I've owned eleven bicycles over the years. I currently have three, although two were bought in the last five months, and one of those was as a result of researching this post. One of the tangents mentioned above was discovering that some of the images I found were attached to eBay auctions. I wound up buying a bike identical to one I used to own, and was sorely tempted to bid on a couple more. For purposes of easy reference I've given some of the bikes alliterative names, but back when I was riding them, I usually just called them "my bike."
The Red Roadmaster
My first bicycle was a shiny new 20" AMF Roadmaster middleweight that my dad bought me when I was 6 or 7. It was red and I thought it was the best thing ever. The bike in the picture is a 24" or 26" version of the same bike. I'm pretty sure the chain ring was plainer than the snazzy one in the photo, but the paint job is dead on. I vaguely recall that it had training wheels at first, but I don't think it was for very long. My earliest clear memory of the bike is of my father teaching me to ride it without the training wheels. It only took me three or four tries before I had it knocked. I remember being pretty proud of myself, and ready to take on the world with it.
I'm fuzzy on how much I actually rode it once I learned how. Early on I was restricted to the big communal driveway up behind our house. There was also a problem in that the immediate area wasn't especially bike friendly. The neighborhood was called "Hillside" for good reason. We lived on the side of a long ridge, so while the avenues going with the ridge had reasonable grades for the most part, the streets going across the ridge were very steep. The driveway was mostly flat, so at least I had a convenient spot to practice, but the street it opened onto gave only two choices, up or down. Up usually involved walking the bike up the hill to Center Avenue, or if I was feeling really energetic, riding back and forth across the street at shallow angles to lessen the apparent grade, much like a sailboat tacking into the wind. Down involved hanging on for dear life and hoping the coaster brake would work when you reached the stop sign at busy Western Avenue. As I got older I did ride out into the street and down to the corner store, to friends' houses nearby, and to the ball field behind the fire house, but not much further than that. I never rode it to school, because school wasn't all that close and there was an even steeper ridge to negotiate on the way.
It was my best friend, Richie, who showed me the trick of tacking up steep hills. Of course you could only do it on streets without much traffic. He also showed me how to clip a baseball card to the fender strut with a clothespin to make the bike sound like a motorcycle. Now that was really cool. To be sure, we only used cards we had no use for, mostly doubles and triples of benchwarmers from teams we didn't care about. Koufax and Mantle stayed safely in the shoebox. Ray Sadecki wound up clipped to the fender a lot. (Safe turned out to be a relative term in that my mother tossed the shoebox when we moved across town. Arrgh!)
At some point my dad bought a headlight for the bike, and frugal child of the Great Depression that he was (and still is), he bought one that was powered by a little generator attached to the front wheel rather than using batteries. My father disliked batteries intensely. Much of this stemmed from the Christmas when he made the mistake of giving each of his three sons a battery operated Remco Bulldog tank, requiring ten (10!) D cells among them (purchased separately). The batteries were dead before New Years (no Duracells back then), and my father vowed never to buy another battery operated toy for any of us ever again. Sigh. It was a true shame. If you were a boy of a certain age in the early 60's, Remco made by far the coolest toys, but almost all of them required batteries. My brothers and I got used to pushing the tanks with our hands. One of my dad's happiest days was when he came across some nifty rechargeable flashlights while on a trip to Japan. He bought three of them. They were really cool. But I digress...
The headlight never worked that well. You had to be moving really fast to make it light up at all, and since I wasn't allowed to leave the driveway after dark, I tended to run out of pedaling room pretty quick. It was a big driveway, but not that big.
Eventually I outgrew the red bike, and my brother claimed it. He'd been riding a crappy little metallic green bike with solid rubber tires that were starting to crumble apart from all the use he gave them. I don't remember much of what became of the red bike after that, mostly because I didn't care. Not my bike anymore. It was likely junked (along with a shoebox full of baseball cards) when we moved across town to the much larger house where my parents still live. It wouldn't have been in very good shape by that time. Besides the beating it took from my brothers and me, we had no garage, so it'd sat for years out in the back yard through all kinds of weather.
