Are bicycles as important to young kids as much as they were when I was a boy? For us kids in the 60’s, a bicycle represented freedom from adults. It represented entertainment and adventures that we could not get from anywhere else. I’m sure that if we had an xbox 360, we would have had our faces glued to it all day just like kids do today. Video games seem to provide most of the elements to kids of today as a bike did for us back in the 60’s when I was growing up. But we didn’t have video games; we had bikes and our bicycle was our most prized possession.
We didn’t have 40 year-old-virgin-bikes like Steve Carell. No, we had Stingrays; Schwinn Stingrays! The bikes had a banana seat capable of holding your friend if you needed to give him a lift. It was called a banana seat for its oblong shape. The most distinctive feature that made a Stingray a Stingray were the handlebars. The handlebars were chopper style, shaped in a big ‘U’ and were so new and different that soon they became referred to as “stingray handlebars”.
We kids also liked noises to go along with our bike riding. After all, they had to sound motorized. Often times we would attach trading cards to the seat or chain stays so that when the wheel turned, the spokes would click against the cards, therefore making a noise (oh yeah, that sounded like a motor alright). One year we got for Christmas handlebar-mounted tiger head super siren – you know, the same kind as Pee Wee Herman has on his bicycle. We had it first though, Pee Wee is a copycat.
Another year we were really lucky because both Timmy (read me) and I got a Vroom motor for Christmas. The Vroom was made of plastic but looked just like a real motorcycle motor. It was mounted inside the ‘V’ of the frame and had an apparatus up on the handlebars where a key would be inserted to unlock the motor vroom sound. Turn it on and it purred just like a real motorcycle! Well, perhaps a little imagination helped, but the year we got those Vrooms, we thought we were the coolest kids on the planet.
The cool motor sound was fun alright, but it was the all-day kid adventures provided by the bikes that was the best part of having one. On most days our bikes would take us away from our homes for hours on end. If we had money maybe we would ride to Bowden’s Bicycle Shop to buy penny candy. Maybe we would ride over to Tim’s Grandma Spada’s house to snack on lasagna and then head over to the Hamilton Lumber yard to sneak in and explore a place we knew we weren’t supposed to be at. Likely though our destination would be Millikin Woods, where we would spend all day riding and exploring. The New World was discovered in such a way. Boys in the sixties were great explorers….and sometimes explorers lost their way!
One day Tim and I set out on our bikes and were determined to go deeper into Millikin Woods than we ever had before. We had decided to hit our regular points in the woods and then our plan was to venture beyond the normal boundaries, just to see what was on the other side. Our first stop was the giant rope swing, located at the big oak tree in the very back lefthand corner of the woods. We’d park our bikes, climb up the dirt hill and take turns swinging on the rope if it was there (sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t).
If there had been adequate rain in the Spring, next we would venture a little deeper in that same corner, beyond the park boundary where just across the railroad tracks was a very small pond. We would spend an hour trying to catch tadpoles. What are you supposed to do with a tadpole after you catch it? You can’t walk it. You can’t eat it. So after we caught them, we always just tossed them back in. Once we kept a few, thinking we’d be able to watch them turn into frogs but of course they died; likely from the traumatic trip from their nice pond to our makeshift eco-not-friendly-frog-environment (aka coffee can).
Along our ride through the park we would stop at each of the covered shelters to see if anyone accidentally left anything cool behind. ‘Cool’ might be a Super Ball or maybe an old Frisbee. Super Balls came out around the mid 60’s and let me tell you, they were indeed super! We hadn’t seen anything like them before. They were made of some kind of new synthetic rubber and if you threw them down hard against the concrete, they would easily bounce over a house. It should be noted that bouncing them over the house carried the undesired effect of likely losing your Super Ball.
The early 60’s were a great time for new inventions like the Super Ball, Frisbee and Slinky. It was the decade for the race to the moon and all sorts of inventions were turning up. These were toys that weren’t really all that expensive, but we kids placed a very high value on them! Easy to play with and hard to break – except that stupid Slinky would often times get tangled up and if it did, you might as well toss it in the garbage. Our parents always tried to salvage them by using a pair of wire clippers and cutting them right before the point of entanglement, but they were never the same – you could never walk it down the stairs after that. If you buy a Slinky and it gets caught up in itself and you can’t untangle it without bending it, trust me, pitch it into the recycle bin because all you have in your possession is a worthless piece of tangled slinkiness.
