You may recall that Dr. Paul Dudley White told the nation a few years ago the way to prevent heart attacks is to get aboard a bicycle.
Dr. White coupled his advice with some pretty stern words on the general torpor and flabbiness of the older half of the population. In fact, he made them sound a good deal like the whales, another of his interests. My wife and I decided then and there to get a pair of bicycles and start pedaling. After all, doesn't everyone remember childhood bike riding with pleasure? Why not start it all over again, especially when it will look so good on the electrocardiogram?
This is to report, after a proper interval of years, that Dr. White knew what he was talking about. We haven't had a single heart attack. Neither have our dogs, who run alongside when we cycle.
But this is only one of the multitude of benefits flowing from the decision to pedal regularly. Others that come to mind quickly include a much better understanding of the workings of traffic laws; a clearer realization of what human nature, especially in our neighborhood, is really like; a firmer knowledge of the streets and byways of our area; and, above all, an appreciation of how a comedian must feel when he brings down the house.
It is generally agreed in medical circles that laughter is healthful, and on that basis our cycling has not only improved our own health but that of an entire neighborhood.
Bicycling has also given me a perfectly splendid new front tooth and an impressive scar across the left hand that can be mistaken at cocktail parties for an old war wound.
Our adult bicycling careers started badly. We entered a bicycle shop on a Saturday morning shortly after reading Dr. White's pronouncement. We learned something at once. If you are old enough to remember seeing a Blue Eagle in a store window, you are too old to enter a bicycle shop on a Saturday morning. That is the time when the prehot-rod set gathers for learned discussion of hand brakes, racing chains, elevated handlebars and the proper way to deliver papers squarely in the middle of rose beds. Outsiders are a nuisance during those discussion periods, especially outsiders who appear to be senile.
An attendant who eventually broke loose to wait on us, an elder of 15 or so, said there had been a lot of-mature people in looking at bikes lately (he didn't exactly say 'mature,' what he said was 'older'), and there was a special imported bike just for them. Something about his tone made it sound like a wheelchair. However, the bike turned out to be a beauty, chromed to the last spoke, with a choice of speeds, a lighting system a Model T would have envied and a price tag that would have better fitted a small lorry.
Remembering Dr. White's scathing words, and remembering also the going rate for heart specialists, we paid the young merchant his price and departed. A bit later some grimy urchins, led by our son, gathered at the curb to watch the unloading of our purchases.
They volunteered that the bikes were interesting examples of a type no longer manufactured and we probably wouldn't mind the fact that the handlebars were too big and the brakes usually failed on downhill runs. With that we shooed them away and mounted.
It's amazingly true that even if you haven't ridden a bicycle for 20 years or so you haven't forgotten a thing. We pedaled to the end of our block, exchanging friendly waves with the neighbors who suddenly materialized at every porch, on into the next block, down a hill and along a splendid stretch of level paving. Then we collapsed on a curbing and lay panting on the grass like freshly gaffed salmon. Somehow bicycles don't roll as easily as they used to, even with a choice of three forward speeds.
The long way home
The journey from home hadn't taken more than 15 minutes and the return trip, including the push up the long hill, didn't take more than two hours.
In succeeding days we gradually found our cycling muscles. Actually we found them from the very first because they identified themselves by aches, screams and spasms after the initial ride and kept themselves in lively notice for at least a week. After that they seemed to resign themselves to their new drudgery and we were cyclists.
From the first our son refused to ride with us or do anything else that might link him in the public mind with two parents engaged in such ridiculous display. Often, though, when we cycled, a posse of small fry would ride at a distance behind us, hooting and catcalling, and he would sometimes join or even lead them.
Children are vastly amused by the tendency of adult cyclists to sit firmly in place, both fists tightly gripping the handlebars. "Look, Ma, no hands!" is the immemorial boast of the young rider, the start of a repertoire of tricks, turns and convolutions, and anyone who just sits on a bicycle is obviously a ninny.
Actually, of course, a seasoned adult cyclist can also do those tricks and a few more besides, but for the sake of good example they should only be done in adult company, when there are no small, imitative eyes watching. We all know that any kind of fancy going on bicycles is dangerous and should be discouraged.
That latter maxim was one I reviewed at length the Saturday night our dentist was at a party. We had only had a modest cocktail hour before dinner that evening and, as every cyclist knows, there is nothing more refreshing than half an hour of pedaling after a good dinner. It also seemed like a good time to demonstrate to the wife the proper way of cycling with arms folded—the secret here is to get a high speed. I had reckoned, unfortunately, without the tendency of foreign bikes to crash into curbs. The scolding attitude of the family dentist, when he finally returned from his party, was certainly not well founded, but it must be admitted the new front tooth looks a good deal better than any of the old ones.
Dr. White did not say where cyclists are going to find a place to cycle, though one gathers he was thinking of open roads and country lanes. However, those of us who live in cities needn't think we are shut out. There are a number of interesting places in almost every city where adults can cycle.
The most common is the street, where the skilled cyclist can quickly find a path for himself between the parked cars and the moving cars. This gap is usually about three feet wide and with care the cyclist can zip along in it for many blocks before he is crushed.
The alternative is the sidewalk, which is much safer for the cyclist than the street, but offers the drawbacks of being crowded in some places and illegal in others. The attitude of the police toward adult cyclists is one of understanding, and they will almost always let you off with a warning if you promise to go out in the street and take your chances like a man.
It should also be noted that almost all cities have at least one park with bicycle paths, so no one who really wants to cycle, and who can somehow get his wheel across town to the park, need be denied his exercise.
Remember, though, that once you start cycling and see a clump of gawkers close by, as openmouthed as though the circus parade had just pranced into sight, you don't need to ask what the attraction is. It's you. Though if you're unduly sensitive, it might be a good idea to carry a little placard reading "Doctor's Orders." Everyone will still laugh, but maybe not as loud.