Bikes, Boards & Big Wheels: Growing Up In The 1970s & 1980s!
Updated: Apr 27
Fun, Free and Adventurous!
If I had to choose one phrase to characterize what it felt like to grow up in small-town America during the 1970s and 1980s, I would have to go with "fun, free and adventurous"!
I grew up in a little Pennsylvania town called The Village Of Rheems. This little town - in Lancaster County, Pa - was mostly surrounded by farms, and it provided the perfect place to be a kid, be free, have fun and experience adventure in life! This photo below is one of the roads that we would take on family bike rides, and it shows the farm that is located directly behind our neighborhood!
Bikes And Sleds!
When I was very young, I would play in my front yard and watch the older boys and girls pedal their bikes just as fast as they could, hit their coaster brakes and skid their back tires through the stony t-intersection that was at the top of our hill. I remember that some of them could even ride long wheelies, too! Every winter we would all start from that same intersection and sled down to a stop sign where our bus stop was. Along the way we loved having "dogfights" where we tried to knock other willing participants off of their sleds. I remember my Dad showing my sister and I how to put bee's wax on our sled runners to make them faster! It was all a blast! And, along the way, it should be mentioned that on snow covered mornings there was nothing else quite like the sweet, sweet sound that was hearing our local radio station announce,"Elizabethtown area schools are closed!" :)
Before I knew how to ride the 20" bike that my Dad had purchased for me, I remember pushing it along the edge of the road that bordered our property just so that I could hear the way the tires sounded as they rode over the tiny stones. I heard this sound all of the time when the big kids rode by - and, to my ears, hearing it now coming from my own bike represented pure excitement and pure anticipation for what was to come! I simply just could not wait to get into the action! In the interim, however, the kids closer to my age and I were all still ripping around on our Big Wheels! Do you happen to know and/or remember the amazing sound that those hard plastic tires made? And, do know and/or remember the way the front wheel would often spin out multiple times as we struggled to get the traction we needed to get going? There was nothing else quite like it! Most of us just ended up taking off the back-rest so that we could then just put a 'foot or a knee' on the Big Wheel and push 'skateboard style' with our other leg! One or two of the cool kids had Green Machines, and they were awesome, too!
Holy Cow, A Gas Powered Mini Bike!
Just across the street, one older kids [either Greg or Doug Pickle] had a gas powered mini bike - they might have even had two, now that I think about it. When I saw one them riding for the first time, my young mind was just blown! The fat tires, the acceleration, the thunderous sound of the engine, and the freedom to just take off up and down the street, man I was instantly hooked! I'd have to wait a number of years, however, before a mini bike would enter my own life, but one did. Later as a teenager, I found a 'buried and forgotten' mini bike in my best friend's basement... [more on this story later]! I have a similar story about go-karts... I remember falling instantly in love upon first exposure - and, eventually I too would have my chance as a teenager to make a bunch of truly great memories with my own go-karting experiences!
My First Skateboard
Before learning how to ride my 20" bike and while still in Big Wheel mode, I purchase my very first skateboard. It was a small wooden deck with metal wheels that used my allowance to buy at a local garage sale. I was so excited. My sister already had a skateboard that she had gotten for Christmas, and I am sure that this was part of my inspiration. Her skateboard had a gold colored aluminum deck with black grip tape on top. The urethane wheels were large enough and soft enough to create a smooth and quite ride. I remember thinking that everything about it was totally awesome! One day she and I were skating together we had established a line / path that went from the end of our our driveway into our garage and then around a bend from one garage bay to the other. I skated this line over and over - it was so much fun. I think that I was skating on one knee at the time, but that didn't matter to me. I remember absolutely loving the the moment my wheels would hit the ultra smooth surface that the garage floor provided and then absolutely loving that I could shift my weight over the skateboard to make it turn and carve around the bend! Life was simple and it just felt great!
Finally Learning To Ride My 20" Bike!
Once I finally learned how to ride my 20" bike, I was just as excited as could be. To help me learn, I remember that my Dad used to hold onto the back of my seat and get me to pedal. Then, once I had my balance, he would let go for as long as I could stay up by myself and then catch me before I fell. Ultimately, and I remember this moment, I was up and riding on my own once again, but this time he was now just jogging several feet behind me. I was finally doing it, riding on my own, and it was such a great feeling - it felt like freedom! After that, it didn't take long before I had joined the other kids in skidding through the stony intersection, although riding real wheelies was still going to be a long way off! There was a point, however, where my next door neighbor, Tim Vuxta, had set up a classic 1970s bike jump. It consisted of a just wooden plank angled upon something along the lines of a cinder block. I remember being able to 1) survive it, and 2) I think that I may even have gotten just a tiny bit of air, too! I was pleasantly surprised - I remember that!
