Wheels in His Head



EVERYBODY, including Grandma, said A.J. would never amount to anything because he just wouldn’t stick to a good job when he had one. In more or less chronological order he was a bicycle racer, hardware buyer, sporting-goods dealer, bicycle salesman, assistant manager of a mail-order house, tire salesman, manufacturer of golf clubs, real-estate subdivider, country-club promoter, research engineer, and gentleman farmer.

In my adolescent days I was always sorry A.J. had not realized his earliest ambition: he wanted to be an acrobat in a circus. He would have been a good one, too. Silk tights and bangles would have suited A.J. It started after Grandma took the boys over to Newton to a little one-ring circus. When they got home to the farm, A.J. tried walking on his hands. After one try he yelled for Grandma to come out and watch him.

“Hey, Ma! Look at me! Look at me!”

Grandma, who was ninety-five pounds of dynamic devotion, came to the screen door to watch A.J. demonstrate on the front porch. He flipped over on his hands and walked right across the porch.

“Careful!” warned Grandma. “You’ll break your neck.” And at that moment A.J. walked right off the railless porch and almost did break his neck.

But A.J. was not the least bit discouraged by his first acrobatic misstep. He practiced for weeks until he could stand on his hands, turn handsprings, and do back flips. Then he grew ambitious and wanted to turn somersaults in the air. Not by jumping from a beam in the hayloft; anybody could do that. He wanted to do it just the way the circus acrobats did it: right off the hard ground, with a leap, a cat-like flip, and back on his feet again, finishing with a graceful bow.

He broached the subject to Grandma one morning at breakfast. “Ma,” he asked with a speculative gleam in his eye, “how do those circus acrobats learn to turn them somersaults in the air.?”

“I don’t know,” Grandma replied, cutting an apple pie into four sections for her ravenous brood. “But if you dare to try any tomfoolery like that I’ll tan your hide. I don’t want you abed with broken bones just at haying time.”

Grandma should have known better. Any time you dared A.J. to do something, it was as good as done. He went right out behind the barn to give that backward somersault a whirl, feeling somehow that because Grandma had forbidden him to try it, it would be easy as rolling off a log.

He clenched his teeth, leaped into the air, and landed flat on his back. When he regained his breath, he sat up and meditated for several minutes. He had no intention of repeating his experiment. It had been too painful. But he intended to figure out a way to turn somersaults with some degree of safety. All that day, as he took the cows out to pasture, fed the pigs, worked in the hayfield, and helped with the milking, he pondered the safety factor in a backward somersault. At last he solved the problem with a simple but ingenious “invention.”

Grandma’s clothesline was always stretched between the privy and an old apple tree. A.J. let out enough slack in the line so that it hung down just about waist high. With a short length of rope, he tied himself to the clothesline and tried a back somersault. To his delight it worked.

He practiced prodigiously for several weeks until he was sure that he was ready to attempt a somersault without the clothesline for a safety belt. Then he went out behind the barn to try it, but to his chagrin he discovered that he lacked the nerve. The memory of that first painful effort still haunted him, and he realized that he had become a slave to his safety belt. In later years A.J. told me this story many times and always pointed out the obvious moral.

“Some people go through life wearing a safety belt,” he would say. “Never get up nerve enough to take a chance; stick to the same job all their life; live in the same little one-horse town; wear rubbers on rainy days; never eat oysters out of season; never kiss anybody but their wife; vote the straight Republican ticket; and then discover it’s all over but the flowers and the funeral and they never had any fun out of life.”

But A.J. was not long a slave to his safety belt. One morning, trudging back from the pasture, he determined to take just one more practice somersault, tied to the clothesline; and then, come what might, he would give it a whirl on his own.

Hurrying to the clothesline, he tied himself firmly in position and gave a confident leap into the air. For some reason he turned only halfway over. Fortunately the clothesline caught the weight of his body and saved his neck. But the weatherbeaten privy, to which the line was attached, could not take it. With a wooden groan it collapsed. Simultaneously, there was a scream from Grandma, who at that moment was occupying the second hole.

