KING COLUMN: The bicycle man

Published 4:53 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Last Sunday, we honored our fathers.  When I was a young teenager, mine died suddenly at the age of 54. That was now 54 years ago.  A few years after my father’s death, Jean and I began dating. A couple year after that she became my wife. When we married, I gained another father…father-in-law, that is.

At first, Jean had me scared to death of her dad. Because he worked a night shift job at the time, Jean and I had dated for a while before ever saw him. He was a hard-working man who rarely ever missed a day of work, but eventually we did meet. Even as a teenager, I was taller than him, but I noticed that his arms were bigger than mine. That was because he had worked out for several years. No, he didn’t work out in a gym pumping iron. He worked out on a linen truck throwing linen-filled bags on top of his truck. That will build biceps, and his were built. I knew I didn’t want to have a boxing match with him, and I never did.

He turned out to be a pretty-good guy, good father-in-law, and a friend. Like me, he grew up on Sand Mountain. He also, like me, grew up pumping peddles on a bicycle. I used to love to hear his stories about where all he had ridden his bike. He rode that bicycle all over the mountain. He even rode if off the mountain on several occasions (no, not off the side of the mountain, but down the highway). The road down one side led to Fort Payne and on the other side to Scottsboro. He rode to both. I asked him once if riding down the mountain was hard. With his often-present sense of humor, he replied, “No, riding down wasn’t the hard part!” Jean asked once if he ever had to get off and push it back up. He answered, “You don’t push a bicycle, you ride it!” I guess his answer was no. He and a buddy of his rode all the way to Chattanooga once. That was over 100-miles round trip. His bike was not a modern-day one with multiply gears to make that kind of trip easier.

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When the time came, he taught his children how to ride their bikes as well. As fathers often do, he ran along behind Jean holding up her bike while she peddled. Finally, one day when she hollered, “Don’t turn loose,” she discovered he already had, and she was riding on her own!     

When Jean was growing up, her dad read to her. One of their favorites was the Sunday newspaper. They especially loved the comics, or the funnies, as he called them. Sometimes on Sunday mornings, early in the morning, he rode his bike over to Norrell’s Store to buy their weekly copy. That trek was several miles, but that was no problem for a seasoned rider like him.

He rode until he was in his late 60s, maybe even 70s. Even at that age he used to say, “I’m going to ride around the block.” In his country community of Pleasant Hill there were no blocks. His block was a big loop that was several miles long. He had a big white dog named Hercules that often accompanied him. Since Herc couldn’t ride a bike, he just tagged along on all fours!

If they have bicycles in heaven, Thomas Willis is riding one on the streets of gold now.  Six-years ago, at the age of 90, he rode out of here for his final trip.