The Bike Jump

Norman Rapp’s dad saved my life that day.

Maybe I better explain.

An article on discussed how kids raised in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are survivors. We survived chain-smoking adults, meat-and-potato diets and rough-and-tumble fearlessness of every kind.

It was the Evel Knievel era, after all. Knievel became famous doing wheelies and jumping his motorcycle over cars and buses. Every kid with a bicycle sought to emulate him.

We built ramps from warped plywood and set them on rickety blocks. We took our bikes to the top of Marilynn Drive — a hill so steep it may as well have been a cliff — and roared down it, made a left onto Janet Drive, then kept pedaling until liftoff.

It was a grand feeling to soar through the air – it was grand to experience a tremendous surge of adrenalin — though our landings weren’t often pretty.

This w as the early ’70s, after all. We didn’t wear helmets or pads. When our rear wheels hit the pavement, we wiped out plenty — we got hurt plenty, too.

The average kid then was covered with scrapes and bruises. When a landing went really wrong — when a kid went down especially hard — a mom would arrive, the moaning kid would be loaded inside a wood-paneled station wagon and off he’d go to St. Clair Hospital for stitches or a cast.

Which brings us to the day I could have died.

I was riding a five-speed Murray Spyder bike that year. My fifth gear allowed me superior speed and, thus, superior distance off the ramp. I held the neighborhood record for the longest jump — until some outsider broke it.

I wasted no time reclaiming my record. I rode to the tippy-top of Marilynn Drive. I started off in first and, pedaling like mad, pounded through the gears all the way through fifth.

I was moving faster than ever when I cut a hard left and continued on Janet. I pedaled faster and harder — the wind whipping through my David Cassidy hair – as I pointed my bike toward the center of the ramp.

A dozen kids stood on the left side of the road — some cheering for me, some against — while two others stood near the ramp to mark the spot where I would land.

Suddenly, as my front tire hit the ramp, everything went into slow motion. The jolt was spectacular. It caused my sweaty fingers to lose hold of the handlebars.

I remember floating through the air like a directionless missile – my arms flailing as my body sought to regain its balance.

I remember the tremendous impact that shot through my spine as the rear wheel hit the pavement — how my bike began wobbling wildly.

I was heading for a big, wooden telephone pole. I leaned left, then right, and, miraculously, avoided the splintery pole.

The worst was yet ahead. I was roaring toward a thicket of pine trees. Their trunks and branches would surely turn me into kid stew.

Then Providence intervened. His name was Norman Rapp’s dad.

Mr. Rapp, a welder, had built a giant street-hockey net. Norman stored it in the pine trees where I was headed. The net caught me like a glove. I didn’t suffer a scratch.

A doctor in the article says that most kids of my era survived their childhood just fine. However, some were badly hurt or worse. A helmet could have saved them. I certainly wear a helmet now when I ride.

But it’s also true that whereas kids were once free to roam and explore – free to experience “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”  — many of today’s kids aren’t free to do anything.

I regained my bike-jump record that day. I’m confident it will stand.

Even if a kid were daring enough to rig up a ramp and jump his bike now, he’d still be covered in more protective gear than a Transformer.

There’s no way a kid carrying that much weight will ever fly as far as I did the day I could have died.

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  • kirbys

    Memories! Esp my brothers’ David Cassidy hair!

    We tied all of the bikes, big wheels and a wagoon together and went down the BIg Hill–was not a pretty sight. I think I got in trouble…

    Grown ups didn’t seem to ming kid-noise as much, either, back then.

  • Doris Rodriguez

    Fantastic writing! I was with you through every flying moment. I was an Evel Kneivel wanna-be, too, except mine was on a Honda CB125 that I treated like a trail bike. Between trying to kill myself at the local reservoir and riding all over creation without a helmet, I somehow managed to survive the 70’s. The 60’s were a challenge all by themselves: running after the mosquito sprayer (only God knows why), crawfish hunting in every bar ditch within a four mile radius (which meant stepping barefooted on broken beer and soda bottles, rusted tin, and the Lord knows what else), jumping off of roofs with umbrellas and towels tied around our scrawny necks (thanks to Mary Poppins and Superman), and trying to teach my little brother how to swim in a nearby pond (without adult supervision) that almost resulted in both of us being drowned in 4 feet of water.

    All five of us siblings survived our childhood in the 60’s and 70’s … only to have the oldest killed in a car wreck at age 24 … and the youngest die of cancer at age 34. We remaining three still enjoy passing on our tales of daring-do to our now twenty-something children, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they weren’t allowed to have the same exact freedom we enjoyed growing up. But, we happily mixed EXPERIENCE with a little COMMON SENSE and SAFETY, and they still have their own tales of daring-do to pass on to their children. Just living in the 2000’s is courageous enough, don’t you think?????

