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EVER CHANGE THE OIL IN YOUR KNEES?

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By Frosty Wooldridge

 

“Be like the bird

Who when landing on branch too slender,

feels it give way beneath him;

Yet sings, because he has wings.

Well, we have wings, wings of the spirit,

With this attitude we can not be defeated.

You see, there is a peace of God that goes

beyond all our ordinary understanding.

I hope you find enough to help you.”

 

Victor Hugo

Duncan Littlefair

 

 

Heat punctuates the air in South Georgia every summer. ­Humidity sticks to the skin like plastic sandwich wrap. For­ riding, the combination is torture. All I could think about while sweating my way down the road was the next convenience­ store where I could buy a half gallon of ice cold orange juice.

How much did I sweat on Route 82 headed into Waycross? It ­was so hot and humid that it was like pedaling inside a steam ­sauna. Sweat dripped from my scalp, before running down the back­ of my spine where it soaked into my shirt. From my forehead, it ­ran down into my glasses where it pooled on the rims. Some of it­ escaped down my nose where it dripped onto the top tube, then­ splattered onto my legs. Sweat hung from my chin and ear lobes­ until I shook it off. It ran down my arms, glistening through ­the hairs until it soaked my riding gloves. Rest stops made it ­worse when it dried and left salt cakes on my body and clothes.

Nonetheless, I was having a good time. A passing car’s ­bumper sticker said it all: “A bad day of bicycling is better­ than a good day of work.” It was true, I didn’t mind the sweat ­because I was exploring the South. I’m not saying that it was­ scads of fun, nor was I in comfort, but at that moment in ­Georgia, that’s the way it was–hot and miserable. I accepted it ­because to complain would be useless. It’s times like that,­ especially on a bike, I just live; I accept the moment. That’s ­the special intrigue of bicycle touring. Sure, I love riding on ­the flats on an autumn day. It’s easy pedaling and the air is­ cool. I’m comfortable and dry. It sure beats busting my butt­ going up a 6,000 foot climb on a hot day. But there’s the catch. ­The flats have their own beauty, but it doesn’t compare to the ­mountains. Given the choice, I’d take the mountains even with ­the price of the climb.

That’s the point–I accept the flats ­when they are happening, yet love the mountains when its time for ­climbing. I couldn’t change any of it at one moment anyway. I­ take it a day at a time.

No doubt about it that muggy day in South Georgia. I­ couldn’t wait for a convenience store. I was ready to buy their ­entire stock of orange juice. I was dehydrated and I couldn’t­ drink fast enough to replenish my fluids. Ahead on the left, I spotted a dilapidated paint chipped building kitty-corner to the­ pavement. Gray moss hung down the sides of the faded white paint­ and red dust lined the windowsills. Coke and Pepsi coolers with­ their colored logos stood like military sentries on both sides of­ a broken screen door. Two faded red Texaco gas pumps with broken­ glass over the meters stood out in the sun. A bent tin roof ­provided shade for two long benches alongside the building. I looked like a dripping fountain as I rode up near the gas pumps ­and laid my bike against a pole. Two old men stared at me, but­ said nothing. Off to the side, a thin, gray-haired black man in­ tattered clothes sat gumming his ice cream.

Seconds later the door slammed behind me, kicking up a dozen­ flies on the screen mesh. Inside, a dirty wood floor led past a ­huge lady sitting behind the counter, knitting a sweater. She ­wore a basket-full of curlers in her hair, with three extra chins ­tumbling down from below her lips. I headed for the cooler.

“How ya’ll today?” she asked.

“Just fine ma’am,” I replied. “Sure am thirsty. Does it get­ any hotter than this?”

“You better believe it son,” she said. “Last week, it was 96­with the humidity over 90.”

“How can you stand it?” I asked.

“The weather is like the flies,” she replied. “You can’t do­ nothin’ about ‘em, so you just get used to ‘em.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Do you have any half­-gallons of OJ? I only see quarts.”

“What ya’ll see is what ya’ll git.”

“You got any cookies?”

“Yes sir, near the bread on the second isle over.”

I paid for two quarts of orange juice and a bag of chocolate ­chips. Seconds later, the screen door slammed behind me, kicking­ up the flies again. An old geezer had pulled up to the pumps and ­was filling his pickup with gas. He complained about the heat. ­The two old men continued staring at me in silence. I wondered­ if they were alive.

