Bike-o-taur noun (def): A supposedly mythical half child, half bicycle creature. Known to spend all waking hours wheeling around their local habitat. Fearless and adventurous.
It turns out that for people who gain inspiration to write blogs from their daily lives, and people who are also still in a state of extreme isolation (due to high risk factors), there is not a whole lot to write about now that the novelty of doing nothing for months on end has worn off. In my case, that means it is devolving into personal history.
Growing up “mid-century” (as it is now called in architecture) in Portland seemed to be story-book stuff. Ramona Quimby and Henry and Beezus, written by Beverly Cleary, were set just blocks away from where I grew up, and in almost the exact time period. Like Henry, I was obsessed with getting a bicycle, but it just wasn’t in the budget for the family.
I first learned how to ride a bike when I was visiting my Grandpa Wehlitz in San Diego. He was living in something similar to a U-shaped motor court; a cute little girl lived in another unit and had a bike, and I somehow persuaded her to let me use her new bike to learn on. She may have been a bit upset about a few minor scratches that appeared once I mastered staying upright, but learning how to ride just increased my desire to own my own bike.
Sometime later, a family friend presented me with a bike … of sorts. It was a Frankenbike, put together out of several very mis-matched parts, and it weighed more than I did. I managed to navigate it around the block a few times before I gave up. And then, my grandpa got me a bike! I don’t remember if it was for a birthday, Christmas, or just because, but it was a shiny red Schwinn with a headlight and a … luggage rack? … over the back tire. It looked exactly like this:
I had forgotten about the horn button on the side, and it’s not a luggage rack, it’s a carrier – which it did; passengers, newspaper bags, and anything that could be tied or bungee-corded to it. Soon my friends Jim and John got bikes, as did the rest of the guys my age in the neighborhood. We rode, and rode and rode and rode all around Portland, starting when we were maybe 10 years old. No helmets, no parental supervision, on four-lane main arterials that criss-crossed the city.
One memorable event Portland used to host during the Rose Festival was the “Kiddie Parade”. Sure, there were grade school bands, local business floats, and I guess even more, but the best part was the decorated wagons and bicycles. Streamers were woven in through the spokes, taped onto the fenders, hung off the handlebars, with playing cards held by clothespins on the fender supports, creating a racket as they hit the spokes when riding. Here is a photo of my sister Susan with her decorated bike:
If you look at a map of Portland, we grew up in what I think is the exact geographic center, halfway between the Hollywood and Parkrose districts. Besides often riding our bikes to school, we rode all the way north out to the airport, just because. We rode all the way east to the Rose Gardens, across the Burnside Bridge. We rode to Laurelhurst Park, miles away to the south. And of course, we rode to Mt. Tabor. But our favorite was riding east to Rocky Butte.
Rocky Butte is an ancient cinder cone that, back then, had two roads up to a viewpoint on the top, presumably built by the CCC. Before they built tons of trophy homes on it, we thought it was a park. The only dwelling was the city jail, on the opposite side of the mountain we would ride up. The road we used almost exclusively had the added distinction of having a tunnel!
We would ride the couple of miles there, then labor up to the top on our single-speed bikes. We would always challenge ourselves to see how far up we could get before we had to dismount and walk. We finally made it one day without having to walk the bikes! Once at the top, we would gaze at the 360 degree view for a few minutes, and then race down. When I say race, I mean we would have a contest to see how far down we could make it without using our brakes.
One time, John was in front of me on his 24” bike (mine was 26”), and we were screaming down the hill when we entered the tunnel. Now, this tunnel was curved, besides being steep, and had a rounded concrete “curb” as a divider between uphill and downhill travel. It had never been an issue before, but we had never gone as fast before. I’ve never been any good at physics, but as John entered the tunnel, my young brain computed his speed, the degrees of tilt as he took the corner, and the comparison of the arc of his curve vs. the arc of the tunnel, and I foresaw either him tilting all the way over to street level, or intersecting with the concrete curb … which happened as if it was in slow motion. The bike was launched into the air, did a complete roll, then bike and rider reconnected with the pavement.
The other kids took off, but I walked with him allll the way home, the bike battered and unrideable, and the rider bruised and bleeding from pavement rash. Unfortunately, many events like this resulted in a condition known as “grounding.” I’m told that the idea was to restrict the movement of an individual to their yard as a punishment for disappearing for hours on end without proper notification or approval from the governing authorities. So, I’d be sitting on the little hill on our yard, bike motionless beside me, when Jim and John would ride up and say “Hey! Wanna go for a ride?” I’d look around, and unable to locate any permission-giving authority, I’d say “Yes!”, and off we’d go. We won’t speak of the difference in punishment between then and now.
A few years later, and with a job washing dishes at Woolworth’s, I bought a Three-Speed English Racer! Hills were like level ground, and I could go faster than any of my peers. One thing we used to do was ride a few blocks away, up two pretty steep hills, then scream back down, up an embankment in a friends yard, and catch some air. I rode up the hills, then came down … first gear, then second gear, and finally third gear! So fast, I hit the embankment, flew in the air … and hit the side of his house. No broken bones, somehow, but the bike was mangled.
I got it repaired, but was somewhat chastened. For a few days. Then we all rode up to the top or Rocky Butte again, and decided to come down the back way. Once again, how far down can we go without hitting the brakes? I now had a speedometer on my bike – 20 -25 -30 mph! I came around a curve, and there was a car doing maybe 20 mph in front of me. My brakes were not adequate for the task, but a rocky, unpaved, extra-wide shoulder was there, so I took the escape route. The skinny tires on my “racing bike” threatened to take me down every foot of the way, then I was back on the road again, still just behind the car, but able to slow enough without hitting it.
Then one day, I graduated from high school; my graduation present was 50% of the price of a 1955 Ford, 6 cylinder, three-on-the-tree, four door sedan. It didn’t last long, but that’s another story.