Phantom Rider Beside: "Why Jerry, Are you crazy?"
That's my grandfather's voice in response, when I said, 'on my bicycle' to his question, "how did you get here?" I showed up at my grandparent's house at the end of my first long bike ride from NYC to Mattoon, Illinois. I didn't tell them I was coming. I didn't call my normal Sunday call to them for two weeks. I thought they would worry if they knew I was on the road. It was 1975, the era of payphones & collect calls. I was trying to beat the 1976 Bikecentennial ride at least part of the way across America. I wanted some satisfaction of going a long distance before they got all the credit. I did it. 1000 miles in a couple weeks plus. I did several days more than 100 miles; I did some 25 mile days. I loved the long haul of sunrise to sundown riding. I also learned the value of listening to people I met who said, you should check out this park, this view, this restaurant... And my 25 mile days taught the listening value to develop a sense being aware of where one is. So flash forward and backward with me.
Both photography and bicycling have been constant threads throughout my life. I thought bicycling was mine, all mine. But there is a continuum of my family's history.
We kids used to see cowboy films and then mimic our bikes as horses as we chased each other killing and shooting bad guys and Indians. The Illinois Iroquois or western Comanches were a silent presence in our Midwestern panorama of cultural awareness & was -well- it was the 1950 cultural awareness of jell-o. When I got my new bike, I also read a 1959 Boy's Life article about a 14 year old who crossed the United States from LA to Connecticut. That was me on those pages in his adventure. I still have this article and reading it now, I can see how fabricated it is in adult language. I still want to meet this John Wilkinson person who created an archetype for me.
I remember somewhere in the 1950's my grandfather bicycling backwards but only once. It was always held up as a high bar that you 'as a child' will never attain...I remember more the resistance of not getting a new bike until 'later.'
I was raised by my grandparents. I had to endure waiting until 6th grade before I got my own bike. I had to use my sister's bike, blue, and truly a 1950's girl's bicycle. Damn embarrassing.
It wasn't like I was going to bicycle to Los Angeles. I did invent a bike ride to a small town Trilla about 6 miles away...peanut butter sandwich, a first run Coke can wrapped in aluminum foil in 1959 or 1960. My little trip paled compared to John's multi-state two wheeler trip. My grandfather never seemed interested in my new bike. I ended up buying a basket for that new red Schwinn Hornet and put it on the 'boy's bike' myself. Of course, I was admiring my ability to get it all nut and bolted on the bike that I biked out of the garage and ran into the Lincoln parked in the driveway and chipped both front teeth. The dentist came to visit on that Sunday to see if I was okay and a week later I had silver caps in my smile. The basket got bent.
So when I arrived on my bike at my grandparents, the first thing I wanted to do was weigh the whole thing. My grandfather was blase' and really didn't give any kind of wow. He never really said, oh I wish I were with you.
This is the hard part. I had carried several boxes of photographs containing images of my mother around for a couple of decades without looking at them until after my grandfather's death... I finally opened the boxes of mother's pictures and immersed myself in seeing her as others saw her and also viewed what & how she photographed. I never knew her. She died when I was two and she was just a legend of few stories and cutout sentences avoiding all the tender, crippling thoughts that my grandparents must have had when they thought of my mother, their dead daughter. Interleaved among these lovely images of who I came from was a young grandfather.
He was there holding my mother and aunt as a proud man in a tie and vest in many photos, he had his many cars, he was absent in his mother's ladies luncheons, he presided over window displays which were submitted to Rexall drugstore contests, and on trips he was the subject when he must have handed over the camera to my mother. She did have a vision. My grandmother archived all these photos in her boxes from her favorite dress store.
But as I dug deeper into lots of 1890's parlor images of my grandfather's relatives in their wigs, after teas portraits & gossip, perhaps after serving fabulous meringue cakes or watermelons on hot august Illinois humid day.
...there was Clyde my grandfather as a two year old in 1899 on a trike.
It took me several years to go through them...it was ladies' detective uncovering of dress boxes. One of the first was perhaps my first bike ride. Near 1955 -I believe. So there I was, ever reaching to the handlebars, supported by my grandfather, my sister watching over her brother...An early 4 year old (me) and perhaps the very first bicycle ride!
And here was another image of a bike and my grandfather as 4 year old in 1901. A fixie for a four year old? The rake of the front fork is so dramatic. Spring seat and svelte fenders.
And then there were images of his adolescent friends. I found it hard to believe that his life had been 'entwined' in bicycling. I was surprised that he had not conveyed that love or mere association with something that has become so identified by myself as a core way of being.
Look ! Clyde with tie, on left, with a friend who had this beautiful double cross bar and longhorn
handlebars. This reminds me of a modern day A. Homer Hilsen made by Rivendell Bicycles (image is 1910-12?).
And continuing the longhorn theme: Another image of my grandfather from the 1919, five years before the birth of my mother pops up in another box. And consistent as my grandfather was: tie, suspenders...and bike!
But the most surprise was a photographic evidence of what we always heard but certainly had forgotten for 4 or 5 decades.
Yes, my grandfather was able to ride a bicycle backwards. My grandmother carefully saved this packet of photos made by me in Helen Morgan's Fine Dress Box.
I had made this photograph and here was the man who said,
'Why Jerry are you crazy?' in his tie and vest...Going Backwards...
It is a delicious & surprising confirmation of genetics that the apple does not fall far from the tree. I am truly sorry we didn't get to ride across the continental divide mountains, the windy plains, the east -to-west hills of Pennsylvania. I really had no idea I had perhaps inherited all this from him.
We could have been crazy together.