“A bike!” I shouted inside my head. “I can’t believe it!” I clearly remember thinking those words as if it were only yesterday. We were living in Flanders then, a small hamlet on the Peconic Bay, out on the eastern end of Long Island. Had I not been so timid and shy, I’m sure I would’ve yelled from excitement, like everyone was expecting. It was not me to do so, and besides, the few who came to celebrate my eighth birthday, were making enough noise over it. There it stood: all red and white, with its shiny chrome fenders glistening in the hot, July sun. So stunned by the surprise, I didn’t even notice it wasn’t a Schwinn, nor was I aware how it was about to change my life. In a single afternoon, I was suddenly empowered with bragging rights, had a brand new door opened to me, and was one step closer to growing up.
My cousin Tom, six months my senior, held the trophy for bragging rights. He was first in everything that mattered to a young boy, like getting his own room, his own basketball backstop, and of course, his own Schwinn bicycle. My aunt and uncle owned a large potato farm and were quite wealthy compared to us. Their home was large, and had every modern convenience imaginable. I loved spending time there on weekends and over my summers, living the life of a rich kid, in want of nothing, and with parents who were not constantly fighting. They were the “have’s,” and we, the “have not’s.” But beyond material things, Tom and I were not only closest and best of friends, we were like brothers. And like a brother, I was always getting his hand-me-down clothes. Friends in school often complimented me on my nice clothes, but being second hand, it was nothing to brag about. But, there was nothing second hand about my brand new bike. I now had something to ride around on with great pride; something to brag about.
Having the bike to ride, opened up a whole new world to me. We lived in a small house on a dead end, dirt road. The nearest store was up a long, paved road that eventually met the main highway. The bay was the other way. Both destinations were too far to walk, so I rarely ventured beyond eyesight, or earshot of our property. With no friends my age around, I spent my free time with my imagination, off on wild adventures in the woods behind our house. I climbed trees and hid out in forts I built, until hearing the call for dinner. The bike instantly, and enormously, expanded my horizons. Little by little, I summoned the courage to venture further and further from home. Once out and about, I discovered there were other boys my age. Life in Flanders would never be the same.
I had a new life, and with it came a new identity. I was no longer simply Greg, but Greg from Pine Avenue. There would be no stopping me now. After all, I would be starting the third grade in the fall. I was growing up. Up to now, I had gotten toys for Christmas and birthdays. Toys were something you play with, and eventually grow out of. However, my new bike was not a toy, and not something that I would soon grow out of. It was, after all, an adult bike -- a means of transportation. It was the closest thing to a car someone my age could own and drive. I was no longer restricted to my yard and imaginings. I was now capable of going wherever my heart and mind desired. I had achieved the first right of passage along the road to manhood.
Yes, getting that bike worked wonders in boosting my self esteem and sense of person. Until the bike, no gift had ever given me such a strong sense of pride, of ownership, and of personal empowerment. Over the rest of that summer, the forts in the woods slowly fell into disrepair. I rarely had time for them. I joined the local Cub Scout den and biked to meetings. Come rain or shine, and as long as there was air in the tires, I was off exploring, getting to know new people, places, and things. But, more importantly, I was getting to know myself.