When I was younger, there were three people I wanted to be when I grew up: Fran Tarkenton, Alice Cooper and Evel Knievel (not necessarily in that order.) The football and Minnesota Vikings helmet my father gave me helped satiate my desire to be like "Fran the Man." My aspirations to perform on the big stage like Alice were fulfilled with a piece of cardboard cut out to look like an electric guitar, a hide-a-bed folded out as a makeshift stage and an old record player with a stack of 45s.
To be like Evel, however, required something more. It required a motorcycle, or at least a reasonable facsimile. For a young boy in the mid 1970s, a bicycle would suffice.
I didn't have a bicycle until age seven. I wanted one at a much younger age, but was told that I couldn't have a bike until I was seven. In retrospect I don't know that this "age seven" mandate was anything more than an arbitrary number selected by my father to buy him time to figure out how to purchase a bicycle. In any event it worked to pacify me for the time being. However it also set a deadline for the purchase, as I was fixated on the idea that on my seventh birthday a bicycle would be waiting for me.
I was oblivious to our family's financial condition at the time, but looking back I can better understand how difficult it was for us. We were affected by the recession of the mid-70s as my father went through a stretch for a few years where he couldn't find full-time employment. He would work various part-time jobs, sometimes several at once, in order to make ends meet.
My mother didn't work, which wasn't an unusual situation during this time period. In fact, it was the norm. Most moms didn't work, unless there was an obvious reason such as not having a father in the household. There were times when my mother would pick up a part-time job, but it would only be for a short period of time. Certainly she didn't have a "professional career" which is considered a typical aspiration by women of today.
As a testimony to both the blissful naivety of childhood and my parent's willingness to sacrifice, I don't remember doing without anything I truly needed as I was growing up. Yes it's true I didn't have everything I wanted, but my needs were always met. My father talks about having to make decisions about whether to purchase food or a pair of shoes for my brother and I. Somehow they always managed to provide both.
So as my seventh birthday approached my dad started plotting and planning to make sure I came through the day without having a completely crushed spirit. I remember him asking what kind of bike I would like, and I remember exactly the answer with which I responded: I wanted a red Stingray-styled bike with ape-hangar handlebars and a banana seat. Oh, and because I didn't know how to ride a bike yet, it had to have training wheels.
I'm not sure why I picked red. I guess it just seemed the fastest of the colors and if I was going to emulate my hero, I needed to have a fast bike.
Finally, on the tenth day of June in 1976, my seventh birthday arrived. To quote Dave Barry, "I am not making this up," when I claim I awoke and immediately hopped out of bed and ran through the house to the kitchen window. I just knew my birthday present would be sitting in the driveway, and in a moment of astounding clairvoyance, I was right.
There she sat. The day was overcast; otherwise she would have gleamed in the sun. Right in the middle of the driveway was a beautiful red Stingray-styled bike with ape hangars, red sparkle grips, training wheels, a wide slick tire on the rear and a black solo seat. I wanted a banana seat, but nevertheless most of the remaining criteria had been met. My dad was standing in the driveway, as if presenting it like one of Bob Barker's models.
Years later I got the full story on the origin of this bicycle. A new bike was beyond the realm of affordability, so my dad went down to the police auction where they sold off stolen items that had never been claimed by their respective owners. He purchased this bike which was originally green. Somehow he managed to hide it in the garage while he stripped it down and with the help of a can of Krylon, painted it bright red.
I never did know the brand name of the bicycle. The red paint covered any markings that may have existed. Although it was a Stingray style, I'm near certain it wasn't a real Schwinn. Every manufacturer during this time period was making a Stingray clone. From pictures I've seen of other bikes from that era I am suspecting that it was a Columbia. I will probably never know for certain.
I didn't notice it wasn't a new bicycle. All I knew was that it was mine. My mother insisted that I get dressed and eat breakfast before I was allowed to go outside and fondle my new set of wheels. I threw on clothes, gobbled my cereal as fast as I could, and headed outside.
My memories of this morning are vivid, and among the most treasured of those still rattling around in my brain. Dad showed me how to climb on and pedal, and most importantly (to him, anyway) how to use the coaster brake. A few minutes later I was tearing up and down the block.
At least as fast as a person can tear while being bogged down by the friction of training wheels. I was told that once I learned out to ride without them, I would then get the banana seat I wanted. Once again I suspect this was a ploy to allow my dad some extra time to come up with the cash, but it all worked out in the end.
I don't remember exactly how long I rode with the training wheels, but it was longer than I had hoped. Unfortunately, my coordination didn't afford me the ability to remove them for quite some time. Dad occasionally moved them up in the hope that I would become less and less dependent on them. Instead, I just became more and more adept at riding the bike at extreme lean angles, relying on a sole training wheel for support.