The Blue Bombers
Meanwhile, once little brother had snagged my red bike, I was once again a pedestrian, pretty much the only kid in the neighborhood who didn't have a bicycle of some sort. This was a totally unacceptable state of affairs, and I made sure the powers-that-be knew my feelings on the matter. Hard-fought negotiations followed. Promises were made by both sides. Chores were performed and toddler sisters were looked after while I eagerly awaited a new machine. My parents had been a bit vague on the details, so I spent a lot of time perusing the Sears catalog, wondering which sleek machine I'd end up with, all the while keeping half an eye on my sisters so my mom could get things done. All my friends had newish 26" bikes, so it seemed only logical that I'd get one, too. Would it be a streamlined middleweight with a built-in headlight, like Adrian's Flightliner, or better yet, an English Racer (a.k.a. three-speed) like Richie had? Okay, I was pretty sure the English Racer was way too pricey, and the top of the line Flightliner was pretty expensive, too, but surely I'd get something cool. Right? Right?
Five o’clock Christmas morning, I run downstairs, and look under the tree, and what do I find? Uncle Alfresco dead on the floor, shot through the back of the head. Plus… no bicycle. -- Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli, "My Blue Heaven"
Then one day it finally arrived. My new bike... My new, previously owned bike... My new, previously owned, ancient bike... My new, previously owned, ancient, girl's bike...
My mother had gotten it from a friend whose daughter had grown up and left it behind. It looked much like the one in the photo there, although I'm pretty sure it wasn't a Schwinn, and it certainly wasn't in as good a shape. It didn't even have a kickstand for cryin' out loud. It did have 26" wheels, but those wheels came with fat, ugly, balloon tires. At least the color was okay, that weird shade of cornflower blue that so many girl's bikes of that era were painted. It wasn't Dodger blue, but it was close enough. At least it wasn't pink.
I was mortified. Here all my friends had sleek, snazzy bikes, and I was faced with the prospect of riding an ancient clunker. An ancient girl's clunker. Clearly I'd get cooties if I even got near the thing. My peer group all pointed at the bike and laughed. My mother seemed not to understand what the big deal was.
Eventually, however, the prospect having to walk the mile into town to spend my allowance overwhelmed whatever dignity I had. I started riding the bike. It turned out to be an okay ride, your basic semi-reliable transportation. I rode it all over town, and never once got cooties. When people pointed at me and laughed, I just sped up and rode past, serene in the knowledge that they were walking and I wasn't. And I certainly never had to worry about someone stealing it. I still didn't ride it to school, again because of the monster hill, but also because even though I had come to peace with riding a girl's bike with fat tires, there was no point in inviting further comment upon the situation.
Looking back, it amazes me sometimes at how much independence of movement my friends and I were allowed at a very young age. (It was even more so for my brothers, because they were always allowed to go with me, under the assumption that I would keep them out of trouble. Yuh huh.) All I had to do was tell my mother where I was going—to town, to the park, or even up to Jockey Hollow—and permission would usually be given so long as I promised to be home by supper time. It wasn't as if we were living in Mayberry, either. The Green in the center of town was the intersection of several pre-interstate highways. There was always plenty of traffic, but I was trusted to know what to do. To me this meant using sidewalks as bike paths as much as possible, because running into a person was less likely to kill me than running into a car. I got to be an expert at timing the "Walk/Don't Walk" signs at the various intersections around the Green.
It never had a headlight. Adrian's bike had those nifty built-in headlights, but they never worked. It seemed the whole neighborhood was anti-battery. Richie had an honest-to-god working speedometer on his three-speed. He always had the best stuff. I made do with this little red plastic box that I'd bought at Del's Novelties for 50¢. It clamped onto the handlebar such that as you rode along, the air flow through the box deflected a clunky white plastic blade inside it. It was "calibrated" up to "50 mph." I don't think I ever got it up to "50," but I did up around "40" often enough.
The blue bike was the first bike I ever worked on. This was partly out of necessity, since the bike's bulbous tires seemed to attract nails like a magnet. (My old Subaru wagon was like that, too. Maybe it's me.) My father's job (he was a flight navigator) had him away from home for days at a time, and being an impatient soul, I figured it would be easier on us both if I learned how to fix things rather than waiting him to come home and nagging him to death about it. But I was also intrigued with the way bikes worked. There was a little filler cap on the rear hub that especially fascinated me. You were supposed to pump a little oil into it occasionally to make sure the hub and coaster brake were well lubricated. Since I was also fascinated with my dad's pump-style oilcans, I interpreted "occasionally" to mean every weekend, and once or twice midweek in the summer, just to make sure. It was one well-oiled bicycle. Plus I was always fiddling with the fenders, which were always getting out of alignment and rubbing against the tires, mostly because it got dropped on its side a lot because it didn't have a kickstand. You'd think with all the trips I made to Reliable Cycle, it would've thought to buy a kickstand at some point, although it occurs to me that since I was usually there to buy a new tube for a fat, ugly, nail-attracting tire, I would've left little money left for extras.
