This micro-memoir is based on a story told to me by my Dad, Robert W. Albrecht.
Let me tell you about the Whizzer motorbike my Father bought me when I was 14 years old. That was in 1949. Whizzer had been producing engine kits since before the war, but mine was one of their first fully-assembled models. A motor was mounted above the pedals on a dark maroon bicycle frame; a teardrop gas tank sat between your knees on the crossbar behind the square heavy-duty fork. The motor was rear-wheel belt drive with a chrome exhaust pipe. The bike itself had 24-inch wheels, white walls, maroon front and back fenders, rear rack, and a wide leather saddle. My Whizzer had a horn and a generator-powered headlight mounted on the handlebars.
To start it up, I’d lift the back wheel on the rear stand, release the compression by turning the left handlebar grip, give it a little gas with the right handlebar grip, and pedal hard for a few seconds while closing the compression. When it was revving, I’d lean forward to snap the stand into place and take off, the motor pop-pop-popping as I cruised down the street. Once the engine was warm I could just start it by pedaling – no stand needed.
I was going to go places on that motorbike! My first trip was to junior high to show off my shiny new acquisition. I was ready to receive words of envious admiration from all my friends. If only I could get it started! Propped on the kickstand in the driveway I pumped the pedals furiously with no result. I was frantic. The Whizzer was supposed to deliver me to school in record time, but at that moment it wasn’t going anywhere. Dad would know what was wrong, but he’d already left for work. Mom wasn’t exactly mechanically inclined. I wish I could tell you how I finally figured it out, but that was the day I learned the engine wouldn’t start cold if the choke wasn’t set.
It seems I’ve always been attracted to ambitious journeys from point A to point B. I’ve driven cross-country on road trips, piloted my plane across continents, and even circumnavigated the globe just to say I did it. So, looking back it’s no surprise I wanted to take my Whizzer on an epic expedition. Epic for a kid of 14 at least. I decided to visit my cousin Lois.
I was the youngest of all the cousins, so Lois – or Tootsie to all of us – was about 21 or 22 and married while I was still in junior high. She lived with her husband Ben Melinski on a farm near Andover where the Ohio-Pennsylvania border bisects Pymatuning Reservoir. Her Mother’s farm was nearby. Lois was Aunt Edna’s daughter with her first husband, the Irishman my Dad referred to as Fitz. His name was Denzel Fitzpatrick. Aunt Edna had divorced Fitz and married Lee Guyette, a Frenchman. She later divorced him and married a Polish guy named Mizger.
I remember the farms as pretty rustic. My parents and I often drove out for picnics and family gatherings. In those days some rural homes still lacked indoor plumbing, but nevertheless I was unnerved by outhouses with two or three holes under one roof. I couldn’t imagine being cheek-to-cheek with a couple other people when it was time to sit down and do your business.
Lois’ farm had a barn full of cows and fields growing crops like animal feed and soy beans. They also had several dogs, tractors, and farm machinery. But no running water. For washing, drinking, or cooking you’d take a bucket outside and pump the handle on the well.
It was a sunny summer day and Lois’ farm was the farthest destination I could imagine for my long-distance ride. I climbed aboard my Whizzer, pumped the pedals, pushed off the stand, and headed out Euclid Avenue northeast toward Highway 6. Nobody needed to know. I would be back in time for dinner.
The Chardon Road hill at the start of Highway 6 was the only notable incline on the entire journey. The motor made it a breeze to powered up and over. After the town of Hambden, Highway 6 becomes latitude-straight, a no-nonsense corridor eastward, plain and flat. I motored 60 miles past leafy woods, farmland, and homes whose broad lawns carpeted both sides of the highway.
At full throttle the bike cruised 30 miles per hour, the cadence of the engine’s pop-pop-pop-pop matching the increased speed. Mile after mile I sat up straight on the leather saddle, my right hand working the throttle. My sneakered feet rested on the pedals, one forward, one back, frozen in mid-stride as the motor did all the work. Wind whipped my hair and buffeted my shirt, making me look like a teenage hunchback. Every few miles the highway was punctuated by one-stop towns where my slower speed was matched by an easier rhythm of the motor’s pop-pop-pop.
In Andover, the highway skirts the town square. The next intersection to the right is Southbound Highway 7. I guess I’d been paying enough attention all those times on the drive with my parents. I didn’t have any problems navigating. After a good two hours of riding I could tell I was nearing my destination. I passed familiar landmarks, then turned up the gravel road leading to Lois and Ben’s place.
The farm came into view and I was surprised by what I saw: Smoke billowing from the two-story building behind the main house. The barn was on fire! As I rode up the driveway, the motor pop-pop-popping, the tires crunch-crunching on the gravel, the barn was fully engulfed. Apparently it had been burning for a while because when I arrived the volunteer fire department was already working on it, attempting to put out the flames with hoses attached to their pumper truck and the stream from the farm’s manually pumped well water.
There I was, a kid of 14 who’d just spent two hours on the saddle of my Whizzer, only to find all hell breaking loose on my cousin’s farm. Not at all the casual visit I’d imagined. People were scurrying about everywhere. Nobody had a moment to notice or to greet me. I was completely useless. I hung out for a while, but I was just a kid. Old enough to ride 60 miles on my own. A nuisance when there was a crisis to deal with. I stood on the periphery with my hands in my pockets watching the barn burn to the ground.
Then I got on my motorbike and rode home.
That night at dinner I told my parents, “Do you know what I did today? I took my motorbike out to Lois’ farm.”
“Oh, is that so?” they said. “How were things out there?”
“The barn burned down!” I said.
“Into the Great Lake” is another true story based on my Dad’s life.
Copyright 2017 Liz Behlke