BMX & Doug Zook!
I am not sure exactly how it happened, but at a certain point I became aware of and started thinking about, and talking about, something called BMX [bicycle motto cross]. By skidding our tires, popping wheelies, jumping off of wooden ramps, and by riding up and down big stone piles on our street [that were present while sewer lines were being installed], the whole neighborhood was already doing it, BMX, riding our bikes with the same sense of creative and adventurous spirit as the off-road motorcyclists. However, some riders I learned were taking BMX riding to the next level in terms of interest, intention and equipment. Some, I would discover, had even gotten into organized BMX racing events. The first rider that I encountered who was tuned into this new and magical world was a local named Doug Zook! I remember seeing Doug, and older teenager compared to my pre-teen self, for the first time in front the snack bar at our local athletic field. He had what appeared to be a racing style BMX bike and he was "bunny-hopping" over his boom box! This was my first exposure to the the more official world of BMX - it was awesome, and I was instantly hooked!
Off With The Banana Seat / Moving To The Next Town!
I was now in fourth grade and I remember telling my neighborhood friends all about my plans to convert my bike into a BMX racing bike! I was so excited, it was as if I had discovered a whole new world of pure happiness and I was ready to jump in with both feet! My first order of business was to replace my bike's banana seat with an official BMX style seat! This was also the time when my parents had divorced and we were moving out of Rheems and into the next town called Elizabethtown [E-town for short]. I have so many great memories from our little street in Rheems. We had a big grassy lot across the street from my house were all the neighborhood kids used to gather and play Freeze-Tag, Kick Ball, Mother May I, Simone Says, and other fun games that just made life simple, happy, adventurous and great! Around the neighborhood we used to play all day and at night, too! Dusk, I remember, was a great time to catch lightning bugs! And, once in a while we [my closest friends and I] would fire up the Atari 2600 and play video games, but the real fun and the real adventure was always to be found outside! One end of our road was a dead end - the other end of our street had a mulberry tree that we would eat from, and there was always a dirt path, a short cut, through the cornfield that we would take to get over to another part of town where the school and athletic fields were located. At night time, when was younger, my family would grab some flashlights and take this cornfield path over to the Firehouse carnival that they had each year! I have so many great memories just in Rheems alone! During school times we used to 'play prison dodge ball' every day at recess time - we just couldn't wait to get out there and play... I grew up with a great bunch of great kids and life was great!
A Funny Story: One time one of my friends decided to take a pencil and write his name on everyone's mailbox! Then, as the story goes, his mom made him go on a crying apology tour to each house [so that he could say he was sorry to the home owners and erase his name from each box]!
From our street in Rheems, I remember Tim and Tina Vuxta, Greg and Doug Pickle, Keith Loyd, Eric and Tara Flick, Shawn and Ryan Reed whose father used to work at Three Mile Isand, Ryan Best whose parents had cool snowmobiles in their garage, Marcy Trout, Nicole Buhler, Adam who Mom used to give us haircuts in her garage that had been converted to a salon, Chad who had a Honda three wheeler, the Starks Lanscaping kid [who was older, but treated me well], Brenda and Jimmy Langdon whose Dad used to sell State Farm insurance, and the Helms: a family that my parents once played cards with and whose daughter, Kristy Helm, [I think] was friends with my sister. Beyond our street were others who I am happy to remember such as Duane, Catya [my sister's friend], Donna Selka [my sister's friend and whose Dad used to sell Electrolux Vacuum Cleaners] and classmates: Tony Lehman, Cheryl Redcay, Brandon Smith whose Mom was our art teacher, and triplets Kay, Carla and Karen Smith. There are many great people and many great memories tied to Rheems, Pa - thank you all!
BMX and Skateboarding In Elizabethtown Pa!
I was now living in the next town over called Elizabethtown. The locals call it E-town and it is also the home of Elizabethtown College. With that said, Elizabethtown is a much larger town than Rheems and it offered many more options for riding BMX and for riding skateboards! So, my first order of business was to finish the BMX conversion that I had started back in Rheems. I remember, as I mentioned, being back in my old garage in Rheems and removing the banana seat from my bike so that I could replace it with an official BMX style seat. Soon after, now in E-town, a friend gave me a used set of BMX handle bars that he had lying around. Once I had installed the "new" bars and had tossed the original "sissy bars" aside, being a BMXer finally felt official! :)
Older Kids Raising The Bar / Greg Boozer!
