My neighbor, Bobby Cherry, was a few months older than I when he turned fourteen and got a Cushman motor scooter. Suddenly, he was in a different league. Instead of walking across town to school with the rest of us eighth grade pedestrians, he fired up his scooter and got there in five minutes. The scooter changed his whole personality. He became more confident, more independent, almost cocky, turning up the collar on his shirts. Girls started paying attention to him.
I longed for a Triumph, like the one ridden by Johnny Strabler in the 1953 biker movie, The Wild One. Granted, Johnny was only a fictional character, played by Marlon Brando, but his complex, rebellious persona struck a chord, not only with me, but millions of other young males from coast to coast. A motorcycle craze swept across America.
Even in small out-of-the-way burgs like Heavener, the biker rage found traction. Roy Gene Edge set the bar high, tearing around town on a Harley with his black leather jacket zipped up tight and his Butch-Waxed ducktails greased to perfection.
Harley-Davidson manufactured an entry level model called a 165 that was moderately priced and enormously popular with beginners. At the local Western Auto store, Johnny Council’s dad stocked the Simplex, a durable little motorcycle with an automatic transmission. For scooter fans like my next door neighbor, Bobby, there was a Cushman dealer in Fort Smith.
The quickest path to a motorcycle or scooter was to take on a paper route. In 1959, nearly every household in Heavener subscribed to at least one or more newspapers, ranging from Oklahoma City’s The Daily Oklahoman and The Tulsa World, to Fort Smith’s Southwest Times Record, and our local paper, The Heavener Ledger.
Suddenly, Buddy Westmoreland, Jerry Don Guinn, Larry Wisdom, and Butch Gilstrap were buzzing around town throwing papers. Buddy had a dog named Pug who faithfully trailed him on his route. Others, like Gary Ollie, simply tore around town doing wheelies.
I desperately wanted a motorcycle, but all the paper routes were taken. In truth, I was too lazy to get out of bed with the chickens every morning to go throw newspapers before school. I certainly didn’t want anything to interfere with Dick Clark’s American Bandstand after school, even though I had to slip off to somebody else’s house to watch it since Dad was the local Baptist preacher, and dancing was strictly prohibited. My mother, like many other moms in town, was dead set against motorcycles because of safety issues. In those days, nobody considered wearing a helmet. “Motorcycles are deadly,” she declared when the subject was broached.
When I turned fourteen, I devised a potential compromise, talking Dad into taking me to Fort Smith to look at another option. I’d seen something called a Riverside moped in a Montgomery Ward mail order catalogue. It wasn’t as big as a Simplex or a baby Harley, but at a couple of hundred bucks was affordable. Also, because it wouldn’t go as fast as a motorcycle and was a little safer, Mom might be appeased.
Up close on the showroom floor, the bright burgundy moped was smaller than a motorcycle. It had skinny tires, and bicycle pedals. The motor was miniscule, around fifty cc, but the speedometer optimistically promised that it could hit forty-five miles per hour.
I got buyer’s fever. Heck, I surmised, the moped had two wheels and a motor, and it would get me into the club. Besides, I’d be the only kid in town who had one. I promised to get a Social Security number and find a part-time job to help pay for it. Dad talked with Mom, got her reluctant approval, and we drove back to Heavener. Ward’s delivered the bike to our house the next day.
I gassed it up and maneuvered around in the alley behind our house for a bit, getting used to the acceleration and brakes. Bobby Cherry, hearing the strange high-pitched noise, came outside to have a gander.
“What on earth is that?” he asked, perplexed at the sight of the over-sized bicycle with the teeny engine.
“It’s a moped,” I answered enthusiastically. “They’re popular in Europe.”
“Well, I haven’t ever seen one around Heavener,” Bobby replied. “It looks like a bicycle,” he said, circling around the machine while I revved up the motor. “Heck, it is a bicycle,” he added, spotting the pedals. “A bicycle with a gas tank that looks like it holds about a quart.”
Bobby went to the shed behind his house, rolled out his Cushman, and parked it next to the moped. Only then did I realize how frail the moped was.
“Let’s go for a ride,” he said, kick-starting his scooter. Compared to the Cushman, my engine sounded tinny and shrill, like a swarm of gnats.
“I’m ready,” I answered, revving up the whining little motor.
We cruised the flat streets in our neighborhood for a few minutes, doing fifteen-twenty miles per hour. Bobby suggested we take Avenue C up the hill.
“Sure, let’s go,” I replied, ready to explore other parts of town.
Bobby led the way. Everything was fine for the first few seconds, but as we continued up the incline, I began to fall back. The gap widened as I twisted the throttle to the max but continued to lose speed. I had tested out the pedals back in the driveway, but assumed I’d rarely if ever need them. Now, at less than ten miles per hour and fading fast, I was in danger of coming to a dead stop. I started pedaling.
