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GROB: Back to school, with my biker gang

By James Grob,

With school starting this week, please drive carefully and be on the lookout for biker gangs.

They’re bold and stupid, just like you were once.

I know this first hand. I was in a pretty wild biker gang in the 70s.

We didn’t have a cool intimidating biker-gang name, like the “Hell’s Angels”, the “Sons of Silence” or the “Highwaymen.”

James Grob
James Grob

We didn’t really have a name at all, and that’s too bad. But give us a break, we were only about 8 years old.

If we had a name, maybe it would have been something dumb and non-intimidating like “The Elm Street/Oak Street Connection.”

Yes, we were kids in small town Iowa in the 1970s — a place and time where they would tear down all the trees and name the streets after them.

I lived on Elm Street, on the corner, where Oak Street curled up and into East Line Drive. East Line Drive was a trucker’s bypass, and people drove really fast there, so we couldn’t take our bikes that direction.

That was fine — you had to go uphill to get there anyway. Uphill was a lot of work.

The school, on the other hand, was a few blocks away, and it was mostly downhill. Smooth biking, toward the school.

There were a couple of obstacles. First, the bottom of Elm Street ran into 12th Avenue — which had heavy traffic in the mornings on school days. That could easily be avoided by driving our bikes through the neighborhood yards — much to the displeasure of the nice neighborhood ladies and gentlemen who tended to those yards all summer long and didn’t like a bike path slicing through their well-manicured grass.

We knew this, but we drove our bikes through their yards anyway. They couldn’t stop us. Not only were we a biker gang, but we were way too fast for them. By the time we got to the bottom of Elm Street, we were a multi-wheeled living entity in a jet-powered vacuum surrounded by a whooshing sound.

None of us wore helmets. What were helmets? We’d never heard of them. Some of us took a baseball card, or maybe a playing card, and stuck it into our spokes, so our bikes sounded like they had little engines. Our bikes whirred. And the faster we rode, the higher-pitched the whir.

We were all good kids, as individuals. There was Brian, my best chum in those days. He and his 97 brothers and sisters lived a couple houses up from me on Oak Street. There was Todd, who lived a couple houses further up. There was Doug, who lived at the top of Oak street on Todd’s side.

There was Tom, who lived across the street from Doug and Todd. There was Mike, who lived just down from me on Elm Street. And there was Jimmy, who actually lived one street over on First Street  — and was actually one grade younger than the rest of us. But Jimmy was adaptable and seemed to fit right in with his Oak and Elm Street partners.

That was the main group, but our numbers varied from day to day. Occasionally a brother or sister would join us on a temporary tour — or some others who lived on the fringes of the neighborhood. Everyone was welcome, but not everyone had the heart for it.

After turning right on 12th Avenue, we were just one block away from our biggest obstacle — Highway 3.

There was no avoiding it, unfortunately. It was impossible to get to Wings Park Elementary School without crossing busy and hazardous Highway 3.

Instructions came from all those who cared about our safety and well-being.

When you get to the STOP sign at Highway 3, you stop. You get off your bikes. You wait for a break in the traffic, then you carefully walk your bikes across the highway. Once across, you can get back on your bikes, then ride them the rest of the way to the school.

This was excellent advice, which we all memorized — then ignored.

Stop at the STOP sign? Get off our bikes and walk them?

That may have been the safest way to do things, but it seemed unnecessarily inefficient to us. Besides, there could very easily be some angry, yard-tending neighborhood ladies and gentlemen chasing us for driving through their yards. If we stopped, they might catch us.

Rarely did we stop. Rarely did we get off our bikes and walk them. We knew it was the right thing to do and the safest thing to do — but when you’re in a biker gang with a bunch of 8-year-old buddies, you’re kind of in a whirlwind. You go where the whirlwind takes you.

I’m not advocating this behavior — it was stupid. But when you’re 8 years old, mass stupidity is often mistaken for boldness. And we were nothing if not bold.

We did have time to judge the traffic as we approached the highway, and so we would adjust our speed accordingly and find our spot — the break in the traffic big enough for all of us to scoot across the highway, veer over to Elwood Parkway and bolt toward the school, which was now in plain sight.

We were supposed to come around to the front of the school, but usually we sped through some more backyards and onto the school playground in the back.

We’d coast up the sidewalks to the parking racks, pull out our bike locks, secure our bikes and laugh together as we strolled up to the school doors, telling exaggerated stories about our latest ride.

I often kept unofficial time on my Mickey Mouse watch. Most days, Mickey’s pointing fingers told me we’d made the trip to school in under five minutes. I’d share the time with my biker gang friends, and I kept a journal in my notebook at my desk, documenting our fastest and slowest days.

Of course, autumn would turn to winter after about a month of school, and our bikes would be in the garage for most of the school year. When the weather got colder, we’d walk. When it got really cold, we’d carpool. Neither of those was nearly as cool as being in a biker gang for five minutes every morning.

A few years later, most of us got mopeds. A couple years after that, we all got cars.

And yes, as young Americans, there’s a lot of fun involved with obtaining a driver’s license and sitting behind the wheel of a car. It’s a rite of passage, it’s a step toward becoming a full adult. It’s a symbol of personal freedom.

But it will never compare to the joy of being 8 years old, bold, stupid, and in your own biker gang.