Philadelphia, PA – Late 60s – Early 70’s
The first childhood vehicle I ever had was a little metal pedal car. I don’t remember much about it, but I had heard from my father that I didn’t like it. It was a beautiful little car. Odd, you’d think I would love something like that but he told me I didn’t have much interest in being inside it.
The next was a little kid’s bicycle. It was a red Schwinn Pixie boys bike with training wheels. My father liked Schwinn bicycles. I can’t blame him. Schwinn made bikes that were durable and virtually indestructible. I remember them being heavy bicycles when many were lighter in weight back then. I don’t even think you could put air in the tires of the Pixie. They were solid rubber.
I loved that little bike. My older sister had a blue Schwinn bike but I can’t remember the name of it. It may have been called a Bantam. The cooler girl’s bike made by Schwinn was the sportier, Lil Chick.
All the while my little sister rode around on a tricycle.
I was happy on my little Pixie bike, but one begins to notice some of the other kids in the neighborhood beginning to ride bikes without training wheels. It was a natural progression for all children to want to grow up and have more freedom. But there’s always the fear factor of trying new things.
My father would be out in front of our house with us teaching us how to ride without training wheels. It became an ongoing story in our family’s history of my dad teaching me how to ride. He knew that once I got it I’d be fine and that it was all a matter of confidence, speed, and balance. But the story was that he’d be running along, holding onto the back of my seat and me being terrified.
“Dad! I’m going to fall!”
“I’m not going to let you fall. I’m your father!”
It’s funny now, but I remember thinking back then, “I get that, dad, but what if you trip and fall? It could happen. Then I’ll careen into the bushes!”
I suppose it was just my early anxiety about doing anything different or new, but he kept at it. Me nearly in tears, pedaling like my life depended upon it, and him holding on and running behind me.
But then one day… off I went. Like magic. I pedaled and kept the bike going, thinking my dad was still holding on to the back of my seat and thinking how is he doing this? But when I hit the brakes and stopped, I turned around and he was thirty feet behind me standing on the sidewalk, hands in the air, smiling ear to ear.
They say, ‘it’s as easy as riding a bike’, and it’s true. It is easy. Once you can do it, you never forget it. You simply feel your center, maintain your balance, and move forward. I think that principle can be applied throughout your life.
Learning to ride a bike is your first step to independent freedom away from your parents.
Eventually, my older sister got a bigger girl’s bike. It was green. It was a solid conservative ladies’ bicycle. It was classy, just like her.
So my parents gave me her old blue girl’s bike. But at the local bike shop, they bought a bar for it that ran from the seat to the handlebars so that it was now distinguished as a ‘boys bike’. Funny how you had to add something to a bicycle to give it a gender. But it originally was based on design, structure, and stability. The only reason girls’ bikes didn’t have it was because many years ago, women’s bicycles were designed without a bar to accommodate their long dresses.
So with the bar, it was now a boy’s bike. But based on some of the newer designs in bicycles I was seeing around the neighborhood, I wanted to trick out this blue Schwinn Bantam.
My friends and I had become literal whizzes when it came to bicycle mechanics. With a set of tools, we could completely take a bike apart and put it back together again. So I wanted to take this former girl’s bike and ‘Frankenstein’ it into something cool. The first thing I did was spray paint it gloss black.
My mother took me down to Morie’s Cycle Shop on Rising Sun Avenue, just beyond Levick street. I remember the bike shop always had a distinctive smell. It was that fresh vulcanized rubber smell. Our sense of smell is our most primitive sense, and the memories it provides are always extremely vivid. If I walked in that place today it would take me right back to that day.
It may have been my birthday. My mom let me pick out a black banana seat with silver sparkles, a tall sissy bar, big fancy handlebars, and a fat rear tire that was called a slick. I also found an old bike in the trash and sawed off the forks in the front and added them to my bike to create a look that resembled a chopper.
A chopper is a type of custom motorcycle that emerged in California in the late 1950s. The chopper is perhaps the most extreme of all custom styles, often using radically modified steering angles and lengthened forks for a stretched-out appearance. They can be built from an original motorcycle that is modified (“chopped”) or built from scratch. Some of the characteristic features of choppers are long front ends with extended forks often coupled with an increased rake angle, hardtail frames (frames without rear suspension), very tall “ape hanger” or very short “drag” handlebars, lengthened or stretched frames, and larger than stock front wheels. The “sissy bar”, a set of tubes that connect the rear fender with the frame, and which are often extended several feet high, is a signature feature on many choppers.
A sissy bar also called a “sister bar” or “passenger backrest” is an addition to the rear of a bicycle or motorcycle that allows the rider or passenger to recline against it while riding. Alternatively, it can serve as an anchor point or support for mounting luggage or equipment that’s not part of the bike.
Perhaps the best-known choppers are the two customized Harley-Davidsons, the “Captain America” and “Billy Bike”, seen in the 1969 film Easy Rider.
So, it went from this…
To something like this…
There I am on the actual bike!
Except my sissy bar was tall and rose three feet off the seat, so you could lean back on it and pop wheelies. If you didn’t have a back fender when you rode through a puddle, you got a line of wet mud up the back of your shirt!
So, now the bike was cool. What was better than speeding down the street and then suddenly slamming on the breaks and hearing your back wheel scream as you left a long skid mark on the asphalt?
Another thing we used to do that all boys had done probably since the 50s was to clip a playing card or a baseball card to the back frame with a clothespin. The card protruded into the back spokes of the wheel. This way, when you rode along, the card flicking against the spokes at high speed would create the sound of a motor. It was cool for a while but the clothespins always broke or the card wore out, and it just became a pain to keep putting a new one back on your bike. It sounded too thin anyway and I wasn’t much of a fan. Also, if anybody can do it… it stops being cool.