Now in the new town, I lived on a street that had a number of BMXers on it. I was feeling pretty happy about my Frankenstein BMX bike until next door neighbor Greg Boozer rolled up with his new Huffy BMX. I think that it might have been the Stu Thompson model - and, compared to what I knew at the time, it looked truly awesome. Greg was a skillful and athletic kid was able to show us younger kids a couple of cool tricks. His new bike was the first that I had ever seen with front and rear hand brakes as well as a freewheel hub on the back wheel [instead of the coaster [pedal] brakes that we all grew up on]. The bottom line was that it was awesome an inspiring to see him doing tricks that we had never seen including endos, and rocking horses. Plus, the sound of the freewheel was really cool, too! Lesson learned, I was ready for an upgrade!
Holy Cow, Discovering The Real Deal and Raising The Bar Again!
Soon after I managed to save up enough allowance money to buy the department store version of an official BMX bike, a friend of mine introduced me to Tony Root and Chris Simone. Tony and Chris were riders in town who, along with Rick Goodman, Doug Zook and some others, represented the real deal. These were older kids who raced BMX, dirt jumped [higher than I stood] and who had professional level bikes! I am not sure about Doug, but I knew that Tony, Chris and Rick were also motto cross riders, and they all had knowledge, experience and levels of skill that went way above my pay grade. It was simply a whole new level compared to what I knew!
BMX Magazines And My First "Real" BMX Bike!
I remember that I used to bike to Lehman’s New Stand in the center square of E-town to buy BMX magazines. I can still remember pushing open the old painted wooden door and entering to smell the sweet aroma of all the tobacco on my way to buying the latest edition of BMX Plus and BMX Action along with the occasional purchase of Mad Magazine and Cracked Magazine! Then, I would take them home, get into dream mode and absorb as much about BMX as possible! Being in dream mode felt great, and I remember dreaming of which bike I wanted to save up for as a fun way to keep me company as I mowed our grass each week. Eventually I did save up about $200.00 and bought the bike I had been dreaming of: a Mongoose Californian! Life was great! I remember that my Mom drove me to a bike shop in Lititz, Pa called the Village Pedaler and my heart was just beside itself happy as I chose the bike, made my purchase and loaded it into the car! I couldn’t believe it!
Early BMX Riding Spots!
As my friends and I were getting more and more into BMX bike riding, even to the point of getting involved in local races, we were always looking for cool places to jump our bikes. Some of the early highlights were found on the Western side of the E-town quarry. This was land owned by the Elizabethtown College that was unused, so we built a trail with some jumps and a cool feature that included a jump landing that descended down into a berm. For us kids, this was all pure magic! It felt like our own spot to dig in with shovels, create and get some air! None of us were jumping very high, but it still felt awesome! Doing "kick outs" was on the top of our list! And, I remember getting a lot of poison ivy at this spot!
Another fun spot was on the Eastern side of this same property. This was a dirt hill at the end of a dead end street that was great for us kids to get a bit of air [see photo above]!
At our local park we used to carve out jumps into the banks of what can best be described as a main driveway near the tennis courts. This was a fun jump in town, and it was also a great way to meet and mingle with other riders as they often stopped in as they were ridding past the park. Since this particular jump was a bit better for distance than height, we used to have competitions to see who could jump the farthest. Sometimes this included jumping over riders who would lie down side-by-side to be jumped over!
At one point we had a lot of BMX riders in town, so much so that our grade in middle school was even allowed to organize a fun BMX competition as part of a field day type event. I remember that we had a race [which Chris Firestein won] a longest wheelie contest [which I won since my sister's boyfriend had taught me how to ride "endless" sit-down wheelies], a competition for who could ride the slowest over a pre-set distance, and a close-quarters competition to find out who could avoid putting a foot down while other riders tried to take you off-balance. This was a fun event and it was a great way to celebrate the absolute boom of BMX riders in town!
Later BMX Spots!
