Saturday, February 03, 2007

Trouserless in Wonderland: A Wally Crankset Tale

It was a lovely day for a winter ride. The wind was calm for once, and although the temperature was below freezing, brilliant sunlight made it seem warmer. Wally and I rode out of Broken Elbow toward the hills north of town. I was dressed in winter cycling gear, but Wally preferred an old pair of wool trousers combined with favorite plaid wool shirt. The pants had seen better days and looked like they'd provided meals for several generations of clothes moths. But Wally was on an anti-synthetics binge, and he'd given up wearing anything that wasn't composed of 'natural' fibers. I figured a woman was behind it all, but I had more sense than to ask.

He wore a helmet despite its all-plastic construction, because the Super Bowl was coming up and he wanted to honor his beloved Minnesota Vikings. He'd stuck a pair of plastic horns on the helmet so he looked like a kind of wooly Viking himself.

"Wally, it's the Colts and the Bears this time", I said. "Minnesota isn't going to be there."

He ignored me. I figured he just liked the horns.

Wally rode his old beater, a Schwinn Varsity he called the Norway rat of bicycles. He'd converted it to a fixed gear. The bike was old and rusty, and it seemed to weigh a ton. Wally said it was like an old Pontiac with "road hugging weight" and he wasn't far wrong. The thing was a tank, with wide tires and pitiful brakes.

We followed the state highway for a few miles, and then started climbing into the hills on a lesser-traveled county road. The road was covered with hard-packed snow and it crunched under our tires. We were on the very first downhill when disaster struck. Wally was spinning furiously, trying to keep up with the fixed gear when his trouser cuff caught in the chain. The trousers disintegrated immediately, went around the chain ring once or twice, then the remaining pieces lodged in the back wheel. The sudden lurch gave my friend an inadvertent flying lesson, and just like Arthur Dent, he hoped to remain airborne by missing the ground. It didn't work, and he hit the roadside, tumbling through the snow until he slid to a stop. The Schwinn bounced a few times, then it too fell into a snow bank, its rear wheel hopelessly taco'd. A moth struggled free, desperately trying to fly in the cold winter air. Wally jumped to his feet. A single horn remained on his helmet. The long slide had packed snow into places that snow was never meant to be, and Wally was vigorously brushing it away, the cold giving him great incentive. He cussed a blue streak too.

"Gosh, Wally! Those pants ripped right off, just like one of those Chippendales guys!" Or so I'm told. I've never watched male exotic dancers. But I was deeply thankful for one small thing, a minor detail that made the experience a little more pleasant. Wally was not going commando that day. He had white long johns under those decrepit old trousers, and I'd thought it was just his gleaming white legs showing through all the holes.

But now the problem was how to get back to town. It was a long walk. I offered to ride back, get my car, and drive out to pick him up.

"OK, you go get the car. I'll stay warm by walking toward the state highway. But I'm not gonna leave my bike here. I'll carry it if I have to."

He could have leaned that old Schwinn up against a signpost. No one would bother with it. But Wally was always stubborn about his bikes, and I wasn't going to waste time arguing. It was getting colder and the sun would set in another hour or so. I gave him my new fleece vest to help keep him warm and set off for Broken Elbow, pedaling fast in an effort to stay warm myself.

Note to self: Never again buy a motor vehicle from any car lot with the word "Honest" in the title. "Honest" George Tirebiter, indeed! In a moment of weakness, I'd allowed George to sell me a classic 1964 Lincoln Continental. My 'classic' was temperamental, which is dealer-speak for an extreme pain-in-the-ass. It wouldn't start on rainy days. It wouldn't start on blisteringly hot summer days. We'd named it the "Carship Enterprise" because it was enormous. I suspected the engine was controlled by the phases of the moon, so I hoped as I pedaled back toward town that this week was one of the good phases, otherwise I might find a Wally-sickle when I returned.

As I rode home, Wally was slowly freezing back in the woods, regardless of the effort necessary to carry that heavy old Schwinn. He resorted to dragging it, using the front wheel as a handle. The hard-packed snow made the task easier, and after he'd crested that first hill, it was all downhill to the state highway. But the wind was picking up and Wally was getting very cold in what he quaintly described as his 'nether regions'. So he removed the plaid wool shirt and tied it around his waist, then used his belt to cinch it tighter. It looked like a ratty kilt. He threaded the seat bag from the bike onto the belt, in an effort to cover the gap in front and keep the wind out.

