Saturday, September 4, 2010

Popping vs. Riding a Wheelie circa 1973

In the days before moto-cross, mountain bikes and 10-speeds, when I was 11, all I wanted was a 5 speed banana seat bike. Why a banana seat? They looked cool. They had that metallic shimmer. You could fit an STP and a Wynn's sticker on it and more than one butt.  More kids than bikes? No problem. Sizable convoys of kids on bikes were a common sight,  'riding' each other, two and even three per bike, one on the back of the seat, one on the handlebars.  I especially liked "riding" Loretta Dickerson, the only girl Dickerson kid, with four brothers. She was the first tomboy I'd ever known, and she taught me the term. "I'm a girl but I'm a tomboy so I don't wear dresses."  Her name was pronounced "The Retta."

Between a Daisy BB-Gun and the bike, it was no contest. It became one word, a mantra, a religion: fivespeedbananaseatbike. Specifically a Schwinn Sting-Ray. Ideally with a sissy bar, the metal extension that rose about 24" above the back of the seat to keep you from slipping off when popping wheelies. I guess. Counter-intuitively, you were not a sissy if you had a sissy bar. You were making a statement, an unspoken commitment, that you would be executing maneuvers that would require this daredevil apparatus.  Popping, or rather riding wheelies, and skidding were crucial skills and, once you owned a bike,  especially with a sissy bar, it was a given among the neighborhood kids that you were prepared to be judged and ranked.

Popping a wheelie just meant pulling the front wheel off the ground for a moment, but riding a wheelie was the measure of the kid. Alfred Dickerson could ride a wheelie all day long, as if riding on one wheel was God's plan.  He pedaled down the road holding the front wheel aloft, pointing it left, then right, with a level of nonchalance that rubbed salt into the wound of my incompetence. The first time I saw Alfred do this, I was in awe. I felt I couldn't go on. And when I thought he couldn't be any cooler, he let go of the handlebars.

When my parents finally relented and gave me the fivespeedbananaseatbike for my birthday, it was not a Schwinn Sting-Ray. Not only wasn't it a Schwinn; it was a Huffy. Huffy was perhaps the name most opposite of bad ass. It was....good ass. Wussy ass.  It wasn't even ass. It was just...Huffy. Like puffy. Of course the Dickerson brothers, Brian, Kevin, Wade, and Alfred judged my new bike, and by association me, to be "gay." As the college professor's kid, I was already assumed to be soft by the local rednecks, aka pretty much everyone in the neighborhood but my family. I also knew that this was simply true. I was soft. Middle-class soft. I could still play it down most of the time. They were all decidedly short guys and even I was taller than they were.  And I was pretty shrimpy for my age. I recall eating lunch at their house. Syrup sandwiches. Aunt Jemima between two slices of Wonder Bread. Malnutrition may have played a role in their failure to achieve their  full height; their genetic potential. They also all slept in the same bedroom. And Brian is currently serving a life-term in prison for murder.

But the Dickersons, regardless of stature and social strata, could all eventually ride wheelies all the way down the road like Alfred, and I could only pop and hold one for about six feet. I was a little better at skidding. This was executed on a dirt road, of which there were plenty in the rural neighborhood of Cliffs Point, 10 miles outside of Chestertown, MD on the Chester River. The idea was to pedal furiously and then hit the coaster brakes (this predates handlebar brakes) and slide as long as possible, leaning into the final few feet and bringing the bike around in a fishtail 180 that pointed you back in the direction you came from, prepared for judgment. Brian Dickerson laid down a physics defying 22 footer on Lands End Road that was never topped.  Brian, trumping Alfred in my estimation,  eventually mastered the paved skid as well which left actual rubber on the road  in the hotter months.  This meant that the length of the achievement could be seen by those who had not been there to witness, unlike the dirt skids which were subject to elimination by car tires.  Group pilgrimmages to verify  any alleged skid over 10 feet, the threshold of a credible claim, was common.

Then one day at the beginning of summer vacation, the year that Evel Knievel became our God, Tommy Thomas suggested building a jump.