Larry wasn’t the coolest kid in the neighborhood, but he owned the coolest bicycle. The cool kids were Haskell and Tony, a pair of brothers who lived two houses up the street from me. Haskell wore dog tags and Tony sported a Hercules watchband. They had flared jeans, Chuck Taylor, and long bangs that they kept out of their eyes with subtle head flips. Those two boys oozed cool.
Their bicycles looked like they’d been through a battlezone, inanimate victims of the hard living their elementary school owners enjoyed. Nobody went at it harder than Haskell and Tony, whether it was riding wheelies, jumping makeshift ramps, or creating general mayhem. Haskell, for example, was only back in school for one day before getting into a fight that ruptured his fresh appendectomy stitches. The incident left an angry scar that Hack wore proudly.
While it was common to see the brothers flying down the hill on a single beat to death bicycle, Haskell pedaling madly while Tony sat on the handlebars screaming “Hack! Slow down! Hack! Hack!”, Larry lurked on the neighborhood’s periphery. He was both an only child and the oldest kid in the neighborhood, a sixth grader due to age out of Anna Laura Force Elementary School soon and relocate to some faraway place called “junior high.” Whether it was for these reasons that he kept to himself or something else–his weight problem, perhaps–I’ll never know; regardless, Larry’s place was on the corner of the intersection at the end of our block, sitting on the coolest bike in the neighborhood and watching the Robbins boys screaming and laughing before they flew asses over handlebars and landed in some poor bastard’s bushes only to pop up, brush off, and climb the hill to do it again.
I was among the youngest kids on the block, a kindergartener in awe of the super cool Hack and Tony and the upperclassman status of the aloof Larry. I wanted hair that hid my ears and bangs I had to flick out of my eyes. I wanted dog tags, a Hercules watchband, and a cool scar like Haskell’s.
More than anything I wanted Larry’s bike, so when my parents asked me what I wanted for my sixth birthday I described it to the best of my ability: “I want a bike that’s blue and it has a black seat with a white stripe like a race car and the handlebars are big like a motorcycle and there’s this thing on the boy bike bar like in a car and it has a five on it and it goes real fast.”
I didn’t know it, but I was probably describing a 5-speed Schwinn Stingray. Larry’s blue bike couldn’t have been one of the legendary Schwinn Krates, which only came in orange (“Orange Krate”), red (“Apple Krate”), yellow (“Lemon Peeler”), green (“Pea Picker”), white (“Cotton Picker”) and silver (“Grey Ghost”).
Nor did I know just how much I was asking my folks to drop on their third and youngest child’s sixth birthday. In 1973 a top of the line Krate retailed for $120 while a standard 5-speed Stingray ran around 90 bucks. The median U.S. income that year was around nine grand, and my father probably didn’t hit the median on his appliance repairman salary. Throw in five mouths to feed and his college tuition, and I was basically asking for a pile of gold bars capable of boss wheelies. Adjusted for inflation, I was probably asking for $600 worth of bicycle that I didn’t know how to ride and that I hoped to someday Evel Knievel down the hill and into some poor bastard’s bushes.
My parents stepped up the best that they could. Either with his company discount or through some shady dealings with his buddy who ran the Bargain Basement, my father brought home a blue Montgomery Wards Stingray knockoff with a black banana seat bearing twin racing stripes. I was disappointed that there was no five speed stick shifter bolted to the top tube, but my excitement far outweighed that touch of disappointment. I had a cool bike. I was in the game.
My best pal, Mikey Peterson, and I would ride for hours every afternoon; well, he would. While Mikey pedaled up and down my neighbor Swede’s driveway I ran alongside my blue hot rod, yanking on its ape hangers and making motorcycle noises. I worked my way up to coasting down Swede’s driveway, and before too long I was pedaling around the neighborhood like the big kids, though not as well.
When the Denver police department held a Saturday bike safety course, my sister and I rode down to earn our stickers. She flew through the orange-coned course like it was nothing. I followed behind her, dumping my bike on every tight turn while praying that Hack and Tony were off committing petty crimes rather than bearing witness to my cruddy cycling skills. When it was over, though, the policeman in charge presented each of us with a sticker, which I proudly and immediately affixed to my seat tube.