After the shelter explorations were finished we headed to the border of the woods, our own private Neutral Zone of space. We had never ventured this far. We had always stayed within the safety of the official boundaries of Millikin Woods; clearly marked by small wooden poles with an adjoining cable linking the poles.
What would be the harm? All we had to do would be to just lift ourselves and our bikes back over the cable and double back. How hard could that be? Well, that was the plan anyway. Outside the woods was a new neighborhood, new to us, a place we had never been to. How old were we, 7 or 8? We rode around the neighborhood, exploring. For 30 minutes or so we were Lewis & Clark.
Lewis and Clark had no issues where it came to retracing their paths. We were not Lewis and Clark. We were more like Christopher Columbus who thought he was forging a new trade route to India when he landed in the Indies Islands. An even better comparison would be Spanky and Alfalfa because we didn’t have a clue as to how to find our entry point; we were lost. We thought we had found our exit point but each time we did, we convinced ourselves that it was not the right spot and venturing in at the wrong spot would mean certain doom. We kept searching and searching, but no luck. Eventually we began to experience a kid freak out. Our moms would be worried, our dads will kill us. What were we saying? Our dads couldn’t kill us if they couldn’t find us. We would soon die of starvation (and we were indeed hungry – better explorers would have at least packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich).
We had to resort to taking drastic measures – asking for help. We rode our bikes up to a random house and knocked on the door. A nice lady came to the door and we told her that we were lost. We asked if we could borrow her phone and she agreed. We called my dad. Who still remembers their phone number from being a kid? I do. We had only 5 digits – 46198. That was our phone number from the time I was 5 until I was 10 or 11.
I told Dad that we were lost. He asked us where we were and of course I couldn’t explain it. The lady overheard our chatter and she asked to speak to Dad. We heard her telling him the address. She gave us a cookie and we waited outside. I was scared to death he was going to be mad and I would get a spanking.
He got there in nothing flat. He arrived so quickly that I thought he must have driven like a bat out of Hell. I was all braced….and then I saw him get out of his car. He was laughing. He was having a good laugh over our getting lost. I didn’t know why, but today I do. He told us to get onto our bikes so we could follow him in the car. He drove slowly and we pedaled hard but kept up until we got home.
That’s actually one of my favorite memories of my dad. Like a lot of you out there, I have a lot of memories that are so vivid that I can instantly play them back for myself and I see many details as they were when the moment happened. I still see the big grin on my dad’s face as he got out of the driver’s side of the car, parked momentarily on the opposite side of the street. He was young and happy looking. I don’t have a lot of pictures in my head like that one, so it’s nice to be able to replay one in such detail. He still had on his Ralston Purina, khaki colored uniform. And I remember the car being some older 2-door Chevy or Ford of some kind.
Dad got a big kick out of our getting lost that day. I see why today – we were only several blocks away from home. It felt like 100 miles to me as a kid and at the time, it felt confusing. Tim & I knew every square foot of Millikin Woods because it seemed like we were there almost every single day most summers. But on this day, we had stepped outside of our safety zone. If we learned a lesson that day, it was to stick to our known play areas and to always make sure of our return path. At no time in my childhood do I ever remember being afraid of an abduction though – I don’t even think I knew of the word.
Child abductions are not something we talked about – we didn’t talk about them at home and we never spoke of them at school either. I don’t know this as fact, but perhaps they just didn’t occur on the same frequency as they do today. Perhaps we just didn’t have the same level of public education on the topic as we do today. All I remember is the standard “never speak to strangers” or “don’t accept candy from a stranger” speeches. I guess an abduction is what they tried to protect us from but we just thought that there were weird strangers lurking around, waiting to pawn off their old stale candy on us.
All I can write about with authority is my own private experiences and feelings and so I tell you here that I just never felt afraid of being taken. It wasn’t something we kids talked about or worried about. I could leave the house in the morning and be away all day with my friend Tim. As long as I returned home sometime around dinnertime, I knew I would not be in any trouble and there wouldn’t be a lot of discussion about my day. This was just plain old normal ‘kid freedom’ back in the 60’s in Hamilton, Ohio and the bicycle was our mode of transportation, our method of escape.
A bicycle wasn’t a toy for us. It was a necessity that nothing else compared to. It was our most valued and prized possession! Our bicycle was what would transport us to our next adventure, a new one each and every day.