by Eldred “Bob” Bird
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my writing life, it’s that everything has a story. Every object within my sphere came from somewhere. It had a beginning and will eventually have an end. Along the way it may pass through many hands and touch countless lives before being swallowed up by the sands of time.
Part of being a writer is being able to extract that story. Proper research is one way to accomplish the task, but sometimes the object itself will speak to you if you’re willing to listen. I’d like to tell you how one of those objects spoke to me.
Besides writing, one of my other passions is cycling. For the most part I keep the two separate, but sometimes my worlds collide. A few years back the writing and riding came together in an unexpected way.
I have a birthday tradition. On my special day I mount my bicycle and ride one mile for every year of my life. This was a nice challenge at first and served me well for many years. However, as my fitness level increased, the difficulty of the task diminished, making the annual outing feel like any other day in the saddle. One thing became evident—I needed to find a way to put the magic back into the ride.
I decided that magic should come in the form of a new bike . . . well, a new-to-me bike. I began looking for a bicycle made the same year I was born—a kindred spirit of sorts.
After months of searching, my quest ended with an online auction for a 1959 Schwinn Traveler three-speed in less-than-stellar condition. The bike was scratched, rusty, and needed completely worked over. It was perfect for my purpose.
The next step involved the frame. My original goal was to make it shine like new, but while contemplating touching up the paint something stopped me.
I sat studying all the scratches and chips on its surface, inspecting each one carefully. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to paint over the flaws. Then it dawned on me—they were telling me a story.
I ran my fingers over the cool steel tubes, feeling every imperfection like a blind person reading a page of Braille. The history of this bike was written in the scratches and wear marks peeking through the fading black paint. These were scars left by half a century of use, much like the scars adorning my own body.
I inspected the circular marks rubbed into the top tube. Is this where the cable and lock that protected it from thieves hung? And wear bands on the seat stays, likely from a book rack—perhaps this bike transported someone to a higher education, or maybe propelled a young entrepreneur along his paper route.
How many miles had it seen? What roads had it traveled? How many lives had it touched? My imagination ran wild with the narrative spelled out by this road-weary traveler. I had to ask myself a question—how could I just erase that life with a little pigment and a brush?
I couldn’t do it.
After a great deal of contemplation, I opted to go for preservation, rather than restoration. I carefully finished cleaning the frame without editing the story laid out before me and sealed it up with a coat of wax before reassembling the bike.
Now, when I climb aboard this rolling piece of history every summer for my birthday trek, I do my best to respect its past and guarantee its future. The bike gets cleaned, adjusted, and lubricated with great care, but I don’t panic when I put a scratch or two in the paint. I simply look at it as adding my own chapter to the book of this amazing machine’s life.
I plan on spinning a series of tales inspired by the scars on this incredible machine.
Beginning with the first owner, each section will tell the story of how this particular bike came into their possession and how it changed their life before moving on to the next person, finally ending up under my care.
Now that I’ve shared the story of my special object, here’s an exercise to help you do the same. Look around you and pick out an item. It can be something you just acquired, or a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation. The more unusual the object, the better.
Got your item? Good.
Now pick it up, feel the weight, run your fingers over the surface, and study every detail. Think about all the other hands that have touched it. Who made it? How did it come into your possession? What will happen to it when you’re gone? Could it be at the center of a mystery? Maybe it’s the “Maltese Falcon” in your next tale of intrigue and adventure.
Let your imagination run wild and jot down everything you can think of. Got it? Now write the story!
What object did you choose? What ideas did it inspire? Tell us about it in the comments!
* * * * * *
Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
All photos courtesy of Eldred Bird.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
A great idea. Some time ago--well, many decades, actually, I was invigilating an English exam. I decided to answer one of the questions and wrote the story of an oak tree. (I've since lost that story, sadly.)
On reading your post, I immediately thought of an old oak bureau, which is a family heirloom. That is until you said "pick it up, feel the weight." Lol!
Oddly, I have thought about writing about it.
Family heirlooms are one of the best objects to write about because they have personal meaning and that emotion tends to come out in the story. I have my great aunt's desk that also spent a good number of years in my grandmother's house after my aunt passed. I found all kinds of interesting treasures hidden away in the cracks and under drawers. Oh, and I think you can skip the "pick it up" step with the desk! 🙂
Great minds ride similar paths!
ODE TO THE SCHWINN BIKE
A Schwinn of course
peddling to Hermit’s Rest
along the West Rim Drive
a 14-mile round trip
a Schwinn Continental 3-speed
peddling to Desert View and the Hopi Watch Tower
a 46-mile round trip on the East Rim Drive
Gave the Schwinn to a student
Goodbye to Schwinn
a stationary bike
and a line of
recumbents at the
gym three days a
Awesome, Sam! I'm having a bit of deja vu. Have we crossed paths before? Maybe in a cycling forum somewhere? This story sounds vaguely familiar.
And...I grew up on the South Rim of Grand Canyon (My father was the last Supervisor Station Agent for the Santa Fe RR for 17 years)
I'll bet he had some great stories.
If you wanted to double that ride you could add my years on. I do own a Schwinn, but it's only a few years old.