A couple years later, my mom managed to scrounge yet another bike, one almost identical to the original Blue Bomber. (I swear, I don't think my mother had a single acquaintance who had a grown-up son.) I took the newer one, while my brother traded up to the original. I suppose brother #2 got the red bike at that point. A couple of years after that we made the big move across town. I'm pretty sure at least one of the blue bikes made it over there, maybe both. I seem to remember at least one rusting away in the back of the garage. By that time the fenders were gone, along with the little plastic speedometer. They weren't ridden much once we moved, mostly just the first summer we were there. New bikes were just over the horizon.
The Black Beauty
We moved the same week that I graduated from the eighth grade. That event netted me $40 from assorted relations, which was promptly placed in a passbook saving account earning 4% interest (better than what I get on my savings account now). The key thing about this is that I was given custody of the passbook. It was my money after all. I think the rationale was that I would occasionally deposit some of my allowance money in the account, and thus would learn about thrift. As we shall see, this proved to be a strategic error on my parents' part, not to mention a bit naïve. Sometimes it's good to be the eldest kid.
Having moved across town, my brothers and I lobbied for new bikes so that we could visit our friends back in the old neighborhood. No new bikes were forthcoming. Protestations that it was too far to walk (it was two whole miles!) fell upon deaf ears. Plus, in my case, the old man seemed to be of the opinion that now that I was about to enter high school, I was getting a bit too old to ride a bike. Huh?
I have never seen my father (or my mother, for that matter) ride a bike. Adults didn't ride bicycles in suburban New Jersey in the early sixties. Okay, somebody must've been riding those nifty ten-speeds I'd seen at Reliable Cycle, but I assumed it was probably just some really rich kids whose parents could afford them. The first time I ever saw an adult ride a bicycle was probably when Jonathan Winters did it in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I thought was hilarious. Okay, it was hilarious, but that's beside the point. I've ridden bikes most of my adult life, so it's just odd to think about how different things once were. You never saw a parent riding along with their child. Nowadays it seems just the opposite. It rarer to see a kid younger than a teenager riding a bike without a parent in tow. It also seems like there were a lot more kids riding more often back then, either alone or with other kids. Skateboards seem the more popular mode of independent travel for older suburban kids today. Maybe it's because they're way cheaper than bikes. Maybe it's because you don't have to wear a helmet. Or maybe it's because kids know their parents won't try to skateboard with them. Of course that'll probably change in the next generation. It's already happening. I saw a guy on the path pushing his kid in a stroller while he kicked along on his skateboard. And someday he'll probably post an entry in his blog about how he never saw his parents on a skateboard.
Anyway, there I was in the summer of '66, sans bike yet again. However, I did have $40 plus two month's interest (at 4%!) burning a hole in my passbook. After a detailed analysis of my portfolio, I wasn't at all happy with my return on investment. So far I'd made a grand total of 27¢. This compound interest thing was for suckers. Time to invest in something a little more useful.
I know that at some point I broached the subject of buying a bike with the money. I'm guessing by that time my father had gotten sick of hearing about bikes and tuned me out, because he never actually said no. Or maybe I asked my mother and she never actually said no. And of course it's also possible that I was tuning out unfavorable replies. All I know is that I don't recall anybody specifically forbidding me from cleaning out the account to buy a bike.
By happy coincidence Sears had a beautiful three-speed listed in their 1966 catalog for $34.95. Now I had been going to the local Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog store with my mom for years, so I knew all about catalog ordering. I loved going to the Sears store. I remember the smell of it—tires. The parking lot was on the side of the building, so we always entered though the side entrance, which was also the entrance to the garage where trained Sears mechanics installed tires. The corridor to the store proper was separated from the garage proper by racks of white walls. To this day, the smell of tires takes me back to that Sears store. Inside they had those new fangled color TV's, Craftsman tools, and even some toys around the holidays to look at while mom picked up her order. Alas it's no longer there, the victim of Sears' conversion to shopping mall fixture. The building is still there, but it's a Blockbuster now, so I suspect it no longer smells like tires. I wonder what Blockbuster does with the four-bay garage they inherited.
