Hunt’s Pier – Chapter 3 – Family Vacation

Wildwood Crest, New Jersey – 1960’s

A few years before my parents owned the summer place in North Wildwood, we stayed at a motel called the Villa Nova in Wildwood Crest. They would take a room each summer for 3 days in June, and 3 more in September. There was a restaurant next door to the motel called The Captain’s Table. To me, that was a cool exotic nautical-themed place. Even though we were only a two-hour drive from our home in Philadelphia, going to the shore was traveling to come exotic locale back then.

The world was a bigger package than our little neighborhood in Lawndale.

Wildwood Mid-Century Modern Motels & Hotels | RoadsideArchitecture.com

Villa Nova Motel, Wildwood Crest, NJ - Booking.com

Wildwood, NJ was an amazing wondrous place. We all loved it. I remember I’d be watching TV as a kid and a commercial would come on for Dorney Park. I’d say to my dad, “That place looks fun, why don’t we ever go there?”

“Because that place is a junkyard, son.” my dad would say. (Back then the place was a dump. Nothing like what it is today.

We’d always go to the beach as a family in the morning. It wasn’t as hot then, and not as crowded. By the time lunchtime rolled around we were back at the motel.

I was never a fan of the beach too much when I was little. Big waves, crabs, and deep water were things I didn’t want any part of.  There is old home movie footage of me as a toddler walking back towards the car because I hated the sand.

I remember once I was working on sandcastles with my dad and the backs of my legs got really sunburned. It really hurt and my mom applied some vaseline to take out the sting and soothe the burn. But the best part was when everybody else went back to the beach or the pool in the afternoon, I got to stay behind in the air-conditioned room to lie on the couch and watch TV. (Which is what I preferred to do anyway.)

I think even back then they had cable TV down there, so there were channels and shows I’d never seen before which I found facinating.

But by the time dusk arrived we were all dressed and ready to go to the boardwalk. It was the mid to late 1960s and we’d actually get dressed up nice to go to the boardwalk. Mom and the sisters in dresses, and dad and I in button-down shirts and slacks. It was a different time, but as a family my parents always dressed us up to go anywhere. “I don’t want you all looking like a bunch of slumgullians,” my mother would say.

Wildwood always had the best boardwalk in New Jersey.

Each summer evening, the American dream was played out along the boardwalk’s more than 70,000 wooden planks. Classic rides and old-fashioned amusements stood toe-to-toe with 20st-century innovation and excitement. Five amusement piers boasted more rides than Disneyland, complete with world-class rollercoasters, beachfront waterparks, family-friendly attractions, and cutting-edge thrill rides. In addition, a seemingly endless array of restaurants and shops offer everything from classic boardwalk fare like funnel cakes and homemade fudge to seafood specials, gourmet pizza, and contemporary casual beach fare.

As I said, back then it was like traveling to an exotic wonderland.

The idea of a boardwalk originated when a railroad conductor, Alexander Boardman, got tired of cleaning beach sand from his trains. He suggested constructing a wooden walkway for seaside strolls. Atlantic City dedicated the first boardwalk in 1870. Thirty years later, the City of Wildwood laid its first boardwalk directly on the sand along Atlantic Avenue, from Oak Avenue to Maple Avenue, just 150 yards long.

The world-famous Wildwood Boardwalk is home to a dazzling display of lights, colors, sounds, and smells that awe the senses and offer an unsurpassed level of excitement and energy. As it has for over 100 years, the boardwalk stands as a living, thriving, pulsating celebration of the American imagination.

Hunt’s Pier was pretty much our go-to stop on the boardwalk. It had the best family-oriented rides, and theme park attractions. I’ve gathered a few pieces here to give you an idea of what they had on that concrete pier back then. They’re at the end of this post. Some great videos!

My dad would go on any ride they had. My sister April was fearless, and my sister Janice would go on any ride my dad was willing to venture upon. My mother and I both don’t like heights, things that can make us dizzy, or move too quickly. But there was something for everyone at Hunt’s Pier. I think that’s what set them apart from the other amusement piers. They had the twirly ‘up in the air rides’, and the like, but also had stuff the kids could go on. (Or the scaredy cats)

They had a little classic wooden rollercoaster, called The Flyer. I remember my mom telling me that the ride only lasted 1 minute long. My father and sister Janice would go on that, and also my dad’s favorite ride, the airships.  They were these cool two-seater little jets that went around and around but then you could go high up in the air as the ride spun. (You can see it in this old ad)

That is a lovely glimpse into the past, right?

As I said, I didn’t like rides like that, but one time my dad kind of forced me to go on it with him. He told me it was a wonderful experience. He loved that ride so much. He knew if I went on it with him I’d love it too. I yielded to his wishes and went on it. “Look at that incredible view of the whole boardwalk” he would say as the ride went higher and higher. I would agree with him how great it was, but my eyes were tightly closed the entire ride, so I couldn’t really describe to you here what it was like at all. I just know I was terrified. There are those of us who are brave enough to venture forth in this life and take risks, and those of us who are hard-wired for self-preservation. The same goes for deep water and food for that matter. I spent most of my days growing up trying not to be nauseous or dizzy.

