He made a few half-hearted attempts to quit over the years, mostly at her urging. But never made it more than a day or two before starting up again.
Then one day, when I was about 12, he came home from work to learn that the doctor had just diagnosed my persistent cough as an allergy to cigarette smoke. So he took the cigarette pack out of his pocket and placed it on his dresser, without a word or second glance.
And never picked them up again.
He was, then, roughly the same age I am today; 20 years later, those same cigarettes would take his life.
In my earliest memories, I see him encouraging each of us to get out and ride our bikes; from my older brothers on their 5 and 10 speeds, to my sister’s hand-me-down Schwinn cruiser, and me, as the youngest, on a tiny tricycle.
As I got older, I graduated to a bigger trike, then to that same old Schwinn, which he had repainted in the colors of my choice. As I recall, I picked the purple and gold of the high school I would eventually attend, though it may have been the green and gold of the local university; at one time or another, it was painted in both.
It was my dad who held on tight, pushing my new grown-up bike down the sidewalk until it finally picked up enough speed to maintain my balance for a few yards. And he was the one who picked me up, brushed me off and dried my tears, and got me back in the saddle again, until at last I could tear around the neighborhood unassisted.
On those long hot summer nights, he’d urge us all to get on our bikes. Sometimes, he might even borrow one from one of my brothers and join in for a few minutes.
All the while, that old yellow bike hung on the wall, his love for it shown by the dust that never seemed to accumulate for long.
He’d talk about fixing it up and joining us, but never seemed to get around to it. Once he finally did, he found the parts were no longer available.
In my teens, I took the money I earned delivering newspapers on that old Schwinn, and bought an Astra Tour de France that looked exactly like this one. That was my primary form of transportation until I bought a car my junior year; regrettably, I sold that Astra a year later as I got ready to travel halfway across the country for college.
Then one day, a few years out of college, I found myself sitting alone in a Louisiana movie theater, far from home and the people I loved. And I was reminded once again of the sheer joy of bicycling, as I watched a young man call out “Ciao Pappa!” to his Indiana father as he rode by on his bike, wishing I could see my own.
I’ve often credited Breaking Away with kindling my love of cycling. But in truth, it only resparked a romance that began in my childhood and lasted most of my life.
The day my father died, that old yellow bike was still hanging on the wall of his garage; still unridden and unridable, yet something he was never able to bring himself to give away. A sentiment I understand well, as that now 30-year old Trek sits silently in my office, one of my oldest and closest companions with whom I have shared most of my fondest memories, and one I have no desire to ever leave behind.
I don’t remember why I didn’t take his bike when I went back home for my father’s funeral; I imagine I simply didn’t have room in my tiny apartment for a bike I might never be able to ride.
We ended up donating it to the local museum, where it was on display the only time I stopped to visit, following my mother’s death a decade later.
It’s probably the right place for it, where countless people who never knew him can marvel at the antique speed machine that carried my dad so far from home, so many years before.
But sometimes I wish it was hanging on my own wall, reminding me of the man who first kindled my lifelong love affair with cycling.
And I wish I could talk to him just one more time, and beg him to ride with me once again.
And thank him for the truly precious gift he gave me.