17, Number 98, August/September 2014 WINNER OF THE CREATIVE NON-FICTION: THE MARIE MINAKER/BETH MOORE PRIZE Why My Bicycle Is Called "The Green Machine" by Margrit de Graff
Back in 1818 Baron Karl Drais von Sauerbrunn called his fabulous invention a “Lauf Maschine” (Running Machine), although later it was named after him, “Draisine”. This contraption was entirely built of wood with two wheels - one behind the other - a saddle over the back wheel to sit on, and a handlebar to steer with attached to the front wheel. This “Running Machine” was propelled forward by pushing off the ground with alternate feet. I have seen a bike like that in the bicycle museum in Bremen, Germany. Baron von Sauerbrunn achieved the remarkable speed of ten kilometres per hour on level ground! It was not until 1848 that a French father-and-son team, Pierre and Ernest Michaux, refined the Draisine by means of cranks and pedals. Knowing this it should not come as a surprise that my green, one-speed, coaster brake trusty old bike came to be called by everyone, including myself “The Green Machine”.
Our daughter Viola (nick-named Vivi) was born in November 1963 and when snow and ice was gone the following spring I wanted to take her along on my sojourns by bike. I had grown up in Europe and for me it was nothing special to put toddlers into a wicker basket hanging from the handlebar of a bike. I, myself, was transported by such means by my parents, already, around 1927.
To my great disappointment I could not find a baby bike seat when we first came to Canada in 1952. Not even in 1964, when my second husband, Jim, was amused by my clamoring for a bicycle baby seat. He grew up on a prairie farm during the depression and never owned a bike. He thought my demand for a baby seat rather outlandish but, one evening he came home from work with good news: a customer had told him that he had seen a “funny” basket with cups for baby’s feet hanging down from it, on the handlebar of an old bike - a lady’s bike - hanging from the ceiling in an elderly Dutch widow’s garage. Everything dusty and covered with spider webs, the man had said.
I knew as soon as Jim told me about the elderly Dutch lady that she had what I wanted: a basket to put my baby girl in, where she could put her little hands on the handle bar beside mine, facing me. The next morning - after our elder kids had left on the school bus - we were on our way with our baby to see Mrs. van Deijk, twenty-eight kilometers away in Lacombe.
Mrs. van Deijk wheeled herself to the free-standing garage in her wheelchair. Jim opened the side door and right away I saw a dusty bike hanging from the rafters and in plain view the baby seat!
“How much do you want for the basket?” Jim asked, while he started to undo the ropes to let the bike down some, so we could have a closer look.
“Oh,” the lady replied, “What do you think? Five bucks?”
“Done!” said Jim, blowing the dust off the basket while I was holding Vivi. But I had my eyes on the bike itself now and turned to Mrs. van Deijk.
“Would you sell the bike, too?” I asked hopefully, for I liked what I saw.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. van Deijk mused. “This bike has been through so much... so many memories come back when I see it. I hope that one day someone in my family might want it.”
While Jim peeled two $2.00 and one $1.00 bill out of his wallet I stood there holding the basket with my left hand and Vivi on my right hip. Looking at the bike still hanging from the rafters, but now only a few feet off the ground, I was itching to take it for a spin.
“Would you mind if I took your bike once around the block?”
By now Viola was sitting on Mrs. van Deijk’s lap, playing with the lady’s necklace.
“Not at all, but this old feats might need some grease. It has not been used in years.”
As expected this Holland bike ran as light as a deer and fitted my tall frame like a glove. What a waste, I thought, that nobody is using it! On coming back, all enthused and wanting this cycle real bad, I asked Mrs. van Deijk, breathless with excitement, “How long has your feats been hanging in the garage?”
The lady didn’t answer right away, then said slowly, “Ever since I had the stroke. I offered it to my daughters, but none have ever asked for it. My husband finally hung it up. He is gone now....”
“None of your daughters could use it?”
“Seems not. I guess they like to ride their cars better.”
I had a feeling that it would do Mrs. van Deijk good to talk. Maybe she was lonesome, like so many old people are. I went over to the stoop and sat down with Vivi on my lap. Jim sat down beside me. We faced the lady in her wheelchair.
“You know,” she said sadly. “Maybe my daughters think my feats is too old-fashioned, but it’s really pretty good, yet. Look! The tires still hold air and, it has an almost new saddle!” She was far away in thought for a while.
“Come to think of it,” she finally spoke again. “It would be nice to know a young mother is using this bike again. With a little kid, like I did with mine. You have how many children, you said?”
Jim and I chuckled. “He had five and I had five when we married and now this one.” I bounced Viola on my knee. “This one the basket is for is ours - numero eleven - between us.” She clapped her hands and her eyes sparkled. “Take the bike!” She called. “It’s yours! Give me $7.50 for the whole works!”
‘Oh boy! Are you sure that’s all you want?” asked Jim.
“Yes, yes. That’s more than I paid,” she laughed. The dealing over we didn’t leave right away, though. The lady kept talking and what she talked about kept me moored to the front steps.
“Wait,” I said to Jim. “Let’s stay a little longer!”
Mrs. van Deijk had warmed up to us. “You can call me Johanna,” she stated. “To tell you the truth, this is a good deal for me, as far as the money is concerned.” Mrs. van Deijk - Johanna - laughed a small laugh. “This bike has done us a lot of good over many years, but I want to be honest; I got it for nothing.” “Where?” asked Jim. “In Holland?”