But I loved the boardwalk and Hunt’s Pier. My favorite was the Pirate Ship. The SKUA was built in 1962 and was amazing. A lot of people didn’t know that it actually was built on a hydraulic system that allowed it to rock back and forth while you were walking through it. It was so cool. You walked through it and there were all of these neat pirate-related things inside of it. Galley, and floor effects that would make skeleton hands pop out of a box in front of you, a mirror maze, and even a tilted room, that was insane. It really felt like you were on a big boat out in the sea. You could even go out on the deck and see the whole pier and boardwalk. Not scary at all. Just a really awesome Disneyland-like experience. Thinking back, my favorite part of that attraction was the dungeon. The song, 15 men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum, played on a loop in the background. It was really bizarre. It looked like a torture chamber. All animatronic characters that moved. There was this one character in the corner of the room. It was a blonde woman chained to a wall. The only thing she did was breathe. So when she moved you could see her robotic chest heaving through her ripped dress. Strangely erotic, but I was too young to know why I loved her, but I just did. Even as a child I loved the female form.

If a ride wasn’t too wild I would definitely try it. I liked the Whacky Shack and the Keystone Kops. You rode in little cars through them on a track and banged through doors and they had animatronic attractions inside. Based on amusement rides now, it was all very primitive, but we loved it all just the same. Some kids like the wild rides that go fast and high but don’t like rides that had primal scares in them. I had a high tolerance for visually scary rides and always liked horror movies. We all have different fears as children and they all manifest in unique ways.

The Golden Nugget Mine ride was probably the most awesome ride on the pier back then. It was a dark ride, which is sort of an enclosed rollercoaster with cool animatronic attractions inside. It was amazing. Depending on how I was feeling I might go on it.  I loved the southwestern desert, gold prospector theme, but it was a three-story ride that had two hills in it. I liked it because it had so many neat things in it, which were groundbreaking for the time. But that ride wouldn’t come into play until a decade later in my life.

Overall just lovely memories from our childhood. We would sometimes venture down to Sportland Pier and my dad and the girls would go on the Supersonic rollercoaster. Or up to Marine Pier, (Later called: Mariner’s Landing) to ride the Wild Mouse. They were both new German-built steel coasters that would be predecessors of what was to come for all rollercoasters. But like everything else, I wanted nothing to do with any of that stuff. Too afraid I’d throw up on it. I liked the dark ride called The Monster’s Den. It was a spooky ride without any hills or dips. If I remember correctly, you could ride, or walk through the attraction.

I was just happy to be there among all of that visual and audio excitement. It was like nothing else I’d ever seen before. I think my dad may have thought if I didn’t experience all of the things he knew were awesome, I’d somehow be missing out on something. He wanted to offer us all of the joy he felt. But if you don’t have any interest in doing something, there isn’t a loss. You’ll find fun doing something else. I didn’t want to feel the fearful rush of a thrill ride, I’d rather move through an attraction at my own pace and experience different feelings. Something I could control and manage.

It was really a wonderful time for our family. The classic 1960’s experience of piling the kids into the car and taking them to the seashore for a few days in the summer. Escape the heat and pollution of the city, and breathe that sweet sea air. Days frolicking on the beach and building drippy castles in the sand. Watching as the tide rolled in and the ocean once again reclaiming its property.

These fun times continued each summer through the late ’60s and into the ’70s when my dad bought a house at the shore and we got to stay down there all summer.

Hunt’s Pier already loomed large in our collective legend, but the real fun for me would come many years later. 

Take a stroll down memory lane with me and check out these links:

10 Rides You Miss From Hunt’s Pier

And as always, here’s a little song to close out this chapter.

Special thanks to Joe Doyle for his video work

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Toy Boat

Philadelphia, PA – Early 1970s

Toy boat.

Say it out loud three times fast.

Not that easy right?

When we were kids, we had toys. We all had plenty of toys. But we also liked to build things. We had access to our father’s toolboxes. If you could get your hands on a hammer and some nails, you could build something.

We’d find bits of wood in the trash and back the lot at the end of our street. We’d cut them with saws and nail them together to make little boats. They were only about a foot long in length.

Mine was made out of bits of old paneling that I cut and stacked to make the hull, and some smaller pieces to make a little cabin on top. I even nailed a little plastic army man to the deck. Every boat needs a captain!

My friend Michael made something similar but he attached a piece of styrofoam to the bottom of the hull of his boat. This made his ship what he described as “unsinkable.” Genius!

Designing and building boats in my basement was only the beginning of the fun. You came up with your own ideas and made it up as you went along. Gluing or nailing whatever you could find to make a little boat that you hoped would float. The cool thing was, we had these two big old washtubs in the front of our basement next to the washer. I’m assuming they were there to clean clothes maybe before people had washing machines?

We would fill them with water and place our finished works into the water to see if they’d float. If things looked weird or didn’t seem buoyant enough, we’d make the necessary modifications to our ships until they did.

