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Unchained Memories



Bleached bones from a herd of Huffys lie scattered like ancient remains under the stand of shade trees that serves as Charles Carter's workshop.

Hundreds of cigarette butts collect at the feet of Carter, who at 84 is almost a landmark for many Ashlanders. They might notice him only in passing as their eyes struggle to make sense of the jumble of bike frames and assorted parts stacked everywhere around him. But he's there sitting, tinkering with old gears or brake lines.

On this stagnant July afternoon, the brim of Carter's new black baseball cap shades his brilliant blue eyes that sparkle against his dark skin. An old, rusty metal box of tools sits nearby, perched on an old crate.

Travel south on Railroad Avenue and you're apt to see Carter most any day sitting here among his collection of bicycles: 50 or 60 or more bikes of every description and size, and in every state of repair -- or disrepair.

"I sell a few of them, and some of them just ride off," says Carter, who has a Zenlike view of commerce, profit and theft. What comes around, goes around, he figures — which explains why he's never low on stock, even if some bikes just get up and go: "People just drop 'em off, you know."

A few of Carter's bikes look brand-new; they're commission jobs from neighbors or students of nearby Randolph-Macon College. Some are Franken-bikes. Carter cobbles them together from recycled parts and then sells them. Most have been brought here to rust, be recycled or to be cannibalized for parts, but certainly never to be ridden again.

Destinations are limited for a small-town widower whose children and grandchildren see to most of his needs: "I might go to the liquor store," he says, laughing like a kid.

It was too many years ago to recall when Carter got his start tinkering with bicycles.

"I was trying to make a wooden bicycle — Oh, that's been quite a few years — I was a young man," he says, unable to recall if he was still working at the old Ashland Lumber Mill then, which used to be just across Ashcake Road from his house. He retired from there years ago to settle into his routine of tinkering here.

Joe Hicks, Carter's grandson, comes by now and then from his house in Beaverdam to mow the grass. "Ever since I can remember he's had bikes," Hicks says.

Carter walks slowly with the aid of a cane, but says he still gets up to ride now and then.

Now he's tinkering with a red Huffy Durasport with salvaged purple handlebars from a child's bike, and nothing but empty air between the brake handle and the front-wheel calipers. He hopes to have it ready to ride soon.

Despite his years, Carter still talks like any cycling enthusiast when he's asked what he likes about riding. He likes finding a steady pace, he says, and getting into a comfortable gear. "Ah, exactly!" he says, eyes lighting up.

Carter says he entertains a couple of people each day, prospective customers who pull into his dusty gravel driveway and get out to take a look at what he has to sell.

"Some of them is [customers], some of them isn't," he says, shrugging.

"Some say they're coming back."

Carter says he doesn't mind waiting. S

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