Stingray bikeMany years ago I envisioned a book about growing up in a small town. It was inspired by my father’s early life in Rowley, Massachusetts, and my own subsequent childhood in the slightly larger small town next door, Ipswich. Rowley came to epitomize the pleasures, and banes, of small town life. The concept for the book has recently evolved but remains a memoir, and tribute, to my Dad. Here is the story behind the title.

There’s a fly in my eye

Bike riding was “what we did” in a small town. I mean, what else was there? There was no theater, no bowling alley, no, well, no nothing. The “main street” ran through the middle of town. And run it did…barely slowing as the cars passed through our single stop light on their way to somewhere, from somewhere. Somewhere never seemed to be our town because our town was, well, nowhere. Other than the thrill of watching the streetlights come on each night, the most exciting activity for us kids was to ride our bikes.

Of course, when I say bikes I mean the glued together kind of bike. Not the sleek racing bikes made for speed (no, not on our roads…they would be wheel-less within 200 yards given all the divots in the pavement). And not mountain bikes, which had not yet been invented. Not “officially” invented that is…and not counting cousin Ike’s bike, of course, which he soldered together from spare tractor parts and looked like something out of a Steven King novel. And definitely not those sissy bikes with the multi-colored tassles hanging down from the rubber hand grips (though I admit they did look kind of cute on Annie’s pink store-bought bike). No, when I say bikes I mean the kind that had two speeds – as fast as you can peddle, and stop. The stopping part was often optional.

While at any given point you could find someone in our large family who had received a new bike, usually from a “wealthy” uncle living a few towns away…the one with the job…most of us had “built bikes.” That is, we built them from scrap. A quick trip to the junkyard, a good eye for “solid steel” (rust on the outside but not on the inside), a good hammer, and a bit of yard work (to convince the local welder to melt the pieces together), and you had a bike. If you got all the right parts you could have something snazzier than anything you could buy at the new K-Mart store in Beverly.

Week days were school days, of course. Which meant school until 2:30 in the afternoon, and as we got older, after-school events like band, sports, and watching the girls. And then homework, which our mothers never seem to forget (or believe that our teachers had “skipped it” today). But weekends were free after doing our chores. If the weather was good, i.e., anything short of a nor’easter in summer, we would hop on our bikes and head down to the parallel dirt paths on the old train track bed for a couple of hours of biker drag racing. Two at a time we would line up, and with Becky as flag waver. She never seem to wave it right but she was the only girl that didn’t think we were being stupid so she got to wave the flag. Starting from a standing stop, we would race about 100 yards down the track. Winners of each heat would go on to the next round until it was down to just two. The finals were two out of three sprints to crown the winner.

On this particular day it was me against Bobby Sox. Yes, that was his real name, though I would hope he legally changed it when he was old enough to do so. Anyway, Bobby and I had each won 5 straight heats with relative ease. Not really surprising since we had the best bikes. The finals come, Becky waves the flag and Bobby noses me out for the first race. Then I return the favor in the second. The tension builds. Okay, the tension doesn’t really build…we’re just kids, but they always say that in the cool books so…the tension builds! Becky is taunting us with the old fake flag waving routine so we start too soon and have to line up again. And finally, we’re off!!!

Bobby and I start peddling at top speed. He gets a foot or two ahead…and then I pump faster and get a foot over him. Then he’s out in front…then I am. Then I am further. Then I’m five, no, ten feet in front of him halfway through the race. I’m starting to get cocky, knowing that I have him beat as long as my bike holds up on the rocky dirt path. I’m going to win! I’m going to beat Bobby’s sock’s off. I’m going to be bragging for the rest of the summer. I’m going to….arghhhhhhhh. I’m blind. I can’t see. I can only keep one eye open. Just enough to see Bobby pass me and win the race.

Darn. I’ve got a fly in my eye. It’s huge. A dang horsefly has whacked me right on the eyeball. I’ve lost my lifelong fame and glory all because there’s a fly in my eye.

Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

[This is part of a series in a category called “There’s a Fly in My Eye.” The above is an admittedly stylized story based on real events.]

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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