Wheels in His Head: An American Inventor at Work
by M. M. MUSSELMAN
THE older residents of Wichita agree that A.J. was more of an idiot over his first-born than any other father they have known. Aunt Ora has always claimed that he tried to apply for a patent on me, as a new and original device never before conceived by man. Apparently A.J. considered Mother’s part in their successful experiment merely the work of a laboratory assistant.
A couple of months after I was born — June, to be exact — A.J. began to plan my first Christmas. He could think of only one fitting gift for the son of a bicycle merchant and the local racing champion: he sat down at his drawing board and designed a special bicycle to fit a three-year-old boy. Then he sent the drawings off to the Mead Cycle Company with an order for them to manufacture the bicycle, as designed, patent applied for.
Aunt Ora, to whom he dictated the letter, protested that he couldn’t put me on anything as dangerous as a bicycle until I had at least learned to ride a tricycle. A.J. informed her that his son was no sissy, and would skip the tricycle age. He figured that if I started young enough I could become the champion bicycle racer of the world.
That miniature bicycle was a standard Christmas tree decoration for the next four years. Every Christmas A.J. would place me on the saddle and calculate how soon I would be riding it.
Between Christmases, he would take the tiny bike to his store and put it in the window for advertising purposes. With the two-wheeled threat to my life and limbs out of sight, Mother would rest more easily. But as the holidays drew near again, she would remember that it was time for my annual measurement on the seat of that. bike. Then she would pray for it to be destroyed by fire or lightning; she even considered hiring someone to steal it.
One night about a week before Christmas, her prayers were answered — A.J.’s bicycle shop burned to the ground. The financial loss was a burden Mother could bear as long as that tot-size bicycle was gone. But when A.J. came home from viewing the ruins he shattered her hopes. “Was I lucky!” he beamed. “I brought the little bike home last night and put it in the basement. I think he’s big enough this year to manage it.”
Sure enough, on Christmas morning, when I was perched on the seat I could just reach the pedals. Mother groaned as A.J. rushed me outdoors for a riding lesson. In two weeks I was riding all over town. Then A.J. put a little parcel carrier on the front so that I could go to the store for Mother.
By now she was resigned to the idea of having me crushed to death under the hoofs of some horse, and one day, at suppertime, she sent me to get a loaf of bread. On the way back my front wheel broke through the boards of a wooden sidewalk. I took a header and scraped the skin off one side of my face. When I reached home, howling, Mother thought I must be crippled for life. But it turned out I was crying because the front wheel of the bicycle was smashed. A.J. made supper wait while we went downtown to his shop and repaired my bike.
This was the first in a long series of crack-ups which kept Mother in a constant state of nervous anticipation. To A.J. crack-ups seemed perfectly normal. He was sorry about my abrasions and contusions, but he was proud of my exploits: he always claimed I wrecked more bicycles than any other kid he ever heard of.
MOTHER seldom approved of A.J.’s pals. Not that she was a snob; but she did wish A.J. would choose companions who led a more normal life. It never occurred to her that A.J. was rather unconventional himself.
Sid was one of the pals of whom Mother disapproved, although she couldn’t find anything really wrong with him except, that he was an actor. In those days Wichita had not yet recognized the theater as art, nor actors as people. Later, Sid became one of Mother’s favorites; she went to see him in all the movies in which he portrayed that famous Chinese detective, Charlie Chan.
Sid came back to Wichita early one summer fresh from a season with the Brooklyn All-Star Stock Company. A.J. was working in his “private laboratory” in the rear of the bicycle shop when Sid appeared in the doorway, resplendent in white flannels, white buckskin shoes, and a straw boater with a red and white band. For a moment A.J. mistook him for a Chicago sporting-goods salesman and stepped in front of his latest invention to hide it.
But when he recognized Sid, there was an extravagant exchange of greetings, and then A.J. revealed to Sid his latest brainstorm. “Mum’s the word, kid,” A.J. warned him. “I haven’t even shown this one to my wife. People hereabouts are sort of prudish, you know. But I figger you’ve been around and can understand the possibilities in a gadget like this — or should I say these?”
Sid gazed at A.J.’s experimental model with an expression both fascinated and amazed.
“ Is this— I mean these — what I think they are ? ” he asked.
“Yep,” A.J. answered, proudly. “I’m going to call it the ‘La Mode Pneumatic Bosom.’ How do you think they will sell in New York?”
“Like hot cakes,” Sid assured him. “Especially in Brooklyn. How do the damn things work?”
