DONNIE JOHNSTON: Back then a bicycle was an instrument of independence | Lifestyles


You don’t see kids riding bikes anymore.

Oh, once in a while you’ll come across a kid riding a horse in their driveway or come across a parent who took their kid to a school parking lot for a ride, but that’s about it.

Nowadays, a bicycle is a toy. When I was growing up, it was a legitimate mode of transportation.

My first bike was one a neighbor found in a junk pile. It had a broken bar but was otherwise in good condition. The neighbor offered to sell it to me for $5, which is the equivalent of 250 empty pop bottles returned to the store (2 cents each).

I might have had to walk 50 miles to find 250 empty bottles in the ditches, and by the time I had accumulated that many, the neighbors would probably have sold the bike to another kid. I had to find something else.

My neighbor solved the problem. Two big truckloads of wood slabs in her backyard, and if I stacked the pieces neatly along the fence, she’d give me the bike. I jumped at the chance.

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When the lumber was stacked and I made a few bucks collecting hay, I pushed the bike with the broken bar into town to get it fixed. Sonny Porter was the area’s first welder, and he had a sign outside his store that read, “We mend anything but a broken heart.”

Sonny charged me a dollar to solder this bar and assured me it was safe to ride. The three mile home was much faster than the three mile walk to town.

When I was growing up, bikes took us everywhere we wanted to go. Most families didn’t have two cars back then (my family didn’t even have one). If the husband was at work (most mothers stayed at home; being a housewife was an admirable profession in those days), the wife had no transportation, so there was no way to transport children. But if there was a second car, parents of that time did not cater to all the whims of a child. If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to find a way.

And a bicycle was the way. Bikes took us around town, to the store, to ball games on vacant lots, and often to school or church. A bicycle was more than just a prized possession. It was an instrument of independence.

For me, a basket was a necessary accessory on my bike, and I bought one as soon as I saved some money. I could carry bottles of pop that I picked up in my shopping cart and I could take groceries home there. I could put my baseball glove in my basket and even found a way to carry my .22 caliber. rifle in there when I was groundhog hunting (a farmer paid me $1 for every groundhog I shot on his property).

Several times during squirrel season, I cycled 12 miles into Rappahannock County to hunt, arriving on Castleton Mountain before daybreak. To make pre-daylight rides more enjoyable, I hooked up a little transistor radio to the bar and put some music on while I pedaled. It was riding in style.

Today, parents would never allow a 12-year-old to ride 12 miles in the dark with a shotgun laced to the handlebars, but that wasn’t much back then. Several of my school buddies have accompanied me on these trips at different times.

Today, many people ride stationary bikes anywhere to build leg muscles. We built our leg muscles by riding bikes to get anywhere, (almost) anywhere we wanted to go.

I remember a story about a kid from Berryville whose family was coming to Culpeper for a visit. The boy convinced his parents to allow him to start cycling and they could pick him up when they caught up with him.

Believing that the boy would tire quickly and be found waiting along the highway, the father took his time leaving (waiting about two hours) to let the young man go as far as he could.

Well, the parents never outgrew the boy. By the time they arrived in Culpeper, their son had already completed the nearly 60-mile journey. Children could ride a traveling bike.

A friend of mine, who is an athletic director at a local high school, thinks that’s why so few kids 50 or 60 years ago had knee problems. Cycling day after day built muscle.

I cycled every day in good weather and in bad weather (sometimes even in the snow). This old coaster brake bike (I only knew of one rich kid who had a fancy English racer) had only one gear that required leg strength. And I could ride all day.

The bikes took us everywhere.

Donnie Johnson:

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