Father of Good Roads
by Paul Niquette
Internet Version
Copyright ©1990 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.

"Back up," shouted the director.

I took a few steps in reverse, grasping the big bike by its nickel plated backbone.  I was now at the far extreme of Rockefeller Plaza, trembling with anticipation.  The director, clipboard under one arm, pressed his headphone to his ear and flashed a harried smile.  I straightened my cap one last time and positioned my foot upon the mounting step, which is affixed to the left side of the machine.

The director faced me with hand held high, five fingers spread.  We waited for the news segment and commercials to be completed up in the NBC studios.  The early morning sun made me squint to see the X chalked onto the sidewalk in front of the camera.  Where's Miss Pauley? I wondered to myself.

On May 2, 1977, The Today Show paid tribute to the hundredth anniversary of bicycles in America.  My old high-wheel was to be featured in the opening, followed by an interview.  That day I met Jane Pauley.  Me!

When I arrived in the pre-dawn hours, the security guard at Rockefeller Center did not want to let me into the building.  There may have been something about my appearance: a burly, unsmiling man with waxed moustache, garbed in close fitting knickerbockers and long socks, black cycling shoes of the 19th Century, formal jacket covered with riding medals, stiff-collared shirt, four-in-hand tie, duck-billed cap low over my brow -- thus stood I in that echoing lobby, urgently waving around an oversized pocketwatch on the end of its gold chain.

The guard was not influenced especially.  Of no help at all was the ancient high-wheel bicycle standing beside me on the marble floor, taller than the guard.

Suddenly I heard her voice nearby.  "It's all right, Wendel," Miss Pauley said to the guard.  "Mr. Niquette is with me."  I turned and gaped into the dim light.

She offered me her hand.  I inadvertently gave her my watch with chain still attached.  Miss Pauley, no stranger to flustering, chuckled.  I could feel myself staring.  She strode toward the elevator.  I followed closely, pushing along my venerable machine.

"Your interview will be conducted outside in the Plaza,"  said Miss Pauley.  "Wendel will take good care of your -- don't tell me -- 'Ordinary,' it's called.  Am I right?"

 I nodded and looked back at the guard, who nodded.

 "Am I pronouncing your name correctly, by the way?" she asked.

I nodded again and tried in vain to smile.  She had done her homework.  A thought attempted to cross my mind: some kind of lady!  I opened my mouth.  Nothing came out.  Miss Pauley waved to Wendel.  I leaned the bicycle against a lobby wall and stumbled into the elevator.

"My staff was quite taken with your 'rebate' idea," she said, referring to some pre-interview notes I had submitted.  I could feel my face glowing.

Energy conservation was high on Carter's crowded agenda in 1977: "Moral Equivalent of War," remember?  His administration had proposed that the U.S. Treasury provide incentives for fuel economy. 

One plan would grant rebates on new cars in proportion to their mileage.  Gas guzzlers would get nothing, but a sub-compact might fetch as much as several hundred dollars for its new owner. 

"Just think," I had said in my notes, "what a bicycle would warrant.  Why, for every bike you bought, the government would be obliged to buy you two more."

"Do me a favor," Miss Pauley said conspiratorially.   "Don't tell Tom about that idea.  It hasn't been decided who will do your interview.  If Brokaw wins the draw, let him ask you about the 'Father of Good Roads'." The elevator door opened.

A hushed flurry of activity immediately engulfed the two of us.  An aide admonished Miss Pauley that it was a few minutes before air-time and that her make-up lady was looking for her.  I stood agog.  There was Senator Charles Percy.  Miss Pauley introduced us and explained that the senator would be on in the second hour.

"You'll be a tough act to follow," he commented.  Senator Percy could see my puzzled expression.  "Extraordinary attire, there."   I looked down at my garments and grinned sheepishly.

Miss Pauley proceeded to show me around the Today Show set, pointing to cameras and prompters, while making a steady stream of introductions.  Despite her efforts, I felt anything but at ease.  I'll admit, the expression "sensory overload" might well have describe my state of mind.  And there was something else, too.

The make-up lady rushed up breathlessly.  "Where have you been!"

"One moment," said Miss Pauley.  Then in a low voice, winking at me: "Watch out for that Brokaw.  He likes to ad-lib.   Don't let him throw you."

I nodded my gratitude.  Miss Pauley handed her attache case to an aide and turned to leave.  "Is there anything else I can tell you?" she asked over her shoulder.

My first words to Jane Pauley: "I need a restroom."

The director suddenly waved his upraised hand, then pulled thumb across palm -- four seconds to go.  I squinted to watch the count.  He closed his fingers one by one with practiced flair.  Out of nowhere, Tom Brokaw appeared.  He took a position on the chalk mark and faced the camera.  Nothing like cutting it close!


A technician clipped on a lavalier microphone then crouched and backed away.


So, I won't be interviewed by Miss Pauley after all.  Drat.


I took a deep breath.  A red light shone on the camera.  The director gave me a beckoning wave.

With a quick hop, I pushed off and stood atop the mounting step, wavering.  As the right pedal on the big wheel came around, I vaulted onto the saddle and steadied myself, while millions watched.  Millions!  I sat up straight, unsmiling.  My eyes sought a place beyond the horizon.

The NBC camera tracked a majestic 19th Century specter rolling along through Rockefeller Plaza.  Gliding ever nearer.