“ You blow ‘em up with a bicycle pump. Gives you any size from maidenly to voluptuous.”
Sid shook his head sadly. “You are a traitor to your sex, A.J.,” he declared.
“What do you mean?”
“No man will be safe in the future. Just imagine the post-nuptial disappointment of some poor deluded fool when he discovers that his young bride’s form divine is the product of a bicycle pump. Let’s go over to Joe’s Place and forget it.”
After two bottles of beer, Sid began to tell A.J. about meeting a fellow on the train who was a Big Hardware Man from Arkansas City, Kansas, a town looked down on by Wichitans as a backwoods village inhabited only by hicks.
Sid explained that this yokel from Arkansas City had started bragging. “You may not know it,” he had told Sid, “but the Arkansas City Chapter of the League of American Wheelmen has the finest amateur bicycle racers in this country. In fact, I might go so far as to say that they stack up with most professionals.”
No man from Wichita could tolerate a remark like that, and Sid had replied that he, too, belonged to the League of American Wheelmen, Wichita Chapter. “We have in Wichita,” he declared with the inscrutable expression that was later to characterize Charlie Chan, “a bicycle racer who can ride backward, pedal with one foot, and lap your men in a three-lap race!”
One thing led to another. At last the fellow from Arkansas City said that if the Wichita boys thought they were such speed demons, let Sid bring them down to the Arkansas City races on Decoration Day and back up his hot talk with a little cold cash.
“I want you to go to those races,” Sid said. “I hear you’ve had offers from the Barnes Bicycle Company and Morgan and Wright to turn pro. You ought to ride rings around those furrow-jumpers from Arkansas City.”
A.J. thought the Arkansas City crowd would be easy to beat, but business was bad and he was broke. “I just haven’t got the money for railroad fare and entry fees,” he confessed.
“Why, you crazy galoot!” exclaimed Sid. “This is a business offer. I’ll pay your fare and entry fees and split half my winnings with you.”
“You’re on,” A.J. said. “Could you lend me a sawbuck in advance?”
On Decoration Day, A.J. and Sid arrived in Arkansas City, prepared to make a killing. They agreed that, in order to save A.J.’s legs for strictly cash business, he would not ride in a race unless Sid could get down a bet. Just before the first race was called, Sid huddled with A.J. at the rail and confided that he had located the Big Hardware Man and suckered him into a fifty-dollar bet. He also informed A.J. that he would be riding against the star sprinter of the Arkansas City team, known as “Skoot” Blodgett.
“He’s that big clodhopper with the red mustache,” said Sid, pointing out a barrel-chested young giant in a purple and white racing suit.
“Just dead weight,” declared A.J.
But A.J. did not take any chances, because half of those fifty plunks Sid had bet was as much as he could clear in a week at the bicycle shop. At the start of the race, which was a quarter-mile sprint, he put his head down and pumped for all he was worth until he crossed the finish line. Unfortunately he won by three lengths, a wide margin in a short race. The disgruntled hardware merchant started a rumor among the Arkansas City race-fans that the stranger from Wichita must be a ringer.
“Nobody but a pro could beat Skoot Blodgett, that far,” he declared. “ I think I saw that bird racing with pros at Omaha.”
The local sports immediately refused to bet with Sid. He tried everything from cajolery and big odds to sneers and insults, but could not entice a bet from the wary Arkansas City crowd.
After five or six races had gone by with A.J. on the sidelines, A.J. had an idea. “The last race is a ten-mile grind,” he explained. “That’s twenty laps. Don’t try to make any bets until after the race starts. Then you’ll get plenty.”
“How do you figure that?”
“I’ll dog it till they think I’m a cooked goose. Then they’ll beg you for bets. I saw it worked in a pro race.”
Just before the last race, Sid went into his act. He offered to bet on the Wichita lad strictly out of loyalty to his home town. He even demanded odds, claiming that A.J. was not at his best in a distance race. The sports gave him the fish-eye and refused to be taken in by any such obvious ruse.
The racers lined up at the starting post. The starter raised his gun and fired. But as the others shot away from the line, A.J.’s foot slipped out of his toe-clip and he almost fell. In recovering his balance he seemed to wrench his leg. But at last he was away, a good twenty yards behind the field.
Sid, watching from the stands, was worried. A.J. had not prepared him for any stunt like this: perhaps he was really hurt. Sid watched A.J. anxiously; he seemed to be trying, but he was losing ground fast. As he came by in the stretch, far behind the others, Sid could see that he was in pain. The leg was certainly giving him trouble.