For an instant she sat frozen amid the ruins, her Scotch Presbyterian blood horrified by this intrusion on her privacy. Then, with fire in her eye, she dropped her skirts and started for A.J. This was one time when he could not escape Grandma’s wrath, for he was still tied to the clothesline.

But A.J. was not to be deterred from his career as an acrobat. He kept on turning cartwheels and back flips and somersaults. He built a horizontal bar out behind the barn, on which to try new tricks. His three brothers were satisfied when they could chin themselves a few times and “skin the cat.” Not A.J. He kept fooling around on that bar until he was as much at home on it as a monkey.

Some years later, A.J. became a Y.M.C.A. physical director on the strength of a couple of back flips and a giant swing, which was the closest he ever came to being a bona fide acrobat. But I used to brag to the neighbor kids that Pop was a circus performer — the man on the flying trapeze. If they doubted it, I would yell for him to come out and show them. A.J. would come out in the yard and turn somersaults and back flips till the other kids were popeyed. They thought a circus acrobat was about the greatest kind of dad any boy could have. I would not have told them the truth for a million dollars — that he was really an inventor.


GRANDMA had been left a widow with a farm to run and four sons to rear, the eldest twelve years old, all of whom, it was whispered among the neighbors, were slightly tetched. But Grandma thought they were just plain lazy. She’d send them out to pick the cherries in the orchard and they’d come in that evening and declare the trees were stripped. But next morning, when Grandma would go out to see for herself, she’d find the boys had lied to her; they hadn’t picked half the cherries. The same thing would happen when they’d go out to pick apples.

“Never would pick ‘em all,” Grandma used to declare. “And then lie about it like little heathens!”

A.J. was the worst. He used to argue back at Grandma. Downright sass her. Then Grandma would get angry, grab her hickory switch, and chase them up into those trees again. But it never did any good.

It was not till thirty years later that Grandma heard about color-blindness. All four of her boys had it. — couldn’t tell red from green.

“Probably a good thing,” Grandma philosophized when she found out why the boys never picked all the cherries. “They needed a certain amount of lickin’ anyway.”

Even as a boy, back on the farm, A.J. had a passion for things that went round and round. Wheels! Anything with wheels attached to it started him off on a mental tangent. An unattached wheel would leave him in a state of suspended animation, while he gawked at it with a dreamy, speculative expression.

A.J.’s first invention was inspired by a huge wheel from an old high-wheeled bicycle. He purloined it from a junk heap behind the village blacksmith shop, brought it home, and went to work on it. In the barn he found a long axle and a couple of old buggy shafts. These he attached in their proper places; then he hung a homemade seat on either side of the wheel.

This uni-sulky, as A.J. has always called it, had several remarkable features. In the first place, it could operate only if there were two occupants of about the same weight, and they had to jump into their seats at the same time in order to keep the contraption balanced. Secondly, the occupants had to crouch low in their seats to keep from bumping their heads against the axle, from which the seats were suspended. Third, it required two drivers — one to hold the left rein, the other to hold the right. Any difference of judgment between them was likely to result in trouble.

A.J. and his brother Joe chose a Sunday morning, about an hour before church time, to try out the wonderful uni-sulky. Dressed in their best, they led old Bill, the work mule, out of the barn and backed him between the shafts. Then, with youthful nimbleness and enthusiasm, they jumped into their seats and urged Bill out onto the road, in order to get out of Grandma’s sight as quickly as possible.

It was probably the most amazing vehicle ever seen on a Kansas highway. And remarkably enough, everything went well for about half a mile, until they came to the main road into town. There, A.J. chose to turn right while his brother Joe preferred to go left. Both being of a stubborn nature, neither would compromise.

