Growing Up In Waterford, PA


My three "first" bicycles
by the late Herb Walden

Fort LeBoeuf Class of 1956

Do you remember your first bicycle? I'm afraid I don't -- remember yours, that is. But I do remember mine. In fact, I remember all three of my first bikes.

Mom and Dad got my very first bicycle from a neighbor when I was about eight years old. It was bright red and blue, had 14-inch wheels, and was not equipped with brakes. Looking at old pictures, I see now that it resembled those little circus bikes that clowns and bears ride.

I learned to ride in our driveway -- nice, smooth gravel with a very slight down slope. With my one-track mind, it was hard for me to concentrate on balancing, pedaling, and steering all at the same time. The gradual incline of the driveway relieved me of pedaling, and left me free for balancing and steering.

However, if I steered, I lost my balance. If I kept my balance, I forgot to steer, which invariably caused me to slam into the only tree along the driveway. It was a thorn tree, too. The more I thought about the dumb tree, the more likely I was to hit it. Sometimes I'd start off and get everything together and be going right along. Then I'd glance at the tree and uncontrollably head right for it!

I might have stopped if I'd had brakes, but that would just have been something else to think about. I never got hurt, but I did lose my temper several times a day.

Training wheels weren't around in the early 1940s, but I'm willing to bet that the guy who invented them had a thorn tree near his driveway, too.

At around ten, I got my first real bike.

Slightly used, it had 20-inch wheels and a coaster brake so that I could actually stop when I wanted to. It had a wire basket on the handlebars, as many bikes did back then. The theory was that you could put stuff in the basket and transport it. The reality was that the stuff bounced out when you rode over even the slightest bump, like a leaf or a worm.

One thing this bike didn't have was a chain guard. Lots of bikes were chain-guardless back in those days. "So what?" you say. Well, unless you took the proper precautions, a pants-leg could get caught in the chain and sprocket. That could yank a kid off a bike in a big hurry. The least that could happen was a very greasy pants-leg with a couple of holes punched in it.

One popular remedy was to roll up your right pants-leg, which is what I always did. Another was to wear a clip, like a lady's bracelet, that went around the pants-leg and held it tight. I never had one. They looked too much like bracelets to me.

Along came Christmas 1948 and waiting for me that morning was a brand-new "Roadmaster," my first full-sized bike!

Now let me remind you of what bicycles were like in those days. They were big and heavy, unlike the present skinny, little lightweights. My new bike weighed darn near as much as me. If my bicycle had been a living thing, a bike of today would look like its skeleton.

The seat was large and comfortable, quite different from the thing you find on a modern bike (which, if it were made of wood, would be called a "stick").

I added a sheepskin cover to mine to make it even more comfy. We didn't have gears on our old bikes. None of this 5-speed or 10-speed stuff. No, sir! We didn't need all those fancy levers and -- hmmmm. Well, maybe gears aren't such a bad idea at that.

When I was a kid, there weren't too many of the Roadmaster species around Waterford. My friend Ted had one, but it was a different model. Bud, who lived next door, had a Schwinn, and my cousin Donnie had a Rollfast. Some kids had J.C. Higgins bikes, which was Sears and Roebuck's brand. Montgomery Ward's was Hawthorne. There were Columbias and Western Flyers and even an Iver Johnson, which I knew only from ads in the Boy Scout handbook.

There were as many brands as there were kids to ride them.

My bike had a dandy big headlight, which I didn't use much. Mostly because I rarely rode after dark and the batteries were dead most of the time anyway.

There was a horn enclosed in the decorative tank that fit between the cross bars. It was okay, but it quit working before I really had a chance to annoy anyone with it. Those horns never seemed to work for very long on any bike.

Behind the seat and over the rear fender was the luggage carrier. No one I knew ever carried actual luggage, but you could strap on other things, like school books. You could also sit on it, if you weren't too heavy, and go for a ride as a passenger. But most passengers chose to sit side-saddle on the cross bar.

There was a time when Ted and I thought we were bicycle repairmen. Our repairs consisted of cleaning and greasing the coaster brake. Mostly, we oiled things.

I don't know whether coaster brakes are still around, what with gears and hand-brakes. If you aren't familiar with the device, the coaster brake allowed you to coast without the pedals going around. A bit of a backward push on the pedals applied the brake. Two of the major kinds of coaster brakes were Bendix and New Departure. Our Roadmaster bikes had Bendix brakes, so Ted and I were authorities on taking them apart and re-assembling them.

One day, we made a deal with a neighbor for his old bike. We were going to fix it up, sell it, and become rich.

The old bike was rather dilapidated, but we thought a little paint would hide that. So we started on our lubrication binge. We oiled everything that moved, looked like it had moved, or appeared that it should move.

Then came the coaster brake. It was a New Departure (aptly named, we found). We expected it to be similar to our Bendix brakes, which were composed of about a half-dozen parts. Not so the New Departure. When it came apart, about 8,000 little washer-like things jumped out. (I'm exaggerating. It was probably more like 7,000). Some had little tabs on them, some were plain.

We decided they went together in some definite combination, but we never stumbled upon it. We tried a dozen or more times with the same results: Everything worked all right until we applied the brakes.

It took three or four backward turns of the pedals before the brakes caught, if they caught at all.

I don't remember whatever happened to that old bike. I'm quite sure we didn't sell it, because I don't recall being rich.

I still have my Roadmaster; although I haven't been on it in years. It's kind of rusty and in poor condition, but then, so am I.

It would be fun to get it oiled up and ride it, but it's been so long, I'd probably have to learn all over again. I'd do it too--but there's this thorn tree growing down along the driveway . . .

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