Tim Barger with Grandchildren, Bea and Theo
(originally published in 2013) A couple of weeks ago I first saw this photograph of me standing with my two grandchildren. Bea is six and Theo is three. They are lively, bright, funny and, unlike most of society, actually enjoy my company. They are positive proof of the wise old adage, “If I knew how much fun my grandkids would be, I would have had them first.” However, looking at this picture and their smiling faces what struck me the most is just how very short they are. When you are at their age your life is measured in how far you can reach. The first time you climbed the back-door steps alone, your first doorknob – in a year or two you will be able to hit the light switch.
When Bea was three there was a big Christmas party at my daughter’s house. Presents stacked up in the corner under the twinkling tree, the dining table decked in holly and poinsettias and covered with little presents, funny Christmas cards, tasty appetizers, and a big plate of colorful Christmas cookies. A half-hour into the party, music was playing, more than two dozen guests were milling around the living room talking and laughing and, most critically, paying no attention to Bea in the dining room. I was watching her circle the dining table out of the corner of my eye. She was tall enough to see that there were cookies on the middle of the table, but sadly not tall enough to snag a few. She considered this problem for about twenty blinks and then quickly dragged one of the dining chairs up to the table, hopped up, snatched three cookies and then leaped down in one fluid motion like a mongoose that had just stolen a cobra egg. Though I was deeply impressed by her technique, Bea really won my heart when she pushed the chair back against the wall before she scampered off to her room to gorge on Frosty’s head or Santa’s icing-covered thigh. Without my expert coaching, she knew by instinct to cover her tracks.
Being short has its challenges. I guess that’s why growing up I always looked for an edge and when I was about eight I found one.
My buddy Milt had a curious, inventive mind. Once in Fourth grade we were all assigned a take-home science experiment to blow flour out of a straw across a candle. It would make a huge flame thus demonstrating the volatility of fine particles of most anything. When Milt went home to try this he couldn’t find any straws. So he rolled up a paper tube about the size of a cigar, packed it with flour and blew it across the flame. Actually he blew out the candle and spewed a huge blaze of flour across the kitchen. Undaunted, he tried it again only to blast another flour trail across the floor. This wasn’t working out until Milt was inspired. He got a paper bag and placed it on the other side of the candle to catch the flour when it blew by. He rolled another flour cigar and puffed with all his might. The flour ignited into a giant fireball that shot into the paper bag and rebounded straight into his face. The next day Milt came to school with rosy red cheeks, no eyelashes and his eyebrows mere stubs.
One day Milt and I saw a picture in Life magazine of some kids wearing stilts and decided to build a couple pairs. My dad had a shed with tools and a woodpile, so Milt came over and we sawed off a couple of two-by-fours and nailed on some short blocks for foot-holds. We wanted to test the first pair but decided that we had a death-pact to build both sets and then try them at the same time. Sweating and huffing we finally finished and, dying of excitement, simultaneously hopped on our stilts. Elated for about two nanoseconds, we collapsed into each other like spastic praying mantises and crashed to the lawn. Milt said, “Boy that was cool!” I laughed and we were back up on our new legs. After a while we could walk two steps before keeling over, then three, and so on, until we could walk for hours on those sticks.
We used to go up and down the sidewalks of 11th street from the Hamilton House back to recreation. Clip-clopping past those lovely cut-limestone walls that we were now tall enough to see over. We always hoped that we’d see something exciting. A robbery being committed, a body being buried or at least Lisa Swenson sunbathing in the back yard, but all we saw was a gardener trimming the hedge or an over-weight Mr. Swenson in his undershirt chewing a cigar while contemplating some deep truth as he watered his front lawn in the dusk. Nonetheless, what we actually saw wasn’t as important as the fact that we were now two feet taller and might be able to see wonderful things.
We were expert stilt-walkers and had a great time walking all over camp. Once we even made it from recreation to the Mail Center without falling off once.
So time goes on and we’re taller but still can’t jump high enough to reach the top of the door jamb. I’m over at my friend Will’s house. Will was a terrific guy. Alert, light-hearted, and both smart and clever. Later on in Eighth grade, he could open any combination lock in the locker room purely by touch. We are in his back yard playing with a Rocket Sled that his dad Gus had helped him build. It was the coolest thing, a six-inch piece of broomstick painted yellow with a deep hole drilled into one end and an eye hook screwed into each end. The eye hooks were threaded by a clothesline stretched across the back yard to form a hanging broomstick monorail. Will pulls out one of those small CO2 cylinders that are used for seltzer bottles and shoves it into the hollowed-out hole at one end of the broom handle. He pulls the sled back to the end of the clothesline and then, tightly holding the sled and a ten-penny nail centered on the head of the gas cartridge in one hand, he hits the nail with a hammer. BLAM! The rocket sled travels the back yard at sub-sonic speed.
This was too good to be true and we were through half a dozen bottles before Gus came in the back gate from work. “Hey guys, how are you doing?” I say, “Oh fine Mr. Meadows. The Rocket Sled is the greatest thing.” “You think so. How’s it working? And he started checking out the rig. “Will, maybe if you re-tie that end to the hibiscus and make it even tighter we can get a longer run.”