Now it happened that Bill was a precocious animal. A.J. has always claimed that he was smarter than most human beings and meaner than Simon Legree. Anyway, Bill became annoyed at the difference of opinion behind him, gave a jerk of his head, and craned his neck around to see what in hell was going on. One look at the contraption to winch he was hitched convinced him that he was pulling the devil’s own chariot. He gave a snort and set out across country at top speed.

There has always been a difference of opinion between A.J. and Uncle Joe as to exactly what happened. But it seems that as Bill dragged the uni-sulky through the ditch at the side of the road, each boy dropped his rein and grabbed his seat. After that Bill was on his own. He went through Ed Beem’s cornfield like Greyhound out to break all records at Goshen. Then he turned south and leaped a barbed-wire fence into Ham Turner’s watermelon patch. It was at this fence that Uncle Joe was unseated and hung up by his breeches.

Without Uncle Joe, the wonderful uni-sulky veered to starboard like a cat boat in a high wind, causing Bill to run in circles. A.J. hold on for dear life, bouncing over green watermelons so fast he felt he was riding the Santa Fe ties to Wichita.

Somewhere in the backstretch, the sulky seat broke from its moorings and took a hop, skip, and jump which landed A.J. amid a tangle of vines. By the time he had freed himself, caught his breath, and stood up to look around, Bill was just vaulting another fence, with what was left of the uni-sulky still dragging along behind him. He disappeared in the general direction of California.

Long-suffering Grandma, dressed in her black dress and bonnet, was rocking grimly on the front porch when the boys finally hove into view. She took one look at their tattered Sunday best and reached for her hickory switch.

It was late afternoon before they found Bill, grazing peacefully, down by the river. The uni-sulky was no longer attached to him. A.J. spent many days searching for the remains, but he never found them.


A MAN who invents a novel and useful device or process may apply for and be granted a patent from the United States government giving him a monopoly of his invention for seventeen years. Inventors sometimes become very wealthy, but more often they go bankrupt. For many years A.J. danced a jig between the two, but in the end, to everyone’s amazement, he did all right.

The first invention on which he was granted a patent was a game, called “Parlor Golf,”which he sold to Parker Brothers for one hundred dollars, spot cash. When he invented it, A.J. had never seen a game of golf. But apparently neither had Parker Brothers, for the game resembled golf about as much as Paris, Illinois, resembles that other and more famous Paris.

The idea of the game was to flick a marble, with thumb and forefinger, up a series of nine grooved and undulated inclines, into nine little holes. In all Wichita, where A.J. by this time owned a bicycle repair shop, he was the only person who had the patience or skill to accomplish this feat in less than par. Everyone else grew infuriated at the damned thing and gave up, leaving A.J. the first undisputed Western Open Golf Champion (Parlor Division).

There followed a number of remarkable inventions, all of which, for one reason or another, failed to produce quick riches. Many of them were contrived while he was operating a bicycle shop in Wichita.

The Tearless Onion Peeler was a gadget that should have been a welcome addition to every kitchen. It was an affair of wheels and knives with a crank to operate it. For large consumers of onions, such as hotels and restaurants, A.J. devised a model which had a foot treadle for motive power. With this supergadget one man (or woman) could peel, A.J. estimated roughly, seven bushels of onions per hour, without shedding a single tear. And by a simple adjustment, the machine could be converted to a potato, apple, peach, turnip, or rutabaga peeler. In those days, however, labor was plentiful and cheap; consequently, manufacturers of kitchen implements were of the unanimous opinion that A.J.’s Tearless Onion Peeler was no substitute for a ten-cent paring knife.

“It was a good invention,” A.J. once told me, “but nobody wanted to buy it. That’s always been the trouble with the world. People are suspicious of new ideas. If you spend one year inventing something new, you have to spend two years cramming it down people’s throats. There are lots of easier ways to get rich.”

After the Tearless Onion Peeler, A.J. invented his Wind-Proof Umbrella. “It Can’t Blow Inside Out,” read the prospectus. A.J. was sure he had a winner. Every household needed an umbrella, more especially one that would not collapse at the first gust of wind. And certainly rain was usually accompanied by wind; at least it was in Kansas. He figured that if he could collect a royalty of five cents on each umbrella, he ought to make a million dollars in five years.