We weren’t sitting in front of a television set. There was no such thing as video games. They weren’t invented yet. We built things with our hands. Created our own little toys and then engineered them to float. We had both read that it didn’t matter what the boat weighed, as long as it weighed less than the space it filled in any given body of water. Then it would float. It’s just science. Yea, we were a sharp couple of little boys!

We’d take our boats back the lot and across the railroad tracks into Cheltenham. We’d cross the ball fields and head off into the woods.

That led us down to Tookany Creek. We walked north along the footpath. We wanted to get as far upstream as we could so that once we launched our boats we could follow them all the way down the creek. We decided that we’d see how far and how long they would last on the journey down the “river.”

There was a footbridge that went across the creek, and we figured we’d release them just above there. It was probably the best place to start because the water was calm and we could see how they did before the creek really got going.

Tookany Creek Park, Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania

We’d place our boats in the water and off they’d go. We walked along the path and watch them float downstream. Normally, that would be the experience. Build the boats, launch them into a body of water, and watch them do what boats do.

But we were young boys. We crave action and adventure. To let these boats just float along was boring. How do we remedy this situation? We could just continue talking, laughing, and walking along the path to see where they went. Or, we could throw rocks at them to make it like a sea battle.

The latter seemed like such a better idea.

We didn’t go crazy and try to destroy them, but we simply pelted them so it appeared that our ships were under siege. Now we had a show!

The idea to throw rocks at the boats didn’t come from enjoying the notion of destroying things. Sometimes the boats would get stuck on big stones or broken branches in the water. So we sort of had to free our boats with what limited tools we had on hand.

But after a while, it was just fun to bomb the hell out of them. They were pretty sturdy and we knew they could withstand a beating. It’s not like these were expensive, elegant ships gifted to us by our parents. They were manufactured out of bits of trash. If they got destroyed, we’d have the opportunity to make more.

We were always taught to take care of our toys and put them away when we were finished playing with them. But we made these toys out of junk. If we chose to massacre our boats, by god we were going to do it.

But all the while we’re laughing and talking. Sometimes singing songs we knew from the radio. Light my Fire, Hotel California, or American Pie. I think the favorite song I would always hear Michael sing was Michael Row Your Boat. I wasn’t familiar with the song, but he would sometimes just hum it. Or sing it to himself when he was working on something.

Just simple things.

A pair of lone warriors separated briefly from our tribe, out on an explore. Walking along the path by the creek under the canopy of trees in the forest. The golden rays of sunshine shone down through the foliage. Breathing in the fresh air. Hearing the birds chirp and woodland creatures scurry about as the creek bubbled and sang along with our joy.

By tossing rocks at our boats we were improving our hand and eye coordination. This was a solid activity for a couple of boys on a warm afternoon. You don’t realize it at the time, but you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be in the world.

We’d follow them along the creek and toss rocks at them occasionally for thrills or to free them from a snag. It was a fun way to spend the day. Life was slower back then. There’s something to be said about time running slowly when you’re a kid. Everything takes forever when you’re young. You’re always so impatient and waiting for things to happen. Waiting for Halloween, Christmas, or the last day of school to come.

Don’t you wish you appreciated how slowly time moved when you were a child now? Wouldn’t you like those sort of pleasurable moments in your adult life now to move at a slower pace? I think we all would as we watch the years roll by with great rapidity as we age. These simple childhood memories are to be cherished. To be wrapped up in our memories forever. Because that’s all we have. You could lose everything you own, and any memories you have from your youth still belong to you forever. You can’t say that about many things in our lives now. Even we are on a finite run on this planet. But I hope that by writing these stories they can live beyond my existence on the internet and in my books forever. Because tomorrow belongs to our sons and daughters, and their kids. Tomorrow’s a place for them. Sadly, it’s a place we can never go.

The best part of watching your boats float down the creek was knowing what was coming a bit farther “downriver.” After the rapids and much air fire from us, the creek would become calm. There was a section about 50 feet long that was like green glass. Just the occasional splash from a minnow or an insect.

Beyond the calm was the waterfall. It was the only place where you could see a waterfall. But it wasn’t like the traditional kind where it’s massive and dangerous. It was only about three feet high. But, it would still be a formidable opponent to a couple of little wooden boats.

We’d wait in anticipation to see what was going to happen next. We’d stake out the best spot to watch our boats go over the falls. Would they be destroyed in the pounding brine? Would they vanish forever beneath the waves into the abyss? These were all pressing questions running through our young minds.

There would be that moment just before they went over and we’d yell and shout with delight. “Here we go!”

The boats would tumble over the falls and what would happen was anybody’s guess. The boats would roll around at the bottom where the falling water struck the creek. We would be sure at this point we’d never see our little ships again. But somehow they would suddenly pop back up and right themselves. We would cheer as if we somehow had a part in their survival!

We followed them further down the creek. Under the Levick Street bridge and beyond.

We had gone so far that we didn’t realize that we had somehow stumbled upon the base of the Melrose Country Club. We were all the way down by the creek bank, but we could see the giant hills covered with the fine green grass of the golf course. We had only seen it in the winter when it was covered in snow, but we knew where we were.