Then one beautiful summer evening (weren't all the summer evenings beautiful when you were a kid?) my brother and I were out playing with the neighbor kids. My dad was talking to their father and we kids were all riding our bicycles, except for my younger brother who was on his tricycle. The kids next door could ride without training wheels, which was making their turn-around times at the end of the block much quicker than mine. I just couldn't keep up.
At some point the neighbor girl took a break from the bike. I asked her if I could try her bike and she said it was OK. I picked it up and sat on it. Unlike my bike, this bike sat much lower and I could reach the ground with my feet. Because of this, I was able to kind of scoot the bike along without needing to pedal, which left my legs able to provide stability so I would remain upright. As I scooted up and down the block, the distance between my strides became greater and greater until I finally had enough courage to place my feet on the pedals and coast for a bit. After a few successful attempts, I proceeded to start turning the cranks and the next thing I knew, I was riding a bike without training wheels.
I had a blast going up and down the sidewalk, enjoying my new found freedom. This is truly a "coming of age" moment in every child's life.
An additional lesson I learned that evening and still remember to that day was that "pedestrians have the right-of-way." I acquired this knowledge as I was barreling down the sidewalk toward my father. I yelled, "Get out of the way!" to which he responded by standing his ground and forcing me into the neighbor's lawn where I promptly crashed. He then explained that bicycles move for walkers, not the other way around.
The next day my dad removed my training wheels from my bike. After a few shaky attempts to remember how I did it the night before, I finally recollected the mechanics of bike riding and I proceeded to ride training-wheel free. Like every child starting out, I would crash occasionally, but thankfully the incidents got fewer and fewer.
A few weeks later, dad made good on his promise for a banana seat. We went to K-Mart and came home with a blue-sparkled seat with a silver stripe across the back. I was so excited, but when we got home it was time for bed. The next night my dad mounted it up, and I was in full swing 70's glory.
I began to commute to school using this bicycle. My father bought some insurance in the form of a bike lock which I could use to help ensure my steed was still waiting for me at the end of the school day. It was a heavy chain combination lock, with a blue plastic sleeve. The lock itself, however, only had three sliders for the combination which meant it was secure to other elementary school children, but not serious thieves. I remember wearing it across my chest bandolier-style as I rode.
There were bicycle accessories that I would see on friends' bicycles that I would never have. One example was the ornamental spoke covers that were basically a colored drinking straw with a slit down the side that let you slide it onto the spoke. In my research on these novelties I discovered that somebody actually patented the "combination drinking straw and wheel spoke cover" (United States Patent 3796370.)
Other popular accessories I would do without were horns, bells, lights, speedometers (the old analog kind, not today's digital models) and handlebar tassels.
One accessory I do remember obtaining were "Wacky Wheels." I remember seeing a friend who lived a few blocks had gotten a set for his bike. These were an extremely short lived mid-70's creation that consisted of two round plastic inserts that could be slipped inside the spokes of a 20" bike wheel. They came in several different designs. I wanted a set for myself.
When my dad came home from work that evening from whatever job he had at the time, I told him that I wanted a set of Wacky Wheels. Generally we had no room in the budget for such extravagancies, but that evening after supper he and I went out to Walgreens at the Western Mall and he bought me a set that looked like mag wheels off a car. To this day, I don't know what convinced him to purchase them for me. I don't even remember asking more than the one time. It was a non sequitur that still doesn't make sense.
The Wacky Wheels lasted approximately a week before they self destructed sending shards of severed plastic flying through the air.
Inevitably, as my prowess on the bike increased I began emulating my hero Evel Knievel. Wheelies were the first trick I learned, along with how to bail out the back and stay on your feet if you pull up too far. I was OK at riding a wheelie, but nothing to write home about. There were kids in the neighborhood who could ride one for a half-block or more. One kid could even go around corners. I was never quite that good, but could probably do about 30 feet on a regular basis.
I eventually learned to ride no-handed, but wasn't very good at it with this bike. Later on in life when I had other bicycles, I was able to do it much easier. I am suspecting that the neck bearings were a bit tight on this bike, which worked against riding no-handed. It seems counter-intuitive, but the easier a bike's handlebars turn the easier it is to ride no-handed.
Soon I had moved up to jumping. This started with simple curb-hops, and from there moved to actual ramps. We would stack items found in our garage, then lay a board across them. Riding up to the corner I would prepare myself for the stunt, then barrel as fast as we could down the sidewalk. I would hit the ramp and, if it were constructed sturdy enough, would sail through the air to land several feet away. In our minds we were clearing junk cars, and could hear the roar of the crowd as we rode away unscathed.
If the ramp wasn't sturdy enough, which happened on occasion, it would self destruct once the front tire hit it. This subsequently caused a spectacular crash usually resulting in some road rash, a bit of crying, then re-analyzing the construction of the ramp so that it could be made rigid enough to survive the force of a bicycle.