As I said, I knew the catalog order store drill. I knew that there would be a shipping charge added, but there was enough leftover in the account to cover it. (I lucked out with my timing. New Jersey instituted its sales tax not long afterwards.) I made up my mind to press forward, marched down to the store, and placed my order. They told me it's be there in about a week. I waited.
On the appointed day I closed the bank account (all $40.27), and went to Sears to pick up my precious. I don't remember how I got it home. I mean, I was 13. I certainly didn't drive over to get it. It would have been shipped in a box partially disassembled. Did the nice folks at Sears put it together for me? (I did that occasionally when I worked at Spiegel later on, but it was usually only for employees of the store or its parent company.) Did I carry it home (a little under a mile) in the box? I wouldn't have brought tools with me to put it together on the spot. Did I talk my mom into giving me a ride to Sears, figuring by this time the bike was a fait accompli? Certainly she would've questioned me on how I intended to pay for it and probably nixed the transaction. (Now that I think of it, Sears must've called the house to let me know my order had come in. I wonder how I explained that.) Maybe I told her to wait outside while I went in on my own to pick up, er, something. That doesn't seem likely. I must've carried it. (Although upon reminiscing with my brother, he thinks they probably put it together. Now I'm wondering if I didn't just dragoon him into coming with me to help carry it.)
However I managed it, I got it home, and it was perfect. The photo shows the exact same model bike, the one I bought in an eBay auction (without the child seat). The bike turns out to have been very well regarded. There's another guy out there who bought his the same year I did and still has it (you'll need to scroll down a bit).
Now, my father was out of the country when I did this. Upon further reflection, I think the reason I don't remember the details of how I got the bike home is because those memories were drowned out by how very vividly I remember his reaction when he returned home from overseas to find a new bicycle in the garage when he parked the Rambler. It was a memorable conversation. Apparently, not being specifically told that I couldn't blow my entire savings account on a bicycle was not at all the same thing as being given express permission to do so. Who knew? I was banned from riding the bike for a month for lack of common sense. It was a fair cop, I suppose, but given that I had custody of the passbook in the first place, I came by it honestly.
That was a summer for me not being allowed to use things that I desperately wanted to use. About the same time as the bicycle incident, my father had picked up a second hand Lionel-Porter chemistry set for me from an another acquaintance whose kids had grown too old for it. I already had one, but this was a more elaborate set (this one, in fact), and it came with lots of extra goodies that the previous owners had acquired (including a copy of the infamous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments). I was super anxious to get my hands on it, but again I was denied. This time it was because I hadn't finished the summer reading for my upcoming freshman year of high school. I hadn't finished because I hadn't actually started yet, having naïvely assumed that the stack of books I'd had to purchase were "suggested" reading rather than an actual assignment. I mean, who gives reading assignments over summer vacation? What part of the word "vacation" were they not understanding? So, no chemistry set until I finished the reading, and no bike for a month. Feh. It was a long August.
It all worked out. The books got read, the chemistry set found it's way up into my bedroom, and the embargo on the bike finally got lifted. (I still have the book of experiments. It's missing the first seven pages, but all the infamous experiments are intact. I need to do a review some time.) My brothers eventually got new bikes, too, metallic blue spyders, which were all the rage then. They liked them because they could pop wheelies with them. I never developed the skill. (Never learned to skate or ride a skateboard, either.) I thought my bike was more elegant anyway.
There was one memorable trip I took all the way to the far end of the next town over with brother #1, me on the three-speed, him on his spyder. It was about ten miles round trip, the furthest I'd ever ridden in one go up till then. What made it memorable was that we hadn't bothered to tell anyone where we were going, and shortly after we took off my father decided it would be a good day to take the family down to the Jersey shore. Except they couldn't find us. We came home to find a note on the back door telling us where they were, how much fun they were having, and that we had to fend for ourselves for dinner. Bother.