TTF welcomes the Bike Coalition to the Tacony Creek Park Trail! - TTF Watershed

We could see our boats had come to rest on the bank. We were about to climb down retrieve them when a security guard rolled up on a golf cart. He asked us what we were doing there, and we told him our toy boats had drifted all the way down there. He told us we were trespassing on private property and that we had to leave.

“Can we just get our boats?”

“No. This is private property and you’re both trespassing and you’re going to get in a lot of trouble if you don’t get out of here now.”

“But…”

“Git!”

So we turned and walked away, north of the golf course. When we got to Levick Street we trudged up the steep hill and made it to the top. We weren’t happy about what had happened and didn’t think we’d done anything wrong. We didn’t go to Melrose with the intention of trespassing or destroying property or anything. We just stumbled upon it. It just didn’t seem fair. This was a sad ending to what began as a fun-filled day of adventure.

Our boats weren’t lost to the creek. We had been banished!

We followed Hasbrook Avenue back to our neighborhood.

As we approached Michael’s house, we saw his father was outside mowing the lawn. Mike immediately told him what had happened. Jim Mitchell Sr. listened intently as Mike and I explained our plight. He nodded as he put on his mirrored aviator sunglasses.

“Let’s take a little ride in the car, boys.”

Within minutes, we pulled up to the edge of the country club. Mr. Mitchell stepped from the car with us following him not far behind.

The same guard rolled up on his golf cart and stopped us.

“Hey… you can’t…”

I watched as his face suddenly changed from authority to apprehension as Micheal’s father approached him.

Mr. Mitchell was a Police Officer with the Philadelphia Highway Patrol. He was not a man to be trifled with.

“Let them get their boats.”

“Yea, but…”

“What did I just say?”

The guard looked down at the ground and back again. He then sheepishly waved us on never taking his eyes from the officer in his presence.

Even I felt the man’s fear.

We scampered down the hill and retrieved our little boats from the creek bank. We didn’t even see the security guard on the way back to the car.

It had been quite a day.

When all else fails. Go get your father. He’ll know what to do. He’s a grown-up.

But it helps if your dad’s a cop.

 

 

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Back The Tracks – Part 5 – Refrigerator Box

This story doesn’t begin back the tracks but it sort of ends there.

When I was a kid, like most boys I liked to play with matches. Boys are always carrying all kinds of things in their pockets. But having a pack of matches was something you weren’t supposed to have. It’s not a toy and shouldn’t ever be played with. Hence the attraction. Matches could quietly sit in your pocket safe and sound. If they got wet they were useless, but if you took one out and struck it, you instantly had a fire. It was an ancient attraction and a feeling of power all in that tiny little cardboard packet.

https://matchpro.org/Anatomy.html

They were a common household item used for lighting cigarettes, cigars, birthday candles, and gas ovens. We all knew where they were in our homes but were forbidden to touch them. But we always took them anyway. If we were in one of our forts we could always have a little fire like we were camping. It was cool to build little fires and then add bits of wood to it and that would sustain it for several hours. We weren’t bothering anyone and it was light and warmth out in the woods.

As I’ve said before, we had tons of toys. Christmas was always a bounty each year. But if we were ever walking down the street, and saw an old refrigerator box in the trash, it was not only fair game, it was a toy that lasted all day long. So, most boxes you found were open on one end. That’s obviously how they removed the fridge.

The box was first laid down in the yard, and you’d get in it. We never went near an actual fridge in the trash because we’d heard the stories. Old refrigerator doors locked from the outside and could not be opened from the inside, so we heard horror stories of how some kid thought it was a spaceship, got inside, and suffocated because once inside, it was sealed and he died in there. That message was clear to every kid I knew. The kid gets locked in a fridge and eats his own leg to survive and other childhood myths.

They actually passed a law that if you were throwing out a refrigerator you had to remove the door, so no kid could kill himself in it. But the box it came in was pure joy. First of all, we’ve all seen boxes, but a refrigerator box is enormous when you’re 4 feet tall.

DIY: Cardboard Box Playhouse - Project Nursery

We’d get in it, the other kids would help stand it up, and then you’d push it over. But after a while, we’d get bored of banging the box around and the bottom would come loose. Now you had a big cardboard cylinder. That would become a tank. Two or three kids would get inside and you’d roll it down the street like a tank tread. We would even put it at the top of our driveway with us in it and it would roll down the hill and we’d all tumble over each other laughing our heads off.

Here’s a shot of my friends, Michael and RJ making use of a refrigerator box for commerce!

A couple of years later I got into magic. Not only did I like doing magic tricks I liked trying to invent my own tricks. I would get books out of the library about famous magicians and their tricks.

So my friend RJ and I found a refrigerator box and decided to make it into a magic trick. We stood it on its end in my garage. Open-end on the ground. We cut a door in the front and a door in the back. I took an old towel and thumbtacked it over the door in the inside back of the box. Our theory was, we send one kid into the box in front of an audience in my garage. We close the door, say abracadabra and when we open it, he’d be gone. Of course, he would have slipped out the back and the trick is so obvious and dumb, but we just had fun constructing and painting it.

