When I was a child being raised in a small, Midwest town, a large part of my world was defined by my neighborhood and my friends who lived close by. I was blessed with many friends with unique and colorful personalities. We spent countless hours riding bicycles throughout the town. If there was an alley or wooded pathway, or a short-cut through neighbors’ yards to use to get from place to place, we knew where it was and traveled it often. We went to “Spiller's Mobile Service Station” to get candy bar and potato chip treats and air-up our bicycle tires.
Mr. Spiller also let us remove the bottle-cap collector from his Cola-Cola vending machine that sat outside his service station. There, we sorted through bottle-caps to select the most colorful ones to carefully place between the spokes of our bicycle wheels to "customize" our bicycles’ appearance. You had to be careful though not to waste a Royal Crown Cola cap that you might be able to exchange for a nickel, dime, or even a DOLLAR! Some soft-drink vendors would run promotions, printing cash amounts or prizes on the underside of their bottle caps! You had to remove the bottle cap, inner cork seal to check to see if you were a winner. Winning anything would have you jumping up and down screaming with excitement at the top of your lungs! Of course, your chances of winning were greatly improved, if you bought more bottled soda. There was also hidden cash in the empty soda-pop bottles that could be returned for two cents each. A returned, twenty-four bottle wooden case would earn you forty-eight cents! They were heavy to carry, but with a little ingenuity, some rope, a Radio Flyer wagon, and a bicycle, I could haul two cases to the nearby Kroger Store or nearest gas station in town and get ninety-six cents! Assuming I rode slowly, and the uneven sidewalks didn't result in falling bottles being broken, that haul made me immediately, RICH!
Any of a number of small stores in town sold packs of baseball cards that were enclosed with a flat square of bright, pink bubblegum. The packs were a nickel and my friends and I collected and traded cards with each other to assemble a collection of favorite players and team members. The gum was coated in white, powdered sugar, and the package wrapping was a shiny, wax-coated paper. Trading those cards was one of my first recollections of ever "bartering" to get something I wanted. A popular baseball player's card might require you to trade five of your cards to get one in return. A single player's outstanding performance in one game might increase their card "trade value" overnight. To get the cards you wanted, you traded or bought new packs of gum and cards. Opening the pack had the same momentary thrill of opening a present on Christmas morning. Whose treasured card might be waiting to be uncovered? Would there be a team photo card? Sometimes a special "prize" or "limited edition collector card" might be enclosed. If you got one of those, to a child, it was like winning the lottery or unwrapping a Wonka Bar to find a “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket”! Your baseball cards were usually kept in a discarded shoe or cigar box, stored away in a closet or under the bed in your room. The box became a private “safe" of sorts for all your varied treasures. The cards were usually organized so you could find one you needed quickly, with blocks of them held together by a rubber band. Looking at player "stats" on the back of the cards helped pass free time. If you became angry at a player for some reason or happened to have a "dupe" card you could not trade, it might become the sound effect of a motor, as a clothes-pin taken from your Mom's wash basket was used to attach the card to your bicycle frame. The card, flapping against the spinning spokes on your bicycle wheel, created the custom sound of an imaginary Harley Davidson or Indian motorcycle! Engine repair was cheap those days. All that was needed for a tune-up was a new baseball card! No one thought about those cards having any monetary value then or in the future.
Today, a single, Mickey Mantle Baseball card from the 1960s can bring over $5000! A single, five-cent, unopened wax-pack from that era can be worth thousands of dollars! I shudder to think of how much money many of those cards that passed through my hands, or were shredded on my bicycle wheel spokes, would be worth today in the new, pristine condition they were in when I first unwrapped them from their waxed packs!
My bicycle, and the creativity of my friends, combined with me raiding tools and spare parts from my Dad's old garage, helped me enjoy my childhood very much, as I learned many valuable lessons in life about saving and stretching a penny. Bicycle outings with my friends were often taken to the large trash bin behind the local Kroger Store, for two reasons. I had pet rabbits in a cage I built that was placed out behind our garage, adjacent to the "alley". In those days, back in the 1960s, Kroger produces like celery, cabbage, and lettuce was shipped to the store in open-slatted, wooden crates. Those crates and the trimmings discarded from the products were a treasure to a ten-year-old wanting to build a wooden race car and feed hungry rabbits.
