“We’re going to have a problem next year with the tumbling team,” I told my blond curly haired best friend, Steve Craig.
“Why is that?”
Steve and I were lowly freshmen at Richardson High School in Dallas that spring of 1969. I had been on Coach Spangler’s private tumbling team for three years. We worked out before school started in the morning at the high school gym with boys and girls of all ages. In those days we mostly performed on the trampoline and tumbling on mats. The team traveled around north Texas and Oklahoma performing acrobatic shows for county fairs, college and professional basketball game half time acts, and Dallas Cowboy pregame shows.
“This was your first year, so you probably didn’t pay much attention to the older guys on the team,” I said.
“No, not really. I was just trying to get good enough to make the team.”
“Remember our clown, Tom?”
“Yeah. He kept diving over people on the ground and falling off the trampoline.”
“He graduated and we won’t have a clown next year,” I said.
“Can’t he still be on the team?”
“You didn’t hear. He and the other seniors were drafted to go to Vietnam,” I replied.
“Coach says we need to come up with a new act.”
“Hmm. What could that be?”
“I was thinking.”
“That usually gets you in trouble,” Steve said with a grin.
“That’s the fun of it. Anyhow, I went to the traveling circus last winter and everyone loved the clown on the unicycle.”
“Yeah man. Wouldn’t it be cool to learn to ride one for the team?”
“You know it. But we don’t have a unicycle,” Steve pointed out.
“Not yet. But I have a birthday coming up in May. I’ll ask Mom for one.”
Steve grinned. “Good idea.”
“If I learn to ride it, you will have to also.”
“No problem. I can do anything you can.”
He was right about that. In his first year on the team, Steve had already learned most of my trampoline tricks. We spent hours after school practicing on the trampoline in my back yard with the other kids in the neighborhood. I would dare him to try a new flip and he got up there and had it down in no time. He was a natural trampolinist.
“How tall a unicycle are you thinking about?”
“Hmm. Taller is cooler,” I said with a grin.
“Taller is also further to fall down.”
“Right. I always say don’t go higher than you want to fall. I’ll get the short three-footer.”
When my birthday rolled around, I became the proud owner of the only Schwinn unicycle in town. The next day, Steve and I wheeled it out to my driveway and looked at it with curiosity.
“How are you going to get on it, Gordon? That’s not like a bicycle.”
“Well.” I lifted the seat up over the wheel and let go. Down it crashed.
“Do you meant it didn’t come with training wheels?” Steve snickered.
“No handle bars either.” It dawned on me that I would not be able to climb on it like a bike. No problem. I took it to a wall so I would have something to hold onto. Hmm. The wheel and seat were situated such that to sit on the seat, my feet would be six to fifteen inches off the ground. I couldn’t just step onto the pedals and sit on the seat. We didn’t have YouTube for quick lessons and the guys in the bicycle shop had no idea how to ride the strange wheel.
“What do you think?” I asked Steve.
“I’m not sure. As the pedals rotate, the balance point under the seat changes.”
“Right. No coasting and braking like a bicycle. The pedal turns the wheel forward and backward.” I put the wheel next to the wall and tried to step up onto a pedal and seat at the same time. Stepping on the pedal pushed the other pedal up and backward to smack into my shin as the seat moved forward. Down I fell, cursing and rolling on the ground as Steve laughed.
“That looked like it really hurt,” he said.
“Shut up. You try to get on.”
Steve cautiously repeated my performance and was shortly rolling on the ground with a bruised shin also. We both burst out laughing.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” he said.
“Maybe not, but I can learn anything.”
That first afternoon we spent a lot of time smashing our legs and scraping our hands on the driveway as we fell over and over. Cutoff jeans were mandatory attire in the summer heat, leaving the knees exposed to coarse pavement. We quit beating ourselves up at dinner time and vowed to learn to ride my new toy.
The next afternoon, I told Steve, “I’m going to hold onto the wall with one hand and you hold onto my other hand to keep me up.”
“That might work.”
