Birchwood Avenue, Bloomington Illinois, Dennis Stapley, Doctor Theobald, First Holy Communion, Garling Drive, Greg Kenel, Illinois State University, Mike Frisch, Monty Morris, Oakland Elementary, Saint Mary's Catholic Church, Schwinn Sting Ray, Stanley Scott, Steve Kenel
Steve knew that he shouldn’t, but he did it anyway. He knew, and now he walked down the aisle of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church bearing the stigmata of Cain on his forehead.
Steve have known, but that hadn’t stopped him. Sting Rays were the latest and greatest in 1964 and all the kids were admiring Dennis’s bike. Dennis, two years older than Steve, was basking in the warmth of admiration that rained down on him from his Oakland Elementary, Bloomington, Illinois schoolmates. Steve had been warned. His father, a professor at ISU, an expert on safety and writer of books on safe driving, had extolled eight-year-old Steve not to ride Dennis Stapley’s Schwinn Sting Ray.
Steve had been warned. His dad had told him. Dennis was raking in the big bucks by charging the kids, boys really, five cents to ride his bright red, banana seat, butterfly winged handlebar bike. Steve wanted in on the fun but two things stood in his way, his father’s prohibition and the high cost of admittance.
It wasn’t that Steve didn’t have money, he did. He’d been receiving a weekly allowance of ten cents since turning eight-years-old and he hadn’t spent a dime in the intervening fifteen weeks. He knew he had the whole seventy-five cents in his bank because he’d counted it six days earlier on Easter. He’d save every nickel, not including the fifteen he’d dropped reverently into the Saint Mary’s Catholic Church collection basket every Sunday during weekly Mass.
Steve knew he had the money, but he also knew that the money was for his future, his college fund as his parents reminded him every Sunday when they clinked two nickels in his hand. The twin nickels would become separated immediately with one going into the piggy bank and the other in his Sunday suit front left pants pocket to be fished out later at church. Steve had the means, but he lacked the conviction.
The Stapleys lived just around the corner and across the street from Steve. He passed their house every day on his way to school and today as he walked past the three houses that separated his home on Birchwood Avenue from 1908 Garling Drive he couldn’t help but notice that the Stapley’s home was not visible from his own, despite the fact that in central Illinois on April fourth even the forsythia bushes were barely in bud. The risk of detection, were he to hand over his nickel in exchange for turns on the Sting Ray, would be awfully slim.
Somehow one of his fifteen nickels had slipped out of the piggy bank and into the left front pants pocket of his favorite tan jeans. Steve knew that the money was his because that was part of the weekly exchange. “Here you are, son,” his father would intone. “This is your ten cents. Five cents for church and five cents for you to keep. For your future. It’s the beginning of your college money. Keep it safe.”
Dad said “you” or “yours” four times when he or Mom placed the coins in Steve’s hand, they made it abundantly clear that the money was his. The words also made abundantly clear what Steve’s parents’ expectations were. Still, it was his money.
By ten o’clock three other boys had already paid their five cents and gained access to the red Ray. Stanley Scott, a neighbor from the far end of Birchwood’s five houses on the east and five on the west residential street, was extolling Mike Frisch that it was time to let him have a turn. Mike scowled, huffed and declared, “I’m going to circle the block on Owens, you can have your turn when I’m done!” as he turned right onto Garling and headed west toward Vale.
The four boys watched as Mike rode off and Dennis asked, “You gonna go for a ride today, little man?”
Steve wasn’t little, but he was younger than the other boys. He scrunched up his face, put his left hand in his pants pocket, pulled it out, held it shoulder high, showing the coin and declaring, “Maybe,” before thrusting the coin back in his pocket.
The older boys nodded their approval and Stanley said. “Cool. Get in line though, I’m next.”
It took Mike about a minute-and-a-half to circumnavigate the third of a mile rectangle that made up Garling, Owens and Hastings Drives along with Vale Street. He came into the Stapley’s driveway hot and hit the bike’s coaster brake hard, leaving a skid mark on the dull white concrete. “Hey!” Dennis snapped, “You want to pay for that tire?”
“Give it a rest,” Mike retorted, “we are. With our nickels.”
“Yeah, yeah. You don’t have to ride if you don’t want to. I got other riders. Stevie here’s gonna ride, aren’t cha, squirt?”
Steve narrowed his eyes, thrust his hand into his pocket, did a quick shoulder check in the direction of his house and, thrusting the money out, declared, “Yes. Yes I am.”
“Neat-oh,” Dennis said, pocketing the coin. “Hey, Stanley, whaddaya say we let squirt here have a quick run on the driveway before you circle the block, fair?”
Stanley let his face show his displeasure but conceded to Dennis’ request. “Sure, sure, squirt. Just keep it short. Then you can take turns like the rest of us.”
Monty Morris, Dennis’ next door neighbor said, “Yeah. After me, got it?”
Steve nodded, took the handlebar and sat on the Sting Ray’s seat, his toes barely touching the ground. “You ready, squirt?” Dennis asked, smiling pleasantly. “Just go down the driveway, turn around and come back. Then you can go after Monty, got it?”
Steve nodded, started down the minimal descent of Bloomington, Illinois decline and wobbled to the driveway’s end, a big smile on his face. The smile was short lived as he bobbled the turn, tumbling to the ground and smacking his head hard enough on the pavement so that entire galaxies appeared before he passed out. He lay dazed and bleeding while Dennis ran inside his house for help and Monty ran to tell Steve’s mom that Steve was hurt.
Since it was a Sunday and Doctor Theobald’s office was closed Steve’s folks elected not to take him to the doctor. He was fine, a bit groggy for the rest of the day but relatively unscathed. His brother Greg joked that it was a good thing he’d hit his head because everyone knew that was just solid rock. Steve nodded in mute acceptance of the ribbing he’d face at school come Monday and ruminated on the loss of his nickel.
It wasn’t until Saturday, April eleventh that he realized that his forehead would bear a huge scab as he proceeded up the aisle for his First Holy Communion the next day, that the scab, and then the scar would remind him for weeks, months and years after that safety counts and that more often than not father really does know best.