JOHNSTON: Back then, a bicycle was an instrument of independence | columns


YOU no longer see children riding bicycles.

Oh, every once in a while, you’ll run into a kid riding in your driveway or a parent who’s taken their kid to a school parking lot to ride, but that’s about it.

These days, a bicycle is a toy. As a child, it was a legitimate means of transportation.

My first bike was one that a neighbor found in a junk heap. It had a broken bar but was otherwise in good condition. The neighbor offered to sell it to me for $5, which was the equivalent of 250 empty soda bottles delivered from the store (2 cents each).

He might have had to walk 50 miles to find 250 empty bottles in the ditches, and by the time he had amassed that many, the neighbors would probably have sold the bike to some other kid. She had to find out something else.

My neighbor solved the problem. Two big truckloads of lumber in his backyard, and if he stacked the pieces neatly along the fence, he’d give me the bike. I jumped when I had the chance.

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When the firewood was stacked and I made a couple bucks haying, I wheeled the bike with the broken bar into town to get it fixed. Sonny Porter was the main welder in the area and had a sign in front of his shop that said, “We fix anything but a broken heart.”

Sonny charged me a dollar to weld that bar together and assured me it was safe to mount. The three miles on the way home was much faster than the three miles on foot to town.

When I was a kid, bicycles took us where we wanted to go. Most families didn’t have two cars back then (my family didn’t even have one). If the husband was at work (most stay-at-home moms; being a stay-at-home mom was an admirable profession in those days), the wife had no transportation, so there was no way to get the kids from one place to another. side to side. But if there was a second car, parents in that day and time did not cater to every whim of a child. If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to find a way.

And a bicycle was the way. The bikes took us into town, to the store, to ball games on vacant lots, and often to school or church. A bicycle was more than a prized possession. It was an instrument of independence.

For me, a basket was a necessary accessory on my bike, and I bought one as soon as I saved up the money. I could carry soda bottles that I collected in my basket, and I could carry groceries home in it. I was able to put my baseball glove in my basket and even found a way to carry my .22 cal. rifle there when I went woodchuck hunting (a farmer paid me $1 for each woodchuck I shot on his property).

Several times during squirrel season, I rode my bike 12 miles into Rappahannock County to hunt, reaching Castleton Mountain before sunrise. To make pre-dawn rides more enjoyable, I hung a small transistor radio on the bar and listened to music while pedaling. That was riding in style.

Parents today would never let a 12-year-old ride 12 miles in the dark with a shotgun strapped to the handlebars, but back then it wasn’t a big deal. Several of my schoolmates accompanied me on such trips at different times.

Nowadays, many people ride stationary bikes to nowhere to strengthen their leg muscles. We built our leg muscles by riding a bike to get somewhere, (almost) anywhere we wanted to go.

I remember a story about a boy in Berryville whose family was visiting Culpeper. The boy convinced his parents to let him start riding his bike and they could pick him up when they caught up with him.

Assuming that the boy would tire quickly and be found waiting along the road, the father took his time leaving (waiting about two hours) to let the young man get as far as possible.

Well, the parents never approved of the child. By the time they reached Culpeper, his son had already completed the nearly 60-mile journey. The kids could go on some bike trips.

A friend of mine, who is an athletic director at an area high school, thinks that’s why so few kids 50 or 60 years ago had knee problems. Riding a bike day after day strengthened the muscles.

I rode my bike every day in good and bad weather (occasionally even in the snow). That old bike with coaster brakes (I only knew a rich kid who owned a fancy English Racer) had only one gear that demanded leg strength. And I could ride all day.

The bikes took us everywhere.

Columnist Donnie Johnston lives in Culpeper County. Send an email to [email protected].