My three-year-old brother viewed the dock’s ribbon of one-by-sixes as a personal drag strip for his rattletrap tricycle.
R.J., whose swimming career had been confined to the bathtub, started half way down the dock and pedaled full-tilt the gauntlet of coiled rope, dock boxes, and fishing poles. At the end of the pier he hit… sunshine, the scent of salt, and air.
Ten feet of murky bay water welcomed him.
A fully-clothed bystander jumped in and hauled him out.
The next day, my daredevil brother repeated the thrill with a Styrofoam football belted to his back.
Dad jumped overboard to fish him out.
The trike lived out its days at the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
R.J. wasn’t the only kid on Pier One to relish riding off the end of the dock.
Matt Canfield who lived on the houseboat one slip over and was a couple of years older than R.J., tells his own bike-capade:
I too rode my bike off the dock. Fully clothed, alone and unafraid, I
manfully maintained my purchase on the seat until the bike and I
settled comfortably on the bottom. It was when I tried to swim to the
surface that I discovered my then-in-style-and-oh-so-chic bell bottom
trousers had become hopelessly fouled in the chain sprocket. I did
what any kid would have done, I left my britches and the bike there in
the murky deep and swam butt naked to the dock. Still naked, I
retrieved a line, dove back in and policed up Scott and R.J. to help me
haul that trusty, rusty and wet Schwinn back to the pier. I put my
trousers back on and continued with the afternoon’s agenda of
careless, exquisitely innocent, and totally pure fun.
Riding a bike off the end of the pier was plain crazy. For me, at ten, bicycling was the fastest way to get out of dodge/the Annie Lee before Dad thought up another boat chore for me to do. Biking was the fastest means to get to Saint Hugh’s Catholic School, the library, Jody’s house. My goal was to pedal as furiously as possible down the fifty yards of weathered boards without rattling my brain loose.
Sometimes I didn’t get boys. They made no sense. I shrugged my shoulders and let them be weird—a mindset that’s worn well in dealing with the opposite sex the rest of my life.
But I envied their little boy oblivion. They spun tops in the tunnel under City Hall, pilfered pop tarts from the Canfield’s cupboard, chased blowfish under the pier—never sensing the inexorable undercurrents that flowed in and out with the tides.
Underneath the sun-spackled water, ran my father’s disappointment in me. Not only did I never man-up to spiders, I “taught” R.J. to fear them. Sailing around the world—Dad’s dream—was my nightmare. I stood on my head too few seconds. I hated the taste of clams, the sand in my teeth. I liked Mom a little too much.
My parents’ silent war breathed in and out—Dad’s left-field ideas, Mom’s simmering anger—buffeting our foundation. Long after the boat days, Mom told me their first five years were the happy ones. I’m no math whiz, but my birth nearly smacked into their fifth anniversary.
I didn’t know if our family would survive intact. I didn’t know if I wanted us intact.
My bike tale involved riding beside Dad, R.J. on the back of Dad’s bike, pedaling through Coconut Grove’s shady streets on our way to pick up Jody.
Dad took the long way, looking for a downed palm. He’d cut out the heart of palm, a delicacy lodged at the top of the trunk where the branches began. Palms rarely fell, and the detour was a waste of time, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
Undaunted, Dad scouted for other unclaimed bounty. Any fruit on the ground, no matter if it was in someone’s yard, lay free for the taking, according to Dad.
I sighed deep in my belly as we turned on yet another street that took us further from Jody’s.
Dad narrowed his eyes at me.
“Look! Coconut!” R.J. shouted with glee, his short arm pointing into a yard.
Dad told me to fetch it so he wouldn’t have wrestle R.J. off and back onto the bike.
I eyed the vine-covered house, imagining the owner peering out his window, waiting for someone to steal his coconut so he could call the police.
I parked my get-away bike in front of the neighbor’s hedge. Scampering into the yard, I scooped up the coconut, thumped it into Dad’s chest, and lit out on my bike.
Dad quickly caught up. Maybe he realized everyone didn’t share his felled fruit philosophy.
Finally, we braked to a stop at Jody’s.
Her brothers dusted up the front lawn in a fist fight. Her little sisters belched through the door arguing about who wet the bed.
Something inside me wanted to stay in that never-lonely house, but Jody shot out the door like she’d been fired from her brother’s BB gun.
Jody’s bike had a flat, so she climbed onto Dad’s handlebars.
A block down the street, Jody stuck her foot into Dad’s spokes, and down they all went in a flurry of cries and metal hitting concrete.
By the time we pushed our bikes alongside a hobbling Jody to her now-empty yard, her tears had dried shiny tracks down her face and my heart hurt a little less.
“I’m never sticking my feet in the spokes,” R.J. said.
Jody smiled a small smile at me, and I knew she ignored R.J. like she ignored her own brothers.
All of me wanted to walk into her the kitchen where she’d taught me to pour Pepsi down the side of a glass to save the bubbles. None of me wanted to steal oranges and grapefruit all the way home.
A couple years later, Dad rode his bike around the Grove looking, not for fruit, but for his family.
Mom had rented an apartment over a garage for the three of us.
He found us and we moved back to the boat. But I think my parents needed Jody’s skill of not breaking the bubbles.
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