We all have childhood memories sometimes so vivid that they park themselves in our heads and our hearts and cannot be towed away. Not even the Jaws of Life can extract them. My hope is that, like my memories, there are many more gratifying ones than troubling ones for you. That the troubling ones do indeed get towed . . . to the junkyard while the gratifying ones garner premium spaces under a shady tree—the ones even more choice than “Reserved for Employee of the Month” or “Reserved for Expectant Mothers.”
Many of my treasured memories and not-so-treasured memories happened during the large swaths of time I spent outdoors in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. Like many baby boomers, much of that time was spent riding my bike around the neighborhood.
Of course, we all have our bike injury stories. One time I approached my bike while it was lying on the ground. I tripped over it and suffered a big gash on my calf from the edge of the pedal. I probably should have gone to the emergency room for stitches, but it was 1961. My mother bandaged it up, and I survived. As luck would have it, a few decades later, the scar finally disappeared.
There was the time when my best friend Patty and I were riding in the big empty lot that was covered with cinders. She fell off her bike, and along with her bloody wound were cinders embedded in her knee. The knee healed, but the cinders were part of her body forevermore.
I remember the time that I parked my bike on the street in front of my house, and when I returned, I found both tires deflated (no relation to the Patriots’ Deflate-Gate). This was very unusual in my neighborhood. Although there were plenty of shenanigans, especially since the large majority of players in the neighborhood were boys, but there was rarely malice. The person that I suspected and accused was not a boy but a girl. Some neighborhood kids actually held a trial in a back yard, but having produced no smoking gun and relying almost solely on circumstantial evidence, we were never able to convict the defendant beyond a shadow of a doubt.
My bike looked something like this Schwinn—minus the basket.
Of all my bike episodes, the one that is parked front and center in my mind took place the day the neighborhood boys double-crossed me.
Let me explain about the neighborhood boys. I was a touch of a tomboy and, as I said, spent much time outdoors. Being outdoors meant being right smack in the middle of a pack of boys, including my brother Billy and cousin Jimmy. Since my house was on a level stretch of the road, that’s where the boys often congregated, and so stepping off my driveway meant entering the realm of the neighborhood boys, whose favorite hobby seemed to be harassing Karen. Oh, there were some girls in the neighborhood around my age, including my best friend Patty, but other than Patty, they didn’t spend much time in the street and wanted nothing to do with the boys.
Sometimes the boys would allow me to play wiffle ball or other games with them; sometimes they would say, “Get lost, Snotrag.” That was my nickname among them, invented by good old Johnny, I believe. Sometimes they were too busy to play wiffle ball because they were conspiring over how they could torment me, like the time they challenged me to hold a writhing, menacing-looking snake that they had just caught. Of course, I mustered the courage and did it, not wanting to be labeled a yellow-bellied chicken liver.
So, the day the boys “double-crossed” me took place around 1961 when I was 9 or 10 years old. That was the day that Tony showed off his brand new bike—a Raleigh “English Racer”—a masterpiece of a bike with the latest wonder of technology: handbrakes. At least they were new to our neighborhood. I imagine Tony’s bike looking something like this with a few added features.
Unbeknownst to the boys, I had already seen a bike with handbrakes. Not only that, but I had ridden one. One day, Art, a boy from an adjoining neighborhood, had come down to show off his new bike—a Schwinn Jaguar Mark IV or something like that—only to find that not a single boy was around—just Karen. He was a nice kid. He demonstrated how to use the handbrakes and graciously allowed me to ride his beauty. Even though it was a boys’ bike, and a 26 inch one at that, I wasn’t going to miss that opportunity. Besides, I was a little sweet on Art, especially after that.
Back to the boys: When I approached them to take a gander at Tony’s English Racer, the whispering began. All of a sudden, it was, “Hey, Kaaaren, come look at Tony’s new bike.” The conciliatory tone in their voices put up a red flag, and I sensed another conspiracy in the making. In other words, I smelled a rat.
Art’s Schwinn was a beauty, but this “Cadillac” of bikes—sleek, lightweight, and fast—was on the wish list of every red-blooded American kid. The boys cordially proceeded to show me all the marvelous features of the bike—the snazzy metallic red paint, the gold pin striping, the three-speed hub, the horn, the light, and so on—but rather conveniently, they neglected to mention the hand brakes, its most striking feature.
Then they proceeded to convince Tony to let me ride his bike. Their devious plan was as transparent as Scotch Tape. A look of apprehension painted his face, but I suppose the temptation was too great; any fear of damage to the bike was overshadowed by the prospects of my forthcoming humiliation. Ah, the pleasure they would get as I futilely spun the pedals, desperately attempting to brake by foot, and ultimately crash landing in a heap of bruised knees and scraped elbows. Ah, the merriment that would ensue.
