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.