My first bicycle was manufactured before the steel strike came, and if newspaper headlines are to be believed, it was a near thing.
Labor strife back in the late 1950s was a very real thing, unions had real power, and the working men in steel country were quite prepared to shut down the mills if they didn’t get the wages and benefits they were entitled to. For a kid growing up on the Colorado prairie, dreaming dreams only a child could dream, this could have had real consequences. I discovered only recently how close I came to not enjoying the best birthday of my life.
While doing research for an article recently I pulled out some bound volumes of back issues of the Journal-Advocate, one of which happened to contain the months of July and August 1959. That was back when the J-A was the primary source of news for Sterling and Logan County. Bylined articles were rare – even a long, front-page article about a dramatic chase and lassoing of a berserk bull in downtown Sterling was written anonymously – and the pages were filled with Associated Press news alongside the comings and goings of ordinary people in Kelly, Leroy, Atwood, Padroni, and countless other rural communities.
Just an aside here: I’m a little ashamed, as a journalist, of how sexist my beloved J-A was then; apparently, we used any excuse to publish a photo of a pretty girl, and the less-clothed and more-curved, the better. It was not journalism at its finest, I’m afraid.
As I flipped through the pages I realized that that the bound volume contained the newspaper published on July 11, 1959. That was the day I turned eight years old. And the steel workers back east were getting ready to walk out.
We lived in Yuma, and I’d learned how to ride a bicycle just a year or so before. My actual, really real first bike wasn’t one I liked or even wanted. It was a rusty old hand-me-down from a cousin, and it had once had a headlight mounted on the front fender. That’s important because the headlight had long since deteriorated and all that was left was a rusting, razor-sharp flange just waiting for an unsteady 7-year-old to hit a curb and pitch head-first over the handlebars, slicing open chin and palm in a single stroke, thus necessitating said 7-year-old’s first experience with sutures and tetanus shot.
There would be many of both (even unto the man-child’s 6th or 7th decade, but those are tales for another day) but when a young mother sees her first-born running, bawling, bleeding from hand and mouth, across the back yard, decisions get made. The old bike was tossed into the trunk of the family’s Pontiac and later carted to the town landfill, and I was afoot again as second grade ended and summer arrived.
On the morning of my birthday Mother and Pop seemed utterly ignorant of the significance of the date. I said nothing as I ate my breakfast cereal at the kitchen table, hoping they wouldn’t make me wait until supper to give me my birthday gifts.
I’d no more than put my empty bowl in the kitchen sink when Mother came into the kitchen with several gaily wrapped packages. I tore into them and quickly discovered a Revelle WWII fighter plane model, a book about dogs, and a brand new shirt from Grandma Rice, who worked at J.C. Penney and got the shirts at discount.
For reasons I couldn’t understand Pop insisted that, right then and there, I cram the wrapping paper into a trash can and take the trash out to the big drum in the alley. No, it couldn’t wait until I tried on the shirt, it had to be that very moment.
When a man wears a badge and carries a gun, one doesn’t ask many questions. Somewhat disgruntled at the pall cast over my obviously brief birthday celebration, I complied. I dragged the metal trash can out from under the kitchen sink, stuffed the wrapping and ribbons into it, and hauled it out the back door onto the back porch.
Where I stopped, frozen in my tracks.
There, leaning casually on its kickstand, was a gleaming red Schwinn Tornado bicycle, exactly like this one.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. I swear, as God is my witness, somewhere angels hummed and violins played softly. The thing fairly glowed with an ethereal light and it beckoned me.
“C’mon, kid, let’s go play,” it said.
Mother caught the waste basket as it fell from my hand. Okay, maybe she didn’t, but as I replay that moment in my mind, she did that.
I walked down the steps and up to the bicycle. This was a 26-incher, a big boy’s bicycle. I struggled to throw a leg over the seat and Pop helped me mount up. He pushed up the kickstand and helped me take off, wobbling across the back yard on my maiden flight.
I owned that bicycle until I was 16, and while I realize that was only eight years, it was, quite literally, the best half of my childhood. It was the bicycle I would ride to school every day in good weather. Astride that Tornado I would explore every nook and cranny of my home town.
Summers were spent in constant companionship with that red bike. We went to pickup baseball games, checked out the new construction going on in town, followed the other kids up one street and down an alley, always in motion until its pedals, its handlebars and its seat were extensions of my feet, my hands and my butt. It was my trusty steed, my Trigger, my Mustang, my Harley Davidson.
When I was 11, it would carry me along on my newspaper route, throwing the Denver Post on hundreds of doorsteps. I rode it a mile east of town to the cemetery, a mile south of town to the airport, and a mile west of town to the railroad overpass.
I wrecked it countless times and, as nearly as I can recall, I replaced the fork twice, completely re-spoked both wheels at least once, and at one point completely broke down the coaster brake, replaced the brake shoes and re-packed the bearings. I learned to slide it sideways on the gravel streets so I wouldn’t have to slow down to turn the corner. I jumped it over curbs and free-wheeled it down the banks of the town’s swimming pool at the town park. Lord, if I’d driven a car the way I rode that bike, I’d have killed myself.
When we left Yuma, I rode the bike one last time through the streets, and when we came to Sterling I used the bike to explore my new hometown. My brother Tom and I rode our bikes down to the river to fish, and we got lost together (this is Sterling, after all, and all newcomers get lost.) I even rode the bike to school my sophomore year of high school, until I learned that it just wasn’t cool.
I don’t know what happened to the old bike. I got my learner’s permit in January 1967 and never looked back.
Chance is a funny thing, and all that might not have not happened at all except for good fortune. Four days after my birthday that year, 1959, steel workers made good on their threat and they shut down the steel industry for almost six months.
I shudder to think about the bicycle shortage that must have happened after that. Funny that the adult world didn’t see fit to report on it.