Friday, December 7, 2012

1968: The Panther on Crestline Place.

Growing up with my brothers and sister, our first bikes were our surrogate cars.  The first bike that was mine was a Firestone GTO Panther, a purple, banana seat bike, with 20” wheels.  The bike had a 3-speed hub, with a stick shift on the top tube, between the saddle and handle bars (I thinks today’s CPSC would frown on this), and a 1.75” wide slick rear tire.  You can still find this bike on vintage bike sites, and the pictures there bring back many memories.  I may have a picture on it somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet; just one picture of my younger brother Todd in mid-air probably from `71 or `72.
One of my brother jumping in the early 70's.

By the time this bike came home from the Firestone Store during summer 1967, I was 10 years-old and the oldest of 8 brothers and a sister, and we were all sharing a number of used 20” bikes that had appeared from garage sales, neighbors and possibly even new.  After being a little slow to start riding on our gravel street, I was catching up my younger and more daring brothers.   

Our riding was a mix of early BMX, downhill and demolition derby.  We lived half way up a small hill, on the upright of a “T” shaped road, all gravel.  We would pedal up the hill from our driveway, ride the top of the T, and then ride down the 60 or 70 feet back into our drive.  For excitement, we pedaled down the hill as fast as we could, and then slammed on the rear coast brake while turning. The goal was a perfect power slide with long skids marks, flying rocks and a large cloud of dust.  Sometimes this was in single file, and sometimes in races, side-by-side, with collisions, flips, and skinned knees and elbows.

When riding and skidding got boring, we would add ramps and jumps.  Sometime we built ramps from scraps of wood, and another jump was actually a cut embankment, just off the street, that was about 3 feet high, up and over the home plate of our baseball diamond.  When we didn’t crash on the approach, the results were 1 to 2 feet of “air”, while traveling 5-6 feet before a 1-wheel, 2-wheel, or bike-body-knee-head-arms-landing, resulting in more skinned knees and elbows (but no broken bones) between the 10 of us.  However, Mom discouraged jumping - repeatedly.

One spectacular related memory is the evening our not-so-adult neighbor, after watching us jumping our bikes, took his Triumph road motorcycle over this dirt ramp, looking like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape”. He landed without crashing, but never tried it again. 

Aside from riding the bikes, the next most obvious thing (for boys under the age of 10) was to take the bikes apart. This was to “repair” them, although the precise order of the process could be called into question.  Our tools were limited to a crescent wrench, a screwdriver and a hammer.  It should come as no surprise that we became quite adept at the take-apart, but repair and reassembly were a bit more of a challenge. Combined with the mechanical attrition of our riding, we soon had a collection of rideable bikes, non-rideable bikes, and spare parts.   We also began more experimenting, moving parts from bike-to-bike, and one afternoon we took apart a rear coaster brake hub, and then attempted to put it back together using Vaseline (from the diaper changing table) for grease.  Dad had to help us finish that repair a few days later, and Mom bought a fresh jar of Vaseline.

Our house was on a hill above Wamplers Lake, and 5-minute walk from the small resort hotel, called the Willow Grove,  our Grandmother Hardcastle ran on the lake.  The walk from home to the hotel was our first adventure in childhood independence.  That summer I started doing chores for Grandma, washing dishes, sweeping the porches, bailing out the boats used by guests, and mowing, and the Panther was in part payment for that. It was my bike, and the coolest bike on Crestline Place. (Or at least until the neighbor kid brought home his 5-Speed Schwinn Orange Crate, but he never rode it much, and really, who would ever trust a that spindly thing called a derailleur!)

My first big treat with the Panther was to ride this bike to the hotel, and then on 1/8 of mile paved road that ran by the hotel, from the main road to the lake shore.  Riding back on forth on real pavement where a car might drive was a big deal.  Next came the big ride, the one mile along 1-lane Lake Shore Drive, from the hotel to the dead end at the channel that connected Wamplers and Round Lake.   From there, the hotel appeared to be “across” the lake, and the mysterious (to us) Hayes State Park was just across the channel. (We were year-round residents, yet I never went on the park grounds until I was 17!).  I did that ride on Lake Shore Drive every chance I got those first summers, relishing in the freedom that I was across the lake from home, and completely on my own.

The Panther was my bike until summer of 1969, when I purchased a black and white Sears 3-Speed.  It Austrian-made with a Sturmey Archer hub, a kickstand, fenders and rear rack, all for just $40.  I needed a bike that could get me the 5 miles to Brooklyn, there to ride with friends.  With that purchase, like my school clothes and outgrown toys, the Panther became a hand-me down for my younger brothers.  It became just another one of the bikes, slowly being broken down by endless summer days of skids, jumps, crashes and repairs, on the gravel of Crestline Place.