Old Red


I sat on our front steps and thought my very hardest. The Twenty-fourth of July parade was just a week away, and I still didn’t know how I could win the fifteen-dollar prize for the best-decorated bike. There just had to be a way.

“Alex,” Mom called, “are you going over to help Sister Wilson this morning?”

“Yeah,” I answered, getting to my feet. “If she calls, tell her I’m on my way.”

As I walked over to Sister Wilson’s, all I could think about was winning the bike prize. I was saving money to buy my own bike. In fact, I’d already saved twenty dollars, but I still didn’t have enough for a bike. I really needed one, too, so I was in a real jam.

“Hello, Alex,” Sister Wilson called as I went up her walk. “Are you ready to go to work?”

I nodded. Sister Wilson was down on her hands and knees, pulling weeds from her flower bed. She had on her old straw hat and brown cotton work gloves. I don’t know why she wore them. The glove fingers had holes in them, and the band on her hat was gone. The hat brim was so ragged around the edge that her face was always freckled with bits of sunshine.

Once I asked her why she didn’t get a new hat and new gloves. She chuckled and said, “Oh, these will do me just fine. Besides, new ones cost too much.”

Sister Wilson was a widow, and she didn’t have much money. That’s why she couldn’t pay me for working. I didn’t mind, though, because she always gave me cookies and punch and told me stories.

“Are we pulling weeds today?” I asked.

“I am,” she answered, “but I have another chore for you.” She took me around the side of the house and back to the garage. She didn’t have a car, so she used the garage to store things in. The sunshine poured in as she opened the garage door.

“I want to get rid of a lot of this stuff and straighten up what’s left,” she said. “And I need a big strong boy like you to help me. Just bring everything outside and set it in the driveway, and I’ll look it over and tell you what to throw away and what I want to keep.”

I couldn’t believe all the good stuff Sister Wilson had in her garage. I found a real old army helmet, one like they used in the army way back before Dad was born. There was a leather bag full of marbles—real old ones. They looked like they were made out of hard clay. There was even an old record player with a big wide horn on top that looked like a giant morning glory. I laughed when I saw that.

I’d emptied most of the garage when I saw some handlebars poking out from behind a pile of boxes. When I pulled the boxes out, I saw a huge red bike with a wire basket fastened to it right behind the seat. The bike had big thick tires and wide fenders. It was kind of old-fashioned looking, not like any of my friends’ bikes.

Just then Sister Wilson came around the corner of the house. “Looks like you found Old Red,” she said with a grin.

“Old Red?” I asked.

“That’s what my husband always called it,” she explained. “When we had the drugstore down on Main Street, Brother Wilson used it to deliver prescriptions and things to folks who couldn’t get to the store. That bike’s been all over town, and it’s almost as old as I am.”

“I’ve never seen a bike quite like this, Sister Wilson.”

She laughed again. “No, I don’t suppose you have. I’ll bet it’s a lot bigger than your bike, isn’t it?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t have a bike. I’m hoping to buy one, though, as soon as I make some more money. And I’m going to try to borrow a bike to ride in the parade and maybe win the prize for the best-decorated bike.”

Sister Wilson pressed her lips together and straightened her hat. “There should be a tire pump in all this junk,” she said. “Let’s find it and pump up those tires and see if Old Red has any get-up-and-go after all these years.”

The pump was hidden way back in the corner under some old hip boots, so by the time we found it, we’d cleaned out the whole garage. I pumped up those old fat tires, and they still held air!

We found a wrench and put the seat all the way down. Then we oiled the chain and everything and pushed Old Red into Sister Wilson’s backyard. I had to roll it over to the back step so I could climb on. As soon as I had my leg over the bar, I pushed away from the step. I thought I was going to ride across the lawn, but all I did was fall over.

I tried again, and I fell over again. I don’t know how many times that old bike fell on me, but I finally got so I could turn the pedals and hold onto the handlebars without tipping over. The only problem then was that I needed to look at my feet to pedal, and while I was looking at my feet, I ran right into Sister Wilson’s apple tree.