As Will did that Gus put another bottle into the sled and picked up the nail and hammer. “Hey Will! Are we ready?” Will gave the nod and in one smooth move, Mr. Meadows launched that sled down the line. It blistered past as a blur and crashed into the hibiscus. Our jaws dropped. Thor walked among us. “That was a pretty good run. William guess what I saw coming home tonight? A Kangaroo Bike!” “A what?” We both said. “Yeah, some kid was riding a Kangaroo bike.” “What’s that?” “We used to make them when I was a kid.”
Going over to Will’s bike Gus showed us. “You take the pedals and sprocket assembly from an old bike and weld it into the frame right in front of the seat. Then you run a longer chain back to the rear wheel. Put a long pipe on the seat and handlebars and you’re sitting on top of the world.” Already our brains were spinning trying to figure out where we could scrounge a derelict bike.
Then, because Gus Meadows was a mechanical engineer who loved kids and backyard projects he said, “I’ll tell you what. You and Tim get some old bikes. Thursday, I’ll get out the welder and we’ll make two Kangaroo bikes.” I was walking on sunshine.
Dhahran was a very small town, when something new appeared it was a sensation. I don’t know who the first kid was to ride a Kangaroo bike, but he set off a frenzy. Gus made each of us wear welding goggles as he welded up our bikes. He showed us how to take two chains and make them into one long custom-sized chain. How to adjust the handlebars and set the seat. When we wobbled off down King’s Road on our brand-new bikes we were the kings of the asphalt.
Quickly a Kangaroo bike sub-culture emerged. Almost a dozen ten or eleven-year-olds cruising around Dhahran, a couple of feet above the hoi polloi and many degrees cooler than the average person.
The thing about Kangaroo bikes is that they are difficult to mount. It’s best if you have a high curb to start from. Otherwise, you have to make a sort of flying leap up to the pedals and hope that you can control the bike before you lose balance and crash to the street. So when you’re up, like a shark, you keep moving.
I’m fairly sure that my life peaked at eleven when I had my Kangaroo bike. I was seven feet tall and as suave as I’d ever be. White socks, my jeans were rolled into a cuff, my short sleeves too. At the time I lived by Wildroot hair tonic. I’d rub that industrial-grade lanolin into my head, brush my hair straight back, and then, from left to right, I’d run the comb over my head to create the latest up-to-the-minute hair-do. Only Satan knows why I thought that was a good look.
One time my very proper Aunt Mary visited and after cleaning up from a day at Half Moon Bay I came walking out with my pompadour in place. She looked at me and said, “Tim, what have you done to your hair!” as if I had come out in dreadlocks with my face tattooed. Anyway, I thought I was on the cutting edge and to prove it I was wearing quasi-Buddy Holly glasses before I knew who he was.
It’s a humid August night at the top of Eighth Street. The street lights have just flickered on and the asphalt is still radiating heat as five riders approach. The Kangaroo riders from Hell are gliding down the street like a pod of dolphins, laughing and shouting all the way. Nobody can stop the Kangaroos. Milt is especially wired, cutting back and forth between us, hollering and pedaling like mad, lifting his butt up to pretend that he is passing wind. Sophisticates one and all, he’s so funny that we practically fall off our bikes.
Cruising past the houses and the six-unit apartments we approach the intersection of Eighth and Hoover Street which ran straight down from recreation. In a good example of a corporate brain-burp, Aramco had started a program of embedding giant metal traffic-buttons at street intersections in the heavy equipment yard. From there someone had decided to try that in the residential area with the result that there was one lone steel button about four inches high as wide as a very large pancake embedded in the middle of the road on the east side of Hoover and Eighth. Wearing his traditional white shirt, District Manager Ned Scardino hit that safety-button with a cup of coffee in his hand and the program was abandoned, though the button remained.
As we approach the cross street Milt zooms ahead of us and says, “Let’s go to my house,” and then swings a wide arc east onto Hoover. We follow in a tight formation like the Blue Angels at some air show. Milt looks back at us over his shoulder and says, “This is the best,” just as he hits the giant traffic-button and, with the most amazed look on his face, goes hurling over his handlebars to land head first onto the asphalt.
“What was that?” Somewhat concerned, we approach Milt’s lifeless form sprawled out under the streetlight. The only thing is that we are on Kangaroo bikes so we can’t stop pedaling or we’ll fall over. Milt seems to be alive. He is moaning, so we keep circling around him. After a while he clutches his hand and twitches his leg. He isn’t paralyzed and we ride easier. All of a sudden, Milt jumps up bleeding from ear to chin. He pulls up his t-shirt to wipe the blood off his face and says, “That was wicked. This will make the greatest story someday.” We yell our approval.
Overjoyed that we didn’t have to dismount to call an ambulance, we ride in loops until Milt can limp to the curb and jump on his bike. We form up and head off towards Sixth Street.
Once again the Kangaroo riders are on the loose and Dhahran is at our mercy.