Poetry and Paper Routes

“Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” said the English poet Robert Browning one hot afternoon as he was doing his newspaper route. At least I assume that’s what he was doing. At least those were my thoughts though not so poetically phrased. Peddling a heavy bag on your handlebars uphill can inspire visions of easier ways to introduce the paper to the porch. A motorbike was always my first aspiration. There were no sporty small motorcycles in those days. Big Harley Hogs, Indian Cycles, and for the gentleman, BMW touring cruisers pretty well had the two wheel field to themselves.

Cushman motor scooters, and the Whizzer, a motorized contraption you bolted on to your bicycle were the smaller alternatives. The Whizzer was also available on a heavy duty bike frame of its own. The big bikes were too husky to justify for carrying a paper bag. The Cushman and even the Whizzer would beat peddle power but you would have to deliver an astronomical number of newspapers to pay for them.

The only alternative was to design and build your own motor bike. So that’s what I did. Every afternoon in my mind. Sometimes I shared my dream project with my father. He encouraged me with words like “ridiculous, impossible”, and the all purpose word when dealing with genius, “can’t.”

I soldiered on. Now and then I would stumble upon a startling boost to my inspiration. Like the time I found an unusual object on the road. I picked it up, examined it and caught a flash of vision as I turned it in my fingers. “What if this is the secret component to building a motorbike? The lynchpin that makes everything else fall into place easily and inexpensively? Later I happened to see an identical part on the winding mechanism of somebody’s fly fishing rod, but hey who knows, it might be adaptable.

My project got a rocket boost like the Millennium Falcon blasting into warp speed (four decades later in the “Star Wars” movies.) A classified ad in the old “Mechanics Illustrated” magazine (since gone out of business, maybe for running too many such ads.) offered a jet engine you could bolt on to your bicycle, or plans with which you could build it yourself. I ordered the plans. They were cheaper. A hundred and thirty seven trips to the mailbox later I was tearing off the wrappings and feeling the wind in my hair as I cruised on my jet bike. Not so fast. The wind in my hair and the roar in my imagination slowed to a whisper and a flutter, then died. “This engine is no longer being manufactured, and there is no expectation it will ever be offered again.” Said the printed paper stuffed into the package.

Fortunately the plans to build it were easy to understand… if you were a PhD in aeronautical aviation from M.I.T. Even I could see there were no secret fly fishing rod parts in the blueprints.

I never say never with my projects. I just file them away until some future time when I can get back to them As Browning would say, “What’s a heaven for?”

And speaking of heaven, I still occasionally look up and catch the white contrail of a jet liner soaring above me. I think, “That bird is doing about six hundred miles an hour. Even if I got my jet bike up to just half that speed I could have done my paper route in 39 seconds.”