After swigging the first quart, I inhaled a handful of­ cookies. A mongrel dog got up from behind the Pepsi cooler, ­walked over and sniffed me. He looked at my bag of cookies with­ pleading eyes. “Okay buddy, here’s one for you, but that’s all­ you get, unless you want to pedal my bicycle down the road.” I­ flipped him a cookie. He walked back to his hard wood bed and ­began crunching on his prize. I grabbed the orange juice and ­belted down half the jug. The cold liquid slid down my throat ­and filled my stomach. After chewing on a second handful of cookies, I noticed my chain was dry. I tossed the bag of­ cookies onto the pack along with the second jug of orange juice. ­After unzipping my tool pouch, I grabbed the spray can and spun ­the crank backwards. The chain rolled through the pulleys and ­threaded its way around the freewheel, and back toward the middle­ chain-ring. Most of the lengths were dry.

“You gotta’ check this chain more often,” I muttered to ­myself. “This chain’s dry as a bone.”

I sprayed both pulley axles and drenched the freewheel. I ­cranked the pedals backwards slowly, spraying the chain as it ­came off the lower pulley. No matter how careful I was, oil ­sprayed onto the rim. As I squatted there, sweat dripping down­ from my brow and chin, the black man shuffled toward me. I was­ nearly done when he stood over me.

“Ever change the oil in yer’ knees?” he mumbled.

“What?” I asked, looking up at him.

“You ever change the oil in yer’ knees?” he repeated more ­clearly.

At first I didn’t know how to answer, but then I thought­ about it saying, “Only when they squeak, sir.”

He laughed through his gums. The last of his ice cream cone ­vanished into his mouth.

“How far has you ridden that bicycle anyways?”

“From the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.” I said.

“Naw! You ain’t gonna’ tell ol’ Charlie a lie now are ya’?”­ he said. “The devil gonna’ take you if you don’t tell the truth ­now ya’ hear?”

“It’s true, I rode this bicycle starting from the Golden ­Gate Bridge. I’ve been on the road three months. It’s no big­ deal. Lot’s of people have ridden across America on a bicycle.”

“Well, I’ll be hanged,” he said. “I never dreamed a man­ could ride across this whole country.”

“Some people have ridden a bicycle around the world.”

We got to talking, ole Charlie and me. This 91-year-old­ man, wearing tattered clothes, was the son of a slave who was­ freed by Lincoln back in 1865. This toothless man, with clouded ­black eyes, yet a clear mind, possessed more historical knowledge ­than a history book. His father was brought over to America in­ chains on a slave ship to pick cotton in the Carolinas. When­ things heated up over the abolitionist movement, his father was ­sold to a tobacco grower in Waycross. After the Civil War,­ things didn’t change much for his father, except he got married ­and fathered five children. Charlie was the youngest. He never ­went to school and to this day couldn’t read or write. He had ­worked on farms all his life and had outlived his wife and four­ kids, save one.

He felt that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president, ­but he wished that Jesse Jackson would one day would live in the ­White House. If Jesse couldn’t make it, then Bill Cosby would ­make a good second choice, to keep some humor in politics.

This intriguing old man captivated me for an hour. He was ­an enthusiastic, walking, talking history book. He hadn’t been­ out of the county in his 91 years, but he had listened to radio, ­then television, and stored everything he had learned in a lucid memory. As he talked, a pattern of his life and his attitude­ illuminated every historical perspective. What held my attention ­was his span of reference. He was born in 1889 before ­electricity, before cars, before paved roads. In his time, he ­had seen the entire modern world develop with unbelievable speed.

“What was the greatest moment of your life?” I asked.

“There was such a great many moments Charlie has seen, but ­maybe when Mr. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, that has to be ­the greatest moment of Charlie’s life,” he said. “All his life, ­Charlie has been lookin’ up at that ole man in the moon, but when­ Mr. Armstrong walked on it, well, that was the greatest moment.”

“How about the worst?”

“Lotta’ worsts young fella’,” he said. “These many years ­later, Charlie can’t figure out why human beings has to keep hurtin’ each other.”

“What’s the most important thing in life?” I asked.

“After good health, it’s got to be love. You gots to love­ someone. An someone gots to love you.”

Later, Charlie departed with his 70 year old son. I watched­ as they sped away down the dusty dirt road leading into the ­Georgia back country.

The next day, I reached the Atlantic Ocean. My coast to ­coast adventure ended, but Charlie and dozens of other people ­convinced me that nothing ends until you die. Without question,­ living is an attitude manifested by spirit.

Bicycle touring is the spiritual vehicle for adventure that ­I call traveling at the ‘human speed.’ It beats the measured ­pace of walking, yet surpasses in quality experiences the ­alacrity of 60 mile per hour. You can smell the flowers along ­the way. The day is yours and the road leads you to anywhere in­ the world. Along the way, some of the people you meet, share the ­simplest, truest truths in life. Have I ever changed the oil in ­my knees?

Only when they squeak.

 



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