Every Boomer remembers that first bicycle. Next to turning 16 and getting a drivers license, the biggest day in the life of a youngster was getting a new bike.
The reason bikes were so critical during the early Boomer years is because families generally had only one car, and the dads had them at work. That meant if you wanted to go some place, like baseball practice, the movies, or the swimming pool, you either had to hoof it or ride your bike.
Money was also hard to come by for most families, with one working parent. So getting a shiny, new bike was a big deal.
I got my first real bike when I was 8. It was a 24-inch J.C. Higgins, not a very sexy name, but it was a new bike and it was mine. Bikes came in 18”, 21”, 24” and 26” sizes. The two smaller bikes were for kindergarten-types, the 26-inchers were for teens and adults and the 24-inchers fell somewhere in between. And only dorks used training wheels back in the Boomer years. It was better to fall off and die than use training wheels. And bike helmets.
For the first few hours after I got my new bike, I wobbled around, crashing into bushes, trees and the very hard pavement. Finally my dad recognized my plight and walked along beside me, steadying the bike till I became balanced. He then gave the bike a shove down the street and life for me would never be the same.
We went everywhere on our bikes – in traffic and along the back roads, day and night, rain or shine. Kids rode in packs, like a flock of geese with a single leader. The Alpha Kid determined where we went and at what speed. If there was a bump or dip in the road, the bike pack always went in that direction.
Bikes back then had some options, like a battery-operated light, which was cool for about a day, or until you forgot to turn the switch off. If the battery didn’t die then, the light rusted after the first rain, rendering it more or less useless.
Some bikes also had front baskets, but they interfered with your best pal perched on the handlebars as you sped down steep hills and around sharp curves, demanding that your Guardian Angel pay attention.
The best bicycle options were baseball cards. When secured from the spokes, the cards made a fluttering sound as they contacted the tire frame. It sounded like a little Harley.
Bikes came in girls’ models and boys’ models. Ours had the bar across the top connecting the seat to the front of the bike. On girls’ bikes, the bar went from the seat, downward. The big advantage of a boy’s bike was that you could carry two buddies at a time, one on the handlebars and the other on the top bar. The advantage of girls’ bikes was perfectly obvious. If boys had their druthers, they would have picked a girl’s bike every time. Those upper bars were painful.
Around 1954, English bicycles were introduced to the world of Boomers. English bikes were much lighter than the old clunkers and had brakes on the handlebars and gears, too. I never really understood the value of the gears. There was high, low and neutral. In high gear, you could pedal like the wind. The low gear was like dragging cinder blocks through mud. Neutral was just neutral.
My first English bike was a Schwinn, the Cadillac of bicycles. That bike was at my side until the day I turned 16. And then, like the little Nightingale in the children’s fable, the old bike was no longer wanted or needed. At 16, Boomers’ thoughts and dreams turned to cars.
Looking back, I miss that old bike. There is a certain speed bump in my neighborhood that I would like to challenge. I’d get a good head start and hit that bump with pedals flying…and hope my Guardian Angel was still paying attention.