Vitulum Omnibus Cacas

Here’s a half-baked hardball from someone with no education on the subject, and only one night of personal experience. America’s penal industrial complex is a corrupt monopoly that treats recidivists like repeat customers—great for business. Harsh sentencing for minor infractions continually rewards this system with new customers—another boon for cash flow. What can a country with 5% of earth’s population and 22% of its inmates do to improve this situation? How about Federal decriminalization of marijuana, followed by legalizing, regulating and taxing prostitution. Other victimless crimes might qualify, but these are my favorites, so it’s a good place to start.

If this crackpot idea sounds like good politics, hold on to your hat. Let’s talk three years of mandatory civil service for every able-bodied high-school grad, dropout, GED candidate, and gender-fluid shoe gazer who doesn’t meet at least one of the following criteria by his 19th birthday:

  • Registered for a full course load at an accredited university
  • Gainfully employed, with health coverage
  • A member of the US Armed Services

Draftees will be given free housing, hot meals and $1,500 per month in exchange for 50 hours per week—40 cleaning graffiti, painting bridges, servicing municipal vehicles, filling potholes; anything US cities might require—and ten for physical fitness and advanced on-the-job training. The budget for this ambitious Federal initiative will come from a 5% reduction in military spending and a 2% added flat tax on FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google—it’s about time these unregulated monopolies paid back society for their good fortune). While they are enlisted in the program, participants in FFLAKE—Federally Funded Learning and Knowledge for Everyone—will receive the same health benefits and paid vacation as members of Congress. When their three years are up, these 22- to 25-year-old FFLAKE veterans will be unleashed with the skills, self-confidence, discipline and personal wealth they need to make a positive contribution to US society.

Speaking of Washington, I have a seven-point program for fixing that shit show, too:

1: Abolish the Electoral College

2: 10-year term limits for members of Congress

3: One single 10-year term with no chance of reelection for the President

4: No more presidential appointments for Federal Judges; instead, citizens of the states where judges preside will elect them for a single term on their digital—not paper—census form every decade

5: Institute municipal voting by city, and state-wide elections by county; no more gerrymandered districts to ensure long-term positions for local, state or national politicians

6: Initiate online voting, make if failsafe and mandatory. Failure to cast a ballot will result in a fine on your taxes equal to 10% of your gross income or $5,000, whichever is greater. Use money from apathetic non-voters to help subsidize National Healthcare

7: Replace the IRS with a flat tax: 15% on gross income for individuals; 20% for small businesses (less than $20 million yearly revenue); 25% for every business larger than that… no deductions

Under my policies, all the recently displaced IRS agents can keep their cushy fed jobs by running FFLAKE for the aforementioned Gen Z malcontents.

If all this sounds like the booze-fueled rant of a raving Socialist, I’m just getting started. I find it unconscionable that the richest country in the world doesn’t provide quality health maintenance and emergency medial care for every citizen on its golden plains. I’m not talking about the snaggle-toothed program they settle for in Great Britain; let’s shoot for the platinum care citizens of France, Japan and Canada enjoy. We’ll manage the cost of National Healthcare two ways: by regulating what “healthcare” is (example: no more Botox, laser blemish removal, or lip implants for Instagram influencers), and by setting wage and legacy cost limits for federally-employed medial professionals. $350k per year should be plenty for doctors; 100 grand seems fair for certified nurses and educated support personnel. If a doctor wants to earn more than that, he can open a private practice to provide treatment or vanity surgeries for the rich. If the flat tax proposed in #7 doesn’t cover my system’s overhead year one, we’ll adjust tax rates +0.5% across all sectors every year until it does. I would happily pay an additional half-percent personal income tax for National Healthcare. Currently I invest $10,000 per year on healthcare for my family and me. I goddamn sure don’t make 2 million dollars, so a point-five uptick against my actual gross would be a bargain. Do the math for yourself—I think you’ll agree.

America’s got another problem, and it’s this: 70% of the planet’s ambulance chasers practice law on US soil. We are the most litigious country on earth, suing each other for everything from bad haircuts to Twitter burns. It’s time for all of us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. If your kid cracks his skull in a skatepark, don’t sue the city or the shop that sold him his board. Teach him how to skate, or make him love books—no one suffered head trauma reading “Gulliver’s Travels.” If every American had guaranteed health coverage, fewer of us would call Larry H. Parker every time we found a pube in our soup.