Over time I added more accessories to my fake Stingray: turn signals, a rear view mirror, a bright orange flag that was taller than I was, even a speedometer. When the Bicentennial rolled around I replaced my worn black and white saddle with a brand new red, white and blue banana seat.
But that was all in the future. At that moment I was a six year-old novice bicyclist with a freshly awarded safety sticker, perched atop my mighty Wards chopper upon the crest of the giant hill that started at Haskell’s and Tony’s and ended several blocks later in front of Force Elementary. These are the moments that make a man: What’s it going to be, Jimmy? Are you going to fly down that hill like Hack, or are you going to watch the fun from the bottom like Larry?
I stomped on the pedals and wobbled a bit until inertia took over. I pedaled past Swede’s driveway, where weeks earlier I pushed my birthday present back and forth, unable to ride it. I rolled past my own front yard, the long branches of our catalpa tree reaching toward me like mother’s arms.
Between gravity and my little legs, the bike and I gathered speed quickly. By mid-block the pedals spun faster than my legs could manage and the tires whined with an audible erp erp erp as they rubbed along the asphalt. At that moment I understood why Haskell and Tony were always flying down the hill at the very edge of control.
The end of our block was just feet away and I was moving–and this is an estimate–at one jillion miles per hour. The G-forces contorted my face into a joyous rictus and the little working class homes that made up my neighborhood dissolved into streaks of bright light. If I could’ve glanced at my Mickey Mouse watch at that moment I’m sure I would’ve seen that time had stopped, or was running backward.
I hit the intersection at Larry Corner going mach three, and at that same moment a driver ran the stop sign. I swerved to avoid his bumper and hit the curb, and just like Haskell and Tony I flew over my handlebars. No shrub broke my fall, though. I rolled and skidded along the sidewalk like Evel Knievel on the far side of the Caesar’s fountain. The car idled for a moment and then drove away.
Everything seemed to still be attached both to my bicycle and me, though my hand stung. I looked at my right hand, and staring back at me was the shiny white bone of my thumb knuckle. Hack probably would have laughed and showed his skeleton to everyone in a five block radius, but I was a kindergartener who held firmly to the belief that bones only belong in dog dishes and Ben Cooper Halloween costumes. I unleashed a wail that my mother likely heard from a block away, as she stood waiting in the driveway when I finally got home.
“Let me see,” she said, and I held out my hand. “Oh, that’s not too bad.”
“You can see my bones!” I screamed.
“You’re okay. Be tough like your dad,” she said. “Let’s go inside and clean this up.” We walked to the bathroom and she held my hand beneath the sink’s running water. I would’ve told her anything at that moment: launch codes, who shot Kennedy, the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body. She pulled a brown bottle from the medicine cabinet and said, “Now this is going to sting a little bit.”
This is going to sting a little bit? I thought. Where was my mother, the nice lady who played games with me and taught me how to make cinnamon toast? Suddenly I shared a house with a madwoman intent on burning my hand off. She dumped hydrogen peroxide into the open wound. It burned and bubbled. “She wouldn’t we go to a doctor?” I managed between sobs.
“You’ll be okay.”
“Doctors are expensive,” my mother said.
My thumb eventually healed with a gruesome, jagged scare that looked a bit like a buffalo’s profile. Having a mangled knuckle came in handy when I was learning directions. To this day I occasionally catch myself rubbing my thumb knuckles when someone tells me to look left or right. Most importantly, it was every bit as cool as Haskell’s appendix scar.
Years later I sold my fake blue Stingray to a neighbor kid for six bucks. It still bore its Bicentennial banana seat, but the rest of my accessories had long since sacrificed themselves to the daredevil gods. I regret selling my first bike but I still have the scar, and somewhere deep inside my ancient heart lurks the little boy who wants to fly down hills faster than Hack and Tony ever could.
I envy the adventure that was your childhood.
I had a green Stingray three-speed with a green seat. Absolutely loved that bike.