Of course, we were out there playing with matches as usual. I had some masking tape on a roll. I pulled off a three-foot piece and taped the end to a wooden shelf in the back of our garage. I lit the bottom end of it, and it burned beautifully. The glue in the adhesive worked as an accelerant. I did this a few times and it was cool to watch it burn straight up very quickly and then go out in a puff of smoke.

We realized our magic disappearing box trick was lame and no one would fall for it, so we decided to add an element of danger to the trick. What if after the kid went inside, we had strips of masking tape hanging around the front and sides of the box that would be lit on fire to distract the audience while the kid exited the back of the box. Yea, this was a great idea. Great to a bunch of 10-year-old morons!

We knew from our previous experiments with the burning tape and the shelf that once it reached the top end it would go out. But that worked when the tape was attached to a heavy wooden object. Not a flammable cardboard box. But we didn’t think of this part.

So RJ goes into the box for us to test out our new exciting trick. He closes the front door and I light all the pieces of masking tape hanging from the box. They burn like mad and it looked amazing as RJ exits the back of the box. Now, remember we’re in my garage. The garage roof is made of wood. Instead of the tape burning to meet its end, it starts to burn the actual box. Thank goodness RJ was already out of the box. He comes around the front to help me put it out. We’re hitting it with whatever we can to snuff out the flames, but it’s just not working. The fire’s getting bigger. We start panicking and don’t know what to do at this point.

So I made the executive decision to grab the bottom of the burning magic box and drag it out of the garage. If anyone had caught us doing what we did that day, I would have been grounded for a year for nearly burning down our family garage.

I run down the driveway dragging the flaming box behind me. The wind and velocity of me running at full speed down the middle of my street is really giving the fire the oxygen it needs to turn into an inferno. I was like a little comet as I ran on the black asphalt. I hoped I wouldn’t end up a falling star.

I actually made it cross Hasbrook avenue and dragged the flaming husk into the vacant lot. The flames were nearly reaching my hands as I dropped it in the middle of the lot and kept running. I turned left onto Newtown Avenue and another hard left onto Gilliam street and back up Hasbrook to Magee street where I lived.

My friend RJ is laughing his butt of and tells me it’s the most exciting and funniest thing he’s ever seen. So much for our foray into Vegas-style magic, but the weird thing was, either no one saw us do it, or nobody decided to say anything. Because there was zero fallout from any parents or neighbors after that incident.

Just another day on Magee Street.

 

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Cycles of Life

Philadelphia, PA – Late 60s – Early 70’s

The first childhood vehicle I ever had was a little metal pedal car. I don’t remember much about it, but I had heard from my father that I didn’t like it. It was a beautiful little car.  Odd, you’d think I would love something like that but he told me I didn’t have much interest in being inside it.

Pin on A Few of My Favorite Things!

The next was a little kid’s bicycle. It was a red Schwinn Pixie boys bike with training wheels. My father liked Schwinn bicycles. I can’t blame him. Schwinn made bikes that were durable and virtually indestructible. I remember them being heavy bicycles when many were lighter in weight back then. I don’t even think you could put air in the tires of the Pixie. They were solid rubber.

Schwinn Pixie kids bike. | Kids bike, Schwinn, Bike

I loved that little bike. My older sister had a blue Schwinn bike but I can’t remember the name of it. It may have been called a Bantam. The cooler girl’s bike made by Schwinn was the sportier, Lil Chick.

VINTAGE 1977 CHICAGO Built Schwinn Bantam Convertible 20" Girls/Boys Bicycle Org - $125.00 | PicClick

All the while my little sister rode around on a tricycle.

I was happy on my little Pixie bike, but one begins to notice some of the other kids in the neighborhood beginning to ride bikes without training wheels. It was a natural progression for all children to want to grow up and have more freedom. But there’s always the fear factor of trying new things.

My father would be out in front of our house with us teaching us how to ride without training wheels. It became an ongoing story in our family’s history of my dad teaching me how to ride. He knew that once I got it I’d be fine and that it was all a matter of confidence, speed, and balance. But the story was that he’d be running along, holding onto the back of my seat and me being terrified.

“Dad! I’m going to fall!”

“I’m not going to let you fall. I’m your father!”

It’s funny now, but I remember thinking back then, “I get that, dad, but what if you trip and fall? It could happen. Then I’ll careen into the bushes!”

I suppose it was just my early anxiety about doing anything different or new, but he kept at it. Me nearly in tears, pedaling like my life depended upon it, and him holding on and running behind me.

But then one day… off I went. Like magic. I pedaled and kept the bike going, thinking my dad was still holding on to the back of my seat and thinking how is he doing this? But when I hit the brakes and stopped, I turned around and he was thirty feet behind me standing on the sidewalk, hands in the air, smiling ear to ear.

They say, ‘it’s as easy as riding a bike’, and it’s true. It is easy. Once you can do it, you never forget it. You simply feel your center, maintain your balance, and move forward. I think that principle can be applied throughout your life.

Learning to ride a bike is your first step to independent freedom away from your parents.

Mid 70s

Eventually, my older sister got a bigger girl’s bike. It was green. It was a solid conservative ladies’ bicycle. It was classy, just like her.