Brazen social engineering of this magnitude is bound to bring unintended consequences, none of which I’ve even considered; if you want to make an omelette, you have to crack some eggs. I CAN tell you this: current conditions and prevailing attitudes in modern America are untenable. These United States have practiced unfettered capitalism and defended unbridled freedom for nearly 250 years. Where has it gotten us? Trailer park Republicans and their sycophantic leaders make a mockery of truth, justice and The American Way by giving the nuclear football to a malignant narcissist and pathological liar. Bleeding hearts foment cultural fissures nine miles wide by force-feeding us their self-righteous indignation about everything on 24/7 cable news and social media. While The Left stirs tempests in a teapot, The Right pines for “the good old days” with heads in the sand. As a man born and raised in the dirtiest place in the Dirty South, I’m here to tell you—the good old days weren’t that great. I’ve watched misogyny, racism, pedophilia, corruption, incest, greed, and violence shred whole swaths of American social fabric every day for 25 years, and that’s just the senators from Kentucky and Alabama.

Work will Set You Free

When you work two jobs as mom did for most of my childhood, something has to suffer. In our case, it was housecleaning. Mom wasn’t a pig in the true sense—she rarely ate table scraps and never rolled in shit—but things like dusting and scrubbing were low on the to-do lists she scribbled on cocktail napkins laying around the house. Because we didn’t own a car, simple errands like laundry and groceries required more time and planning. The net effect of these impositions was a home one might kindly describe as bohemian. Compared to Aunt Dianne’s suburban manse or grandma’s spotless two-bedroom cottage, many of the bungalows and apartments we lived in were dumps.

The best dump ever was a tiny one-bedroom apartment with an attached single-car garage. Situated on an alley behind a laundrymat and a Quickie Mart in Lake Worth, Florida, that first address in our new hometown was minutes away from two places that would define our lives for the next six years: the bus stop on Dixie Highway, and Princeton Cycles.

Jim Daetwyler’s father founded his family’s eponymously-named bike shop in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1948. Migration to the Sunshine State in the early ‘60s brought the Daetwyler brood and their mom-and-pop bike shop to sunnier climes in the sleepy retirement community of Lake Worth. Jim took over the shop from his father and raised a family of his own in those days, living with his wife and young daughter Lisa in a small apartment across the street from his humble Schwinn dealership. When the bike shop hustle proved too demanding, Jim sold Princeton Cycles to a Goodyear franchisee named Robert Nichols in ‘73. After he graduated high school two years later, Mr. Nichols put his 18-year-old son Bobby Jr. in charge of sales and service at his new business. Unfortunately, the silver spoon in Bobby’s mouth sometimes made it difficult for Mr. Nichols’ kid to talk and turn wrenches at the same time. My mom didn’t know any of this in the summer of ‘75. All she knew was that her boy needed a job to finance his growing addiction to BMX. Leaving her pride next to a pack of Marlboros on the typing desk in our living room, mom walked down the alley, through the laundromat and across Dixie Highway into Princeton Cycles.

“May I speak to the owner?”

“He’s not here. I’m Bobby, the owner’s son, Can I help you?”

“I hope so. My son Harold is obsessed with bicycles. Is there ANYTHING he can do around here to earn extra money? He’s a good kid, smart—too goddamn smart, frankly—and he races BMX. It’s expensive.”

“Send him in. We’ll let him assemble some bikes to see if he knows what he’s doing.”

What mom failed to mention was my age. Thirteen. Legal statutes, however, she knew all too well. Palm Beach County, our new place of residence, stretched from the the gilded boutiques on Worth Avenue—the East Coast’s Rodeo Drive—to the cane fields on the shores of Lake Okeechobee—farm country for Florida swamp people and their genetically engineered ranch hands. If you were 13 and maintained a C-average in school, you could get a work permit. Report card and freshly minted Social Security ID in hand, I pedaled my Ashtabula Black Diamond across Dixie Highway and reported for duty at Princeton Cycles.

