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From cycle to cycle

Lately, I've been using my free time to lament my lack of free time. I didn't used to do this. There used to be enough time leftover in my days and weeks to do something important enough to repay my time and effort.

I'm trying not to be too taken in by any "grass is alsways greener" arguments -- especially reflecting back to my childhood. Then I spent all my free time doing the things I wanted -- and tried to see to it that there was neverm any time left over to do something more important.

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Those were the days of clubs: In my neighborhood, the places where dreams, real life, kids, and free time all got to know one another -- usually in trees, forts, under porches, and behind furnaces.

Ours weren't the kind of community- sanctioned boys' clubs with fixed itinerary and edifying ends -- Boy Scouts, Sea Scouts Church Lads' Brigade, and the like.

Ours were conceived in the restless minds of adolescents shackled by Saturday morning chores. Born at the coincidence of two or more fugitive souls with time enough to think up a name and concoct another secret code, they died only to rise again. They multiplied, subdivided, metamorphosed to accommodate the constantly tapping kaleidoscope of moods, fancies, and new faces.

One summer, when I was 10, the local crew of comrades on hand united in the garret over my best friend's garage. Our collective title -- "Dimensions" 10 letters ironed on the rear of our favorite sweat shirts.

We didn't realize until later that this kind of ex post facto identification would -- beyond its attractive merit as a public relations ploy -- save at lease one question as we rode off into the horizon (Just who were those . . . ?). Even the Lone Ranger wasn't cool enough to think of that.

A more-by-accident-than-design logic embraced our every activity, being guided more by the gentle hand of circumstance than our earnest little mugs dare let on

Thus it was that club location was decided not by vote but by whose mother was most willing to sacrifice a track-free carpet and storage space in some convenient, secret location. Membership was decided not by who could live up to some model creed, but by who was available and had an allowance big enough to pay regular dues. And figuring out the raison d'etrem somehow always got pushed to last on the list of club priorities.

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The majority of intrigue -- and time -- lay in the routine that was the lifeblood of any club: code writing, message sending, initiation procedures, creation of passwords, bylaws, rules, membership certificates, rings, seals. In short a preoccupation with the "hows" and "whats," with little attention paid to why. Who would interrupt all the fun to ask what the club was for?

We got to that. Eventually.

Those were the days when two-wheelers (balloon tires, fat fenders, no gears, no frills) still represented that most cherished and preferred, exotic and timeless, of possessions. The "Dimensions" hanppened onto destiny by virtue of our common mode of transportation, common destination (nowhere in particular), and all the energy in the world with which to get there.

This group eventually fell into a category somewhere between Hell's Angels and Paul Revere -- a vague amalgamation of mobile missionaries and self-aggrandizing pack rats. Our calling: neighborhood reconnaissance.

Streets, fields, alleys, and worn paths through the woods were our domain, bikes our faithful coursers, zeal and our 10-letter title our bond. On the lookout for interlopers, we patrolled a regular beat weekdays after school, Saturdays after chores, Sundays after church and before homework.

Chins thrust out, hands gripping hard, we bobbed and weaved from club headquarters down Webster Park Drive around the bird sanctuary into northmoor Park. Strick formation now, four bikes abreast, eight legs churning like egg beaters. Single file only to tightrope the foot-wide stone wall that banked the Olentangy River, and to outrace the white water below.

From here, into the woods; trails darkening, narrowing. The danger factor -- and our pulse rates -- soared.

Only the boldest of the lot would continue full bore. Greatest honor went to front man, whose fate was likely to turn sacrificial if other gangs-on-wheels chanced down the same trail in the opposite direction.

We stood high above our bicycle saddles to fly over logs, stooped low to miss hanging vines, and stood up on the seats themselves to keep dry as we sliced puddles after a rain. More than occasionally our bikes took us where the paths didn't -- into the nearest tree, ditch, or nettle patch. Often, too, surprise guest appearances -- dogs, hikers, bird watchers -- left us in heaps of arms, legs, metal, and shrieks.

I could write a book ("Kamikaze and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance" or "These Are Times That Try Kids' Soles"?). Anyway, it was these raids that eventually enabled the club to leave its lasting mark in my memory and secure its place in the local history.

The clubs seemed to go on forever until free time as we knew it disappeared as mysteriously as childhood itself. As I think about all the free time I had then and don't have now, I find those experiences were every bit as therapeutic then as thinking about them is now. Not as fun, of course, but a lot less time-consuming.

Add to my lament the observation that I'm not at all sure these clubs still exist -- although I pray they do. There's only indirect evidence if I look real hard: an occasional half-mowed lawn, ill-placed rake, bushel basket with the work gloves still sticking out of the wire handles. Surely, these are the telltale signs of a household chore left in the lurch in the wake of some club's emergency draft for an afternoon raid.

I don't have more time to think about this right now. I've long since joined a new club -- the world of grown-ups. We're pedaling furiously in our own way. It's harder now, to keep from being overtaken by routine. And in the meantime, all the "hows" and "whats" aren't as simple as finding a new clubhouse or deciphering secret codes.

And then, there's this new club's raison d'etrem to consider, the why. We'll get to that. Eventually.

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