My buddies worked with me to load crates up with produce trimmings. We carried what we scavenged on our bikes to get everything back home! As we gathered materials together to build our car, the rabbits ate the fresh produce in their cage. Under a huge sassafras tree in my back yard, hammers and screwdrivers were used to dismantle the wooden crates. With plans drawn or carefully in mind, we made a list of the missing parts needed. Four wagon wheels...check! Scrap, heavier lumber for the frame...check! Rope to use for steering...check! A few nails, bolts, and nuts...check! Safety padding and a helmet...what? Are you kidding me? Who knew anything about needing that kind of protection in 1960? We were invincible! Everyone scattered and returned an hour later with everything needed to build our version of a "soapbox racer"! We made the saw cut-marks measuring everything with a “free” wooden yardstick, provided courtesy of the local lumber yard. One final trip to the garage to sneak Dad's hand saw and hand-crank drill and bit out for use, and we were in business! An hour or so later, after inhaling sawdust, smashing fingers with hammers, and enduring a few cuts, scrapes, and scratches, our four-wheeled prize sat before us. We had transformed junk into our back-yard version of vehicular art, used some shared imagination, laughed a lot, cursed a little, bonded our friendship with work, sweat, and toil....and even fed the rabbits! It was a long-ago and now very valued and fondly remembered morning.
It was in the summer. I remember my Mom's directions clearly. "It's too hot to be inside. Get out and go play with your friends. Find something to do. Stay out of trouble, and don't get hurt!" There was one final touch needed though. Dad always took old license plates off our car and truck and put them on the wall in the garage. The wooden-framed enclosed garage had no door. The old license plates were slid between the wooden clapboards of the exterior walls, visible inside between the old garage wall framing. I selected a 1958 plate, and we nailed it to the rear wooden frame of the "hoodlum", as we called it in those days. We sat in the seat, one by one, admiring our work, testing where feet would be placed, gripping the rope steering and pulling it left and right, testing the axle for turning and pivoting. It seemed a little stiff. We took all the tools and put them away, back in the garage, then cleaned up our mess, and grabbed a small canister of grease and the oil can to lube-up the steering bolt. We were ready for speed trials!
Not far from my home was a blacktop street that rose to the east and crested over a large hill. Illinois Avenue was wide and was surrounded on both sides by an older neighborhood. The road then sloped downhill, running straight before leveling-off at the bottom of the hill, over one hundred yards below. There was no traffic on the quiet roadway.
It was a perfect day for our runs! At the top of the hill, we each took our turns. I seated myself and gripped the steering rope. At my back, I could feel the surge of power of four friends propelling me and the wooden racer forward. They were running and pushing with all their might. With one final powerful thrust, they sent me flying! The car bounced over the potholes and uneven street. I had a death grip on the rope steering! The ride jostled and shook me as the combination of gravity with me leaning forward made me go faster. No traffic! It's going to be a good, clean run! A car backing out or joining me on the roadway meant I was headed for a roadside ditch. There were no curbs. There were no brakes, aside from my feet and tennis shoes sliding to the roadway to slow me down! My feet were the brakes! If my steering rope happened to break, my feet resting on the wooden cross-axle became back-up steering until I coasted to a rolling stop. What a rush of fun and Adrenaline! Climbing out of the vehicle I was all smiling. Looking to the top of the hill, my friends were jumping and shouting like a pit crew who just won the Indy 500! Now came the only down-side...dragging that racerback up the hill!
I watched all my friends that day. I laughed with them. I pushed them! We launched a wooden, four-wheeled land-rocket! Their joy became my joy. We pulled the racerback to my home after we conquered the hill many times. We walked back to my house with the “hoodlum” racer in tow, and placed it against the outside garage wall, next to the wooden rabbit cage. That cage was also made by me and my friends as another earlier morning project. The car was in good company! After putting the car away, we climbed on our bikes to head down to Spiller's Mobile Service Station. At Spiller’s we enjoyed a victory soda-pop. We sat on the ground, backs leaning against the station wall next to the pop machine outside. The day was a great success.
No blood was shed during our adventure! The drink was ice cold. Sun shining brightly, I squinted and looked up to the large “Mobil Oil” sign next to the roadway. A hand above my eyes to shade them from the glare, a large, red, "Pegasus", a flying horse with wings came into focus. I smiled at that beautiful, long-gone, advertising image of the past. It greeted me hundreds of times at the old gas, filling station. But, at the age of ten that flying, a bright red horse had nothing on me. I had just felt the sensation of flying with the wind in my hair and a smile on my face. I would enjoy that exciting experience again, many times that summer, thanks to my friends and the old racer waiting for us behind the garage!
At age ten, the last thing on my mind was preparing for tomorrow and protecting my future security and health. I was having way too much fun in the “present” with my friends! It would be another seventeen years before I became a Dad for the first time and started thinking about where I wanted to be in life and what I wanted to be able to do at age sixty. I don’t know where you are at this point in your life, but the one piece of advice I will give you is to plan now, early, for your future. There are professionals who can assist you with that. Seek them out and talk to them. You will never regret doing that! That said...Have fun now and in the future too!