At the time he perfected the new umbrella, he was enamored of a girl in Wichita, whose name, according to Aunt Ora, was Bertha. A.J. told Bertha about his newest invention. She listened with round-eyed admiration and assured him, breathlessly, that he must be the cleverest man in Wichita. And would he, pretty please, give her one of his patent umbrellas when he became a famous millionaire?

A.J. didn’t wait to become a millionaire. He rushed right down to Innes’s Department Store and bought a lady’s silk umbrella, priced at three dollars. Then he took it to his shop and rebuilt it, with the crossbracing, truss arrangement which was the feature of his Wind-Proof Umbrella.

On Bertha’s birthday he presented it to her. For a week or so, Bertha displayed her umbrella proudly, and A.J. was elevated to the position of chief swain in her retinue of admirers. And then the rains came.

It happened while Bertha was on her way downtown, clad in a new spring outfit. The sky was slightly overcast, so she was carrying her Patented Wind-Proof Umbrella. When the first drops fell, Bertha struggled with the mechanism of the Wind-Proof Umbrella and finally opened it. Then she slipped her hand through the umbrella’s stout wrist-loop, grasped the handle, and quickened her pace, feeling completely secure beneath her Wind-Proof Umbrella.

Suddenly the rain began to slant; overhead, tree branches bent and groaned as a rush of wind struck them; and the sky turned a threatening yellowish gray. Bertha stopped in her tracks. She had lived in Kansas all her life and she knew what was coming: a Kansas tornado. The wind filled her umbrella and tried to tear it from her grasp. The loop tightened about her wrist. She and the umbrella were swept along like two chips on a torrent. By the time she piled up against the Onderdonks’ picket fence, bruised, battered, and humiliated, the romance between Bertha and the inventor of the Patented Wind-Proof Umbrella was forever ended.


ALL A.J.’S most successful inventions seemed to stem from that huge wheel which was the inspiration for his uni-sulky: they were things that went round and round. The invention of which he is proudest is his method for making the tires now used on airplanes, farm tractors, and other vehicles. This invention created a new principle in tire construction, by means of which the cross-section could be nearly as great as one-half the diameter, resulting in very low air pressures. These tires make it possible for planes to land or take off on rough or muddy fields; they also reduced ground looping and eliminated crack-ups due to wheel failure. Unfortunately, he sold his patent before anyone could foresee the enormous production of planes that World War II would bring. The invention which has brought him the greatest financial return is his bicycle coaster brake.

“I got the idea for my bicycle coaster brake back in 1894,” A.J. always begins one of his best stories. “It was while I was traveling about ninety miles an hour down the slopes of the Rockies on a bicycle.”

As A.J. tells the story, he unlocked his bicycle shop one July morning and discovered that the window on the alley was standing wide open. Then he noticed that his pride and joy, a rod and white Peerless bicycle, the latest thing in cycledom, was missing. It was the most expensive one in the store — priced at $125. The plush-lined case, for shipping via railroad, was undisturbed, so A.J. knew that the thief had ridden his loot away.

He hurried over to the police station, where inquiry revealed that a stranger, who had skipped out of the local hotel without paying his bill, had been seen the night before, by Patrolman Murphy, high-tailing toward Hutchinson on the Peerless.

A.J. was fit to be tied. “Why didn’t Murphy pinch the fellow?” he demanded. “That was the only red and white Peerless bike in Wichita and everybody knew it belonged to me.”

The Chief of Police shrugged. “Maybe Murphy thought the guy had bought it.”

A.J. hurried over to the bank and drew out twenty dollars for expense money, then dashed back to his store, shouted to Aunt Ora that he was on the trail of a bicycle thief, and climbed on his Ariel road-racer.

As A.J. likes to point out, he was pretty sharp on a bicycle in those days — an amateur circuit racer and one of the best riders west of the Mississippi. He thought he could overtake the bike-rustler before nightfall, because the red and white Peerless was bound to attract attention.