If Bobby Nichols was surprised by my youth, he didn’t show it. Himself a fresh-faced kid barely out of high school, he seemed to relish the idea of pushing around a teen-aged grease monkey. There was a third man in Princeton’s tune-and-service department, a 60-something semi-retired master mechanic co-workers and friends called Chick. Chick was a wizard with wrenches, the first real mechanic I’d ever met. I stuck to him like glue. After comparing shop hours—seven-thirty to seven Monday through Friday, nine to five weekends—with my commitment to seventh grade, Chick and Bobby agreed to let me work four to seven weekdays and both shifts on the weekend. More importantly, Chick said he would teach me how to build wheels and fine-tune the Shimano coaster brake on my BMX bike when work was slow. On the subject of pay, Mr. Nichols introduced me to the term “piecemeal.”

I’ll tell you what, Harold…”

“Friends call me McGoo, Mr. Nichols…”

“Fair enough, McGoo—employees call me Bob. “I’ll give you one dollar for single-speeds, two dollars for three-speeds, and three dollars for five- and ten-speeds. Pay attention to what Chick shows you and I bet you can make a couple bucks an hour.”

After a quick how-to on using third-hands, fourth-hands, and rapping randonneur bars with vinyl tape, Chick cut me loose on a pallet of Schwinns. Coaster brake bikes were easy—bars in the stem, grips on the bars, stem in the fork, and the pedals in the cranks. Even the seat and seatpost were already assembled—just grease it and go. Chick assessed my work and pointed out flaws.

“Don’t drop the post so far into the frame—the clamp will scratch the zinc plating.”

“Grease the wedge hardware and stem quill—it’ll come out of the steerer with less headache when the next guy works on it.”

“Tighten the chain—those factory workers in Chicago are sloppy bastards, and dumber than hell.”

Even at Chick’s more measured pace, I could assemble three Typhoons, Pixies or Sting-Rays per hour. Clearly, I needed to build some 10-speeds to make real money. Unfortunately, my mentor’s assessment of line workers in The Windy City was correct—Schwinn Varsities and Collegiates were over-priced, under-spec’ed, fillet-brazed piles of shit. Raw handlebars were just the beginning. Stamped steel derailleurs were loosely installed and poorly aligned. Headsets and bottom brackets were dry as a bone. Brake levers and stem-mounted shifters were stuffed in a cardboard box with everything else that mattered: pedals, reflectors, bar tape, saddle and seatpost, owner’s manual, you name it. Of course, these parts kits always exploded in transit. Now I had to dig in the trash to find a seatpost clamp so I could claim my three-dollar bounty for fine-tuning another American-made turd.

It was a dirty job, but I wouldn’t have traded it for all the lawn-mowing money in the world. In less than a month, I was the fastest bike builder Chick, Bobby or anyone else had ever seen. How fast? On my first check I averaged twelve bucks per hour. It didn’t take Bob Sr. long to close that gold mine.

“Damn, McGoo—you’re a whiz! How would you like to get out of the back room and help Chick with high-end service and Bobby with customers?”

“Will I get to wear a uniform shirt with my name over the pocket?”

“Hell yes—everyone at Princeton Cycles gets a week’s worth of shirts and three pair of pants.”

I’m in! How much will I be getting paid?”

“Minimum wage to start, but with the hard work I know you’re capable of, the sky’s the limit.”

Business handled, I thanked Mr. Nichols for the opportunity, gave Bobby my sizes and punched my time card on the company clock.

The year was 1975. The minimum wage was $2.10 per hour. I was the youngest employee at the worst-performing Schwinn franchise on Florida’s East Coast.

It was a great time to be alive.

Riders Ready, Watch the Lights…

In 1975, Honda was the only motorcycle manufacturer among the Japanese Big Four that hadn’t jumped on the BMX bandwagon. Yamaha was first a few years earlier with their Moto Bike, a janky, half-hearted effort with front and rear suspension, threaded European bottom bracket, and three-piece steel cranks fastened to a buttery soft boron spindle with cotter pins. Suzuki entered the arms race next, with a rigid loop tail number reminiscent of the Webco frame developed for the burgeoning sport by a SoCal hop-up shop of the same name. Suzuki’s effort should have caught on but didn’t, probably because the company failed to enlist a superstar to endorse their product.

