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Meeting the Son of a Slave: You Never Know Who You Will Meet on the Road of Life

Written by Subject: Travel

                              "Be like the bird

                               Who when landing on branch too slender,

                               feels it give way beneath him;

                               Yet sings, because he has wings.

                               Well, we have wings, wings of the spirit,

                               With this attitude we can not be defeated.

                               You see, there is a peace of God that goes

                               beyond all our ordinary understanding.

                               I hope you find enough to help you."

                                                                     Victor Hugo

                                                                     Duncan Littlefair

            Heat punctuates the air in South Georgia every summer. ­Humidity sticks to the skin like plastic sandwich wrap.  For­ riding, the combination is torture.  All I could think about while sweating my way down the road was the next convenience­ store where I could buy a half gallon of ice cold orange juice.

            How much did I sweat on Route 82 headed into Waycross?  It ­was so hot and humid that it was like pedaling inside a steam ­sauna.  Sweat dripped from my scalp, before running down the back­ of my spine where it soaked into my shirt.  From my forehead, it ­ran down into my glasses where it pooled on the rims.  Some of it­ escaped down my nose where it dripped onto the top tube, then­ splattered onto my legs.  Sweat hung from my chin and ear lobes­ until I shook it off.  It ran down my arms, glistening through ­the hairs until it soaked my riding gloves.   Rest stops made it ­worse when it dried and left salt cakes on my body and clothes. 

            Nonetheless, I was having a good time.  A passing car's ­bumper sticker said it all:  "A bad day of bicycling is better­ than a good day of work."  It was true, I didn't mind the sweat ­because I was exploring the South.  I'm not saying that it was­ scads of fun, nor was I in comfort, but at that moment in ­Georgia, that's the way it was--hot and miserable.  I accepted it ­because to complain would be useless.  It's times like that,­ especially on a bike, I just live; I accept the moment.  That's ­the special intrigue of bicycle touring.  Sure, I love riding on ­the flats on an autumn day.  It's easy pedaling and the air is­ cool.  I'm comfortable and dry.  It sure beats busting my butt­ going up a 6,000 foot climb on a hot day.  But there's the catch. ­The flats have their own beauty, but it doesn't compare to the ­mountains.  Given the choice, I'd take the mountains even with ­the price of the climb.  

            That's the point--I accept the flats ­when they are happening, yet love the mountains when its time for ­climbing.  I couldn't change any of it at one moment anyway.  I­ take it a day at a time. 

            No doubt about it that muggy day in South Georgia.  I­ couldn't wait for a convenience store.  I was ready to buy their ­entire stock of orange juice.  I was dehydrated and I couldn't­ drink fast enough to replenish my fluids.  Ahead on the left, I spotted a dilapidated paint chipped building kitty-corner to the­ pavement.  Gray moss hung down the sides of the faded white paint­ and red dust lined the windowsills.  Coke and Pepsi coolers with­ their colored logos stood like military sentries on both sides of­ a broken screen door.  Two faded red Texaco gas pumps with broken­ glass over the meters stood out in the sun.  A bent tin roof ­provided shade for two long benches alongside the building.  I looked like a dripping fountain as I rode up near the gas pumps ­and laid my bike against a pole.  Two old men stared at me, but­ said nothing.  Off to the side, a thin, gray-haired black man in­ tattered clothes sat gumming his ice cream.  

            Seconds later the door slammed behind me, kicking up a dozen­ flies on the screen mesh.  Inside, a dirty wood floor led past a ­huge lady sitting behind the counter, knitting a sweater.  She ­wore a basket-full of curlers in her hair, with three extra chins ­tumbling down from below her lips.  I headed for the cooler.

            "How ya'll today?" she asked.

            "Just fine ma'am," I replied. "Sure am thirsty.  Does it get­ any hotter than this?"

            "You better believe it son," she said. "Last week, it was 96­with the humidity over 90."

            "How can you stand it?" I asked.

            "The weather is like the flies," she replied. "You can't do­ nothin' about 'em, so you just get used to 'em."

            "I guess you're right," I said. "Do you have any half­-gallons of OJ?  I only see quarts."

            "What ya'll see is what ya'll git."

            "You got any cookies?"  

            "Yes sir, near the bread on the second isle over."

            I paid for two quarts of orange juice and a bag of chocolate ­chips.  Seconds later, the screen door slammed behind me, kicking­ up the flies again.  An old geezer had pulled up to the pumps and ­was filling his pickup with gas.  He complained about the heat. ­The two old men continued staring at me in silence.  I wondered­ if they were alive.

