The Hot Red Chopper
A bike can overcome homesickness, bullying and fear of death. True story.
When I was nine, my parents went on holiday for a few weeks by themselves, and I was shipped off to the Seckie family. Mrs Seckie was one of my mother’s friends. Although I’m now reflecting through a 30-something-year time fog, I have vivid memories of that time – possibly because they were some of the bleakest days of my life.
The first evening of my Seckie stay fell on Mr Seckie’s birthday. Mark, one of the Seckie children and a few years older than me, had made his father a card, and signed it: “From Mark Seckie”.
“Oh,” said Mark’s sister, “like Dad wouldn’t know which Mark this card was from?”
I roared with laughter – but laughing at Mark Seckie let loose the bully in him, and I would come to rue my spontaneous guffaw.
Another telling memory is the Seckie Sister asking me why I was so sad. “Are you homesick?” she asked. “No,” I shot back smartly, “I’m Seckie sick.”
But I was lying, and Sister Seckie was right: I was desperately homesick. It was the first time I’d been away from my parents; and while this family I had been billeted with were good people – well, except for Mark, perhaps – they were undeniably alien to me.
My homesickness was probably magnified because I was in the midst of an existential crisis: a friend’s father had died suddenly, and the idea of death and dying had left me deeply traumatised. My nine-year- old brain couldn’t cope with the notion of not existing anymore. The thought that my father or mother could die at any moment was a terror that gripped me; and no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t shake it.
It wasn’t only my parents I was missing. I had also been wrenched away from Zardoz, my faithful dog. I was a shy
THE RALEIGH CHOPPER WAS ONE OF THE COOLEST THINGS EVER TO COME OUT OF THE 1970S."
kid, an introvert; and Zardoz, my galumphy Rottweiler, was my very own walking, drooling comfort blanket. And the feeling was mutual: he followed me wherever I went. He was my shadow. No love is more pure than a boy’s love for his dog, and a dog’s love for his boy.
So I was a wreck – homesick, intensely fearful of death, teased mercilessly by the Seckie boy, and desperately missing Zardoz. To my shame, I started wetting the bed.
After waking from a restless sleep early one morning – and finding myself in a puddle of my own urine – I wandered down to the bottom of the Seckies’ massive garden. And that’s when I saw Mark Seckie’s bike. It had a fireengine-red frame, wide balloon tyres, and a stretched- out banana seat. The handlebars, long and wide, resembled cow horns, and on its top tube was a stick gear lever. It had three gears.
The bike, a Raleigh Chopper, was one of the coolest things ever to come out of the 1970s – maybe even cooler than Magnum PI’s moustache. It certainly had more swing than ‘Stayin’ Alive’, more bounce than The Jackson Five, and more bite than Jaws.
For me, it was nothing short of a revelation. See, while boys and girls my age were bombing about on their bikes, popping wheelies, I didn’t even know how to ride. My mother had a cousin who was hit by a car and killed while riding his bicycle, and my mom was vehemently anti-bike.
To make it worse, we lived in Observatory, Johannesburg, at the bottom of a long street, which – for those in the know – was a traffic-free backroad route to the airport. Motorists would floor the accelerator in a mad dash to not be late for a flight. ( Last year – about three decades too late for me – the authorities finally decided to slow down the speedsters, and erected huge speed humps. They’re so massive, they would be classified hors catégorie in the Tour de France.)
I’d always wanted to ride a bike. I’d begged, pleaded, bargained and cajoled; but my mom was adamant – she felt I couldn’t be trusted not to ride in the road. Especially
So I remember getting onto the Seckie boy’s bike as if in a dream… and falling off. I got onto it again. And for the next hour, out of sight at the bottom of the garden, I tottered, wobbled, and crashed as my co- ordination and balance failed me. I had bruised shins, skinned knees and grazed elbows, but I was determined to master it. I couldn’t understand how people could ride without falling off – it just didn’t make sense (frankly, I still have absolutely no idea how people stay upright on two wheels; I’m pretty damn sure it defies the laws of physics, although I can’t prove it).
Later that day, I came back after school and tried again. I got up early the next morning, and tried some more. And though I had no idea why it worked, I realised that when I pedalled fast enough and kept the bike straight, I didn’t fall over quite as often.
Slowly but surely, I was getting the hang of riding. And after just a few days, I had achieved a life- changing rite of passage: I had become a cyclist. I made a circuit around the garden and rode around it ad nauseam, escaping into my own world; a world without the Seckie boy.
There were still bike calamities. I discovered that if I sat too far back on the banana saddle, the front wheel would lift – the first time that happened I performed an accidental wheelie, landing jaw-first in Mrs Seckie’s chrysanthemums. I also suffered speed wobbles; and in the course of one crash, I nearly castrated myself (for some reason, the designers of the Chopper had decided that putting the gear lever at crotch level was a good idea).
But my confidence grew; and I got faster, and more daring. I still wet the bed ( but not every night), and Mark Seckie still teased me, but I no longer let him get to me. And while I still missed my parents, I knew they were okay, and that they would probably come home safely.
However, my heart still ached for Zardoz.
One Saturday Mark’s parents took him out for the day, and the Seckie Sister was left in charge. But her friend came over, and they began a long conversation about important teen stuff, like ‘Can-youbelieve-Ruth- called-Michellethe-B-word?’, and I was left to entertain myself.
I retreated to my sanctuary at the bottom of the garden, and hopped onto the fireengine-red Chopper. But after a few loops of my circuit, I knew what I had to do next. I wheeled the Chopper out of the Seckie garden and onto the street. And with my heart pounding in my throat, I rode it home.
Which is to say I rode it a bit, but pushed it most of the way. The Chopper was many things, but light wasn’t one of them – that big-rear-wheel/small-frontwheel combo wasn’t its only resemblance to a steamroller. The journey seemed to take a gazillion years, and all uphill. (I measured it recently: the round trip is just shy of four kilometres, and entirely flat.)
I STILL HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA HOW PEOPLE STAY UPRIGHT ON TWO WHEELS.
What made it even longer was that every time I heard a car approaching, I would leap off the bike and wait on the pavement for it to pass. But eventually, I arrived home – the gate was locked, but Zardoz came bounding up to me. I shoved my face between the bars, and my galumphy Rottweiler licked the salty tears streaming down my cheeks. After a while, with a heavy heart – which had stopped pounding by then, and returned to its rightful place in my chest – I made my way back to the House of Seckie.
A few days after my joyride, my parents returned from their holiday, safe and sound. And Zardoz resumed his place by my side, never letting me out of his sight.
No- one ever found out about my marathon ride home – well, until now – and with this confession, I need to make some apologies: sorry, Mom. As it turns out, you were right: I couldn’t be trusted not to ride in the road – especially that road; sorry, Mrs Seckie, for massacring your chrysanthemums; and sorry, Mark Seckie, for bike-napping your Chopper.
The Chopper wasn’t my bike, but it’s the bike that’s had the most impact on my life. It gave a troubled nineyear- old boy an opportunity to escape – both figuratively and in reality. And it gave me a glimpse of how, time and again in later years, a bike would be my key to freedom.
Oh – and after that, I never wet the bed again.