But he soon discovered that his quarry was a fast rider himself. For when he arrived at Great Bend, about nine o’clock that night, the Peerless had been there and gone. A.J. started out next morning at daybreak, hoping to overtake the bike-snatcher before he lost the trail. He was at a disadvantage, of course, because he had to stop at every crossroad and make inquiries; but the trail stayed hot — as A.J. says, “hotter’n an iron pump handle in August.”

The second afternoon, he arrived at a fly-infested lunchroom, where he ordered a sandwich and inquired about the man on the Peerless.

“Yeah,” answered the proprietor. “There was a fellow come through here on a bike like that.”

“How long ago?”

“Couple hours. Told me he was headin’ fer Colorado Springs. Purty long ride, if you ask me.”

A.J. didn’t wait to finish his sandwich. He hit the road and settled down to ride his fox to earth. He claims this was the best race he ever pedaled in his life, but somehow the thief evaded him. He thinks the man may have bribed a brakeman on a freight train to give him and the Peerless a lift in an empty boxcar.

A.J. reached Colorado Springs early one morning. As soon as the stores were open he canvassed every bicycle shop in town, but nobody had seen the Peerless. As a last resort he went to the police station.

“Saw a fellow ridin’ a bike toward Cripple Creek this morning,” one of the cops told him.

“Was it a red and white Peerless?”

“Didn’t notice.”

A.J. took a chance and headed for Cripple Creek. He had never seen mountains before and hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was in for. The last ten miles into the little mining town were so steep he had to get off and push. As he plugged up those weary miles, he had an uncomfortable feeling that he had been sent on a wild-goose chase. Sure enough, nobody in Cripple Creek had seen the Peerless.

A.J. was a very unhappy man — tired, defeated, six hundred miles from home, and with only six dollars left. His one consoling thought was that he would be able to coast all the way back to Colorado Springs and a bed.

So he climbed on his bicycle and started, with never a thought of more trouble ahead. But before he was half a mile out of town he realized that he was traveling too fast. For although the Cripple Creek road didn’t look so steep, it was something like the first dip on a roller coaster. He tried to slow down by throwing his weight against the pedals, but he kept gaining speed and was heading down that road faster than a hound dog with a hive of bees on his tail.

In those days a cyclist used to brake his bicycle by slipping one toe under the frame and pressing on the front tire with the sole of his shoe. A.J. tried that. For a moment it worked; then friction made the sole of his shoe fiery hot. He let out a startled yell and jerked his foot from beneath the frame.

Then gravity took charge once more and away he went. It was time to think of something ingenious. But the only idea he could contrive was to fall off. He hit the dirt with a thud that knocked the wind out of him; in one bounce he was off the road and rolling down the mountainside. He fetched up against a scrub pine fifty feet from the road.

For a minute or two he just lay there regaining his wind and wondering if he was all in one piece. Then he got up groggily and shook his head until the world came back into focus. He scrambled up to the road and looked about for the bicycle. It was not in sight.

After an extensive search, he found his bicycle with eight spokes broken and the frame bent. When it would run again, he sat down to think.

His pondering resulted in the invention of his first brake. He cut several pine branches and tied them into a bundle with a piece of rope from his tool kit. The end of the rope was then attached to his saddle post so that the pine branches dragged behind on the road.

It worked like a charm. The bundle of branches was just enough brake to keep things under control. He went down the mountain road throwing up a dust cloud big enough for thirty head of cattle.

For about six miles A.J. was mighty proud of his invention; then, to his dismay, he discovered that it was an infringement. He was informed of this fact by a deputy sheriff who halted him with a forty-four and a vocabulary of four-letter words.

Using a drag for a brake was old stuff in those parts. Wagon freighters had invented the device years before. The trouble was that it ruined good roads, so the state had passed a law against that invention. A.J. had to wire back to Wichita for money to pay his fine.