            After swigging the first quart, I inhaled a handful of­ cookies.  A mongrel dog got up from behind the Pepsi cooler, ­walked over and sniffed me.  He looked at my bag of cookies with­ pleading eyes.  "Okay buddy, here's one for you, but that's all­ you get, unless you want to pedal my bicycle down the road."  I­ flipped him a cookie.  He walked back to his hard wood bed and ­began crunching on his prize.  I grabbed the orange juice and ­belted down half the jug. The cold liquid slid down my throat ­and filled my stomach.  After chewing on a second handful of cookies, I noticed my chain was dry.  I tossed the bag of­ cookies onto the pack along with the second jug of orange juice. ­After unzipping my tool pouch, I grabbed the spray can and spun ­the crank backwards.  The chain rolled through the pulleys and ­threaded its way around the freewheel, and back toward the middle­ chain-ring.  Most of the lengths were dry.  

            "You gotta' check this chain more often," I muttered to ­myself.  "This chain's dry as a bone."

            I sprayed both pulley axles and drenched the freewheel.  I ­cranked the pedals backwards slowly, spraying the chain as it ­came off the lower pulley.  No matter how careful I was, oil ­sprayed onto the rim.  As I squatted there, sweat dripping down­ from my brow and chin, the black man shuffled toward me.  I was­ nearly done when he stood over me.

            "Ever change the oil in yer' knees?" he mumbled.

            "What?" I asked, looking up at him.

            "You ever change the oil in yer' knees?" he repeated more ­clearly.

            At first I didn't know how to answer, but then I thought­ about it saying, "Only when they squeak, sir."

            He laughed through his gums.  The last of his ice cream cone ­vanished into his mouth.

            "How far has you ridden that bicycle anyways?" 

            "From the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco." I said. 

            "Naw!  You ain't gonna' tell ol' Charlie a lie now are ya'?"­ he said.  "The devil gonna' take you if you don't tell the truth ­now ya' hear?"

            "It's true, I rode this bicycle starting from the Golden ­Gate Bridge.  I've been on the road three months.  It's no big­ deal.  Lot's of people have ridden across America on a bicycle."

            "Well, I'll be hanged," he said. "I never dreamed a man­ could ride across this whole country."

            "Some people have ridden a bicycle around the world."

            We got to talking, ole Charlie and me.  This 91-year-old­ man, wearing tattered clothes, was the son of a slave who was­ freed by Lincoln back in 1865.  This toothless man, with clouded ­black eyes, yet a clear mind, possessed more historical knowledge ­than a history book.  His father was brought over to America in­ chains on a slave ship to pick cotton in the Carolinas.  When­ things heated up over the abolitionist movement, his father was ­sold to a tobacco grower in Waycross.  After the Civil War,­ things didn't change much for his father, except he got married ­and fathered five children.  Charlie was the youngest. He never ­went to school and to this day couldn't read or write. He had ­worked on farms all his life and had outlived his wife and four­ kids, save one.  

            He felt that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest president, ­but he wished that Jesse Jackson would one day would live in the ­White House. If Jesse couldn't make it, then Bill Cosby would ­make a good second choice, to keep some humor in politics.

            This intriguing old man captivated me for an hour.  He was ­an enthusiastic, walking, talking history book.  He hadn't been­ out of the county in his 91 years, but he had listened to radio, ­then television, and stored everything he had learned in a lucid memory.  As he talked, a pattern of his life and his attitude­ illuminated every historical perspective.  What held my attention ­was his span of reference.  He was born in 1889 before ­electricity, before cars, before paved roads.  In his time, he ­had seen the entire modern world develop with unbelievable speed.

            "What was the greatest moment of your life?" I asked.

            "There was such a great many moments Charlie has seen, but ­maybe when Mr. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, that has to be ­the greatest moment of Charlie's life," he said. "All his life, ­Charlie has been lookin' up at that ole man in the moon, but when­ Mr. Armstrong walked on it, well, that was the greatest moment."

            "How about the worst?"

            "Lotta' worsts young fella'," he said. "These many years ­later, Charlie can't figure out why human beings has to keep hurtin' each other."

            "What's the most important thing in life?" I asked.

            "After good health, it's got to be love.  You gots to love­ someone.  An someone gots to love you."

            Later, Charlie departed with his 70 year old son.  I watched­ as they sped away down the dusty dirt road leading into the ­Georgia back country.  

            The next day, I reached the Atlantic Ocean. My coast to ­coast adventure ended, but Charlie and dozens of other people ­convinced me that nothing ends until you die.  Without question,­ living is an attitude manifested by spirit.  

            Bicycle touring is the spiritual vehicle for adventure that ­I call traveling at the 'human speed.'  It beats the measured ­pace of walking, yet surpasses in quality experiences the ­alacrity of 60 mile per hour.  You can smell the flowers along ­the way.  The day is yours and the road leads you to anywhere in­ the world.  Along the way, some of the people you meet, share the ­simplest, truest truths in life.  Have I ever changed the oil in ­my knees?  

            Only when they squeak.

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