The ramps got higher and higher until out of fear of incurring the expense of an emergency room visit, my dad finally imposed a height restriction of one foot. I protested, but eventually conceded to the limitation. As it turned out, we had found a metal plate from an old railroad track that was about three feet long, and a small bench that was about a foot high. These two items used together formed a quite sturdy ramp that became our launch of preference, and were within the specification.
In addition, the height of a ramp is only one part of the equation. The speed at which one hits the ramp is another, and there was no mandate placed on how fast I could go before hitting the ramp.
After a few summers, my brother was old enough to ride a bike, and he joined in the jumping as well. Then the neighbor kids joined in. Pretty soon we had a whole pack of wannabe daredevils flying down the sidewalk and sailing through the air.
You could always tell the newbies. They would generally make one of two mistakes, although many times they would make both.
First off, you never hit the ramp sitting down on your seat. Standing up on the pedals puts you in a position where you can push off the ramp and gain increased height off the jump, and which results in an increased jump distance. In addition, when landing your slightly bent legs will offer some cushion to the impact. Remaining seated means your tail bone takes the brunt of the landing.
Second, when going off a ramp the bicycle's natural tendency is to travel in an arc. This means that the bike wants to fly through the air rotating in a forward circular motion, landing on the front wheel. This is the natural tendency, but it's not what you want to happen. Coming down on the front wheel places a tremendous amount of shock to the front fork, and this isn't the strongest part of the bike. It also causes the force of the impact to be transferred through the handlebars, which can cause you to veer in an unintended direction, or get tossed over the bars if the impact angle is steep enough.
To land properly, one wants to manipulate the bike in the air so that ideally both wheels hit the ground at the same time. This distributes the impact equally across both ends of the bike. If you can't both wheels simultaneously, then it's better to land rear-wheel first.
Interestingly enough, nobody ever taught me the above things. I just knew them, even from a young age. Must me some inherited knowledge passed among my gender. I did have this knowledge reinforced on a regular basis by watching other kids eat pavement when their technique wasn't up-to-par.
As my jumping skills progressed, I was always looking for new challenges. We had lined up toy cars, but that soon lost its fascination. At some point we came up with the idea of jumping people. My brother, who was always more adventurous than I, became the first to allow me to attempt jumping over him. He lay down perpendicular to the front of the ramp (even he was smart enough not to let me try jumping him the long way!) I came down the sidewalk, hit the ramp and cleared him with ease.
Distance-wise, that was no challenge. Excitement-wise though, it was at a whole new level. One by one more and more kids would line up to let me jump over them. The number of kids I would clear in each jump grew progressively longer, but I always remembered that for some reason my brother was the last one in line to be cleared. Probably because he was the youngest in the group and would get forced to do so.
I had moved up to seven kids lying on the sidewalk in front of the ramp. I rode up to the corner, turned around, assessed the situation and began my approach. At some point my dad had looked out the window and saw the kids lying there. Halfway down the sidewalk he came out the door of the house screaming at me to stop.
By the time he yelled, I had gotten up to the speed necessary to clear all of the boys. I made a calculated decision to go through with the jump, knowing that this would be the last chance I would have to prove myself able to jump over seven people.
I hit the ramp and gracefully flew through the air. I cleared my brother with plenty of room to spare.
My dad was livid. I remember him chewing me out something terrible, but I don't remember exactly what he said. The whole time he was yelling I kept thinking, "I wonder why he's mad at me? I wasn't going to get hurt. It was the people lying down who were stupid!"
This old bike served me well for about four summers, which in child time is the equivalent to three ice-ages. About two years after I got it I had bent both rims to the point where they were rubbing the frame. Cyclists call this "tacoing" a wheel. My dad had to spend a little bit of money to buy me a used set of replacement rims and some new tires at a nearby bicycle shop. The new tires didn't leave the thick black skid marks down the sidewalk like the old slick did, but did do a much better job keeping me upright when the road was wet.
By the end of four years, however, the bike was really starting to show wear. The red paint had been scraped and scratched so many times that the frame looked red, green and rust colored. The head tube had taken such a beating from the jumps that it had cracked at the bottom, which allowed the handlebars to move forward and back a couple of inches compounded by a spot where the steering would "stick" if you tried to turn left.
One Sunday afternoon, the kids from the neighborhood discovered that a nearby car wash had been torn down (Pretty Mama's car wash at the northwest corner of 21st and Minnesota for those of you who have been in Sioux Falls long enough to remember.) The debris of the building had been cleared away, but what was left was a wonderland for young children. Not a safe place to play, mind you, but safety was never at the top of our list when seeking out wonderlands.