I positioned one pedal all the way down and held onto the seat as I stepped up. The seat came under me and I reached out for Steve. He grabbed my hand to stabilize me. I stayed up.
“That’s the trick,” I said as the seat and wheel moved back and forth independently. “Okay, now I’ll pedal.” The problem was, the top pedal didn’t turn the way I wanted, so it went backward as I leaned forward and fell into Steve’s arms.
“I don’t think that’s the trick,” he said.
“Damn. Let me do it again.” Over and over I tried, but I couldn’t control the top pedal.
“My turn,” Steve finally said.
Same story. He kept tumbling down on me as the wheel went where it wanted to go independently of the seat. After a couple of hours of beating ourselves up, we were worn out and dripping with sweat.
“Steve, this is harder than the trampoline. But I’m not quitting. If those clowns can ride it so can I.”
“Me too. We have to learn to ride this summer so Coach will let us use it in the shows.”
So began a long odyssey. For two or three hours a day in the scorching Texas sun, Steve and I tore up the unicycle seat from crashes and shredded our hands, knees, and shins. Good thing we were gymnasts and knew how to roll out of the falls without breaking ourselves. Still, we contributed much skin to hot asphalt that summer. Falling onto grass would have been much better, but there was no way to ride on lumpy grass. The day I learned to walk off the pedals and catch the seat with my hands without falling down was special. I gradually learned that the starting position should be with both pedals horizontal so I could control frontward and backward wheel turn. On a bicycle, I would sit straight up and pedal forward. I had to unlearn that bad habit and lean forward into a fall and then pedal the wheel up under the fall. Keep leaning and pedaling into a fall. It was particularly difficult to try to pedal in one direction and the darned wheel, for no good reason, would spin 360 degrees in any direction away from the direction the seat was going. I would flail my arms in all directions to control the balance and keep the seat over the top of the tire.
Once I conquered a semi-straight line, the next challenge was turning in a desired direction. I learned to throw my arm around my body in the direction of turn like when twisting on the trampoline. We gradually became smooth riders and could idle, which was stopping the unicycle in place and rock back and forth. I challenged Steve to ride up a street curb one day and in no time he figured out that his approach had to be adjusted so that the curb was hit with the right side pedal just past the top. Stepping hard on that top pedal and lifting on the seat scooted him up and over the curb. I had no choice but to learn also. I finally found a trick Steve could not copy when I started riding backward.
By the end of the summer, we had unicycle riding down pat. I told Coach we had a new act and I gave him a demonstration. He loved it and added it to the show. That is how I ended up riding my unicycle around the track of the Cotton Bowl as the Dallas Cowboys played the New York Jets in a preseason game. The best part was riding by Broadway Joe Namath as he warmed up. He looked over at me and grinned. I rode around the track until it was time for our act. We dragged the trampoline and mats to the middle of the field and performed acrobatics until game time. That does not happen anymore.
Once I entered college at the University of Texas, I rode around campus and fit in with the other crazy people of my 70’s generation. After college, the unicycle hung on the garage wall until my daughter, Stephanie, was born. I started riding again to entertain her and hoped she would develop an interest in riding the one wheeled monster. To stimulate her curiosity, I would sit her on my shoulders as I rode around the street on the unicycle. Stephanie was fearless and I never fell with her on top. Sadly, she tried but never learned to ride my clown toy.
When I finally grew up in my 40’s, the unicycle seldom left the garage. On occasion, I would step out on it just to prove to myself that I still had balance.
At age 61, I had major heart surgeries, knee replacements, concussions, and other ailments of old age. I lost my balance and quit trying to ride. When I told Stephanie I was selling my antique unicycle, she said no; that I could find my balance again. I laughed and forgot about it.
On January 1, 2019, I made a New Years resolution that I would learn to ride again. I dusted off the old seat and started over. Naturally, I crashed several times and was glad I could still roll with a fall. Now, two weeks later, I ride across the parking lot every day and am struggling to learn to turn again. This will be my way to get my muscles and heart strong again and keep my balance for many years to come.