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Southern Rail: Bologna afternoons

By Robert Filla

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Growing up I hung with a loose group of street urchins that were all afflicted with the motorcycle disease. Not everyone in the group owned a bike but all had the passion—the need to go fast on two wheels. And since we all shared that same desire, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be what might be called “community bikes.” Sometimes it might be owned outright by one kid but most times it was a sort of shared ownership that evolved over time.

When the bike needed an oil change, you bought the oil and performed the work thus securing the right to ride it on occasion. When someone would get stuck while riding down on the creek bottom, donate three hours out of your Saturday afternoon and you just earned several days’ worth of loaner bike.

And it was a system that seemed to benefit all involved.

Everyone would gather at a prearranged meeting spot early on the weekend and if someone was short a bike due to mechanical problems, someone else always seemed to have a spare or know someone who had a loaner. Sometimes the urchins who didn’t own a bike at all would show up hoping to catch a ride but no extras would be available. So they rode on someone’s pillion, knowing full well that before the day was over they’d get their chance to tear up some dirt. Someone’s thoughtful mom would always throw together some bologna sandwiches for the crew, realizing that if she didn’t we sure as hell weren’t gonna eat. The whole idea was companionship; the camaraderie of following cow trails together, building motorcycle-jumping hills and planning future bike trips to Mexico to meet girls.

Since none of us were licensed to ride due to our ages, just getting to our destination was even a challenge with the local cops constantly on the lookout for “those dang two-wheeled hoodlums.” Sometimes we’d ask one of the older kids that rode legal to take a spin through town and figure out where the law was hiding in wait. “What’s in for me?” was usually answered with, “An oil change?” or “We won’t tell anybody ’bout you and that weird new girl!” After we received the intel report, we’d divide up and take half a dozen different routes to get to the stone quarry or the mud hills or one of our other choice riding spots. Once there, any motorcycle-less passengers would disembark and find a shade tree while guarding the sandwiches and grape sodas. In due time, someone would stop and give him his time in the saddle. And we all shared. Before the day was over it wasn’t uncommon to ride four or five different bikes when swapping amongst our clan.

After working up a sweat and crashing numerous times (don’t remember anyone ever owning a helmet and our only first aid was to rub dirt on it to stop the bleeding), we’d all go for a swim with the quarry being the most ideal spot for diving. It had filled with rainwater after the stonemasons had taken all the rock they needed for the courthouse and someone said it was more than 100 ft. deep. And then there was that one story about the guy who tried to swim to the bottom but it was so deep that he got mixed up and couldn’t figure out his way to the surface. They said you could hear him sometimes at night still gasping for air. Being superstitious urchins, we always left before sunset.

After the swim, while drying out, we’d devour the grub that had been bagged and talk about switching to hotter spark plugs, the place to find the best used knobby tires and how so-and-so’s sister sure was getting big-breasted.

Later after more riding, jumps and crashes, we’d divide up again and make our way home before dinner. It was almost unavoidable that someone would get caught riding illegally every weekend. I did several times. I remember the cops escorting me to the house (yep, they let me ride my bike; how were they gonna get it home otherwise?) and informing my dad of my actions and the seriousness of the ramifications and how this was only paving the road for future juvenile delinquency and… and… on and on.

After the officer left, Dad would take me aside and give me a stern lecture about getting caught. It was never a sermon on riding without a license but always one on getting caught riding without a license. “You and those hoodlum friends of yours are gonna have to get a lot smarter,” was some of the soundest advice Dad ever handed down.

And we did get smarter, growing up to be real two-wheeled hoodlums with real driving licenses, swapping grape soda for more adult pleasures and launching headlong into a world of real problems of our own makings. But those were the cow trails we selected to travel; the hills we chose to jump. It’s been a long and crazy ride since those days at the rock quarry where it all began when sharing bikes and brotherhood, bologna sandwiches and dreams of Mexico.

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