  • jmtfh

    YOU GUYS WERE SISSIES COMPARED TO THOSE OF US WHO PLAYED OUTSIDE FROM 7:00 A.M. TO 10:00 P.M every single day of summer in the 60s!
    We were “pure” –none of that evil Rock and Roll to taint our virgin ears! Up at the first glint of sun rays and “called” in numerous times from around the neighborhood before we were ever “able to hear our names, sorry Mom” and could respond and then would have to “get your butts in here I’ve been calling you for nearly an hour!”
    We played school (fighting to be Sister Necedah the battle axe principle) “screwed” on our metal roller skates over our tennies with whomever’s “roller skate key” was handy and took off WITH OUT THE AID OF EVEN A BIKE down what we reverently called “The Big Hill.” If you hit a raised chunk of side walk you were a “gonner!” Two or three of the bigger kids would then have the responsibility of dragging you back to your mom all dirty, tear streaked, crying and yes, BLOODY! You’d have two scraped knees full of debris and gravel with forearms, elbows, and palms to match. You get patched up and be at it again in less than a day!
    We’d play Captain-May-I, and Kick-the Can and Kick-Ball. Once it got dark it was Red-Light-Green-Light or Freeze-Tag-In –The-Dark. We’d mix up the most delightful mud+grass+ gravel stews and made wonderful “tents” over the clothes lines.
    My kids are amazed to know we didn’t even have “markers” or radios, helmets or seat belts. We’d get piled (all 11 of us) in one family station wagon for Sunday Mass or a trip to Chicago to visit our grandparents. To this day I think that I am related to many more people than I really am as many adults were “Aunt” and “Uncle” though they were not my relatives. All the neighborhood adults went by Mr. and Mrs. and to this day if I ever see them they still do not have first names that I know of!
    It all began to change suddenly around 1967…the Beatles displaced “Lassie” on our TV set one night on the Ed Sullivan Show and the one TV program we were allowed to watch wasn’t on the air! Oh, those WERE the days!

  • JimAroo

    Here are some memories. We actually played outdoors for hours on end with no interaction with or supervision by adults…. your kids and grand kids will never believe that.

    Baseball games that went on for hours that had all kinds of invented rules to make up for the lack of players and equipment. Sometimes the “game” would last so long none of the original players were even still there by the end. Bicycle riding from town to town. Snowball attacks on the only aluminum garage door in the neighborhood – it was really loud when we pelted it.

    Ice skating 2 miles on the creek to get to the town lagoon for some hockey with towels wrapped around my shins for pads and a hockey puck that was an empty can of Shinola shoe polish filled with water and frozen (oh that hurt). Sledding down a hill in the neighborhood out into the street – with the proper timing you could then grab the back bumper of a passing car and get a free ride down the street. I was also an expert in hitching a ride on the back bumper of a car or small truck and crouching get pulled along on the icy street…there were two dangers. If my boots hit a spot with no ice, I came to a stop but the car kept going…. I then let go and fall on my face. The other danger is that the car stops and my momentum carried me under the car. I almost got killed that way once.

    The key ingredient is that we were allowed to have our own life to an extent once we were about 9 or 10. Today most kids would not have a clue how to organize a pick up baseball game.

    One time we Catholic school kids got a snow day…..the neighborhood public school kids didn’t. I was up early and out side and stood on the hill across from home and pelted those kids with snowballs as they walked to school. What great fun! The next day back at my school – 1st thing of the day I get a notice to report to Sr. Wanda the Principal. She has her you’re going to get it this time face on.

    These were her exact words: Mr Martorana, is it true that you were throwing snowballs at the Protestant kids going to school yesterday?” (she actually called them Protestants) I answered “Yes, it is true Sister Wanda” She said, “That is all I wanted to know. You may go back to class” I felt like she was saying GOOD JOB – next time don’t get caught! Today my parents would probably have been sued for my violent unsocial behavior!

  • Cooky642

    Thanks to all four of you for a stroll down Memory Lane. Even though I’m a bit older than you, you brought back sweet memories of lazy days reading books in the apple tree or watching clouds in the sky to see what kinds of images they might make or seeing how far your rubber boots would take you on a frozen, hilly street. Remember catching snowflakes on your tongue, or eating a ripe tomato off your own vine? Or, getting your tongue stuck to a frozen metal pipe (c’mon, you know you did!)? Don’t you feel sorry for kids nowadays?

  • terrygeorge

    Wow!, with all those memories, i am now proud that i let my son wipe out on his bike down a steep gravelly trail today. Just a few scrapes to his knee. of course, he did have a helmet on…

  • momof11

    Wow! We sure were allowed to be kids and had freedom. Bikes with no helmets, being gone half the day or more with Mom really not knowing exactly where we were or what we were doing. Riding our bikes down to the lake (Lake Michigan) and swimming without adult supervision…unless there happened to be a lifeguard on duty. Climbing around on the breakers for the waves coming in (jagged chunks of rocks and concrete with lots of broken glass and rusty cans). I try to allow my kids freedom to just be kids…the world has changed to some extent. Living outside of the city and having 10 wooded acres makes it easier. My older boys would go down to the river with friends and catch gar fish with their bare hands. And my kids have pocket knives, BB guns, and other dangerous things that they are allowed to use. Bad parent that I am some of my kids have even experienced stitches and broken bones. #2 son more than any of the others! But he was the daredevil of the bunch. I do think that over the years we have become more protective…the younger kids still at home don’t do quite as much as their older siblings did…