The Millennium FalconWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
It has been 35 years since I owned a bicycle. My first few yards riding one recently were laughably wobbly. The silver helmet strapped to my head felt awkward and limiting, but it was important for my 4- and 6-year-old sons to see me wear one, as they are required to. The 10-speed Schwinn, a secondhand bike purchased from a repair shop, felt uncomfortable in my hands and under my frame as I picked up speed. I found a rhythm much sooner than I had expected, and I soon found myself racing down the street, leaving houses and people behind.
Then I saw a car backing out of a driveway about 15 yards ahead, and in my panic to stop, I braked too quickly, without planting a foot on the concrete.
I flew over the handlebars, with just enough time to wonder if I was about to break any bones before I slammed into the ground.
Freedom on spokes
She was a sturdy bicycle, a Free Spirit purchased in 1978 at the Woodville Mall Sears. She was as blue as the mid-July Ohio sky, rust-free and sleek, built to carry a 12-year-old boy on the sidewalks, across bridges and down the summer roads that ran between school years.
We lived in a duplex apartment in Walbridge, on Cedar Court, a cul-de-sac with spokes of driveways that backed up with rainwater after even modest storms.
That bicycle, as I suspected through instinct and eventually learned from experience, embodied freedom, an opportunity to stretch the boundaries and borders of summer. I treasured that means to run and race and leave home behind, as I would one day cling to the cars that open even broader horizons.
She was sturdy, blue, as fast as anything with pedals, and I named her after the fastest vehicle I could think of — The Millennium Falcon. “Star Wars” was barely a year old, and it filled my imagination and playtime. I carefully applied stickers to the bike from the red series of Topps “Star Wars” cards — one of the Falcon soaring through the galaxy, one labeled “Han and Chewbacca” and a third of the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. The stickers were undoubtedly duplicates in my collection, as I prized the full set of cards and stickers I collected from dime purchases at Blanton’s and the Rexall Drugs in “downtown” Walbridge and never would have broken up the set.
I must have ridden that bike for thousands of miles, heedless and helmetless, through our Walbridge neighborhood, around the Clinton and Clayton street loop and down S. Main Street. Her bell was a dinky little chime, but to my ears, it sounded like a powerful laser cannon aimed at the Empire’s evil agents. I would pedal faster and faster, expecting the wheels to leave the ground any moment, to propel me through the atmosphere, past the clouds and into deep space.
It seems inconceivable now that parents would let a child just take off for the day with no cellphone to check in, for eight hours or more, but it was a different world then, with less awareness of and attention to the dangers of perversion that keep children in virtual backyard prisons today.
Most often, my destination was between Wilber and E. Union streets to my best friend John Bleau’s house, where a summer day would be spent playing ball, listening to records and splashing in a backyard pool. The Falcon carried me there, never once failing to transport me through what seemed like a universe of open space and freedom.
I would pull into John’s yard and rest the Falcon in the shade, knowing it would be there when it was time to go home.
For several summers, I cherished that bike, keeping it clean and oiled and carefully storing it in the shed every winter. Its first damage came from a confrontation with three bullies outside Blanton’s. I do not recall what started the fight but I have a clear memory of scuffling with them, being knocked down, not hurt, but panicking when they grabbed the Falcon and began pounding on her seat to bend it, kicking at the chain guard and laying her on her side to stomp on and bend the rear tire rim. They had not landed any significant punches on me, and as I was never much of a fighter, I certainly had not yet caused them any harm. But I welled with rage when they attacked my bike, and I know at least one of them left the scene with a bloodied nose and another left large sections of his forearm skin on the sidewalk.
I pushed the wobbling Falcon home, crying, grieving at her damage and shaking from the post-adrenaline letdown. The bike was eventually fixed, although she never rode quite the same.
The Falcon continued to serve me well, through subsequent moves that accompanied my father’s descent into alcoholism and his eventual abandonment. The rust grew on her visibly and uncontrollably, her deterioration echoing the slow collapse of our family. I insisted on taking that bike with me as our family slipped from Walbridge to a tiny apartment in Northwood to a sudden and culture shock-inducing move to Toledo’s South Side. She was sitting in a hallway storage area on the July 5, 1985 night our apartment building caught fire and burned to a husk.
The last time I saw her, she was a blackened frame with melted tires. The “Star Wars” stickers had long ago faded and peeled but there was no sign of them at all. Her chain hung loose, her handlebars were charred, her bell was a lump of fused metal, silent forever.
Spokes of freedom
I sat up on the grass, mildly shaken but in one piece. My new bike lay on the sidewalk, unharmed. My sons pedaled over to make sure I was OK, my 4-year-old’s training wheels rattling on the sidewalk. I needed to show the boys the importance of getting right back on the bike after a fall, so I did, knowing I would be sore later but making no accommodation for that at the time. I straightened my helmet and started pedaling. The three of us slowly made our way around the block, watching for cars in driveways and pretending championship racing was at stake. My boys and I rode under a mid-May blue sky, pedaling to nowhere, enjoying the ride.
Their bike bells are dinky little chimes, but as my sons rang them, I could see in their eyes that they were imagining far more adventurous sounds.
It did not occur to me to name my new bike. But as we rode, I felt like that 12-year-old boy again, expecting the wheels to leave the ground any moment, to propel me through the atmosphere, past the clouds and into deep space.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.