Fred A. Reed
One of an occasional series of Scenes from a Southern California Boyhood.
A kind reader commented, after reading my previous blog post on the Citroën 2CV, that she was SO NOT into cars. I took her remark as an alert. What products of the Southern California car culture such as me may take for granted is not necessarily shared by everyone else.
So this brief essay, though it is also set in Southern California, that nurturing matrix of all things automotive, will attempt to avoid any but glancing references to automobiles, and focus instead on other wheeled vehicles.
Few things during my happy and protected childhood in Pasadena, blissfully isolated from sprawling, brawling Los Angeles and the world of evil it represented, was the fire-engine red three wheeler my parents gave me on what must have been my fourth or fifth birthday. Some photographs of the device survived. They depicted me, bursting with pride and satisfaction, astride my new red tricycle. Taken from a low angle, the photos depicted my youthful self as intrepid and forward looking.
My parents had taken into account that I would be growing fast. (Too fast, as we were all to learn later.) So my father had added blocks to the pedals to enable me to pedal more efficiently as I grew into the trike.
Other photos showed my younger brother, a mere toddler, looking on with fascination and maybe even envy. The setting was the brick terrace that gave onto our backyard, under the shelter of a Chinese elm, the one our Siamese cat Archibald loved to climb and, from it, leap onto the roof.
My red tricycle was only the beginning. Of course we acquired bikes as soon as we could keep our balance, and on them set out to explore our sylvan enclave. And, in fact, the love of bicycling I developed then followed me through life.
But the pleasure of wheeled non-automotive vehicles found other outlets.
Never one for not making the best of odds and ends, I recruited a pair of stilts I’d crafted in the woodworking shop at McKinley Junior High to a higher, or flatter, purpose. We repurposed them—two solid sticks—using as cross beams elements of wooden boxes to make a primitive chassis.
Ball-bearing wheels were beyond our means back then. Instead, we used casters of the kind used on moveable pallets and in warehouses. We bought them cheap at a local hardware store. They grated and squealed and swivelled depending on the pitch of the pavement.
Steering the contraption would thus be approximate, and would prove to be our project’s undoing.
Step two was to outfit our vehicle with masts. The basic rule was: you can never use enough nails. Once in place, we fitted the masts with spars and to those tacked on sails made from old sheets that our mother graciously provided.
Our plan was to sail from one end of our short, dead-end street—Mesa Verde Road—to the other. Impatiently we waited for a day when the wind would be blowing fresh from the West.
That day came, and we manoeuvred our land-schooner into position at the head of the street. We imagined it as a Nantucket whaler, the HMS Bounty, or perhaps a generic California-bound Yankee clipper making its way through the roaring forties around Cape Horn.
In the event, my little brother would be at the helm, as our vessel could hold only one captain/first mate/boatswain and I was already too large. Came a gust of wind, the sails puffed out, and it began to move, slowly, in square-rigged majesty, casters groaning and wheezing.
But the steering system—or lack of same—failed. Our proud craft veered sharp left and hit the curb. Tried though we might, our efforts to get back on course failed. Our ship of the streets had no future. But for us, failure was only a challenge.
Within the coming days, we conceived a more radical plan. Rather than a ship, we would transform our vehicle into a limousine (apologies to my critical reader) and gain momentum by coasting down the neighbour’s curving driveway. Off went the masts and rigging, and in their place we attached a very large cardboard box, large enough to contain both of us. We cut out windows and a door and were soon set to roll. Our hope was that by shifting our weight to the left, we would keep our vehicle on course.
All the auguries were positive. The neighbours agreed, and we had an excited audience of the Haynes sisters, our next-door neighbours whose house boasted the driveway, and the Brandt brothers, our arch touch football rivals.
We pushed our road-craft to the head of the driveway, turned it around, climbed in and with a nudge, went hurtling down the slope, leaning left as hard as we could.
It worked like a charm. We emerged onto the street at full velocity. But our tilt, so effective in getting us there, proved our undoing. The stilt-car began to shimmy, the cardboard box began to shake and vibrate and in short order, tipped over and ground to a halt in the middle of the pavement. Such had been our velocity that the body of our vehicle was torn to shreds, and the stilt-based frame disintegrated.
We sustained minor cuts and bruises, and then faced the dilemma of how to clean up the wreckage. Fortunately, no priest (we were practicing Catholics back then) had come to bless our endeavour. The girls reacted with alarm, and rushed to confirm that we were safe and sound. The Brandt boys did not even feign dismay. In fact, I suspect that they relished our massive failure.
But Jim and I began to laugh hysterically, like Zorba the Greek and the Boss after the collapse of the aerial railway that was to carry logs from high up the mountainside to their mining venture on the shore of Crete. Nothing could be salvaged. All was lost.
“Did you see the sparks fly?” said the former to the latter, now liberated from the constraint of necessity. Did we ever!