But had even one of them contemplated the consequences of a plan gone awry? What if I suffered more than a few superficial wounds, limbs contorted beneath my body, sucker stuck down my throat? Nevertheless, the boys embraced the idea, the lure of Karen’s degradation overpowering any vestiges of common sense, and Tony handed the bike over to me.
Furthermore, the boys challenged me to take the bike up the hill as far as I dared and then ride it back down to the level, where they would be waiting. As I took control of the bike, the boys assembled alongside the road. Yes, there they were—brother Billy et al, circling like buzzards awaiting a carcass.
I slowly made my way up the road. As I began the ascent of the hill, I spied my best friend and co-conspirator Patty standing in her front yard. Together we knew the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with those boys. Prolonging the suspense, I stopped to give her a play-by-play of what had just transpired. With a laugh and some words of encouragement, she sent me on my way.
I purposefully took off again, but before long, the hill was too steep to pedal, and I walked it as far as I dared. I took my time to gather myself (and to antagonize the boys). I gave the hand brakes a few tweaks to make sure everything was in working order and positioned myself at the ready.
In the valley below stood the boys of summer, visions of mayhem dancing in their heads. Wrapped in anticipation, Patty sat straight up on the edge of her lawn, the perfect front row seat. It wasn’t often that I had a captive audience such as this one.
Apprehensive of my perilous journey ahead, I was nonetheless determined. After all, nothing less than my pride was at stake. And so, there I stood, pigtails and pedal pushers, ready to take on the world, or the neighborhood boys, anyway. Sneakers to the metal, I took one last deep breath and took off. Full speed ahead! I whizzed past one house and steamed by the next. Pigtails blowin’ in the wind, I raced obliviously past Patty on her front lawn, resolve permeating from my wiry frame. One elderly neighbor, engrossed with the weeds in her petunia garden, knew nothing of my brush with ignominy. It was now or never.
Did I survive in one piece or were my flesh and bones scattered to the wind? Did the infamous English racer give me victory or give me death (so to speak)? The answer is in the first chapter of my book The Crab Hollow Chronicles. Buy it and find out!
Oh, all right. It was now or never. As I came clearly into view of the nefarious onlookers, I proceeded to apply the hand brakes–little by little, carefully, carefully, smoothly, smoothly. Dexterously, I pulled up right in front of those gawkers and cruised to a perfect landing like a veteran pilot at the controls of his aircraft. You would have thought you were entering the capital O convention. You could have strung a set of Christmas lights across all those open mouths that afternoon.
I dismounted as skillfully as a girl can maneuver herself from a 26-inch boy’s bike and, with authority, coolly kicked the kick stand down. As Mark Twain would say, “The reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.” “Nice bike” was my only comment as I headed up the road to Patty’s house without looking back. Chalk one up to the victory side. Ain’t life grand?
This story, with a few changes and embellishments, makes up the first chapter of my fictitious memoir, The Crab Hollow Chronicles. The book is based on my experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It is about 75% fiction, 25% truth. The main story line of three chapters as well as smaller anecdotes and background material are basically true of me, my family, or baby boomer friends. However, the majority of the book is completely fabricated. The Crab Hollow Chronicles is a fun, whimsical look back at the early 1960’s, where you can relive its people, products, sports, headlines, and more.
Here is a sampling of characters from the book who traversed Crab Hollow Road day in and day out:
-Kenny Wells, precursor to Beavis and Butthead, who liked to boast that of all the bugs he’d ever eaten, only the bumblebee made him sick.
-Karen Schmidt’s cousin Eddie Flanagan, the joker, otherwise known as “Damn It Eddie,” a moniker that belied the countless times those words had been uttered from his exasperated mother’s lips.
– Redheaded Roger “Woody” Woodward (Woodsy to me), namesake of her baby doll Woody Elroy (also named after Elroy Face, Pirates star relief pitcher); Woody was not quite as cruel as the others but was always game for some fun at her expense.
-Skipper Lowry, endowed with the rare talent of turning his eyelids inside out, was the closest any of them came to being a genuine juvenile delinquent.
-Lorenzo Vecchio, a pudgy Italian boy who immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of five but still fit in as a suburban Pittsburgh kid, not to mention the new owner of the coolest bike around.
-Karen’s own dear, sweet brother Bobby Schmidt, two years her senior; Theirs was a typical brother/sister relationship; in other words, he was very possibly the instigator of the whole bike affair.
Do you have any bike stories to relate from your youth? Perhaps the memory resides in the parking lot of your imagination like my “I Smell a Rat” story, whose parking space reads “Reserved for the Victor.”
Karen Gennari is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.