Dress for Success

Had she not earned a “D” in PE her senior year—an achievement I topped with an “F” in the same class by the tenth grade—my mother could have been the valedictorian in Manatee High School’s Class of ‘59. Instead, that academic faux pas earned her a one-way bus ticket to secretarial school in Jacksonville, Florida. Hardly the scholastic springboard to fame and fortune mom dreamed of. Still, Jeanette emersed herself in her studies with customary fervor. After mastering the arcane language of Gregg shorthand and accelerating her typing skills to a blistering 172 WPM, mom shared laughs and smokes with an acrobatic water skier at the Jacksonville YWCA. When the company of bull dikes and unwed mothers became too much for mom and her roommate to swallow, the girls would dodge curfew at the Y and hit the town. With a bottle of Thunderbird and a pack of cigarettes stuffed beneath their trench coats, the ladies would sneak off to shoot pool with the sailors on R&R in Jacksonville harbor.

One sailor who caught mom’s eye was an 18-year-old yooper from Michigan. Friends called him Harold. Family members called him Sluggo. By their third date, mom was calling him Mack. One year later, friends at the Y were calling their ex-roommate “Mrs. McGruther.”

Precious few memories I have of my father were formed by any real experiences I shared with the man. His triple commitment to manic depression, marital infidelity and serving his country didn’t leave much time for baseball and bike rides. Instead, nearly all the illuminating portraits of dad hang hanging in my head were painted by my mother. One of my favorites shows a short, solidly built Italian guy tearing the Jacksonville phone book in half with this bare hands. Then there’s the SCUBA diver loading his gear into a white ‘64 Chevy II with a red vinyl interior—the only paint combination that appealed to his double-colorblind eyes. Other snapshots include yo-yo coach, car crash victim and wearer of small pants.

When I was 12 years old, I wore the same sized pants as my father: 28 square. Among fashion-conscious preteens of the day, Sears Toughskins were all the rage. Boys dug the groovy colors. Budding young flower girls liked their hip-hugging silhouette. Mothers and Catholic priests praised their reinforced knees. Unlike conventional blue jeans, grandma could cut off a pair of Toughskins with pinking shears and the ballistic-grade polyester would never fray. Pegged or flared and in every color of the rainbow, Toughskins where the pants to wear when you had to wear pants. Of course, I wore Moleskins. These thinly veiled pretenders to the Toughskins throne were the house trouser at Montgomery Ward’s.

Because it didn’t have a power tool line to rival Sears’ Craftsman brand, Ward’s was where divorced women and their fatherless crumb snatchers shopped for frocks and togs. Mom’s favorite flame-retardant pantsuits came off the rack at Montgomery Ward’s. When there was money left over from the 125 bucks per week she pulled down at the law offices of Frank Arpaya, Mom would buy me a pair of Moleskins in mustard, avocado, or some other funky earth tone. Among boys my age, one polyester pant was as good as the next. To the discerning eye and supple flesh of this young haberdasher, Moleskins were a tactile abomination. I blame no one but my father for the anguish and discomfort I suffered in those relentlessly abrasive, ill-fitting jeans. Fortunately, it didn’t take too many of grandma’s Boston cream pies to snatch me out of Ward’s boys department and straight into menswear. After reaching that milestone, my sartorial priorities took a turn for the wurst. Although I was built like a sausage, my mom was determined not to let me dress like one.

If the look for boys in the summer of ‘69 was Tom Sawyer, mine was Tom Jones. Mom took great pride in turning me out at holiday dinners and grade-school music recitals in ruffled tuxedo shirts, polyester bellbottoms and pastel suits. Pimps are expected to dress like that. It’s good for business. When your business is practicing magic and hiding boogers beneath the sofa, prancing around the schoolyard like a Welsh lounge singer was an invitation for an ass kicking. Then as now, I deflected caustic confrontations with a shield of self-deprecating wit. With so much good material to draw from, learning to laugh at myself came easy.

Old’s Cool

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My main tasks at our little motorcycle parts company include managing product design and generating “the voice” for our brand in enduring things like print ads, catalogs, web copy and bullet points on packaging. These disparate tasks fall lockstep behind the two professional dreams I harbored as a child: copywriter and bicycle designer. I convinced myself I could do the former when I was 15 (four decades later still trying) and won a $50 savings bond for the latter when I was a 13-year-old BMXer in Florida.

The occasion for that accolade was a contest hosted by Ashtabula Bow and Socket, the Ohio-based OEM manufacturer of one-piece cranks and blade-shaped forged steel forks on Schwinn bicycles. Until Redline dropped their three-piece tubular cranks in ’76, ABS 7-1/2″ cranks were the drivetrain of choice among post-pubescent Neanderthals like Stompin’ Stu Thomsen, Jeff Kosmala and at least one 127-pound weakling in the Sunshine State. I was the second kid on the block to get ABS seven-and-a-halfs for my Black Diamond—my 225-pound best friend Kenny Bacon was the first. He needed them. I didn’t. It didn’t matter—there would be no truce in our BMX arms race.