It was with this bike that I started to do more riding as an end to itself, rather than as a means to avoid walking. Our new neighborhood was a lot flatter than the old one, meaning one could ride for longer distances without the necessity of walking the bike up a hill. Plus, you know, three speeds. My grandparents' house was only two miles away, and I used to ride over to visit my grandmother quite a bit. She'd feed me Nabisco Famous Wafers and soda, and I could shoot a little pool down in the basement. (One of the great disappointments in my family is that when my grandfather passed away, none of the grandchildren had space available for that pool table. It wound up being sold with the house. I did grab one of the two cues and a piece of chalk as keepsakes. Years later I found out my brother had grabbed the other cue.)
The route I took to get to my grandparents' house offered plenty of opportunities for side trips and other amusements. Chief among the amusements was the Erie Lackawanna (now NJ Transit) commuter station not far from their house. The station was off the main road and had a huge parking lot that was totally empty on weekends. It was a great place to ride for the fun of it, a much larger version of the original communal driveway where I'd learned to ride. There was also a closed-up freight house that had a concrete ramp leading up from ground level to the loading dock. With a little imagination you had an aircraft carrier to practice landings on. Which I did. A lot.
I had my first serious accident on that bike. I was coming back from the station one evening during my junior year, riding on the sidewalk a little ways up the street from home. The sidewalks on our street were made of large slabs of slate laid on the ground and butted up against each other. There were gaps, and it was rare that two adjoining slabs were the same height. It was always a bumpy ride. So there I was, riding along minding my own business, and the next thing I know I'm doing a Superman impression over the handlebars. I'm not sure what the exact cause was, but I must have hit one of the gaps just right. I wasn't seriously hurt. Even though I landed on the sidewalk, slate's a lot smoother than cement or pavement, so I didn't get too badly scraped. Nor did I break any bones. I did develop an impressive bruise on the inside of my left thigh where it must have hit the the end of the bar or something, but nothing more than that. The bike came through it okay, too, and I was able to get back on it to ride the rest of the way home. Mostly I remember how impressed some of my classmates were with the bruise the next time we had gym class.
Eventually, I drifted away from riding and the bike. For one thing, it never seemed work as well as I thought it ought to work. This was more a matter of my youthful expectations than a failure of the bike. In recent days it's become apparent that I probably never learned how to shift it properly. In my attempts to figure out what was wrong, I blamed the machine rather than the rider. I kept trying to make adjustments on the gear hub, but my efforts just seemed to make things worse. I never seemed to be able to get the shifter cable adjusted properly. Turns out I'm not all that good a fixing mechanical things, or at least mechanical things that require a certain amount of touch to get right. I suck at doing adjustments on cars and lawnmowers, too. Plus, I wasn't all that careful with my possessions, so the wear and tear quickly started to add up. The fenders became bent beyond recognition. I'm pretty sure that I just took them off at some point rather than deal with them.
I also learned how to drive, and that seemed a lot cooler than riding a bike. It was also a matter of practicality. I didn't go to a local high school, so my buddies were now scattered all over northeastern New Jersey. The bike was consigned to the old playhouse in the backyard, where it shared space with the lawnmower. Eventually my brother claimed it, and he mounted an old lawnmower engine on it, converting it into an oversized minibike. That was pretty cool. He was the one gifted with the mechanical touch in the family. I have no idea what happened to the bike after that. At some point my brother got hold of a VW chassis and engine that he converted to an oversized go-cart. As I said, he has the knack.
Four down, seven to go. As mentioned above, I wandered off on all sorts of tangents while writing this. The vintage three-speed tangent brought home how good a bike I'd had back in high school. Turns out those bicycles were made in Austria by Steyr-Daimler-Puch, and are still well thought of. Armed with that knowledge, the eBay tangent brought me into the possession of one of those bikes, along with a 1966 Fall/Winter Sears catalog and an autographed Ray Sadecki rookie card. I malign him a bit above, but Sadecki actually wasn't that bad a ballplayer. It's just that in 1963 it seemed like every other pack of baseball cards I bought had his picture in it. Still, that quirk of fate planted him firmly in my consciousness for all time, and truth be told, I really like the picture on Topps used on the 1960 version of his card, sort of a young Noah Bennett. Or perhaps Wally Cox.
Next time, the ten-speeds.