The photograph above is an image of my late grandfather Leo Nichols. I don’t know the year the photo was taken, but it was sometime in the early 1900s. The image was sent to me by my cousin Kermit Nichols, Jr. whose father Kermit Nichols was the older brother of my mother, Emily Nichols Cudworth.
I never met this particular grandfather, nor his wife who died the year before I was born. The things I’ve learned about those grandparents have mostly been through snippets and stories, especially from my mother whose diaries I also own.
Life and death situations
From what I do know of Leo Nichols, he was a cultured man who owned and farmed several hundred acres in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York. When I was a little we’d visit that farm each summer along with the farmstead right down the road where my father was raised. Yes, my parents grew up 200 yards apast. My father moved to that farm after the death of his mother from complications related to breast cancer treatment. He and his sisters were sent to live with an uncle and two aunts when their father suffered an emotional breakdown.
Time were tough during the Depression. But people took care of business, and their own.
Little of Leo
I share tdhis photo with my next-eldest brother via email, who observed a few things that he remembered about our grandfather. “He would give me the eye if I was misbehaving during dinner,” my brother related.
In other words, the man likely ran a stern household, for he had quite a few kids of his own. I also know that work was also valued by Leo Nichols. My mother raised vegetables on the farm and sold them in a road stand on Highway 7.
That highway ultimately ran right in front of the family home. But first the state highway commission had to take down one of the giant elm trees at the front of the farm property. Before that there was only a dirt lane leading from Bainbridge to the Nichols farm overlooking the Susquehanna River.
I was too young when we visited that farm during my grade school years to feel the echoes of my grandfather in that place. Relatives that had passed away were simply not discussed all that much. I did get to know my uncle Kermit and Aunt Margaret quite well. They ran the farm through the 1960s. But when our family moved to Illinois I never got back there again. Perhaps it is better. The barn burned down and the entire place changed over the years. Some memories are best left undisturbed.
It was a magical place for me as a child. The little that I learned of farm life still delivered a few lessons and treasured memories. I loved cleaning the manure off the center of the barn floor when the cows came trundling in for milking. I’d clear the floor by using a scraper to shove the big cow patties into the troughs where the automated belt would carry it over to the manure pile and spreader. Sometimes my uncle would hoist me up on his lap and we’d take off flying on his tractor down the two-track lane to the “flats.” Then he’d engage the manure spreader and we’d fling large wads of poop out into the fields. That’s how the crops got fertilized.
My uncle Kermit was an animated and fun-loving man with huge biceps and a set of bulging pectoral muscles grown large from farming. He could pump those muscles independently and make us laugh. Or he’d sharply aim a spit of tobacco juice and nail a grasshopper to the ground. Sometimes he’d pitch a farm cat up on the roof to give it something to do.
But he warned me sternly one day: “If the bull ever gets out of that barn, you run straight to the house.”
Man of speed
Uncle Kermit also loved speed and drove his vehicles with verve and sometimes dangerous panache. That resulted in a crash or two over the years, yet he still lived to 94 years old after retiring from the government to live in Florida.
Earlier in life he was a brilliant distance runner who trained by running up and down those hills in the Catskills. His road race and cross country records stood for decades.
That family love of speed makes me realize that photo of Leo Nichols standing with that bike ties to my own love of cycling and running. It now seems part of the family character. Leo Nichols truly looks like he liked to ride that bike fast whenever he had the chance. It probably suited his character.
Yesterday while playing catch with a baseball following our Easter dinner, my brother shared with me that Leo’s hair was red, much like his own. My beard used to be reddish when I grew it out as a young man. The same holds true from my son Evan.
I’m thinking Leo Nichols was perhaps a feisty and competitive person like me. Yet I’d have to tear back into the pages of history all sixty years of my life and sixty years again to ever get to know the man in that photo. The world was so different then. Yet that’s still a pretty cool-looking bike. And when I look at that photo I realize that in some ways, people do not change all that much. Not within a family, nor across the face of history.
We all have our ‘proud bike’ moments, and a desire to go faster in some way. The real challenge is in realizing that life itself goes far faster than most of us could ever know or realize. Which is why we should grab those bikes when we can, and go. Fast as we can. Then our photos may capture some moment in time for future generations.