“And that’s one reason,” A.J. has often told me, “that I conceived the idea of putting a coaster brake on a bicycle.”

The idea was a long time hatching. It was thirteen years before he applied for a patent. But since 1908 five million bicycles have been equipped with A.J.’s coaster brake. Even Grandma had to admit, before she died, that somehow “one of Alvey’s fool inventions turned out purty good.”

Grandma used to worry about A.J. ‘way off there in a big, Godless city like Wichita. Because, she always said, “he never seemed to have no fitten respect for religion.” But she need not have worried. A.J. went to church every Sunday in Wichita — because that was the best place in town to meet the girls.

That was where A.J. met Aunt Laura. She was the Gibson Girl type — tall and willowy. A.J. asked Aunt Laura if he could walk her home. She would rather have walked home with Uncle Joe, who had dark wavy hair and wore tailor-made suits; but Uncle Joe was rushing a banker’s daughter. When A.J. squeezed her hand, she warned him that if he was not going to act like a gentleman she would go home alone.

A.J. was abashed and frustrated. After six blocks of uncomfortable silence they arrived at Laura’s house. There, sitting on the front steps, was her sister Gertie. Although it was obvious to Aunt Laura that A.J. was a masher and meant a girl no good, there was no way to avoid introducing him to Gertie.

Gertie was a pint-size redhead and, the way she tells it, one of the best-looking girls in town. All available facts indicate that she had lots of beaux and played hard to get, but was really an awful flirt. A.J. fell like a ton of bricks. He sent flowers without delay and called on her three times that week. On Sunday he walked home from church with Gertie and her friend Maud. He walked in the middle and tried a doublesqueeze play.

Gertie thought A.J. was rather presumptuous for a young man who had nothing but a little bicycle shop; she was used to having her hand squeezed by a sprouting young lawyer and a chap who was a floorwalker in Innes’s Department Store. But Maud, because of an irascible father, known among the younger set as “The Old Walrus,” had few boy friends.

When they reached Gertie’s house they found that her sisters were entertaining friends. They made lemonade, played charades, and had quite a party. It got to be eleven o’clock, which was the deadline for respectable girls to entertain gentlemen. Gertie took A.J. aside and asked him to escort Maud home.

Now Maud was not what folks in Wichita called “fast,” but on the other hand she didn’t let the grass grow under her feet. She clung to A.J. on the way home in a way that challenged his manhood. He slipped his arm around her waist. Maud quickly responded by leaning her head invitingly against his shoulder. A.J. had not figured on that possibility. There was nothing left to do but proceed or admit to himself that he was a coward. So he kissed her, somewhere in the vicinity of her left eyebrow.

Unfortunately, Maud’s father (The Old Walrus) was waiting on the porch for his daughter to appear. When he saw that she was with a man, he let out a bellow of rage. In a loud voice he implied that A.J. doubtless had designs on the virtue of his innocent child.

Maud wept and A.J. was too tongue-tied to say anything. He escaped at last through the front gate, followed by threats of horse-whipping. By the next morning the neighbors had spread the word. The rumors became even more sensational when Maud revealed to girl friends that A.J. had kissed her. By nightfall it was being whispered about that a shotgun wedding could be expected any minute.

A.J. was scared stiff. He rushed a messenger boy posthaste with a note to Gertie, asking to see her at once.

That meeting was of major importance to me. Gertie was very cold at first, although she has admitted since that this was more or less of a pose. She had heard about A.J.’s kissing Maud on the way home; but at the same time she suspected that Maud had led him on.

A.J. admitted the kiss but declared he had been driven to it by moon madness; his family always had been hot-blooded.

“Besides,” he reminded Gertie, “you made me take her home — I didn’t want to do it!”

Gertie sniffed indignantly.

“You can save me from a loveless marriage,” A.J. declared passionately, “and a lifetime of misery!”


“By eloping with me tonight!”

It was short notice, but Gertie was a romantic soul and a sucker for anyone in trouble, so she did it.

(To be continued)