Brokaw began his introduction.  (Members of my family from all over the nation would call me that week to laugh about his pronunciation of my name.)  As I approached, I began to make out his words.  "..., an executive with a major corporation, who commutes on his bicycle to his office in Connecticut each day in all kinds of weather."

Time to dismount.  Careful!  In one sweeping motion, I swung my leg over the saddle and floated to the ground immediately beside Brokaw.  I grasped at the backbone to arrest the big bike's escape.

Completion of my riding demonstration, however, marked the beginning -- not the end -- of the hard part.  I awkwardly offered Mr. Brokaw my hand.  He winced (Today Show guests are cautioned not to do that, but I forgot).  There was a fumbling handshake, and Tom Brokaw's microphone came loose.  He made a grab for it and dropped his notes.  This is live television.  So much for any preparations by the production staff.

 "When people see you riding that thing, they must think you're some kind of a kook," he said.

That took me aback.  My mind locked up.  Chagrined and not a little peeved was I.  The camera dollied closer.  A grimace seized my face.

For me, bicycling is a serious matter -- an environmentally benign form of adult transportation that conserves fossil resources for future generations.  I had welcomed the invitation to appear on national television, for I solemnly hoped to use the opportunity to make, as they say, a 'statement' -- to millions of people about the practical merits of 'mankind's most virtuous invention.'

Some kind of 'kook'?

Anyone who belittles the subject of bicycling deserve the maximum condemnation of which I am capable.  Specifically, they are not welcome in my home.

Indignation flooded my thoughts.

As for this Brokaw fellow, someone should have told him that I turned down an invitation to appear on the Mike Douglas show, because I knew he, much like Carson and Griffin, would make fun of bicycles.  I expected more of the Today Show.  I don't need this. 

Why, I even declined an opportunity to ride in the Rose Parade because the sponsor (an oil company) wanted me to dress up like a clown.  Well, I am not a clown.  I'm a modern business executive who celebrates a common interest with bicyclists of the 19th Century -- doctors, lawyers, merchants, the well-to-do...

A long moment of silence -- "dead air," in the trade.   The director took off his spectacles and gestured in urgent circles.  My awareness of the situation gradually returned.

"Kook?" I shook my head.  "I haven't heard that, no."

Brokaw disregarded my mumbled reply.  The technician had handed him his notes while the camera was on me.  I forced a grin.  He asked me about the influence of bicycles on today's society, my cue to talk about the history of highways.

"In the 19th Century, there were none," I explained, as I have done before countless audiences.  "Horses don't need paved roads.  Bicycles do.  It was Albert Augustus Pope, founder of the Pope Manufacturing Company (now Columbia), who brought bicycling to the U.S.  That was exactly a hundred years ago, in 1877.  His company built my Ordinary.  Pope lobbied successfully for the earliest macadam paving and became known as the 'Father of Good Roads.'  Thus, the motorists of today owe a debt of gratitude to Pope and to the bicycle.  Automobile drivers might also think of showing more respect for --"

Brokaw broke in with an ad-lib: "Isn't it scary riding this bike on the expressway every day?"

Shit, I wanted to say. 

First, I don't commute on the high-wheel bicycle.  Second, nobody with a functioning brain would ride any kind of bicycle on the expressway -- or ask a dumb-ass question like that.  Millions of parents and children at this exact second are apt to get the wrong -- dangerously wrong -- idea.  I felt another frown coming on.  I struggled to find acceptable words.  The director took his glasses off again.

Parenthesis,  here's what I wish I had had the presence of mind to say...

"Mr. Brokaw, my bicycle is a hundred years old, a relic from the pre-petroleum age.  Back then, the first paved roads appeared, long before automobiles.  If there is one thing the Today Show might wish to express to your viewers, it's this: a hundred years from now, in the post-petroleum age, all the paved roads, including the expressways, will be returned to the exclusive use of bicycles.  Until then, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for your own safety, stay the hell on bike-paths and side-roads."

Instead of saying any of that, I reverted to mutter-mode.  "Expressways? -- uh, no.  That is, I don't --   Let me put it this way: on expressways -- "  My voice cracked.  I shook my head.

Tom Brokaw gave me a stony look.

The director signalled a cut at the throat and started finger-counting for a commercial break.  For a long moment, I studied the tops of my riding shoes.

Off camera, a group of whispering children formed a line along Rockefeller Plaza, each astride a colorful new bicycle with a banana seat and a handlebar basket full of flowers.  They waited to be cued for the opening of the next segment.  Brokaw read a list of up-coming features off a cue card.  Jane Pauley hurriedly joined the group of children.  She looked my way.  The light on the camera blinked off.  Miss Pauley shrugged and smiled sympathetically.  Tom Brokaw spun on his heel and headed for the studio.  The camera was dollied away.

My car with its custom-made rack for the big bike was parked a block away from Rockefeller Plaza.  Alone now, I pushed the machine along the sidewalk and onto the street.

Why not ride? I thought.

So ride I did.  Directly past the parking garage and beyond.  The morning rush was in full force.  I continued to ride and ride.  All over Manhattan I rode, accompanied by choruses of exuberant greetings.

Busy people slowed their pace to a stroll and smiled up at me.  Traffic stopped at intersections, all four ways.  Cabs pulled over and honked with glee.

Face it.  I was born in the wrong century.

By mid afternoon, I had covered as much as 50 miles, jumping off frequently to chat about 'mankind's most virtuous invention' with crowds of people.

Not millions.  A few hundred, maybe.

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