Have Bike Will Travel

At about age eight, when I had pretty much mastered riding my bicycle, my mom and dad let me go out on my own on that bicycle, as long as I headed home when the street lights came on, which was either in the late afternoon or the early evening depending on what time of year it was. My parents judged the town to be pretty safe, and me to be a smart, verbal kid who knew his way around this larger neighborhood and was basically cautious enough to not do anything foolish.

With downtown Ann Arbor a little more than a mile away, there were a lot of places within easy bicycle distance of my house. Bach school (my elementary school, pronounced ‘bah’), the public library and my favorite toy, hobby and dime stores and most of my friends were all within a couple miles of our house on Prescott Street. They all were no more than a ten to fifteen minute bike ride for a kid like me. The routes took me mainly down residential streets lined with big maple trees.

I would save my allowance money, plus money earned parking cars in our front yard for people driving into town to attend the University of Michigan football games at the stadium three blocks from our house. A full front yard and driveway of cars, at 50 cents each would net me about three dollars. I would stand in the street with my sign shouting “Park here fifty cents”. For the big rivalry games the market could bear maybe double that per car, and I could add maybe another dollar or two selling my mom’s fudge at a dime a piece to the sports fans. My parents suggested these profit making activities to me, but other than supplying the fudge, at no charge to me, they pretty much let me run my own show and keep the entire take.

So I would scout out and save for the games and other toys I wanted. I could get an Avalon Hill strategy board game from the hobby store for two or three dollars. A bag of one hundred, two-inch army soldiers from the dime store cost a dollar, and a slot car for my HO scale race track (that I had gotten for Christmas) was just a couple bucks. Most of these purchases were part of the integrated fantasy world I continued to develop in our basement and in the sand pile in our back yard.

For example, I’d buy an American Civil War board game giving me the strategic and geographical context to play out that struggle and then say a couple bags of Civil War soldiers to play out the intimate details of patrols, battles and various logistical operations like a naval invasion of an enemy harbor and storming of its coastal fort. I would check out books from the library on the war, mainly shorter ones including lots of nice pictures. I remember even being able to buy Civil War trading cards at the hobby store, if you can imagine such a thing, with graphic or otherwise compelling images of various scenes from the struggle, and explaining text on the back. (I was inspired by the cards to create my own set of a few dozen cards, with my crude stick-figured art work and appropriate captions.)

I was blessed to be able to develop a sense of independence and self-possession at a young age. For the most part, I did not depend on my parents for transportation. I learned to plan my day and keep track of what time it was. By middle school I had my own daily paper route, paying the Ann Arbor news for my stack of newspapers and then collecting monthly from all my customers. By high school, my grandfather had given me his old Buick, and at age 16 I drove it up from Dayton Ohio, some 200 miles, to Ann Arbor on my own, later giving it to my mom to replace her even older clunker. I would also take buses between Ann Arbor and Dayton on my own, which included a bus change in Toledo. Completing the thread in a way, at age 18, I backpacked through Europe on my own. More on that in another chapter.

Living in a huge city like Los Angeles, I always felt frustrated that we could not give our own kids this same opportunity. Navigating the big anonymous city is a scary prospect, especially for the parents, and since they mostly did not go to neighborhood schools, there friends generally lived anywhere from several miles away to “across town”, which in Los Angeles could be forty miles!

When they were young we were comfortable letting them roam the block we lived on, but anywhere beyond that we insisted on transporting or at least escorting them. I did my best to make myself available, like so many big-city parents, to take them just about anywhere they wanted to go. I felt I owed them that, since I would not unleash them solo on the big-city streets. I actually bought bicycles for both my kids and spent the time to teach them to ride. But they did very few rides without me accompanying.

It was when they learned to drive that the chances for real independence began for them and they both practically counted the days until they were 15 and a half and could get their learner’s permits. And then, once getting their licenses, we slowly weaned them into transportation independence, first letting them drive a few miles to a friends and back during daytime, than to a different part of the city including a stretch of one or more freeways, but still daytime only. Then at night, but returning by 11pm. By age 18 they were both driving trips of several hundred miles, some through mountain roads, on weekend or weeklong adventures.

Allowing kids to develop that critical sense of independence and empowerment of getting from point A to point B by their own means is much more high stakes here in Los Angeles than it ever was in the Ann Arbor of my youth. Still if you are going to raise kids in the big city you have to accept those stakes to let your kids proceed with this very critical development.

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