Wally admired his handiwork for only a moment, and then trudged onward. He thought about the summer's Scottish games as a way to keep his mind off the cold. We'd learned that it's not wise to laugh at a guy wearing a skirt when he's carrying a long, two-handed broadsword. But the games also exposed Wally to a far more dangerous weapon, one with a sinister reputation. Wally fell in love with the bagpipes.

"If I only had my bagpipes", Wally lamented, "I could MARCH into town with my head held high!"

Wally was attracted to strange musical instruments. He had no musical talent whatsoever, but that never dissuaded him from trying something new. His dog ran away when Wally started banjo lessons, and he was threatened with eviction when he tried to learn the accordion. The dog returned, only to find Wally enamored with bagpipes. After that, we could never determine if the dog was deaf or merely catatonic. He seldom moved from his lair behind the couch.

One day, Big Daddy's Funeral Home called Wally. They wanted a piper for a funeral. Wally was nervous so he had a couple of drinks first. They didn't help him play better, but they certainly helped him play LOUDER. A fistfight broke out between those who wanted to kill him and those who wanted to torture him first, then kill him. After the dust settled, most of Big Daddy's furniture was broken. Both Wally and the deceased were nowhere to be found, leading to rumors that Wally's pipes could wake the dead.

These thoughts kept him warm as he slogged along the road dragging the Schwinn.

I struggled trying to get the car to start. It caught and died again and again. The battery was weakening and I knew it wouldn't last much longer. I'd checked that the plug wires were tight and not arcing, and I'd even dug out a can of ether. As a last resort, I placed my "Thor: Norse God of Thunder" voodoo doll on top of the air cleaner. It ran a minute or two, and then dropped to a rough idle. But it kept running - that was the important part! Never underestimate the power of voodoo when it comes to old cars. Every mechanic has a voodoo doll hidden away somewhere, though they don't like to admit it.

It wasn't quite dark as the Carship Enterprise rumbled along the state highway. As I rounded a bend, I thought there was a drunk driver coming at me, but the car swerved back into its lane at the last second. Then I realized it was Broken Elbow's lone police cruiser. Fred and Ethel drove by and waved, with Fred laughing so hard he could barely control the car.

Sure enough, Wally was just down the road, hopping up and down and yelling at full volume! He clutched a broken axe in his fist. I gave some thought to simply driving on, but there aren't too many '64 Continentals on the road, and he'd surely recognize the car. I realized he'd wrapped the shirt around his waist, but there was fresh blood all over my new vest and most of his face.

Wally was furious. "Fred and Ethel just LEFT me here! I could freeze to death and those two wouldn't care!" His Schwinn was a battered wreck, and he still had a firm grip on that axe.

"I found this busted axe up on the hill", he said. "Someone was up there cutting a deadfall for firewood and they just left it behind. I figured I could use it to pop that wheel back into shape and ride home. So I was using the side of the axe to hit the wheel. It bounced back and smacked me in the nose!" That explained all the blood. Wally's nose appeared to be broken. He'd have a nice pair of shiners in the morning. While it's possible to pop a pretzeled wheel back into shape, it's best done by hand, not with tools. But Wally was never one to trifle with finesse when brute force was available.

"Ethel said if I fixed the bike, I could try to ride really, really fast and perhaps no one would notice that my trousers were missing! Then he laughed. They floored the cruiser and threw mud all over me!" Wally was still waving that axe around and yelling, so I didn't say anything. "Everyone says I'm crazy and that just not true!"

It was hard to refute that statement when he looked like a Viking berserker, the battered remains of his Schwinn lying on the ground behind him.

I was hesitant, but I still had to ask. "Um, what happened to your bike, Wally? Did Fred and Ethel run over it?"

He looked a little sheepish. "I lost my temper", he said, "and took it out on the bike. I bashed it and bashed it. It felt right at the time, but now I'm not so sure."

We loaded the bike into the trunk along with the broken axe and a couple pieces of firewood, then drove off toward Broken Elbow. It was snowing lightly, and with any luck, we'd have a quiet, uneventful evening.

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Blogger Fritz said...

"Carship Enterprise" -- love it!

I totally dig the kilt thing.

4:59 PM  

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