So we came up with a better idea. If you could get your hands on a balloon, like the kind they gave out at Weiss’s Kiddie Shop, you could make something better.
You blow the balloon up, but only partially. You push the air inside toward the center of the balloon. This way, there’s still plenty of uninflated balloon on each end. You tie each end to the back frame of your bike so that the inflated part of the balloon is facing towards the spokes of your back wheel. You can do this same process with a regular round balloon, but if you can get a long balloon, it’s a little more durable for the beating it’s about to take.
It blows away the sound a little baseball card clipped to your frame sounds. A balloon sounds like the real deal. Me pulling up on my chopper bike, with a balloon hitting the back spokes is amazing. It’s about as close as you can get to the sound of a real motorcycle. I kid you not.
Check it out!
How great is that? Totally badass. Even on a little kid’s bike! When we all rode up with balloons in our spokes on our choppers, it was like being Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. We went from a group of boys on their bikes to a full-fledged, motorcycle gang.
I’m telling you, back in the 70s life was way more fun out in the real world than sitting around today in your house playing a bunch of video games.
We even formed a little bicycle gang called The Raiders. I think this inspired my sister and her friends to start a girl cycle gang called The Jewel Thieves. (If I’m wrong about this, my sister is free to correct me.)
Another thing we loved doing was going on what we called journeys. We would ride our bikes really far from our homes. Miles and miles away from our neighborhood. It was amazing to have that first taste of absolute freedom from your block and your parents. We were a little group of outlaws traveling to parts unknown.
The euphoria of the sudden drop at the top of Martins Mill Road. That long black ribbon that was the steepest hill in town. Like some dark dragon, you had to conquer. You wanted to feel the excitement and speed as you descended that incredible slope. But the fear rode right along with you, knowing that if you weren’t ready to hit the breaks in a split second, it could end in tragedy. All of this energy coursing through your body as cars sped by alongside you, all the way down.
You knew that if you returned home on this same road, the climb would be nearly insurmountable. It became steeper the higher you climbed. Your young heart pounding, your lungs burning as your legs pushed on. You could see the top. But could you make it?
You couldn’t give up in front of your friends and get off and walk your bike back up the hill. You had to show everyone you were strong enough to make it. A simple right of passage.
We would mostly follow roads that led west into Cheltenham and Burholme Park. I loved going on bicycle journeys. You could go anywhere you wanted back then and your parents had no idea where you were. As long as you appeared again at your home before dinner, you were fine.
No internet. No GPS. No cell phones. Nothing. Just you and the road. No leash. No helmets or pads of any kind were worn by any child in the neighborhood.
Which in hindsight, would probably have been a good idea back then based on the way we rode.
Evel Knievel was a national treasure back in the 70s and we all loved him. He was a guy who would get on his motorcycle and do these crazy jumps over cars. He was a mad daredevil who had broken every bone in his body.
So being a bunch of 12-year-old boys we were compelled to emulate him on our bikes. Not jumping over cars, but we would set up these little ramps with planks of wood and stacked bricks. We would speed up to the ramp and fly off it. Thinking back on it now, it wasn’t that bad, but we were always crashing on our bikes.
Not us, but you get the point.
Not wearing any safety gear, there were plenty of injuries. Kids were always crashing their bikes because we were on them all of the time. We would go everywhere on them. You had no money so it was your only means of transportation away from your parents. Plus, if you decide to start trying stunts there are sure to be some banged-up kids.
But we never lost anybody. None of us ever got hit by a car or anything. The only injury I can remember was on a bike I owned in I think 6th or 7th grade. It was a beautiful brand new red ten-speed that was all the rage as we got a little older.
I loved that bike and rode it everywhere. One afternoon I was stupidly racing another boy down Rising Sun avenue and my tire got stuck in the trolley track. I went flying face-first to the asphalt and cobblestones. My glasses broke, and the left side of my face was really torn up. I remember getting up off the ground and just feeling the searing pain in my face.
Amazingly, a man stopped in his car, put my bike in his trunk, and drove me home from the accident. It was a miracle of kindness. I can’t remember his face or his car. My mother was shocked at how bad my face looked. She said she never even got the man’s name to thank him. Just a kind-hearted person who did the right thing. (So whoever you are sir… Thank you!)
My left eyebrow had several large X-shaped cuts, and my whole cheek had road rash. I’m surprised my injuries weren’t worse. My left eye was black and blue and swollen shut. It looked like someone had beaten my face really badly. My mom kept me home for a few days, but I recovered. I wish I had a picture of how bad it looked but I don’t think any exist.
But, other than that, we always enjoyed our bikes. I remember even when I was later married in the 90s, we’d be at the shore in Avalon. I’d get up early and rent a bicycle and just ride around town. All the way down to Stone Harbor and back. It was a welcome early morning repose away from my wife and my inlaws.
Even into his 80s, my father always loved riding his bike. He told me he just loved hopping on it and sailing along down the street to run his errands.
There’s something about just jumping on your bike and taking a ride. In a car, it all moves too fast and it’s like watching a movie. It’s as if it’s all happening on TV through the windshield.
But on your bike… you’re always in the movie.
That youthful freedom. The wind in your face as you made your way to your next destination.
A talent once learned as a child that could never be lost.
Unlike our youth.
Always fleeting with each turn of the pedals beneath our feet.
Tune in this Thursday for the next installment of, Back The Tracks – Part 5 – Refrigerator Box!