Not wanting to suffer the same fate as their yellow neighbors, Kawasaki came to the game armed with a respectable green weapon and a capable racer. Unlike Yamaha’s Asian import, the Kawasaki BX200 A1 was made in America by Bill Bastian. Bastian’s Race Inc. job shop in Gardena, CA, was where Scott Breithaupt and motocross exhaust guru Donny Emler commissioned the FMF frames that carried BMX legend Stu Thomsen to victory before SE Racing and the STR-1 were born. A 15-year-old kid from The Valley named David Clinton rode for Team Green in 1975, and took the NBA #1 plate that year aboard a Kawasaki made rideable with a pair of rigid struts where the spongy rear shocks used to be. Kawasaki would give up the bicycle game as quickly as they had entered it, but David’s innovative 6061 aluminum bicycle made an impression on one mid-pack goon from the Sunshine State that never waned. I dreamed of meeting David Clinton someday to talk about BMX. That day would come five years later at an NBL national in Pompano Beach.

By the time Dave and I met in my friend Greg Esser’s living room the spring of 1980, Clinton’s days as a Team Green factory pilot were long behind him. Now 20, Dave seemed content to rest on his laurels as he rode into the sunset on a Diamond Back in a Shimano jersey. From my cheap seat in the peanut gallery, BMX seemed less like a profession to Dave, more like a springboard to make a bigger splash in California’s burgeoning bicycle industry. I was not wrong. After enjoying a race career any teenaged BMXer would kill for, David Clinton parlayed his notoriety into lucrative positions at a number of bicycle companies in SoCal, Diamond Back and Shimano included. My childhood hero—at the time a child himself—wisely chose business over pleasure. It was a choice I would make two years later at my first BMX race in California, and my last race ever.

Time to move on.

The Circus Comes to Town

For gerontologists and migrant farm workers, my birthplace and childhood home was ripe with professional opportunity and social reward. For a single mother whose son had expensive tastes in European mini bikes, 13-inch action dolls and tailored trousers, Bradenton, Florida, counted only misery and Tropicana orange juice among its cash crops. During one particularly hot summer of her discontent, mom decided migration to Palm Beach Country on Florida’s Atlantic coast might better quench her thirst for social enrichment and financial reward. While mom set up shop for us 175 miles east in Palm Beach county, I spent the summer of ‘74 with my aunt, uncle, and cousins Tracy and Jennifer in Sarasota.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Ringling Brothers pitched their big top mere blocks from the old-money neighborhood Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg called home. Rich WASPs and retired lion trainers called Sarasota home. Art-school nihilists and boozy bettors at the city’s dog track called it “Clown Town.” Except for the couple years mom and I lived with a British upholstery worker and her troublesome teenaged daughter, I’d always been a latchkey kid. The freedom was intoxicating, like the Cutty Sark mom quaffed during nightly freelance speed-typing marathons. Dysfunctional though we may have seemed, what little mom and I had worked great for both of us; I didn’t need additional gear or guidance.

Though the part I played in my uncle’s family drama was a short one, my triple role as surrogate son, feral nephew and big brother was both tedious and rewarding. Uncle Greg may have been the breadwinner in his patriarchy, but Aunt Dianne ruled her pristine showcase home with cast-iron fists. Uncle Greg’s joy for being the father I never had was real, but he made sure the life we shared was his own. That meant duck hunting on Terra Ceia Bay, bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee, and church at Palma Sola Presbyterian every Sunday morning. While her public demeanor seemed quaint, after a dozen years of free-range parenting from my mom, Aunt Dianne’s regimented approach to housekeeping and child rearing was a shock to my system. For a boy who pulled it to Playboy magazines in the bathroom at Circuit Judge Robert Schultz’s beach house on more than one occasion, the whole scene was hard to swallow. My cousins Tracy and Jennifer were the loving sisters I never had; Aunt Dianne and Uncle Greg were sometimes the puritanical parents I never wanted. I needed the change of scenery more badly than mom did.

For reasons still unclear, my mother waited well into her forties before consumating her relationship with Florida DMV. A total dependency on public transportation during my adolescent and teen years was the pennance we paid for her unwillingness to take the driving exam. When friends provided ground transportation, mom’s appreciation manifested itself in disproportionate generosity at the pump; she tipped big for short bursts across town, and covered every tankful on camping trips to Central Florida. Mom’s indentured servitude and fear of steering wheels planted in me the seeds of independence that still drive my soul. With no family car to rely on, the vehicles that moved me—both physically and emotionally—were mini bikes and bicycles.

