In my early free-wheeling days, I was the proud owner of five bicycles. My first bike was an old derelict rust-sprocket, another was a slightly used one-owner, and the other three came new right out of the box. Each bike, in its time, became the best bicycle in the whole wide world. But in a truth that showed up much later, the only bike that really mattered was the second one.
In 1954, my parents, sister and I moved to the sleepy town of Port Richey, on Florida’s West Coast. Our little “cracker” house sat back off the road near woods thick with saw palmetto and pine trees. One day, while deep in those woods scouting for a place to build a fort, I found an abandoned bicycle.
That old clunker with coaster brakes became my first best bike. The reluctant coaster carried me wherever I needed to go, but, in time, I began to suspect that it was out to get me. While rolling down the road, its rusty brakes had a nasty habit of locking up and once even tossed me over the handle-bars.
After I came home with gravel embedded in my palms, my father took pity and gifted me with a brand new bicycle from the Western Auto store; a black three-speed Western Flyer with hand brakes. It felt like my birthday and Christmas rolled into one awesome gift. I couldn’t wait to take the Flyer out for a spin.
As I raced away on the Black Beauty, Dad called out with some prophetic advice, “Have fun! Don’t do anything stupid!”
I decided then and there that the Western Flyer must be the coolest bike in all of Florida. And in my little boy brain, I, naturally, became the coolest kid.
The Flyer and I became inseparable. Together, we explored anywhere that two wheels could take us –fish camps, abandoned orange groves or mysterious hidden sink-holes. But in the following months, I forgot all about my father’s advice and committed what I not so lovingly call the Three Stupids, a trio of events that ultimately ended my love affair for the Flyer.
Stupid Number One happened at New Port Richey’s annual Chasco Fiesta Festival. That year, Festival organizers decided a bicycle race would be just the ticket to get children more involved in the celebration. The one mile course around downtown’s Orange Lake brought out all makes of kids and bicycles. There were tough orange grove boys and sun-burned fishermen’s sons. There were older kids and friends my own age. And all their bikes were the single speed hand-me-down type. Waiting at the starting line and astride the Western Flyer, I sized up the rag-tag competition. In my mind they did not have a chance.
Leaning over, I whispered to the Flyer, “They will eat our dust!”
Visions of the award ceremony flashed through my mini-mind: The lovely Miss Chasco Fiesta giving me a big kiss at the finish line. Mayor Potter, smiling real big and handing me first prize- two tickets to the Vogue Theatre.
When all the riders were lined up, straight and proper, and with a crowd looking on in anticipation, the Mayor signaled for quiet. He raised his special cow bell.
“OK riders! Good luck! Now, get ready! Get set!” Then ringing his bell with great gusto, Mayor Potter shouted, “Go!”
And we were off. As I expected, the Flyer and I raced out well ahead of the pack. By the quarter mile mark, we had a twenty-five yard lead on the clunker bikes. The Black Beauty sliced through the humid air, on our way to certain victory.
Halfway around Orange Lake, the Flyer continued to perform flawlessly. Its overweight rider, however, did not. My lungs burned. My stomach tied in knots. My muscles screamed in protest. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see that we were in trouble.
“Come on Beauty! They’re gaining on us!”
But try as I may, I could not summon the strength. By the three quarters mark, I doubled over, like a beached whale gasping for air. And one by one, the other bikers caught up to me and zipped past. I was powerless to do a thing about it. Somewhat later, I managed to wobble across the finish line, exhausted, humiliated and dead last.
Stupid Number Two rolled around the next month. Several friends and I planned to ride our bikes to the Highway 19 Bridge over the Pithlachascotee River and back, a distance of six miles. Not learning anything from my Stupid Number One experience, I gloated as my buddies checked out the Flyer.
“Go ahead, you can touch it!”
But fate intervened once again. My best friend, Eddie Lees, came riding up on his own new bicycle. Eddie’s bike was no ordinary Western Auto bicycle, but a sleek ten-speed Austrian racer. The other boys stared wide-eyed at its silver finish, chrome tool kit and mounted tire pump. Eddie even let them ride it. I distinctly remember getting red faced in anger and embarrassment. I wanted to run away and hide, but that would have exposed me as a big weenie. Silent and seething, I took my place in line for the River trip, once again, dead last.
By the end of Summer, when Stupid Number Three happened, the Western Flyer had lost its coolness. I stopped riding it as much and in my neglect I got careless. One day after school, instead of locking the bike up, I leaned it against a tree by our garage. That night someone stole the Flyer and, secretly I was relieved. Now I had no bike that others could be compared to.
Weeks later, the dented and dirty Flyer turned up in a field, but it didn’t matter. By then, the beat-up bike meant nothing to me. I had moved on to the next love of my life – Little League Baseball.
“I’m a natural left-hander,” I boasted to team-mates. “I’ll be the best first baseman ever!”
The rejected Western Flyer sat rusting under a tree, then got pushed behind the garage and forgotten. A year later, when we moved to Clearwater, the bike remained behind, another victim of a young boy’s fickle fancy.
I did not own another bicycle until after college. With money saved from my first real job, I bought bicycle number three, a chrome yellow Schwinn. The ten-speed racer weighed just twenty pounds and carried me over the many hills and dales of Atlanta.
Later, I purchased my fourth bike, a fancy twelve-speed Japanese touring bike. The black Takara provided many years of pleasure and eventually moved with me back to Florida. But riding the Sunshine State’s flat highways grew boring and getting run off the road by crazed snowbirds proved downright dangerous. Older and I believed wiser, I sold the Takara to a neighborhood teenager.
Years later, I ended up with bicycle number five, a bilious green AMF, a “gift” from my next door neighbor. I rode the undersize thing for awhile, but my knees kept whacking the handle-bars. Later, I gave my last bike to my landlord’s son, Andrew.
One afternoon, the three of us sat in the yard talking, when the subject of our all time favorite things came up.
“Do you remember your very first bike?” Andrew asked.
“Sure, I remember all five of my bicycles,” I answered, “but let me tell you about the second one.”
Pausing for a moment, I recalled the shiny black Western Flyer: seeing it for the first time at the Western Auto store, my father’s pride as he handed it over, and the many pleasures the bike brought a young boy. I even remembered the Three Stupids and, smiling at the memories and lessons learned, I finally realized the truth.
“That Western Flyer was the best bicycle I ever owned.”