“Yes, in Holland. When the German army marched through Holland in May 1940, we watched a German soldier leaning it against our fence before he climbed onto a truck that picked up soldiers on foot.”
I caught my breath. I had heard something like that before.
“That German soldier probably took it somewhere to move on easier than by foot,” Johanna continued. “A year later, we went to work in Germany. Since no one claimed that green bike the German soldier left, we took it with us. Hendryk had his own. We both went to work in Leipzig, Saxony. My husband as a mechanic and I, in a household. When the war turned bad for the Germans and the Russians came, we fled west like most. We were very grateful for our bicycles. Although they were loaded so full with stuff we couldn’t ride them, we were better off than the ones who had to carry everything themselves. Even when the tires went flat. You can’t imagine what that terrible trek was like in February and March of 1945 with two babies. We stopped fleeing when the Soviets agreed to stop their advance on the east side of the river Elbe. That’s where the Western and the Soviet Armies met. We were so lucky to be west of the Elbe! At that time we were just south of Hamburg.”
I could hardly sit still, anymore, but didn’t want to stop the flow of Johanna’s words.
“We were billeted into a house,” Johanna continued, “where the lady was not happy about that much uninvited company - we were not the only ones - until Hendryk rigged up this bike (she pointed at it) to pump water from the well in the basement by pedaling like mad. We all took turns to fill the gravity tank in the attic every morning. You see, they had their own well with an electric pump, but bombs had detonated around their house, ruining the underground wiring. There was no electricity and no water. Before Hendryk had fixed that bike to the pump we all made do with carrying water in pails from a fast river about a 15 minute hike away. Making use of my bike to have running water in the house played a huge part in becoming good friends with our landlady and everyone,” she laughed.
“Hendryk was a “Jack of all trades”. He fixed and improvised a lot around this house that had escaped a direct hit, but had no glass left in the windows and all doors were blasted out. It also had holes in the roof, many of the clay shingles were blown off. Hendryk fixed as much as he could with all kinds of odds and ends.”
By this time I was fidgeting so badly that Jim asked, “Are you O.K?”
“Ja, ja, ja,” I said impatiently. “Please go on, Johanna. What you are telling is getting more and more exciting to me!”
“Yes,” added Jim. “South of Hamburg. That’s where my wife here - Margrit - came from.”
“Really? Well then ...we had our first two children in Germany, the other two were born after we immigrated to Canada. We brought my bike with us. Our first baby bike basket was too worn by then, we tossed it. After our first little Canadian was born I had this here basket sent from Holland. We couldn’t find anything like it here.”
“Don’t we know,” was Jim’s reaction. “What happened to your husband’s bike?”
“It was stolen in Germany. He never got another one here.” Johanna lifted one shoulder, “Served us right. Tit for tat. All is fair in love or war, right?” Johanna smiled a little, her mind far away.
I couldn’t sit still any more. I had questions to ask!
“Was the town you stayed in south of Hamburg called “Luneburg?”
“Yes!” Johanna’s eyes grew large.
“And the river you got water from was called “Ilmenau”?”
“Yes,” Johanna whispered.
“And the lady of the house you were billeted into was called “Anke Gottschling”?”
I didn’t wait for her answer, but jumped up, plopped little Vivi on her father’s lap and hugged Johanna while she called, “Yes, yes, yes, it was “Anke”!”
“Oh my god,” I choked. “That was my mother! That was my home! That’s where I grew up!”
Do I need to say more? We held each other, tears running down our faces. Jim stood with Vivi on his arm. Even he had tears in his eyes. It took a while to sink in and for us to calm and sit down again. Johanna told how my mother had worried about me, not knowing where I was in those last frightful weeks of WWII. She asked about my father and was delighted to hear that he had survived four years of merciless prisoner camp in Siberia and was back home in Luneburg with my mom. As for the Green Machine, there was a lot more to it than just being any old bike that proved to be indestructible in eight decades of hard use.
When Johanna van Deijk told about a green bike left at their front yard fence by a German soldier, it came back to me that my father had spoken of a green bike (then an unusual colour) leaning against a house wall in Holland. He had “borrowed” it in desperation after marching for already fifty kilometres and still moving on. Blisters on his feet rubbed raw, the pain was unendurable. At least I left it in Holland he had said, to justify borrowing the bike.
My father was eighty when my parents came from Germany to visit us in Alberta. He was all eyes when wandering around our place, not missing anything. I saw him stop dead in his tracks in front of the Green Machine. He examined it closely, took it by the handlebar, put his left foot on the pedal, pushed off, swung his right leg over the saddle and pedalled down our long lane and through the gate onto the gravelled county road. An hour had elapsed by the time he came back, delight written all over him.
“This bike is exactly like the one I borrowed in Holland during the war,” he said with enthusiasm. “They don’t build simple running machines like this, anymore.”
“Maybe this is the bike you borrowed in Holland,” I said.
My father snorted in incredulity while he leaned the Green Machine against the fence.
“Maybe this is the bike you borrowed in Holland,” I repeated. “All is fair in love and war fashion,” I added, remembering what Mrs. van Deijk had said. My father gave the saddle an affectionate pat. When he started to walk away I said quietly, “This green bike was built in Holland around 1930 and brought over by Dutch Immigrants in 1951.”
My father turned around and looked at me, speechless. One could have heard a needle drop.