The Big Hardware Man saw, too. He offered to bet a hundred dollars that A.J. would not finish in the money. Sid’s mouth watered, but he hesitated. Could he take a chance? But surely A.J. would have dropped out of the race if he were actually hurt. With some misgivings he took the bet. Then another sport offered fifty dollars on the same terms. Reluctantly Sid took it, and the local betters pounced on him from every side demanding bets. Sid’s courage began to weaken. He could picture himself losing his shirt. But when they offered three to one, then five to one, that A.J. would not win, he threw caution to the winds and began covering all bets.
By the time the tenth lap started, Sid had bet his last nickel, and A.J. was half a lap behind the field. Then, as the leader swept by the stands, A.J., who was dragging along in the backsretch, suddenly became infused with new life. His body bent over until his nose all but touched the handle-bar post, and his legs began to pump with a vigor that belied his supposed injury.
Sid let out a yell: “Come on, Wichita!”
The sports who had wagered with Sid let out a few derisive hoots and the crowd chuckled. But then they saw A.J. coming into the homestretch and realized that he was gaining ground on the local boys fast. A murmur arose, then a shout.
“It was like taking candy from kids,” Sid has always contended. “Of course I was a little nervous for a couple of minutes. I bit the stem off a new meerschaum on the eighteenth lap, and when he passed the leader in the last half mile I punched a hole right through my new straw hat. But A.J. won by five yards going away and I collected the booty.”
His family, his inventions, and golf were A.J.’s three loves. In the beginning, he wooed golf for ulterior motives, but, as often happens, dalliance led to honest devotion.
It was shortly after he opened his bicycle shop in Wichita that he first heard of the game. For some time he had been adding various sporting goods to his stock, such as croquet, ping-pong, and lawn tennis equipment; but the profit on these items had been disappointing. Golf interested A.J. because of the amount of individual equipment required to play it. He decided that if Wichita could be induced to take up the game, it would be a bonanza for him.
At this time Wichita was beginning, with lusty determination, to comb the hay out of its hair and to brush up on the mores and manners of the Eastern beau monde. Eleven of the leading businessmen of the town had agreed to give a hundred dollars apiece to establish the Wichita Golf Club. A.J. was authorized to find a proper site and lay out a nine-hole golf links.
Although he had never seen a golf course, he selected what he thought was a suitable location on the outskirts of the town. The farmer who owned the land agreed on a rental price for a hundred acres and was hired to prepare it for planting. Then A.J. studied a diagram of an Eastern golf course and, with complete aplomb, drew up a plan.
A month later, when the fairways had been seeded and the sand greens given their first rolling, the salesman for the Simmons Hardware Company, of St. Louis, called on A.J. “ You wrote our office inquiring about golf equipment,” he said.
“That’s right,” A.J. agreed. “Do you play golf yourself?”
“Never played in my life,” admitted the other, “but we carry all the bats and stuff.”
A.J.’s face fell; he had hoped for some expert advice. “You know something about the game, don’t you?”
The salesman shrugged. “Where I come from, they call it cow-pasture pool. That’s all I know.”
A.J. sighed as the salesman opened his huge catalogue. Together they studied the pictures and meager description allotted to golf equipment. A.J. ordered nine cups, nine flags (“with sand brush attached for smoothing putting green”) and nine tee boxes.
“There’s your complete golf course,” declared the salesman. “Now for the bats. There seem to be seven varieties: a driver, a brassie, a spoon, a midiron, a mashie, a niblick, and a putter. All seven make a complete set, it says here.”
“We’ll need a dozen sets.”
“Fine. How about bags?”
“One dozen bags.”
“Fine. How about balls?”
“One dozen balls.”
“Wait a minute,” A.J. cut in. “Make that two dozen balls. We’d better each have an extra ball. ”
“That’s a good idea,” the salesman agreed. “If any of the players don’t want an extra ball, you can return them for credit.”
A couple of weeks later two large packing boxes arrived at A.J.’s store. He unpacked them and found everything in order. His first impulse was to notify the other eleven members of the Wichita Golf Club that they were ready for play. But then he changed his mind. It would be smarter, he decided, to find out first just what the game was all about. Late that afternoon, he took a complete set of clubs, placed them in a bag with two golf balls, and rode out to the new golf course on his bicycle.
With complete confidence he teed the ball up on a small cone of sand, whaled away, and missed it completely. Nettled but undiscouraged, he took two more swipes at the pellet. On the fourth try he hit a mighty blow. The ball sailed away, high and far, then suddenly veered to the right, in a roundhouse slice, and disappeared into a wheat field adjacent to the first fairway.