So my parents gave me her old blue girl’s bike. But at the local bike shop, they bought a bar for it that ran from the seat to the handlebars so that it was now distinguished as a ‘boys bike’. Funny how you had to add something to a bicycle to give it a gender. But it originally was based on design, structure, and stability. The only reason girls’ bikes didn’t have it was because many years ago, women’s bicycles were designed without a bar to accommodate their long dresses.

So with the bar, it was now a boy’s bike. But based on some of the newer designs in bicycles I was seeing around the neighborhood, I wanted to trick out this blue Schwinn Bantam.

My friends and I had become literal whizzes when it came to bicycle mechanics. With a set of tools, we could completely take a bike apart and put it back together again. So I wanted to take this former girl’s bike and ‘Frankenstein’ it into something cool. The first thing I did was spray paint it gloss black.

My mother took me down to Morie’s Cycle Shop on Rising Sun Avenue, just beyond Levick street. I remember the bike shop always had a distinctive smell. It was that fresh vulcanized rubber smell. Our sense of smell is our most primitive sense, and the memories it provides are always extremely vivid. If I walked in that place today it would take me right back to that day.

It may have been my birthday. My mom let me pick out a black banana seat with silver sparkles, a tall sissy bar, big fancy handlebars, and a fat rear tire that was called a slick. I also found an old bike in the trash and sawed off the forks in the front and added them to my bike to create a look that resembled a chopper.

chopper is a type of custom motorcycle that emerged in California in the late 1950s. The chopper is perhaps the most extreme of all custom styles, often using radically modified steering angles and lengthened forks for a stretched-out appearance. They can be built from an original motorcycle that is modified (“chopped”) or built from scratch. Some of the characteristic features of choppers are long front ends with extended forks often coupled with an increased rake angle, hardtail frames (frames without rear suspension), very tall “ape hanger” or very short “drag” handlebars, lengthened or stretched frames, and larger than stock front wheels. The “sissy bar”, a set of tubes that connect the rear fender with the frame, and which are often extended several feet high, is a signature feature on many choppers.

sissy bar also called a “sister bar” or “passenger backrest” is an addition to the rear of a bicycle or motorcycle that allows the rider or passenger to recline against it while riding. Alternatively, it can serve as an anchor point or support for mounting luggage or equipment that’s not part of the bike.

Perhaps the best-known choppers are the two customized Harley-Davidsons, the “Captain America” and “Billy Bike”, seen in the 1969 film Easy Rider.

So, it went from this…

VINTAGE 1977 CHICAGO Built Schwinn Bantam Convertible 20" Girls/Boys Bicycle Org - $125.00 | PicClick

To something like this…

VINTAGE 70'S CHOPPER 20" Muscle Bike Banana Seat Bicycle ! Beautiful Purple! - $175.50 | PicClick

There I am on the actual bike!

Except my sissy bar was tall and rose three feet off the seat, so you could lean back on it and pop wheelies. If you didn’t have a back fender when you rode through a puddle, you got a line of wet mud up the back of your shirt!

So, now the bike was cool. What was better than speeding down the street and then suddenly slamming on the breaks and hearing your back wheel scream as you left a long skid mark on the asphalt?

Another thing we used to do that all boys had done probably since the 50s was to clip a playing card or a baseball card to the back frame with a clothespin. The card protruded into the back spokes of the wheel. This way, when you rode along, the card flicking against the spokes at high speed would create the sound of a motor. It was cool for a while but the clothespins always broke or the card wore out, and it just became a pain to keep putting a new one back on your bike. It sounded too thin anyway and I wasn’t much of a fan. Also, if anybody can do it… it stops being cool.

So we came up with a better idea. If you could get your hands on a balloon, like the kind they gave out at Weiss’s Kiddie Shop, you could make something better.

You blow the balloon up, but only partially. You push the air inside toward the center of the balloon. This way, there’s still plenty of uninflated balloon on each end. You tie each end to the back frame of your bike so that the inflated part of the balloon is facing towards the spokes of your back wheel. You can do this same process with a regular round balloon, but if you can get a long balloon, it’s a little more durable for the beating it’s about to take.

Make Your Bike Roar Like a Motorcycle : 5 Steps - Instructables

It blows away the sound a little baseball card clipped to your frame sounds. A balloon sounds like the real deal. Me pulling up on my chopper bike, with a balloon hitting the back spokes is amazing. It’s about as close as you can get to the sound of a real motorcycle. I kid you not.

Check it out!

How great is that? Totally badass. Even on a little kid’s bike! When we all rode up with balloons in our spokes on our choppers, it was like being Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. We went from a group of boys on their bikes to a full-fledged, motorcycle gang.

I’m telling you, back in the 70s life was way more fun out in the real world than sitting around today in your house playing a bunch of video games.

We even formed a little bicycle gang called The Raiders. I think this inspired my sister and her friends to start a girl cycle gang called The Jewel Thieves. (If I’m wrong about this, my sister is free to correct me.)

Another thing we loved doing was going on what we called journeys. We would ride our bikes really far from our homes. Miles and miles away from our neighborhood. It was amazing to have that first taste of absolute freedom from your block and your parents. We were a little group of outlaws traveling to parts unknown.