The moped weighed a hundred pounds, making it tough to pedal uphill. I pushed hard but continued to decelerate. Bobby looked back when he got to the top of the hill and saw me struggling. He pulled over to the curb. The moped and I were trying our best, but we couldn’t muster enough power to keep going. The motor squealed like a stuck pig. I gave up trying to pedal, and the moped wobbled to a stop in the middle of the street. Thank goodness Bobby was the only one who saw what happened.
I fretted that night that I’d made a terrible mistake. What would I do when I rode with the other guys? I’d be in trouble on Avenue C. I made mental notes of all the streets in town, realizing there were other tricky ones, like the sharp incline leading to Jerry Don Guinn’s and another on Buddy Westmoreland’s street. On the other side of town, several streets had steep grades. Somehow, I’d have to find a way to avoid those.
By the time I arrived at school the next day, word was out that the preacher’s kid had a weird new riding contraption. A gang of boys was hanging out at the end of the parking lot. Seeing them from a distance, I goosed the moped to its max, which, unfortunately, was considerably less than the advertised forty-five miles per hour. I wanted to be Brando and come skidding into the parking lot with an attitude, spraying gravel. Instead, I crept in on the innocuous moped, looking more like Olive Oyl than Johnny Strabler. I was growing like a weed, tall and skinny as a rail. Perched high on the tiny seat, I looked even bonier.
“Well, if it isn’t Ichabod Crane,” Oscar Sullivan proclaimed.
“Riding a five-and-dime hot rod,” Buster Coggins chortled.
Cliffy Vinson circled me and listened to the whining moped. “From now on, I’m calling you The Fly,” he said, referring to a horror movie starring Vincent Price showing at the Liberty Theater.
“I don’t know what you paid for that thing, but you got gypped,” Mike Vickers mused as he gave the moped the once-over. “How do you put gas in it, with a teaspoon?”
“Washing machines have bigger motors,” Ray Brown quipped.
Within a few days, somebody tampered with the moped’s lone sparkplug cap. Rumor had it that Buster and Oscar Sullivan were the culprits. Try as I might to properly reconnect it, the plug didn’t work right. I kept the news from my parents. I didn’t want them to know that I was already having issues with the moped or that somebody had vandalized it. Sporadically, with no warning, it would lose power and sputter to a stop, stranding me in the middle of the street.
One afternoon, a gang of guys was cruising around town. I fell in behind and we headed out to Morris Creek Road, a nice, flat, open stretch of blacktop that took us by Mike Vickers’ house. I was content to stay at the back of the pack. After all, a unicyclist could’ve outrun me. Suddenly, the moped coughed, lurched along a little farther, and died. The other guys were way ahead and didn’t notice that I had come to a stop. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the darned thing started. I watched as they disappeared around a curve a mile up the road. The
moped was too hard to pedal, so I walked it back to town, trying to stay on the least-traveled streets to avoid seeing anybody I knew.
Mom, seeing me pushing the moped up the driveway, asked what was wrong with it. I lied, telling her that I didn’t know. Dad was perturbed when I told him it wasn’t running properly.
“You’ve only had it a month,” he observed.
I didn’t want to tell him that someone at school had messed with the spark plug or that I had become the laughing stock of Heavener Junior High.
Bobby came over with some tools and got it running. The next day, I rode off to school. Halfway there, the engine belched a couple of times, and the moped staggered to a stop. Disgusted, I left it beside the road and walked the rest of the way. At least I wouldn’t get laughed at this time when I got to school. I hoped that somebody would steal the stupid thing, but after school, it was still parked in the same place beside the road. I pushed it home, announcing to Mom and Dad that I’d had enough.
We fire-saled the moped for a hundred bucks to a kid whose dad was mechanically inclined. I had to make up the hundred dollar loss sacking groceries at a market owned by Henry Moore, a member of our church. One day, I saw the kid riding it and was a little surprised that the sight made me laugh. He was tall and gangly like me. He had the moped at full throttle and was pedaling, too, the moped’s frail motor whining like a kitchen mixer as he labored down the road at thirty miles per hour.
“Gee,” I thought. “How stupid I was to think a moped is a motorcycle.”
I watched the moped gradually fade into the distance, its rider still pedaling, the frail motor buzzing, no louder than a batch of mosquitoes.
My friends were disappointed when they learned that I’d gotten rid of it. They’d have to find somebody else to make fun of.
For a time, I had a recurring dream. I was wearing a black leather jacket, jeans with cuffs, boots, a bus driver’s cap cocked to one side, and a pair of aviator sunglasses. I was Brando cruising through town looking cool. Heads turned as I sped into the school parking lot and
skidded to a stop next to a gaggle of eighth graders. I took off my wire-rimmed sunglasses and prepared to dismount, but as I got off I realized it wasn’t a Triumph I was riding.
“Well, if it isn’t The Fly,” Cliff Vinson cackled.
“Riding his five-and-dime hot-rod,” Buster Coggins hooted.
I couldn’t escape that damn moped, not even in my dreams. From that day forward, every time I heard “Sixteen Candles” by the Crests, I wanted to roll the clock forward and get behind the wheel of a car.
2nd place winner, humorous essay, 2016 OWF writing competition