After searching in vain for half an hour, A.J. took his other ball from the bag, placed it on a tuft of grass in the fairway, selected his midiron, and swung with all his might. This time he hit the ball on the first try, but again it sliced into the wheat field. He spent another half hour vainly hunting for this ball.
Darkness ended the search, and A.J. went back to his store with a glint in his eye. He had made up his mind to lick the game no matter how many balls it took. He telegraphed for a gross of golf balls to be rushed by express, for he realized now that a golfer would require more than one ball and a spare.
For a week, A.J. went out each evening and held secret practice. At first he flailed away as though wielding a shinny club. This didn’t work; the result was usually a hook or a slice. He tried swinging slow and swinging fast. Nothing worked. Finally he reasoned that if he could swing the club in a perfectly perpendicular arc, with the club face pointed toward the green, the ball would have to go straight. The result was a swing the like of which had never before been seen on a golf course. Tie looked as though he were trying to tie himself into a knot, but the ball did go straight.
Now he was ready. He sent out word that the golf clubs had arrived, and the course was ready for play. The members were jubilant; they met for lunch and planned a tournament for the opening day.
That opening event must have been worth going miles to see. The contestants’ families and friends formed a curious and noisy gallery, while six twosomes, of whom only A.J. had ever struck a golf ball, teed off in their first battle with Colonel Bogey. (In those days, bogey was the object of every golfer, and not par. Raucous laughter greeted every dubbed or missed shot. Players grounded their clubs in hazards, improved their lie at will, and played their balls from out of bounds, committing violations of golf etiquette which, among true golfers, would have ostracized them for all time.
A.J.’s week of practice gave him an advantage which made him an easy victor in this first tournament. And despite his unorthodox swing (which nobody else was ever able to master), he remained, as long as he lived in Wichita, the champion golfer of the club. Eventually he attained the distinction of playing to scratch — that is, to a zero handicap.
The tournament was followed by a picnic, speeches, and a successful drive for new members. Then the ladies indulged in croquet while the men played baseball and pitched horseshoes. A.J. was also called upon to give an exhibition of Indian-club twirling. The opening of the Wichita Golf Club was a great social success. For A.J. if was a triumph: he took orders for nineteen complete sets of golf clubs.
THE most spectacular event ever staged at the golf club was due directly to A.J.’s habit of becoming friendly with any odd but interesting character he might meet. Across the street from his bicycle shop was a Chinese hand laundry operated by one Sing Lee. Sing was a round-faced, merry little wight, with an English vocabulary of eighteen words and twentytwo exclamatory noises.
Every Monday morning A.J. would leave his shirts with Sing Lee to be laundered. They always had an involved conversation.
A.J.: Washee shirtee. Plenty starchy.
SING (grinning): Chatty-goo, chatty-goo.
A.J.: Yeah. Plenty starchy. You catchum?
SING: Oooooo. Chik, chik, chik, chik.
A.J.: That’s right. Plenty starchy.
SING : (shaking head violently): Mak stee! Shoo!
A.J.: No, no. Washee shirtee. Plenty starch!
SING (happily): Allee samee. Prenty starchy!
Feeling that he had virtually mastered Chinese, A.J. would nod and start to go. But Sing would then start the second half of their bilingual trade agreement.
SING: Ooooo. Tickee, tickee!
A.J.: No wantee tickee. You know me. Me run bikee shopee.
SING: Ooooo. Plicky-tau, plicky-tau. Bikee!
A.J.: That’s right. Me no need tickee.
But in the end A.J. always got the tickee, which he would put in one of the pockets of his overalls. By Wednesday evening, when he called for his washee, he would have lost his tickee. After a diligent search through every pocket, another verbal wrestling match between Sing and A.J. would start.
A.J.: Me sorry. Me losee tickee.
SING (resignedly): Soongee, soongee. Aaaaaaa.
A.J.: Lookee. You know me. Bikee shopee.
SING (suspiciously): You losee tickee?
A.J. (nodding vigorously): Yes. Losee tickee.
SING: Ooooo. So bad, so bad.
A.J.: Lookee. Me find washee.
Despite a torrent of Oriental protests, A.J. would climb over the counter and get his laundry from a special shelf where Sing always placed it, knowing from experience that A.J. would lose his tickee. These weekly business transactions, jumbled though they were, flowered into a wonderful friendship.