I wasn’t the only person hooked on going places and doing things in the 1970s. In those days, country singer C.W. McCall wrote a song about cross-country trucking and CB jiving called “Convoy” that became a number-one hit. For a time, cars were big, gas was cheap, and Americans were on the move. Then, OPEC cooked up an oil shortage in the Middle East that made two-hour waits at the pump a weekly ritual for American drivers. American drivers who still clutched keys to muscle cars and 560 cubic-inch Cadillacs in their porcine hands. Not surprisingly, this confluence of cultural and geopolitical factors collided with a force so great it catapulted America’s moribund bicycle industry into the stratosphere.

The Schwinn Bicycle Company—a rustbelt juggernaut that built sturdy, dependable bicycles in Chicago since 1895—sold trendy 10-speeds and flashy Sting-Rays to millions of Americans who were growing tired of the petrol-powered coup d’etat. The function, fashion and practicality of America’s favorite bicycle enabled those over-built machines to coast past cultural and ideological road blocks with speed and ease. Hippies rode Schwinns to save the planet. Republicans rode Schwinns to curry favor with corrupt Chicago politicians. Democrats rode Schwinns to support their union brothers. I rode a Schwinn for the same reason I wore Pro Keds, ate Little Debbie cakes and drank Dr. Pepper—they advertised in the dozens of magazines I bought every month with the money I earned dumping trash at my uncle’s sign-making business. Hot Rod. Car and Driver. Motocross Action. National Geographic. Boy’s Life. Reader’s Digest. If Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold it, I subscribed to it. Going hunting with Uncle Greg? Read Field and Stream. Baking a cake with grandma? Scour Good Housekeeping for the perfect recipe. When it was time to buy plastic fenders for my Hodaka Dirt Squirt, Preston Petty ads in Dirt Bike saved the day. I was a junkie. Magazines were my crack.

Special Delivery

For the first seven or eight years of my life, in addition to Christmas presents from all the usual suspects—mom and grandma, aunts and uncles—every December the mailman would deliver some odd gift in a plain brown wrapper. These parcels were always addressed in the same fussy fashion: “To Master H.W. McGruther, Esq.” No sender’s name or return address. When I quizzed mom about the origin of these charitable contributions to my arsenal of holiday detritus, her answer was always the same. “Your father.” I wanted to think differently about dad and his parcel post parenting, but these unmarked boxes always contained more questions than answers.

“I HATE football—what am I supposed to do with a Jets helmet?”

“What the hell’s an Ant Farm?”

“A toy Doctor kit?! Does he think I’m a three-year-old?”

Every time I ridiculed the man who wasn’t there about the gift I didn’t like, mom launched into the same threadbare diatribe about the spirit of giving, then closed with a line straight out of an ABC After-School Special. “He’s your father and he loves you very much—nothing else matters.” Mom’s guilt trips worked like a charm. My greed and self-absorption plummeted, dad’s stock on the Love and Caring Index held steady, and mom’s’s Wisdom Quotient went through the roof. To regain her faith, I gamely diddled with dad’s dumb gift ’til New Years Day, then banished it to the back of my closet. When my birthday rolled around January 21st, mom would smile confidently as I tore into every fantastic gift she’s typed her fingers to the bone to finance. Slotcars. Tennis rackets. G.I. Joes with kung fu grip. A Dynamo label maker.

“Now THIS is a gift I can use! Thanks, mom!”

“I’m glad you like it. Now stop labeling everything in the goddamned house and go write your dad a thank-you letter. He’ll love hearing from you. “Thank him for the baseball mitt, but don’t mention you’re left-handed—it’ll only embarass him.”

Though I wrote those thank-you letters as instructed, eventually the plain brown packages stopped coming. Was it something I said? Did my hand-written letter for last year’s Mr. Potato Head seem less than sincere? We moved recently—maybe dad didn’t know our new address. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter. Feigning interest in either the man or the feeble tokens of his affection had grown tiresome. Mom’s zeal to dignify dad’s memory had also waned. Ten years is a long time to pretend to care—especially for someone I never knew. For Mister H. W. McGruther, Sr., I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

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.