Kenny was the guy who told me about the ABS frame design contest, and encouraged me to send a drawing. Drawing BMX frames in side profile was first day shit in middle-school drafting class, and I could bang them out in minutes. The frame I drew for the ABS contest was revolutionary for its day, with a fat down tube (1-1/4″ OD as I recall, which seemed enormous compared to the one-inch pinner on my friend’s Mongoose), a brazed-on seatpost clamp—something I cribbed from the Raleigh three-speed in my school bike quiver—and Shimano track dropouts. I hadn’t yet witnessed a track race or even seen a proper track bike in real life, but the Shimano catalog on the crapper at Princeton Cyclery in Lake Worth featured them, and I thought they were glorious: not too big, just big enough, and three times thicker than the wafer thin steel plates on my race bike that gaped open a little further every time I tightened the chain. A team of machine operators in the Buckeye State liked what they saw, because I got second place and the 50-dollar savings bond that came with it.

A year or so after those first fifteen minutes of fame, I saw an advertisement for the Midwest National in BMX Action magazine. Schwinn was the title sponsor of the NBA nationals that year, and the California BMX circus was coming to St. Louis. It didn’t take any begging on my part to convince my mother flying solo to Missouri made perfect sense for a ninth grader; if I had enough money to buy a ticket and someone’s mother could rent me a hotel room, I was cleared for take-off. I sprinted to the local travel agent (ask your grandfather what those are) and asked for round-trip airfare from West Palm to St. Louis. Try as she might, the cheapest flight available was 38 dollars over my life savings. Then it dawned on me: there was a 50-dollar savings bond in the bottom of my sock drawer.

“Hey mom—can I cash in my savings bond to help pay for my trip?”

“That thing won’t be worth its face value for four more years, but you’re welcome to take it to the bank and see what it’s worth.” Mom had never done the smart thing with our money, so why start now?

The teller at Florida First looked at the pimple-faced kid with the US Treasury bond incredulously and asked, “Where did you get this?”

“I won it in a bicycle design contest.”

“Oh really? Is your father willing to verify that over the phone.”

“I don’t have a dad, but you can ask my mom—she’s at work if you want to give her a call.”

“Hello Mrs. McGruther, this is Florida First Savings and Loan, your son is trying to cash a US Savings bond. I’m calling to make sure he’s authorized to do this.”

“Are you calling my kid a liar?”

“Of course not, ma’am—it’s just odd to see a child with a monetary instrument of this type.”

“Well give him his money and he won’t waste any more of your time.”

“Very well Mrs. McGruther—thanks for your business.”

The teller hung up the phone and approached her manager. She returned with my savings bond and a handful of cash.

“Your 50-dollar savings bond won’t be mature until 1979, but still has some value. Here’s twenty, ten, five and one, two three singles make 38 dollars.”

Thirty-eight dollars. Exactly what I needed for my first trip to an out-of-state BMX race. All that remained was for mom to talk to Lenny’s mother—my friend was going to the same race, and his mom agreed to share their room with me at the Keil Auditorium Holiday Inn.

My track time at the Schwinn Midwest National was typically unremarkable, but that trip changed my life. Travel became my obsession, and I’ve blown a king’s ransome logging miles ever since. Two weeks ago I filled the last page in my fifth passport. I’m on a first-name basis with clerks at two Taiwan hotels, where I spend a fourth of every year berating rice paddie OEMs for fun and profit. My first writing assignment was a story for BMX Plus! in 1982, and last week my friend Chris Moeller asked me to pen a piece for his iconic BMX brand’s 30th anniversary. Ashtabula Bow and Socket probably hasn’t forged a one-piece crank in 40 years, but I’m alive and kicking because four decades ago I spent every nickel that rust belt behemoth gifted me on a trip to St. Louis. Thanks, ABS.

Work in Progress

In a previous time and life I hosted a blog called Crown Lounge. It still exists, and if you Google “Harold McGruther Crown Lounge” You’ll probably find it. I relinquished that Google property in 2012 because it was inextricably linked to an ad hosting interface from which there was no escape. After a brief hiatus from daily narcissism I jumped back into the social-media fray with an Instagram account—@haroldmcgruther for those who care. When I figure out how to link that account to this WordPress blog, I will do so.

Why this, and why now? I was a copywriter before my present gig in the motorcycle industry, but that full-time vocation doesn’t afford me much time for rants and raves. As the header for this blog suggests, someday I want to own a bar. When I do, it will be called Crown Lounge, because those words paint a picture of stylish yet casual comfort I feel is missing from the modern watering hole experience. My single mom enjoyed single malt scotch in the ’60s, and often dragged me to places with names like The Dew Drop Inn, The Little Brown Jug and Uncle Cal’s to quaff and cackle with friends. I remember those smoky dives fondly, and hope to resurrect their warmth and coziness for fun and profit when work obligations, free time and finances permit. Until then, I’ll try to share stories an old drunk might tell, if he could sober up long enough to type.