Although I was born in the 60s, my real memories begin in the 70s. It was around 1975, when I was 10, that I began testing my limits. I was old enough to play without adult supervision and lived in an area that offered many opportunities for adventure: Derby, New York. We had woods to explore, trees to climb, and friends that were slightly older than my sister and I. The benefit of having older friends was that it exposed us to new things outside our comfort zone. The downside was that these very same experiences were, uh, rather dangerous.
I often wonder how I made it though my childhood alive.
Steve was two years older than me. He lived down the road and we often did things together. He was my role model because he did some cool things. He dated girls before me, knew the ropes on the school bus better than me, and even had a car before the end of high school. Before his car, he was a spectacular bicycle rider. He could ride a wheelie for miles and was able to jump ramps like a pro. Although I was younger, I wanted to be like him. I distinctly remember the day I took my first bike jump.
Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was no requirement to wear protective equipment when riding a bicycle. All we needed were shorts, a ripped t-shirt, crappy sneakers, and a semi-working bicycle (brakes were optional). We found an old piece of plywood near the long garage, brushed off the bugs, and set it on a few bricks. Steve assured me that it was safe. He even hopped up and down on the flexible wood to prove it.
That was good enough for me.
I hopped aboard my trusty bike and headed to the top of The Circle. My house was located at the bottom of a circular dirt road. It was well protected from the road so at least that part was safe. Anyway, I needed to get a good start and the top of The Circle was more than sufficient. It had a nice downward slope.
As I looked down the hill towards the ramp, I paid no attention to the fact that my handle grips were missing. I was too focused on the ramp. This was my first bicycle ramp jump and it was going to be perfect. I took a deep breath and started to pedal.
I rode like the wind and it was wonderful!
That is, until I panicked at the last second.
Having changed my mind, I tried to slow down but couldn’t (brakes were always optional). A split second later I hit the ramp only to have my front wheel drop like a rock to the ground. My body shifted forward and the handlebars wrenched 90 degrees from where the wheel pointed. The gleaming metal death tubes – the ones I should have had covered with handle grips – raked painfully along my chest as I fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
But I’m not one for giving up. Although a bit bloody, I was not beaten. Besides, Steve was watching. I brushed myself off and tried again. This time I did it. It was the first of many bike jumps but by no means the last dangerous thing I did.
Steve wasn’t my only friend during those formative years. I had others who were just as willing to offer up danger as an option. Fireworks have been illegal in New York State for years but that never stopped my father from buying them. I was never really sure where he got them – perhaps Pennsylvania or Canada – but for the Fourth of July, he always provided a spectacular show filled with Roman candles, sparklers, firecrackers, and other incendiary pleasures.
Again, danger reared its head for my experimentation.
I was fortunate to have friends that didn’t fit well in the typical high school social latter. We didn’t do drugs, we didn’t participate in sports, and we were not necessarily the smartest students in the world. This was a time well before the ubiquitous home computer and video games so we had to make our own fun. One of these fun things was blowing things up and filming them.
I’m not sure exactly who came up with the idea, Brian or me. Nevertheless, we mutually agreed that it would be fun to use my father’s 8mm silent movie camera to make our own movie. I use the term “movie” loosely. It had neither story nor plot. Be that as it may, our final product consisted of a compilation of strange clips where Brian would pretend to hurt his arm during an “earthquake” and have blood squirt from his arm or we’d have weird camera angles recording us falling off our bicycles. The best clip, in my opinion, was the exploding van.
My father enjoyed building plastic models of ships and planes. I also enjoyed model making but preferred automobiles. One day Brian and I decided to blow up one of models.
To get the best effect, we selected a plastic van that had I had painstakingly constructed after hours of hunching over the dining room table. It was a larger model complete with rotating tires and an awesome paint job. Well out of sight of mom and dad, we brought it downstairs to the clay floor of the unused tennis court in the Derby Club. The old court was inside the building and completely enclosed (I think it was once a horse stable since it was lined on either side by a series of split doors). Zero wind meant spectacular results.
Having stolen a handful of bottle rockets, Brian and I loaded the van and prepared our 8mm camera. We envisioned lighting the fuses and having the van burst into a shower of spectacular sparks – a cacophony of reds, greens, and whites. We had vision, that’s for sure.
We lit the fuses, started the camera, and ran for cover.
The bottle rockets sizzled and burst forward with high-powered velocity, sparks shooting out the back like crazy. Seconds later, BAM! The first one exploded. Pieces of the van flew willy-nilly around our heads.
BAM! The second one exploded. It was awesome!
Bam… bam… BAM! The rest exploded in glory.
What we didn’t expect was the plastic van catching fire. We were lucky we didn’t burn down The Derby Club that day.
On warm days we would ride our bikes or walk down to the shores of Lake Erie. One of my favorite things to do was hike to the lake, climb down the steep slate cliffs, and shimmy along the rocky face, being every so careful not to fall into the water. We had a number of access points to the lake but preferred the trail through the woods near the Erie County Water Authority. We couldn’t take the main entrance because a large fence protected it. This was the same entrance that had a miniature lighthouse that was about twenty feet tall. While we never crossed the fence line, I did have the opportunity to climb to the top of the lighthouse after someone foolishly left the door unlocked. Not only was the view nice, I found it a great place to drop gasoline filled Molotov cocktails to the gravel below.
At the rear of the Water Authority, overlooking Lake Erie, there was a large cement enclosure that housed what I estimated to be a three-foot diameter pipe stretching far into the oily smelling shale. At the time, I figured it was an evacuation pipe in the event water levels in the holding tanks exceeded a specific level. And it may have been, for all I know. In any event, the pipe was there and it was too tempting not to walk inside. What would have happened if the Water Authority decided to evacuate its tanks of stinky water?
Yes, I was lucky I survived my childhood. Despite the dangerous things I did, I remember those days fondly. They were some of the best in my life.