I pushed that old bike back to the step and tried again. One time I ran into the back fence and scratched my face on the rose bushes. My pants got caught in the chain a couple of times, too, but I didn’t quit until I could ride Old Red all over the back lawn without falling or bumping into something.

“I hope I didn’t bang Old Red up too much,” I said as I pushed the bike back to the garage.

“Oh, I’m not worried about that. Nothing will hurt Old Red. I just hope you didn’t hurt yourself.”

The rest of the day I worked with Sister Wilson. Everything she wanted to keep was put back into the garage, and the rest of it was carried out to the curb for the garbage truck. When we were finished, Sister Wilson gave me some molasses cookies and milk and told me about when Brother Wilson rode Old Red around town.

The night before the Twenty-fourth of July, I was sitting on the front porch feeling real sad because I still hadn’t found a bike to ride in the parade. Mom poked her head out the front door and said, “Sister Wilson wants you to go over to her place for a few minutes.”

I walked over and knocked on her door.

“Hello, Alex,” she said with a smile as she opened the door. “Are you ready for the parade tomorrow?”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t find a bike. Everyone is riding his own bike in the parade.”

“How would you like to ride Old Red?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

I followed her to the garage. She opened the door and said, “Do you think Old Red will win you anything?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right in the middle of the garage was Old Red. It was all cleaned and fixed up fancier than I’d ever seen a bike. The wire basket behind the seat was made into a little covered wagon with a sign on the back that said: CROSSING THE PLAINS ON OLD RED. The back wheel had colored paper on it that made it look like a wagon wheel. Right in front of the handlebars was a big paper ox head, and the handlebars kind of looked like its horns. Some paper legs were fixed on both sides of the front wheel so that when the wheel turned it looked like the ox was running. I’d never seen anything like it.

“Do you think this will win you a prize?” Sister Wilson asked again with a laugh.

“You mean it’s for me?” I gasped.

I surely wasn’t planning to ride it,” she said, still chuckling. “You’ve been helping me so much that I thought maybe I could help you.”

The next morning I pushed Old Red down to Main Street where the parade started and where the judges were. As soon as I got there, I knew Old Red was going to win. The other bikes looked nice with their paper streamers and colored wheels, but not one of them was as fancy as Old Red.

Mr. Peters gave me the blue ribbon and a check for fifteen dollars. He said I should ride Old Red at the front of the parade, right behind the flags. I was sure proud. Everybody stood and clapped and talked about what a fancy bike I had.

After the parade I took my check down to Bob’s Market to cash it. Later, when I rode Old Red up to Sister Wilson’s house, she was out on her front porch snapping green beans. “Well, congratulations,” she said and smiled.

I climbed off Old Red, leaned it against the porch, and placed a big brown paper sack in Sister Wilson’s lap.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s for you,” I said. “It’s your part of the prize.”

She reached into the sack and pulled out a pair of brown gloves and a yellow straw hat with a blue ribbon around it. “But, Alex, you were going to use the money to help buy your bike.”

“I know,” I said, “but I decided I could wait for my bike. You need the gloves and hat. Your old ones are worn-out. I still have enough money to pay my tithing and some left over that I can save for my bike. Besides, just winning and riding at the head of the parade was good enough for me.”

Sister Wilson shook her head and thought for a minute. “You know, Alex, I was proud to see someone riding Old Red again. That old bike’s been pretty lonely out there in the garage by itself. I sure hate to put it back there.”

“Well, where do you want me to put it then?” I asked.

“This bike needs someone to take care of it and ride it and keep its tires pumped up and keep it from squeaking. Would you like to have Old Red?”

My mouth dropped open. I didn’t know what to say. “But, Sister Wilson, won’t you need it?”

She laughed. “I don’t ride bikes anymore, and Brother Wilson surely doesn’t need it. In fact, I’m sure he’d want you to have the bike.”

“But I couldn’t just take it. I mean, it’s your bike.”

Sister Wilson nodded her head. “I’ll tell you what. I have a few chores around here that need doing. If you’ll help me with those for the next couple of weeks, I’m certain you’ll have earned Old Red. Is that fair?” I nodded my head. “And in the meantime, you take care of it for me.”

I was so excited that all I could do was nod my head again as I climbed on my very own bike and rode home.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Don Weller