It all started with the Big Wheel.
The Big Wheel was a low-riding plastic tricycle with an oversized front wheel. It was made by Marx, so I guess it was really more of a toy. But it allowed younger kids, who were too little for a bicycle, to ride something. The TV commercial was amazingly effective. Little kids like me saw it once and wanted one -- but we didn't see it only once. That commercial was played as much as the #1 hit on AM Radio. Who didn't want to be roaring, spinning and winning? For some reason, I couldn't spin nearly as well as the kids in the commercial. Years later, in high school physics class, it dawned on me. It had something to do with the ratio of my weight/mass as compared to the plastic trike. But, I digress.
Soon it was time for a real bicycle. Schwinn was a Chicago company, and far and away the most popular when I grew up. I started with a Pixie, complete with training wheels. I remember being made fun of for relying on the training wheels for too long. I had to learn to ride on two wheels, like the bigger kids on the block. I begged my Dad to take them off. He did, and patiently tried to teach me, but I failed. I asked that he put them back on. Again, he complied, but I kept changing my mind. Quickly he tired of this, and I ended up learning on a neighbor kid's Pixie. I had to borrow that bike and prove I could ride before he would take off the training wheels again.
The Pixie was just the appetizer to the main course, the ultimate '70s bicycle: the Schwinn Sting-Ray. With its banana seat and ape hanger handle bars, the Sting-Ray was dripping with motorcycle vibe. The image of the rebel or loner who rode a motorcycle was a permanent part of popular culture, and not lost on grammar school kids. Although I couldn't name Marlon Brando, the image from The Wild One was inescapable, along with Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. I also loved the TV show Then Came Bronson. When I got on my Sting-Ray, it was more than just a bicycle. It was freedom.
If you proved you were responsible enough to take care of your bike, you were allowed to go anywhere in the neighborhood. A typical summer day started with a bowl of cereal around 7 a.m., then out the door. Slip your mitt over the handle bars, slide the bat through the sissy bar, and you could play baseball at the park until noon. After a fortifying peanut butter and jelly sandwich and glass of milk, sometimes we'd all ride to the 7-Eleven. We'd check out the comic books and maybe buy a Slurpee or a pack of baseball cards. If you got doubles or dud players, you'd save those cards to affix to your spokes with a clothespin, which would produce a sound that mimicked a motor. Get four or more kids riding down the street like that, and it was easy to pretend you were in a motorcycle gang.
Eventually, simply riding your Sting-Ray was boring, and it wasn't enough to feel like you were on a motorcycle. You had to know how to "pop" a wheelie, or you just weren't cool. It was required that you could pop and ride a wheelie for a respectable distance, without the aid of the Wham-O Wheelie Bar. Distance was measured in sidewalk "squares" for most, houses (driveway to driveway) for intermediates, and entire parking lots for the exceptional, like the legendary Roth brothers.
After mastering the wheelie, the logical progression was to build ramps and start jumping. All you needed to start was a decent piece of plywood and some bricks. You quickly learned how to construct a sturdy, reliable ramp; all it takes is one jump-gone-wrong due to poor design. We all searched our garages for the best materials while our dads were at work. We rode our bikes, popped wheelies and built ramps ourselves. We didn't play a video game about it, we did it. And we didn't wear helmets, or knee pads, or have mouth guards.
Sure, there were many scraped knees, chipped teeth and broken bones that came from 1970s suburban kids pretending to be Evel Knievel. One of my worst failures happened because my bell bottoms got caught in the chain just as I was hitting the ramp. It involved a trip to the hospital, but it was nothing serious. I couldn't play baseball for awhile, but I was out riding the next day.
Bruises, bumps and bandages were like badges of honor, and I couldn't wait to display mine on my trusty Schwinn Sting-Ray.