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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Early Years

I'm switching the rest of the story to the Flexible Flyer banner.  I have always thought that would be a good title for my memoirs.  My son, Mike, even wrote a song titled Flexible Flyer.  It was a joke, because I was always joking with him that he should name his band Flexible Flyer.  The title will begin to make sense as the story unfolds.

As long as I can remember, I loved modes of transportation.  Somewhere, I have a picture of myself at age 2, sitting in my little green pedal car.  I had tricycles, scooters, but when I was able to ride the bicycle that belonged to a neighbor kid, I fell in love.  I knew instinctively that this thing could take me places.

At my earliest memory, we lived in my grandparents' house.  It was on a hill and you could look across the Western Pennsylvania valleys to see big houses on other hills.  From a distance, I always wondered what it was like over there.

When someone in my family was going away, I always had a sad feeling.  When I was leaving, I had no such feeling.  I was ecstatic to be going somewhere, to be traveling.  I have come to understand that the sadness I felt when someone was leaving was about me not going with them.

There are two things you probably know about Western PA.  There are lots of hills there and it snows a lot there in the winter.  For a kid like me, who loved going fast on things that were built to transport, the only thing I needed to add to those two things was a sled.  My folks bought a Flexible Flyer and I loved it.  I still have one today in the attic above the garage.

The kids in our neighborhood were very creative.  They built a log cabin in "The Woods" with two floors.  They made a skating rink by diverting water from the nearby stream.  The rink became a bicycle race track in the summer.  In the winter, they came up with ways to enhance sled riding.  One of the guys had a really long Flexible Flyer, that could hold about 4 kids sitting up.  There was a big hill in a cemetery (near where my parents are currently resting) and we would load the sled and run down this big hill.  There was a kind of a jump halfway down and the kids who were not riding would wait there and bombard the riders with snowballs as they flew off the jump.

On one of these runs, one of the guy's leg came off the sled and fell under the runner at the jump.  When the fully loaded sled came down on it, his lower leg was broken kind of lengthwise.  I had to walk home and get my dad and grandfather to drive over and help pull the kid up the hill on the big sled, load him in a car and take him to the hospital.  They attached a makeshift splint to prevent his leg from moving.  He was wearing cowboy boots and one had to be cut off at the hospital.  He was not very happy about that.  None of this deterred any of us from riding sleds down that hill again.

When I was a little older, we rode our bikes all over the area north of Pittsburgh.  We were amazed at the distance we could cover.  The bikes were the simple, single speed bikes of the 50s, but if a hill was too steep to pedal up by traversing, we just got off and pushed it.  I loved having a destination, such as a visit to a relative's house or a candy store.  I rode over to that other hill to check out the house and to look back at where we lived.  From there I could see another hill, with another house.

I had a bad encounter with a crossbar when I was young and broke my thumb in a crash while my dad was timing my ride around the block when I was 15.  I wanted to try to jump my bike through the air, by racing toward a big pile of gravel and zooming to the top, but had my face too close to the handle bar and it came up and smacked me in the mouth.  I crashed in flames and had to walk home with blood all over my shirt...again.

Driving age could not come soon enough.  I took every opportunity to drive someone's car, but did not own my own car until graduating from high school.

I had been a good student early in my life, but the last couple years of high school really dragged for me.  I could not wait for it to end, but did not really have much of a plan going forward.  I was mowing the lawn one day and my dad came out to talk to me about that.

He pointed out that I had not shown any interest in going to college and that I had not done very well in recent years in school.  He said that I could continue to live at home and he would give me the summer off, just like between school years.  But, he wanted me to get a job after that and start to contribute around the house financially and otherwise.  Fair enough.

I started looking for a job immediately.  We knew a guy who used to live next door with his family and was the manager of a big grocery store.  I talked to him and he gave me a part time job.  I started the next Monday after graduation.  I needed a car to get to work, so I paid $80 for a beat up 1955 Pontiac 2 door sedan.

It looked a little better than that, but it needed work.  It had a clutch that slipped and I spent a winter with my cousin trying to fix that in my dad's garage.  It turned out that it could not be fixed, especially after I wrecked it while driving too fast for conditions. My next car was a '55 Chevy and it was not much better.  Finally, my dad cosigned a loan for me and I bought a 1959 Oldsmobile, the Hosemobile.  This was the car that finally gave me reliable transportation until I was drafted in '65.

Working only part time at the supermarket, I had lots of time to spare.  Some friends of mine were working for a local Honda motorcycle shop and got me a job assembling motorcycles.  This job allowed me schedule flexibility to fit in with my other job.  Eventually I learned enough to start doing minor repairs, under supervision.  Cool, another mode of transportation.

As I said, I loved modes of transportation.  My dad worked for a railroad and I rode a streetcar (Pittsburghese for a trolley) and a bus to high school.  I dreamed of being at the controls of all these machines.

When I started riding motorcycles, it was like going to hog heaven for me.  A bicycle with a motor.  We assembled the new bikes several miles from the shop, so we often had to ride them there upon completion.  Test riding them before and after repairs was another opportunity.  The shop owned a CB 160 that I could borrow occasionally.

One year, my cousin, who was in the navy, rode his Harley Sportster home to Pittsburgh.  Something broke on the bike and he had to return to Norfolk.  He left the bike with me to get it fixed.  That was one of the best summers of my life until then.

To be continued.

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