The euphoria of the sudden drop at the top of Martins Mill Road. That long black ribbon that was the steepest hill in town. Like some dark dragon, you had to conquer. You wanted to feel the excitement and speed as you descended that incredible slope. But the fear rode right along with you, knowing that if you weren’t ready to hit the breaks in a split second, it could end in tragedy. All of this energy coursing through your body as cars sped by alongside you, all the way down.

You knew that if you returned home on this same road, the climb would be nearly insurmountable. It became steeper the higher you climbed. Your young heart pounding, your lungs burning as your legs pushed on. You could see the top. But could you make it?

You couldn’t give up in front of your friends and get off and walk your bike back up the hill. You had to show everyone you were strong enough to make it. A simple right of passage.

We would mostly follow roads that led west into Cheltenham and Burholme Park. I loved going on bicycle journeys. You could go anywhere you wanted back then and your parents had no idea where you were. As long as you appeared again at your home before dinner, you were fine.

No internet. No GPS. No cell phones. Nothing. Just you and the road. No leash. No helmets or pads of any kind were worn by any child in the neighborhood.

Which in hindsight, would probably have been a good idea back then based on the way we rode.

Evel Knievel was a national treasure back in the 70s and we all loved him. He was a guy who would get on his motorcycle and do these crazy jumps over cars. He was a mad daredevil who had broken every bone in his body.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evel_Knievel

So being a bunch of 12-year-old boys we were compelled to emulate him on our bikes. Not jumping over cars, but we would set up these little ramps with planks of wood and stacked bricks. We would speed up to the ramp and fly off it. Thinking back on it now, it wasn’t that bad, but we were always crashing on our bikes.

70's bike jump ramp inspired by Evel Knievel | Bike, Bmx, Bmx bikes

Not us, but you get the point.

Ramps made out of two stacked pieces of wood...the kid whose Dad was least likely to throw it out was the one who… | Free range parenting, Childhood, Funny pictures

Not wearing any safety gear, there were plenty of injuries. Kids were always crashing their bikes because we were on them all of the time. We would go everywhere on them. You had no money so it was your only means of transportation away from your parents. Plus, if you decide to start trying stunts there are sure to be some banged-up kids.

But we never lost anybody. None of us ever got hit by a car or anything. The only injury I can remember was on a bike I owned in I think 6th or 7th grade. It was a beautiful brand new red ten-speed that was all the rage as we got a little older.

 

I loved that bike and rode it everywhere. One afternoon I was stupidly racing another boy down Rising Sun avenue and my tire got stuck in the trolley track. I went flying face-first to the asphalt and cobblestones. My glasses broke, and the left side of my face was really torn up. I remember getting up off the ground and just feeling the searing pain in my face.

Amazingly, a man stopped in his car, put my bike in his trunk, and drove me home from the accident. It was a miracle of kindness. I can’t remember his face or his car. My mother was shocked at how bad my face looked. She said she never even got the man’s name to thank him. Just a kind-hearted person who did the right thing. (So whoever you are sir… Thank you!)

My left eyebrow had several large X-shaped cuts, and my whole cheek had road rash. I’m surprised my injuries weren’t worse. My left eye was black and blue and swollen shut. It looked like someone had beaten my face really badly. My mom kept me home for a few days, but I recovered. I wish I had a picture of how bad it looked but I don’t think any exist.

But, other than that, we always enjoyed our bikes. I remember even when I was later married in the 90s, we’d be at the shore in Avalon. I’d get up early and rent a bicycle and just ride around town. All the way down to Stone Harbor and back. It was a welcome early morning repose away from my wife and my inlaws.

Even into his 80s, my father always loved riding his bike. He told me he just loved hopping on it and sailing along down the street to run his errands.

There’s something about just jumping on your bike and taking a ride. In a car, it all moves too fast and it’s like watching a movie. It’s as if it’s all happening on TV through the windshield.

But on your bike… you’re always in the movie.

That youthful freedom. The wind in your face as you made your way to your next destination.

A talent once learned as a child that could never be lost.

Unlike our youth.

Always fleeting with each turn of the pedals beneath our feet.

 

Tune in this Thursday for the next installment of, Back The Tracks – Part 5 – Refrigerator Box!

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

You can check out my books here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=charles+wiedenmann&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

Mister Grocer’s

Philadelphia, PA – 1970

One chilly night I was in the VW minibus with my dad and my older sister. He decided to stop at a local convenience store on the way home on Rising Sun Avenue.

The shop was called Mister Grocers and it was an early convenience store. These types of stores would giveaway to later giants like 7-Eleven and Wawa. (Back then Wawa was a dairy farm. Incidentally, Wawa is the native American word for goose.)

I don’t remember why we stopped there but maybe he needed to pick up some cold cuts. My sister and I wandered around the store while he did what he had to do.

I came upon a rotating display rack full of little toys. The ones that caught my eye were these toy cars on little cards. I was checking them all out and they were really cute little cars. So for some reason unknown to me to this day, I stuck one in the pocket of my red baseball jacket.

