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Bicycle Shop Days -- 05/04/2001
I was six years old when I learned to ride my bike. Like most kids, I depended on my bike to take me around the neighborhood, expanding my boundaries. Bikes were pretty plain in the 1950's; not like today's bikes. Not like my Schwinn 21-speed mountain bike I've owned for 10 years now.
I remember the back cover of a 1959 edition of "Boys Life" Boy Scout magazine and seeing a color photo of a 10-speed bike. Ten speeds sounded amazing back in 1959. Before that, a 3-speed was considered high-end. It would be the Fall of 1963 before I owned my first 10-speed bike. Therein lies a story.
I first met the late, Harry Swidler (Dec 1903 - Jun 1979), owner of Art's Cycle and Hobby Shop, in the Summer of 1963 at age 13, when I was drooling over the bike he had on display in the window of his store. It was a black-and-white English bike, 26-inch high wheels with drop-down handlebars and 10 speeds. It sold for the extreme price of $63.95, a small fortune in those days. Harry noticed me hanging around and asked me to come in and sit on the bike. From that moment on I knew I would like him.
At that time, Harry was about 60 years old. He and his wife, the late Eve Swidler (Jun 1903 - Jan 1994), already had grown married children and were the grandparents of quite a few kids. They were a very kind couple and generous to their customers. That's back in the years when customer service was something practiced in America. That practice is pretty much gone for the last 25 years or so. Museums don't even have anything representative of it on hand. Customer service was alive and well at Harry's shop in the 1960's and I felt comfortable there.
I started hanging out at the bike shop a few hours almost every day. About a week or so after my first visit, Harry asked me to hand him a 1/2-inch open-end spanner wrench. I remember staring at him as if he had spoken to me in some foreign language. "What kind of wrench?", I asked. Harry laughed and walked over to me. He was about as tall as I was then, about 5-foot 2-inches. He put his arm around me and said, "So, you don't know what kind of a wrench I need? You won't be of much use to me here unless you learn about tools. Today you need to learn every one of these wrenches hanging on the wall. I want you to look and memorize the sizes for the combination-wrenches, the socket wrenches, and the open-end spanners. If you can learn that today you can come back again tomorrow." Now that may not seem like a big chore, but I was fairly ignorant concerning tools at that time. The only tools I knew then were adjustable wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, and hammers. None of those items had any size characteristics, generally speaking. Leave it to a juvenile to not understand that size matters. ;-)
I was back the next day. Harry put me to work fixing flat tires. I took my first front-wheel off a customer's bike, removed the tire and inner-tube, and prepared to patch the inner tube. About ten minutes later I was about to use a screwdriver to put the repaired inner-tube and tire back on the wheel, something I had always done on my own repairs. Harry was watching as I picked up the screwdriver. He said, "What do you think you're going to do with that? You don't need that. Use your hands to put that tire back on. Never put a tool to rubber if you don't need to do it." I looked at him with that foreign language look again. "I'm not strong enough", I said. Harry said, "You're strong enough. You haven't even tried to do it and you're telling me that you're not strong enough. How do you know that you're not strong enough? You give up too easy, Donnie!" So Harry proceeds to demonstrate how to put a tire on a wheel using hands only. Harry then removes same and gives the wheel and tire back to me for refitting. It took a little effort but I was surprised I could do it. I was so proud of myself.
A couple weeks went by doing flat tires and other small minor jobs during the few hours I was there. I was never paid in money for my efforts. Harry did buy me lunches and sodas and he used to talk to me almost as a father would. Because my own father had died many years before, this affection was most appreciated by me. One day I came to the shop and Harry informed me that I would assemble a bike for a customer. The job required putting on the front wheel, pedals, seat, and handlebars and checking the tire pressure. I started with the seat. I grabbed the 9/16-inch combination-wrench and proceeded to tighten the bolt clamp. All of a sudden, SNAP! Harry reaches up to a small drawer, pulls out another bolt and hands it to me without saying a word. I insert the bolt and tighten it again -- SNAP! Harry reaches up to a small drawer, pulls out another bolt and hands it to me. He says, "Okay, you know what the size of the wrench is. Now you need to understand the concept of torque." I looked at him with that foreign language look again. Before I could speak this time, Harry says, "You don't need to tighten it with all your strength. You're strong enough to break a bolt because the length of the wrench gives you a lot of leverage. What you need to understand is how much is enough. Here, take the wrench and put it on the bolt." I did so, then Harry reached around me, almost hugging me like a father embracing his son, putting his hand over mine holding the wrench and says, "Let me do the effort. You feel how much strength I'm applying and you'll see how much torque is enough to properly tighten the bolt." We did the tightening together. To this day I can feel his embrace when I pick up a wrench. What a powerful lesson!
Over the next few years I would spend a lot of time at Harry's shop. I learned how to do every task involving a bike. I learned every tool he had. I learned to deal with customers. I learned about life too. During my Junior year at Chicago's Bowen High School, I was in a Senior English class and required to do a term paper. This was not long after the 1967 Chicago Blizzard during a cold Winter in the Windy City. I needed a type-written document for the class so, Harry brought his typewriter to the shop so I could work on the paper in the evening hours until closing at 9:00 PM. In the weeks that I worked on that paper, Harry and I would stop and talk during breaks from his Solitaire card game. He was always encouraging me to do my best and to be a good person. He inspired me in many areas including self-respect at a time when I badly needed my father to help me through those teenage years of feeling lost and out of touch.
In ways I didn't recognize until many years later, Harry was trying to be a Father to me. I'm saddened to say I'm not sure I ever truly thanked him for all that he did for me. I did speak to him by phone a few years before he passed away but much of that conversation has been forgotten. I have spoken in-person to his son, Eddie, who still operates his own bike shop in Hyde Park area of Chicago. I told him how much I loved his deceased parents and how much his Dad meant to me. It's not the same as if I had told Harry in-person, but it's the best I can do until we meet again when I cross over to the other side. Until that time, I offer prayers to his soul and thank him that way.
Thanks Harry, you did a lot for me. You gave me strength in many, many ways. I understand completely now.
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