Happy Times in Portsmouth

April 21, 2011

Some of my happiest memories as the father of teenaged sons and daughters include bicycling in the Ohio town of Portsmouth, located where the Scioto River flows into the Ohio. Because of these memories, I am especially grieved by a report published this week in the New York Times (April 20, 2011) that tells of the devastation in Portsmouth caused by rampant use of painkilling prescription medicines, especially among young people.

The article itself is discouraging. The comments—a long list of them—are heart rending and should stab at the conscience of Americans everywhere. What has happened in Portsmouth is but one example of the distress that is emerging everywhere in America, in part, because of the character of our “advanced” economic system that destroys small towns and, in part, because of the heartless response by many people in business and government.

My first trip to Portsmouth was May 13-14, 1972, with Mike, the older of our two sons, who was soon to celebrate his fifteenth birthday. We had become enthusiastic bicyclists and were extending the range of experience and abilities as athletes on two wheels. With considerable trepidation, we had registered for TOSRV—the Tour of the Scioto River Valley—a two-day, 210 mile round trip from Columbus to Portsmouth. It was our first experience cycling with a vast assemblage of other cyclists. Even then, in its tenth year, TOSRV registered 2,200 participants.

Everything about the trip was exotic: travel through country we had never seen, the remarkable logistics to support the cyclists, the chance to see a wide range of high quality road bikes, the challenge of cycling with more experienced riders, and the exhilaration of practicing some of the road skills we had been working hard to learn. The greatest thrill came from the fact that on this trip we rode our first centuries—100 miles—and this not once but two days in succession.

TOSRV riders slept on the floor in schools and other public buildings, and we were assigned floor space in a grade school gym in downtown Portsmouth. After picking up our gear and spreading our sleeping bags, we cycled up the steepest hill of the day to the evening meal, which featured fried chicken, served at the CAY facilities by members of this organization—Catholic Adults for Youth. They were a boisterous lot, these Portsmouth business people and other parents of the city’s teens. How they must mourn the downturn of their town!

Downtown was alive that weekend because Portsmouth was celebrating its annual street festival. We spent time at the bandstand where Mike, a trumpet player in the Shortridge High School band back in Indianapolis, listened with amazement tinged with envy to the brass ensemble. There were booths of various kinds to wander past. The evening air was balmy, people seemed relaxed and easy-going, and we had nothing to do except revel in the delight of being alive, confirmed as cyclists by the day’s ride, and happy to be with each other.

Mike and I continued doing TOSRV the next few years. At various times, sister Sharon, brother Kenneth, neighbor Ron, and girl friend Diane rode with us. After they left home, I continued to do TOSRV every year until 1994, shortly before retiring and moving to Arizona. For many of those years, my traveling companion was good friend Paul (just older than my children) who had learned his cycling skills during his student years at Indiana University in Bloomington.

We became acquainted with the pastor of First Christian Church in Portsmouth and were hosted as overnight guests at his home for several years and at the church after his retirement.

On my last TOSRV (when I was 62), I bicycled the entire distance from Portsmouth to Columbus—105 miles—in six hours and five minutes, total elapsed time. Maybe I could do it in seven hours now, more likely eight.

I wish that I knew how small town America could be transformed so that places like Portsmouth could once again be the kind of community that people really want to live in. At this point, all that I can do is grieve with those who grieve, all the while rejoicing in the memories of this town and the gracious welcome it gave me and mine year after year.

The image at the top can be accessed here. The images of dinner at the CAY building in Portsmouth come from “The Mighty TOSRV,” edited by Greg and June Siple, 1986.