It was the first time I had ever stolen anything. I don’t even know why I did it. I had plenty of little cars at home. It was almost as if this other power took over and compelled me to shoplift. It was definitely a compulsion. I think this may be a common thing in children that they eventually grow out of.

I remember sitting in the car on the way home and saying how I felt cold so I kept my hands stuffed in the pockets of my jacket. There was no reason for me to say that but I obviously wasn’t a good thief.

We made it home and I went up to my room to get ready for bed. I closed my bedroom door and took out the little car. I ripped open the package and looked at the toy. It was yellow, and not a color car I would have ever wanted, so maybe it was just the thrill of nicking it from the store. I have no idea. I placed the little car in a box among some other stuff in my room that sat on my radiator.

Gama Toys - Wikipedia

I went into the bathroom and got cleaned up for bed, and then headed back to my room. My mother was standing there holding the car and the ripped open package. Did I simply throw the package into the wicker wastebasket in my room? That’s very sloppy. I don’t remember. My room was full of all sorts of toys. How did my mom find this one thing that I just clipped tonight? ESP? I’ve never been able to solve this mystery.

The next thing I know, I’m sitting on the toilet seat and both of my parents are grilling me about where I got this little car. I lied and told them my friend Dave Archut gave it to me. Was this some kind of go-to lie I would use going forward? Probably not if it didn’t work.

It didn’t.

After a few minutes of intense interrogation, I cracked and told them that the package was already ripped in the store and I just took the little car from Mister Grocers.

It would have been awesome had it ended there with a stern scolding. But no… that would not be the order of the day. My mother and father left the room for a moment while I sat there having an anxiety attack on the toilet in my pajamas like a prisoner in the Gulag.

My mother returns with my jacket and slippers. It’s bedtime. We’re going in the wrong direction, mom. But apparently, we were going in the right direction. My father marched me downstairs and took me back out to the minibus and put me in it. I’m shivering as he proceeded to drive us back to Mister Grocers.

I’m terrified and nearly go into paralysis as we pull into the parking lot and there are two police cars parked there.

philadelphia police vehicles from 1969 | Police cars, Old police cars, Philadelphia

I see that, and I’m practically filling my pants in fear. My father tells me to go in with him and what I need to say to the clerk. We get out of the van and head into the store. I can’t believe the cops are on the case of the stolen car already! This is a serious offense. I’m in deep trouble. Grand theft auto? Juvenile Hall? Hard time?

My dad places the car in the ripped-open package in my hands. We walk up to the counter to the clerk behind the counter.

“Go ahead, son.”

“Sir, I took this. It doesn’t belong to me, and I’m sorry.”

Then my father tells me to go stand over there. Of course, I complied because there was no alternative but to obey. I was caught. Nabbed. No longer on the lam. My days of thievery were officially over.

He spoke with the man for a few minutes, and then we left. I don’t remember the conversation in the car on the way home, but I felt really bad but relieved I didn’t have to go with the police.

We never really spoke of it again, but it was a lesson well learned. My days of shoplifting and thinking I could get away with it had begun and ended on the same day.

Philadelphia, PA – 1978

I was 16 years old and shooting pool in my basement with a few of my buddies one evening. I’m sure my buddy Michael Mitchell was there, but I can’t remember who else. Maybe my friend from school Hugh Deissinger. (Yea, we had a pool table) I remember by then, my dad was working at a bank at the shore now and only came home on the weekends. Life was good, and it was a typical Friday night. My dad was cool with us listening to our records on his stereo, and the sounds of Aerosmith, Boston, Kansas, Foreigner, The Cars, ELO, and Peter Frampton filled the air.

My pop had an old wooden desk in the corner where he used to write out the bills and do his thing. That desk and its contents were completely off-limits to us kids because it was all dad/work stuff inside. We had no business touching anything in that desk. I remember going over to it to look for a pen or pencil to write something down that we were talking about.

I pulled open one of the drawers and there was the little toy car from my childhood crimewave days. I pulled it out and held it in my hands for the first time since the night I stole it. Did I have a moment of nostalgic wonder? No, I felt only revulsion for the object because of what it represented.

I told my friends the whole story that I just told you, and they all laughed. I felt better about the whole thing. My dad had paid for it that night back in 1970 to make things right. He righted my wrong with Mister Grocers but never let me have the stolen toy as part of my punishment. I get that, and it was the right thing to do. I didn’t deserve the spoils of my wicked handiwork.

He later told me that when we pulled up to the convenience store that night to return the stolen property, the police cars were there by pure chance. Just a couple of Philly’s finest grabbing a donut and a cup of coffee on the night shift. But he never said anything about it to me to further drive home his point. You steal stuff, the cops can come and haul you off to jail.

Well played, dad. Well played.

But what became of the little toy car?

That night that I accidentally found it and told the guys about it, was to be its final appearance. I took it from its package and placed it on the pool table. We then proceeded to blast billiard balls into it until it was smashed to bits.

I never said anything else about it and my dad never asked. I’m sure by then he’d forgotten about the little car in the drawer, but I’m sure not the incident.

Don’t take things that don’t belong to you!

 

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

You can check out my books here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=charles+wiedenmann&ref=nb_sb_noss_1