Sing imported firecrackers from China for the Fourth of July, and A.J. was a fireworks enthusiast. Back on the farm, Grandma had never been able to afford such luxuries as firecrackers, and A.J. had to grow up before he could fully indulge in the American tradition of noise-making. He always bought a case of firecrackers from Sing and helped me shoot them off.
The pièce de résistance of Independence Day came in the evening when Sing shot off all his unsold stock in a spectacular three-minute orgy of sound and fury. He stretched a wire high above the ground, between his laundry and A.J.’s bicycle shop. All Sing’s remaining firecrackers were hung in festoons from this wire and connected by a long fuse. As these final preparations were made, every boy in Wichita crowded into the two-hundred block on Main Street and watched, breathless with anticipation.
At last the great moment arrived. A.J. would light a fuse on one side of the street as Sing lit one on the other side. For a hushed second the fuses would burn and sputter; then, like a battery of Gatling guns, thousands of firecrackers would explode with a wonderful, earsplitting racket.
One Fourth, Sing manufactured a “bomb,” which he placed in the center of the wire, and which climaxed the superb cacophony by exploding with a bang that shook us to our toes. It was a moment of ecstasy for Wichita’s young fry.
A.J., by some philological legerdemain, learned from Sing that he was not only an expert maker of bombs but also had delved into the mysteries of skyrockets, pinwheels, flowerpots, and other such pyrotechnical gimcracks. There followed several lengthy conferences in which A.J. conveyed to Sing that he wanted to go into the fireworks business with him. They would form a partnership in which A.J. would supply the material, the workshop, and a generous amount of imagination, if Sing would supply the technical skill. The purpose was to manufacture a fireworks display for Wichita that would live always in the memory of its citizens.
They started making fireworks sometime in May, devoting almost every night to the project. A.J. watched and learned as Sing showed him how to make skyrockets, Roman candles, pinwheels, and other conventional pieces. Then A.J. began to help, experimenting as he went. He invented a flying pinwheel, something called a corkscrew comet, and a fearful aerial bomb called a screamer-boomer. They tried out these new devices on the edge of town and found them highly satisfactory.
By the Fourth of July they had created and packed away in big wooden boxes such a quantity of fireworks that the insurance rates for all of Wichita should have been doubled. They hauled everything out to the Wichita Golf Club, where they erected rocket troughs and pinwheel uprights in preparation for the night display.
As darkness began to fall, most of the townsfolk drove, walked, or rode the streetcars out to the golf club. Oldsters were three-deep on the club verandah. The younger crowd sat on carriage robes and sofa pillows on the lawn. The road along the nearest fairway was jammed with parked surreys and liverystable rigs.
A.J. and Sing already had two skyrockets set in place and a giant pinwheel ready to be touched off. The other fireworks were stacked neatly on two tables. The whole area was roped off, and spectators had been warned to keep their distance and to watch the children.
As the hour of nine approached, A.J. stood, watch in hand, beside one of the skyrockets. Finally he gave the signal to Sing. They both lighted their skyrockets and stood back. With a whoosh the rockets rose into the air, leaving parallel paths of flame and sparks. Then, high overhead the rockets burst, discharging red, green, and yellow balls of fire. The crowd cheered. If this was just a sample, they knew the real show was going to be tremendous.
By this time A.J. was lighting the giant pinwheel, and Sing was touching off red and green flowerpots. A.J. gave the pinwheel a whirl to start it off. It began to spin like mad — a huge five-foot kaleidoscope of colored fire. The audience exclaimed over it, and another cheer went up.
But suddenly the giant pinwheel leaped from the upright which held it and rolled across the lawn. The fireworks tables were directly in its path. It hit one of them squarely in the middle and piled up there throwing sparks over everything. Corkscrew, comets, skyrockets, and flying pinwheels went off in one glorious tornado of flame, fire, and smoke.
Why no one was killed or maimed, A.J. cannot explain. As the giant pinwheel headed across the lawn, he grabbed a bucket of water which had been placed handy for just such an emergency. But he might as well have tried to quench the sun. Rockets were already taking off in profusion. And as one of them shot by his head, singeing his hair, he dived to the ground and stayed there.
When the last screamer-boomer had screamed across the ninth green and boomed in the darkness, A.J. sat up unsteadily and looked around. Six feet away sat Sing, staring at him.
“Ooooo!” exclaimed Sing, his slant eyes round for once. “Skut-skut! Me stickee washee. You stickee bikee. Boom-boom blizness no good!”
(To be continued)