Earlier, I mentioned that my sister's boyfriend at the time [at top racer and dirt jumper] had taught me how to ride "endless" sit down wheelies. For the sake of respecting the private lives of others when it comes to past relationships, I will just refer to him as "Mike" [just a made up name]. Mike treated me kind of like a little brother which worked out well since I was about four years younger and certainly was not at a truly compatible level when it came to riding. However, with "little brother status" I was able to tag alone and be introduced to some riders and riding spots that I had not yet encountered. One of those spots was in Middletown [the next town over] called 'The Billy Trails'. On this trip I met on of "Mike's" friends, a rider named Jeff Webb, who I believe [if I remember correctly] a top racer in the area. What I saw, for certain, was that he [like "Mike"] was an accomplished dirt jumper! The Billy Trails were based upon what could be described as a gully. My first impression was that if I rode down one side of this gully I wouldn't be able to make it up the other side - it was both deep and steep! If anyone reading this happens to have photos that I can post, please feel free to send them my way!
Another riding area that I was shown took me "full-circle" right back to The Village Of Rheems and to "Mike's" friend named Doug Zook! There was a wooded property right next to the Rheems quarry that had sort of a bowl shaped feature with a figure-8 type trail that flowed in and out of the main bowl. This instantly became one of my favorite spots. It was more about flow then high airs and we [my friend group, including my second cousin, Tim Farver (RIP)] started to play games of bike tag here - it was an absolute blast! In the photo above, I revisited one of the roads that we used to ride to access the quarry-side BMX spot!
Offroad Motorcycle Days!
Discovering A New Best Friend!
I was riding the BMX jumps at E-town park one summer evening when a skateboarder my age cruised on by. I don't remember how we got to talking, but we did and instantly it felt like we were already old friends. His name was Eric Albright and he told me about an old abandoned BMX riding spot that was located near the water reservoir at the Northern side of town. Literally just moments after describing the abandoned spot, Eric and I made a plan to swing by his house, grab his BMX bike, grab some shovels, and bring it back to life [see photo below]!
When we got there, it was revealed that everything had become quite overgrown, and as Eric and I worked hard together that summer evening to uncover what had once been a piece of local BMX treasure, he told me stories about how riders like Tony Root, Chris Simone, Rick Goodman, and others used to do sky-high airs and pull off all kinds of gnarly tricks! I was hooked, and neither Eric nor I showed any signs of slowing down. We were both hard workers, we both had the BMX spirit and passion and this 'moment in time' side-by-side with a new friend is one of my all time favorites! At the top of the photo below, you can see that the sky is where the road is. This is where we entered the reservoir jump and began to clear brush and debris so that we could rebuild the face of the jump and get this place into shape for riding again!
Many great hours and days were spent riding here with Eric and friends, plus we had an absolute blast riding in other areas too, including the park jumps and the Rheems Quarry Jumps!
Back in the days when Eric and I were riding here, I guess that we were all just way too busy 'living it' to bring a camera out, let alone take time to get the film developed. I am thankful to have these photos to share of a time when I went back to BMX after being away for a few years [and, thought to bring a camera]! The riders that you are seeing in this photo series are part of the generation that kept BMX alive in town after we left! I remember great riders that were sort of in the middle, too, like Danny Price and all of his friends! Together we all played some great games of bike tag here, too! Plus, once in a while, a rider or two from an earlier generation would swing by and join us - what a great time we all had together! I would love to have a reunion!
Becoming A Skateboarder - A New Chapter!
After meeting in the park and logging a bunch of BMX time together, Eric expressed that he was ready to move his focus back to skateboarding. It was at this time that he and I connected with a mutual friend named James Max. Jimmy had a half-pipe ramp that he had built for skateboarding - and, since Jimmy and I had a history of riding BMX together, he invited both Eric and I to join him and another friend named Brett at his ramp. For the time, I remained on BMX while Eric, Brett and Jimmy rode skateboards! To Be Continued... :)
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And, remember that the spirit of youthfulness [the joy of being fun, free and adventurous in life] is a "fire that still burns" inside of each one of us at each and every age! My sincere hope is that you own 'fire inside' is rekindled as you read my story, and that we all go back to creating, cultivating and celebrating all of the absolute simplest and happiest joys in life!
Micro Stunts! :)
From the very beginning, just being ‘in motion on a skateboard’ and being ‘in motion on a bike’ felt like pure freedom, [and it still does]! In this way, I am still ‘just as pleased as can be’ to ‘still be in motion’ on my skateboard and to ‘still be in motion’ on my bike. And, if I happen to be able to pull a couple of “micro stunts” along the way, then that’s just icing on the cake! If the fire still burns, just keep on riding! :)
Stay tuned for more.... as I complete the story!