Of all the fix-it jobs on the face of the earth, few are more rewarding than repairing a kid's bike.
Fixing a kid's bike restores order to the universe. A small body once reluctantly at rest is transformed into an exuberant body in motion.
Where once was sulking immobility there is suddenly joyful motion.
Most of the repairs jobs I've done on my kids' bicycles have been minor. I straighten a bent handle bar. Tighten a loose wheel nut. Replace a reflector.
But the other day I undertook a big bike job, for me -- I shortened a bicycle chain.
The bike I was fixing didn't even belong to one of my kids. It used to
belong to my 6-year-old. But after the ball bearings in the pedal assembly wore out and the fellow at the bike shop said it couldn't be fixed, the bike sat in the back yard. I bought a used bike as replacement wheels for the 6-year-old. Meanwhile, the broken bike was claimed by one our kids' playmates.
When the playmate said he wanted the bike, I tightened a few nuts and the kid pedaled away. He got about two blocks before the chain fell off. I told him I would fix the problem. I did. This time, the fix stayed on for about three blocks before falling off. The chain was too long. I promised the kid I would shorten it, someday.
And so it was that this bike became the promise that wouldn't go away. I would come home from work and see the bike lurking in a corner of the back yard, waiting for me. Or I would hurry out the door, late for some appointment, and out of the corner of my eye I would see the sun glistening on one of bike wheels, reminding me of a promise that I hadn't kept.
Sometimes when the boy came over to our house to play with my kids, he would ask to borrow my tools. Then he would try to fix the bike.
That made me feel guilty. One day I tried to give the bike away by parking it in the alley. But the kid found the bike, or found the kid who had tried to claim the bike, and wheeled it back to me.
Finally on a sweltering weekend, I resolved to fix the chain. Three of us, one of my kids and the bike's owner, walked over to the neighborhood hardware store, Belle Paint and Hardware. There for 25 cents we bought a quick link, a device that would reconnect the chain after I had pulled it apart and shortened it.
returned home. The kids crowded around me as I picked up a screwdriver and hammer and tried to pry the chain apart. It wouldn't pry. Next, holding the chain with the teeth of a pair of locking pliers, and using a nail punch and hammer, I tried to knock loose the pins that held the links together. Again, I didn't have any luck.
So I returned to the hardware store where Maurice Jackson, a worker there who seems to know how to fix everything, took charge.
He held the chain steady with a pair of locking pliers. Then using a thin screwdriver and hammer, he pushed back the metal near the pins. Finally, using a chisel, he snapped off the top of the pins. He took three links out of the chain.
The chain gang, the two kids and I, traipsed back to the back yard. This time the kids didn't watch me. They seem bored. I felt hurried. In 30 minutes the 6-year-old and I were due down at the Peabody Conservatory to watch his big brother perform.
And as often happens when time is short, I hurried into a mistake. Instead of putting the chain back together when it was on the bike, I took it off. I hammered the replacement link in the chain, then tried to get the chain back on the bike.
For 10 minutes I pulled and twisted the chain. The experience reminded me of geometry problems on the college board exams. And like those problems, this one had me baffled.
So I quit for the day. I told the bike's owner to go home, that I would finish fixing his bike tomorrow. He seemed disappointed. Meanwhile I ran a wash cloth over my 6-year-old, threw some clean clothes his direction and we hurried to his brother's performance. We made it, with 30 seconds to spare.
The next morning, Sunday, I put the chain on the bike the correct way. I took out the replacement link. Instead of a closed loop, the chain was now a flexible line. This made it much easier to fit on the bike. When the chain was in place, I hammered the replacement link in.
Then I tightened the wheels and, after a test-drive by my 6-year-old, declared the bike ready for action.
I was upstairs taking a shower when the neighborhood kid came over and took his first ride on the resurrected bike.
I was hurrying to our next scheduled event, a christening. But as my family piled in the car and off to church, my kids reported their buddy was pleased with his "new" bike.
A few seconds later, as our car bounced down the alley, the kid came around the corner on his bike.
He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. He was grinning from ear to ear.
Later I learned that there is an easier way to shorten bicycle chains. Lowell Sakers, a mechanic at the Stoneleigh bicycle shop, told me that a chain-cutting tool, ranging from $3 to $8, would do the job quickly.
If I had to fix a kid's bike again I would get one of those chain-cutting tools.
And after seeing the joy in that kid's face as he wheeled down the alley, it is a task I would definitely repeat.