When I was six years old my brother and I received bicycles for Christmas; big bright red Schwinn 22 inch beauties. They had old school fat tires complete with inner tubes, red and white chain guards and of course, training wheels. I must admit that my brother was the first to shed those old training wheels; I followed a couple of weeks later. One of the earliest truths in life that I discovered was that one fell off bicycles a lot more with training wheels than without.
That year, I was taking the city bus to school. Fortunately the old Lake Shore 22 route came by the corner at the end of the block and then went directly past the school. Since we had no school bus service, I was on the corner no later than 7:10 in the morning with my dime in my hand and books in the knapsack on my back. The bus dropped me off 10 minutes later practically at the front door of the school. Coming home was a different story. The bus route looped through most of Lake Shore before reaching my home corner. So the trip home took 30 minutes or more. All lost highly valuable afternoon play time.
So, naturally, beginning the next school year, instead of the bus, my brother and I began riding our bikes to school. The first part of the route to school was pretty safe; Bayview Road was a divided neighborhood road with little or no traffic. But the last half mile of the ride was along busy Blanding Boulevard and we had to cross San Juan, another busy thoroughfare. There was a traffic light and we learned early on to dismount and walk across the intersection. That lasted all of a year before we became skilled enough bike riders to balance our bikes on the corner until the light changed and we could ride right on across like we owned the crosswalk.
That first route we was the shortest and most direct, but it quickly became boring. There were two more available routes; Jersey Street (ten blocks) and Hamilton Street (11 blocks). So soon, we were taking these alternate routes just to break up the monotony. The Hamilton Street route had the additional allure in that some of our school mates used part of it on their way home too. So our stalwart gang of bikers would gather on the play ground of school and roll off in a roar. Yes, I said roar because it was about the same time that we discovered that you could attach a playing card to a fender strut with a clothes pin with the other end sticking into the spokes of the tire to simulate, at least to our ears the mighty rumble of the Harley that we all imagined that we were riding. Note: we always used old playing cards and never baseball trading cards like some folks used. After all it would have been blasphemy to treat Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris that way.
Eventually as the bikes aged, the fenders began to become a problem. They bent out of shape from all the rugged use and would scrape against the side of the tires. That meant terrible noises, additional wear of the sidewalls of the tires and most importantly extra effort to peddle the bike forward. So off came the fenders, playing cards and all. Now we had a new problem when it rained. We would get splashed with the mud from the puddles in the street. But pride was not to be denied; we learned how to read the wet streets better to avoid the puddles. Raincoats and bicycles did not mix well either. All we had back in those days were the yellow slickers and those babies did not “breathe” at all. A mile long bike ride would leave you soaked in sweat. What a relief it was to jump off the bike, park it along the wall of the garage and step out of the raincoat into the relatively cooler air of the garage. Even 80 degree temperatures felt cool once we escaped the oilcloth furnace of our raincoats. It was about then that we discovered the genius of the bicycles as a Christmas gift. That 10 cent one way fare added up to a dollar a week per kid. Add to that was the additional savings of us riding our bikes everywhere instead of taking the bus and those bikes were paid for after one year. We got about 10 years service from them before moving on to cars and motorcycles.
But wait, there was a fly in the ointment; Girls! At first we would ride our bikes to go visit the girls we had our eye on. However, as time went by, we realized that this was not as cool as nonchalantly walking up to their door. One simply could not swagger on a bike without falling off. Add to that, the girls who lived farther from school were being driven to and from school by their parents, sometimes in car pools. They were gliding coolly past us in their cars as we panted and labored to keep moving in the traffic. So we gave up our bikes in favor of some shoe leather. There were no sidewalks along the route and it was much easier to walk in the grass just off the street than it was to ride a bike. With our hands now free from the handlebars we could wave and otherwise flirt with the girls as they drifted by.
Then along came high school and the whole game changed. Our high school was across town and walking or bike riding were no longer options. What happened was way cooler. Buses were back and the boys and girls were on the same bus together. Seating was usually rows of boys alternating with rows of girls. The few of us who were “going steady” would sit together, but that was the exception, not the rule. The trick was to find the row in front or behind the girl you were sweet on. If she got on the bus before you did, that was easy. But if you were the first on, you had to pick a seat and hope that she would choose the one in front of you. Since these were public buses, interference came from the adults going to work.
There was a special bus service from our side of town to school. When we boarded the neighborhood bus at the corner, we would get a transfer ticket from the driver. We would then ride the route to a common point where we met up with kids riding their bus routes. There we would board the “Special” bus that took us directly to school. Not having to ride down town and transferring on the public bus routes saved us 45 minutes to an hour each morning and afternoon.
The kids “owned” the Special Buses. There was no one on them but us. The seats were covered by a sea of school uniforms and the air filled with the chatter of teenagers getting their days started. The boys talking about cars and sports and not mentioning the real focus of our attention, the girls. The girls were different; talking about their school lessons and sharing stories about the boys. I can remember it like it was yesterday; bright sunlight filtered through the green tinted transom windows, happy voices, and the smell of diesel smoke, Brylcreem, and bubble gum. Oh MY!