And Only Two
Excerpt of a speech by Paul Niquette
Internet Version
Copyright ©1990 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.

Once in awhile I stand here in what would be my living room and see the old bicycles. Really see them. That venerable velocipede, there, for instance, with its wagon-like wheels, spool pedals, vestigial horse's head. "Boneshaker," they called it. I see the iron, the wood, the leather. The thing was built in 1861 -- before the Civil War -- about the time oil was discovered at Edwin Drake's well near Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Before the Petroleum Age.

State of the art technology: Water came from wells, light from candles. Electricity was the stuff of storms, only. A hundred years later, a man walked on the Moon.

This room could be a musty shed. I see the forge, the sledge, the tongs. It is evening. I hear the clang of the anvil, the sigh of the bellows. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but sometimes I almost feel the presence of the builder. Farmer, most likely. Face streaked with soot.

"What are you doing?" his wife asks.

He mops his brow and shrugs. "Building something."

"Looks like a wheel."

The man is not unmindful that there are vital things which need doing: Fields to plow, a harvest to bring in.

Not obvious exactly how this thing is supposed to work, he thinks. One wheel in front of another. And only two. He saw an engraving once. Faster than a horse, some say. Still, you cannot simply buy a boneshaker. You have to shape every piece yourself. Fit one to another. Then you ride the thing. Maybe.

"Getting dark. You want supper?"

"In a while."

In the dim light, I see where the iron overlaps on the rear fork. One piece was not big enough. A problem. Not all problems had solutions back then. You had to accept that. Harsh problems, some of them. The germ theory of disease was a long way off. Anaesthesia, too. Neither were hoped for, let alone expected. You got sick, you died. Pain meant suffering.

The farmer has a vision, though. And not a little ingenuity. Hammering in the heat, he fashions two glowing pieces into one. Might last a lifetime, he muses. Longer even. It will last into the next century.

Into a time during which every problem is assumed to have a solution. Take it for granted. Into a time of expectations. A disease without a cure means a march on Washington.

But some problems don't get fixed so easy. The water poisons, the air chokes, hapless crowds grind against one another. Slower than a horse, we go. Reality mocks the promises. Still, only a fool would say, there are no solutions. All you need is one wheel in front of another. 

And only two.

The Big Bike
Official Website