The oldest items I have all come from the same event in the year 1925. My maternal grandfather was working for Edison then and I have a photograph of the employees together, along with Edison and his wife and, I believe, his daughter. There's also a letter from the company to him that accompanied the photograph. The third item is a brochure for the Ediphone. On the cover is my grandfather testing units. All of that, plus some pictures of my grandfather on a motorcycle (one with his father) have inspired a fantasy world built upon the time period. It pains me that I didn't see any of these items until after he died, but that doesn't change the inspiration they've provided me or how much I treasure them.
This is fantastic, Christina. I'm kind of the keeper of the family history pieces like that from my mother's side of the family. When my great uncle passed (husband of the great aunt mentioned in the post) in the late 1930s they dumped everything from his desk into a box. I found that box in the trash pile when they were cleaning out my aunts place. You can be I latched onto that!. He was a newspaper editor and it had some pretty amazing and historic items tucked away in it. I real time capsule!
My first bicycle was an overgrown Schwinn!! At least it looked overgrown to me when I received it. It was my great escape, and makes me smile to think about.
I love your object exercise. Gets the imagination flowing.
Thanks, Ellen. I love hearing bicycle stories. I'd love to hear that one some time. I may even steal the bones of the story for one of the sections in the bike book...with your permission, of course.
Love the shirt, Eldred. I'm in the Midwest now, but originally from Tempe. My current WIP takes place near Willcox where my maternal grandparents had a cattle ranch.
For the object lesson: After my mother died a few years ago, and long after my father passed away, I came upon a framed photo of my paternal grandparents posed with three small children. I didn't know this set of grandparents and don't ever remember seeing the picture on the wall. Rumor had it this grandmother was an especially hard woman, but I can't help but wonder about her difficult life. She lost her husband early, lived through the dust bowl, and I believe the baby in her lap was the daughter who died as a toddler. Your exercise has me thinking ...
Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I betting you can a lot more words than that out of your picture! Research what you can and let you imagination fill in the rest!
Found items are priceless in the stories they hold. I have an old .22 rifle that belonged to my grandfather when he was a boy. I also have my mother's ukulele which she's owned since I was a child. She's been gone for over twenty years. I also have some costume jewelry that belonged to my grandmother.
The best stories are those told by my grandparents and parents. They are a treasure trove that unless passed on will disappear.
Thanks for the reminder.
I love items like that, Brenda. They carry so much meaning. I have a pair of cowboy boots that I am the third generation to wear. When I was wearing them at a convention once, Jane Smiley (yes, THE Jane Smiley!) walked up to me and said, "Those boots look like they have a story."
Indeed they do...
My first thought reading this: "He can ride 60+ miles on his bike? In ONE SITTING?" Holy smokes, that would take me all week for sure. 🙂
Oh Jenny, you'd be surprised. I've done almost double that in a day, but not a 45 pound vintage 3-speed. I have a pretty varied stable of two-wheelers that stretches all the way back to an early 1880s penny-farthing.
I loved my three-speed when I was a teen.
I wear my grandma's wedding ring with my own. For its small size, it's heavy. 18K white gold, barely there engravings of an orange blossom pattern are smoothed from wear. It saw years of hard work from canning to housekeeping, farm chores like slopping pigs and gathering eggs to tending to tobacco in the field, and still making big meals three times a day. And biscuits, it was there for so many biscuits... Till finally the winter work of quilting and reading in the cooler weather of winter slowed time on the farm. On her finger for almost sixty years, she needed a replacement ring for swelling. Rather than rendering it useless to sit in a box gathering dust, she passed it on to me. Carrying on the history for thirty-one years, so far.
I fear no one will want the ring in the future, with millennials shirking the heirlooms. I'd hate to see it melted down or just sold for pennies on the dollar. For the value isn't a price tag, it's the history of love, family, food, and so much more.
I love this story, Denise. Because of his job (welder and precision machinery setup) my father was unable to wear a ring on a daily basis, so he kept it on his keyring. Over the years several rings go worn out or damaged, so whenever he got a new band my mother saved the old one in her jewelry box. For their 50th anniversary she had a new ring made for him using the gold from the old rings and diamonds from from my late uncle's 40 year pin from his employer. I have that ring and wear on special occasions. It's far to precious to me to wear on a daily basis. I have no children to pass it on to, so I will probably pass it to my nephew.
Thank you, Eldred.
I hope your nephew will treasure your dad's ring.
Wonderful story and prompt at the end. I used to bike as a kid and loved the sense of freedom. But as an adult, I became a runner, and now a Zumba/yoga enthusiast. But once a year I travel to the New Jersey shore and rent a bike and bike for MILES (with a granddaughter, no less) and feel that same sense of freedom and fun that I did as a kid. Here's to biking and freedom.
The bicycle was also my first taste of true freedom. That's probably a big part of why I still love them. Riding brings back happy memories and recharges my soul.
I love this, Eldrid, and everyone's comments. So often objects pass through our lives and we give them no thought at all. I seem to love too many of them to let them go. One of my special possessions is a bud vase that I bought from my aunt's antique store many years ago. I can imagine some romantic fellow in the 1920's presenting the vase with a perfect stemmed red rose to his lady love. Future owners would snip a fresh flower from their garden, carefully trim the leaves and set the vase on a doilied side table. And now, I await a bloom to do the same--without the doily.
Great story, Barb. I can already picture the scene with the romantic gesture in my head.
[…] week’s discussion point is based on this article by Eldred “Bob” Bird on the thought-provoking blog: “Writers in the Storm”. How much importance do you (or […]