Putting on the Big Boots

Motor scooter wheels keep on turning

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Years passed. Our bicycles spent more time in the shed than on the road. Baseball practice, games and 4-H meetings replaced leisurely rides around the farm. Quite suddenly, there was a need for speed—and headlights.

My brother recalls the day we got off the school bus and saw the ’62 Ford Fairlane parked in the middle of the yard. A wheel hung out over the trunk. It was smaller than our bicycle wheels and fatter. A shiny red fender curved over the new treads. Dad strode out of the house with a grin on his face, and soon he and Delmer unloaded the 250-pound machine, a 65 Cushman Highlander motor scooter. Another two-wheeler but with an engine!

Delmer says he can still smell the newness of the bike and the burnt-paint smell that rose from the muffler on his first ride. The eight-horse, single-cylinder engine fit behind the legs of the rider. To start it, you pulled up the rubber-padded lever in front of the engine and rammed it down to the floor with your right foot.

Cushman scooters featured an automatic centrifugal clutch, which allowed the rider to twist the right handle grip to accelerate. Turning the throttle counter-clockwise or down, increased speed; a clockwise turn decreased it. Cushman claimed a penny-a-mile operation cost. (Retail price of gasoline in 1965 was 30 cents per gallon.) Toward the front of the “step through design” floor was a single brake. The panel had no speedometer or gas gauge, only a light switch.

The scooter was a dream-come-true for my brother, his “ticket to freedom.” He could cover the five miles to baseball practice at Erwin in minutes. The single front headlight and taillight permitted nighttime travel.

The passenger “seat” was the space between the black vinyl driver’s seat and the gas tank cover on the back. I loved riding with my brother, and the motor scooter broadened our horizons. On Sunday afternoons we could easily trek to Spirit Lake for a swim on the sandy beach. Often Delmer would tell me I needed to learn to drive the scooter. “Maybe you can have it when I get a car.”

The machine provided a peer connection with friends who owned scooters or small motorcycles. My brother recalls one Sunday afternoon when he met another cyclist, and they motored to Erwin, Badger and a few places in between. It was close to dusk when he started home on the Erwin-Bancroft Road. With two miles to go, the bike sputtered and died. He rammed down the starter pedal several times. No luck. Delmer was devastated, certain that something horrible was wrong. He walked home, worried about what Dad would say about him racing all over the county.

Dad listened to the distress in his son’s voice. With not a hint of reproach, he got up from his recliner and grabbed his cap. On their walk to the pickup Dad said, “Grab the gas can.”

With gas in the tank and three stomps on the starter pedal, the scooter roared back to life.

Then came the October day when my brother decided I needed to learn to drive. The scooter leaned to the left, supported by a thick kick stand, while he gave me a demo of the throttle. “It’s simple. You just turn it counter-clockwise to go faster.” I turned the grip both ways. “Good. You’ve got it. Now hop on.”

“What if I tip it over?”

“I’ll be riding right behind you.”

“What if I wreck it?”

“You won’t.”

The first circle around the yard was a jerky combination of quick bursts of speed and sudden halts. I was thankful Delmer was behind me to put his feet out on each stop. Gradually, I managed to keep it moving. Curves evened out as I learned not to wrench the handlebars. Finally, I made one pass around the yard feeling like maybe I could ride the thing---someday.

As we approached the gate to the front yard, I felt the machine tip slightly. Delmer had jumped off! My heart pounded wildly as I tried to keep going. I turned too short, then over-compensated, but managed to stay in balance. I continued on the curve back to the gate and twisted the hand grip, intending to slow down and stop. I turned it the wrong way! Speeding toward the fence, I panicked, hurtling even faster.

The front wheel collided with the double-scallop yard fence. I just knew that I had wrecked my brother’s beloved scooter. He rushed to the scene and asked if I was okay. Then we checked the damage. A deep scratch lined the front fender, which bent to the tire.

Delmer ran to the toolshed. He fixed the dent, but the scratch remained. Though we tried to bend the fence wires back into place, large gaps persisted.

Our father never asked about the fence or the scratch, but I wondered if he had figured it out.

The next spring, he talked to Delmer about buying him a car. “We’ll trade in the Cushman. You won’t need it anymore, and DeAnn won’t be riding it.”

I knew it. Dad HAD figured it out!

Kruempel’s newest book release, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, as well as her series, Promises to Keep, are available on Amazon.com. Once Upon a Midwest Sunset (an excellent gift) is a compilation of the stories from her NOOKS AND CRANNIES column, which was published in five newspapers in 2020-21. Contact her at deannkruempelauthor@gmail.com and receive free stories, recipes, photos and updates.

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