Where the car wash had sat stood a rectangular concrete platform approximately three feet high, fifteen feet wide and probably fifty feet long. Originally there had been a building over the top with entrance and exit ramps to allow cars in and out of the car wash. Now only the platform remained with gaping holes in the surface where cleaning equipment used to live.
Most of the kids in the area were fascinated by the ability to crawl down into one of the old drain holes and have direct access to the sewer system. I'm not sure if it was the stench or some other grotesque reason, but I chose not to go there (literally and figuratively.)
What I found intriguing was that there was enough debris in the area for me to build a make shift jump ramp for my bike. Pointing the ramp at the platform, I now undertook the challenge to launch myself off the ramp with enough velocity to successfully land up on the concrete plateau.
Needless to say, it took a few attempts before I figured out the correct distance in which the ramp needed to be placed from the edge of the platform, and the speed in which the bike needed to be traveling. The unsuccessful attempts were rewarded with the bike smashing into the concrete wall, and my body turning into a projectile to land awkwardly and painfully without a bike underneath. Of course, considering the time period in which these events took place, nobody wore helmets. I'm sure you could probably buy a bicycle helmet if you searched for one, but I'm also sure that doing so would have guaranteed a beating from your neighborhood peers. For some strange reason, I long to return to this time in my life when cranial injuries were nothing compared to the ridicule to which one would be subjected for wearing a helmet.
Anyway, once I had successfully completed a landing up on the platform, I now was faced with a second challenge: getting down. I'm sure the safe, sensible thing to do would be to dismount, climb down off the wall then carry the bike safely to ground level. Of course if I were into the safe and sensible thing I wouldn't have found myself three feet up on a concrete platform dodging holes that lead to the open sewer system. So to expedite the descent, I would simply ride to the edge of the platform and execute what is called a "bunny hop" which is a method of lifting yourself and your bicycle upward without an external means of vertical propulsion like a ramp or bump. The bunny hop would allow my wheels to clear the edge of the platform and allow me to land on both wheels back down on the ground. A drop of this distance onto hard cement would cause the bike to absorb quite an impact.
After a few hours of smashing the bike into the wall and then hopping down from that height, the replacement rims my dad had put on the bike were now in worse shape that the originals. Both wheels would alternately rub the frame/fork on each side, creating a "zzzzzzz" noise that would occur twice per revolution. This created a great surround-sound effect as the sounds would alternately emit from the front and rear of the bike, but didn't do much for performance to constantly have the tires rubbing. Not to mention it made it wobble like a clown bike.
To add insult to injury (and I need to stress the injury part) the front clamp on the banana seat had rusted through and broken loose, which meant sometimes when you stood up and did a wheelie the seat would flop back upside down. If you didn't notice this, you would sit back down right on the raw seat post. It only took a few instances of this happening to convince me that it was time to start looking for a new bike.
My father had stated that for my next bike, if I saved up half the cost for the replacement then he would match it. I'd managed to scrape together about $30 in my savings account (remember this is late-70's money). It actually is amazing that I was able to do this given my propensity for running out and blowing my weekly allowance money on candy at the neighborhood store.
A group of us were riding home from a store a couple of miles away. I'm pretty sure we didn't have permission to ride that far, but that's another topic of discussion. Anyway, on the return trip I experienced another posterior seat post impalement incident. As we were nearing home, we passed a garage sale and sitting out front was a blue bicycle. Still stinging from the invasive injury I'd had a few minutes earlier, my interest in this bike was piqued.
The price was $60, which was exactly enough to allow me to meet my end of my father's deal. When he came home from work that evening, I accosted him, reminded him of the deal we had and informed him I'd found a bike I wanted to purchase. We walked over to the garage sale and looked at the bike. My father haggled a bit with the owner, and I rode home with a new (to me) bike.
I am pretty sure that my father originally made the "you pay half, I'll pay half" offer assuming that I would never save up enough money to require him to make good on the deal. In retrospect, I'm also sure that he didn't have his half of the $30 just sitting around without being earmarked for a specific expense, like groceries for the month or a doctor's visit. In any event, he kept his word and we split the cost on the bike. He did inform me, however, that subsequent bike purchases were solely up to me.
So I now had a new ride, and it was time to retire my first bike. It was unceremoniously and unlovingly abandoned in the garage for several years, a fate certainly not equitable to the joy and fun that it provided during its lifetime. It suffered a life of abuse at the hands of a young boy who had little regard for maintenance or proper care, yet willingly gave of itself until it finally paid the ultimate price. After gathering dust for a few seasons, it eventually wound up being sold at a garage sale for $3 without a second thought to a person hoping to cannibalize it for parts.
If I could have it back, I would most certainly strive to right the wrongs I forced upon it. Alas, I never will see it again so I must be satisfied with the memories.
This page last updated on 07/11/2018