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Little Boy's Big Toys

I look into 1924 through my closed eyes in 1995. I find myself staring straight at my wooden-wheeled kiddy-car, eye-level. In my first life regression meditation, I am three years old. This is my long-forgotten earliest memory of when I was growing into a little boy. My first big toy.

All of wood, my three-wheeler is natural finish, smooth with the edges of the wheels roughened by my riding it on the concrete sidewalk. They squeak as I push myself along. My every twist of the turned wood steering handle produces a squeal.

I am so small, or it is so large, that I have trouble getting my left leg over the triangular seat at first; I will see it smaller before I finally forget about the kiddy-car.

My first real tricycle, the next Christmas, has pedals and a leather seat and a shiny bell. It has a simple round iron bar for a rear axle. Newer-style trikes will have a pressed metal step over the real axle to stand on, though I do not remember having one.

By first grade, I've learned to daredevil ride standing on that rear axle with both hands tight on the handlebars and body arched forward over the top of the seat. Going fast, braking is almost impossible like this. I do not want to brake to a stop. I leap backwards off the axle, snapping the handlebars up and twisting the trike up, over, sideways as I let go. Tipping over is the right way. I have already learned it from more mature and experienced big kids.

I never own a sidewalk bicycle, although there are a few to be seen around the village. These bikes have little spoked wheels and black solid tires. I couldn't balance on one, anyway, probably. Training wheels have not been invented.

Even rarer and more expensive is that strange four-wheeler called an Irish Mail. Kids - children is a more appropriate word here - steer with their feet and pump a lever with both arms to make the machine roll, sitting low in a seat at the back like a race car driver. I see just one Irish Mail in Penn Yan. It is in a neighborhood with wide slate sidewalks, paved level driveways, and huge old houses. I wonder if you can back it up. I never do find out.

My newest treasure is a scooter as I grow a bit. Like many boys' toys of the '20s this is a transitional design. The framework and the steering column are strap iron, but the steering bar and the narrow footboard are of oak. Two disc wheels of stamped iron have oak bearings and rubber tires. The Christmas Day I first try to ride it, my chin hits the handlebar.

I own the only scooter in the neighborhood with wooden parts. Most of my friends have all- metal scooters painted fire engine red with grooves in their metal footboards. Mine does have one extra feature - a real brake pedal to step on. This is a braggable and useful device. Other guys have to drag a foot to stop, or push a heel hard against the rear tire. I just step on that brake, and skid wildly to a halt.

In my age group a scooter is the best high-speed transportation used along Hamilton Street. They last good, too.

Like most grammar-school -age boys, I also now have a fairly good-size four-wheeled wagon, a cart. It is the pickup truck of 1920s kiddom. Most have all-red stamped metal bodies on black strap iron frames, and tubular iron pipe handles with an oval strap-iron steering grip at the end. The wheels are thin metal double-disc, with solid bearings and skinny black rubber tires.

These new red metal carts come in several sizes. At Christmas and again in the Spring, the hardware store displays them in pyramid stacks. The bottom ones are monsters, the top ones just baby toys, each smaller size bedded in the next bigger one below it for all to choose. All come ready to use; no boxes, no assembly required.

My personal cart, again, is a bit different. Dad knows what I need as well as I know what I want. Mine is durable, as big as I can possibly handle, at my age, with a wooden steering bar and a wooden box body. It is durable enough for my little brother to inherit after I have left for college. The wheels are large, giving this cart a height I can grow into, even though for the first year or so I have some trouble making it go when I kneel in it to push with my left foot alongside. I never wear it out.

I go everywhere I am allowed with this cart, transporting toys, tools and supplies, foot- pushing it fast on the sidewalk, pushing other kids, pulling large loads across lawns, fields and occasionally gardens. No riding in the streets, son.

In the stores and around town I see a few very shiny and very expensive carts equipped with tall varnished wood racks like the best trucks of those days. None of us has one, ever. Perhaps only people with no kids or just girls buy them.

Early in grammar school I acquire my first roller skates, which do not roll very good. Most boys and girls seem to have the same problems I do.

These are not shoe skates, though more and more ice skates are the shoe type. The skates' heavy iron frames are clamped in the front to my thick composition shoe soles. My heel fits into an iron cup, with a flat leather strap coming up and around the front of the instep just below the ankle. The sharp-edged strap is fastened just too tight or too loose with an iron buckle like the ones used on hose harnesses. A handkerchief helps pad the sore spot, for those who are forced to carry a hanky. Hanky is a woman's word.

There are other adjustments, also invented by some adult who never had a kid's problems. Those toe clamps are adjusted with a skate key, a special wrench I must carry always because the clamps work loose and skates flop off in mid-stride. Getting up from my fall, I pull the boot-lace from around my neck and unscrew, then screw tight the wobbling clamp till the edges cramp my toes. Having worn or thin soles is worse; sneakers won't work. Pain is good. I wish I dared to swear. I know the words all right.

Like all skates of this time, mine will last for years because they can be lengthened several sizes as my feet grow. This is done with a bolt through a slot made in the tongue of both the frontwheel and backwheel portions. The bolt is equipped with a wing-nut. The wing-nut gradually loosens from the sidewalk vibrations. Hit a crack or a bump and the front part slides back enough to free the toe clamps. Down I go again, usually forward to skid on my hands. No crying.

Real little kids stand around on baby skates. These are iron, too (what isn't) but have woven toe straps instead of clamps, and cloth heel straps, too. The patented sliding buckles won't ever tighten enough, but that really doesn't matter. The skates don't work. The baby skaters just walk around teetering till they fall down and learn to stand still.

Big kids have skates with real ballbearings or even roller bearings and go faster than they could run, though we all have iron wheels on our skates. I flail with my arms and pump with my short legs for a half-dozen strokes on each side, then quickly slow to a halt as friction does its work. I do coast down grades, but usually I walk up any steep ones in the grassy lawn. Neighbors do not like this.

I quickly learn the great differences between our two types of village sidewalks. The modern poured concrete walks are rough to skate on and rough to fall on, creating scrapes and abrasions and eventually thick brown scabs. The old slate stone sidewalks are sleek and smooth. They sound hollow. They also have more cracks, are much tilted by big tree roots, and impart a long-stinging bump when fallen on. A hard fall on slate hurts more and longer than on concrete, we all agree.

I never will own a bicycle as a kid, so that's not part of this childhood. Instead, I will own boats, but that is another story. Finally, some 15 years after my father's death, I will buy a used bike and ride it all over. And be up-to-date.

March 1995

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