Grinding Down Memory Lane

It was best to get a running start. Push the yellow faux-motorcycle handles until the fixed blue pedals on the big front wheel were moving just quickly enough that you could jump on, get your feet on them, push your butt against the yellow seat back, and crank even faster. Then, careen at full speed down the driveway. Half way down, force your feet against the turning pedals and pull the brake handle against the right back wheel so that you skid hard left and come to a rest in the two feet of cement before the asphalt of the street, ending up parallel to the road, or even with your back facing it, having made a 180. Though it was really just a molded plastic, low-riding tricycle, our Big Wheels felt like a machine built for speed, even on the flats.

1970 Sears Wish Book 479
Sears 1970 Wish Book, p. 479.

In the early 1970s it was, I am certain, every kid’s fantasy to have a Big Wheels. It was marketed with the name “Big Wheel,” but in common parlance, at least then, it was plural. Ours probably came from the Sears Catalog, which my sisters and I perused and marked up for our Christmas wish-lists. It was the first popular, “cool” toy I remember having and much more fulfilling than many that followed. My Big Wheels provided hours of entertainment that the game Operation could not. The thrill of Operation’s startling “buzz” when your tweezers hit the wall around the wishbone wore off much more quickly than the skid mark that gradually flattened that big front wheel.

Once you got it started, the Big Wheels roared to life. The crunching of the plastic tires grinding against the cement sidewalk was joined by a staccato “tick tick tick,” caused by a spring whacking against one of the rear wheels on every rotation. My dad disabled the spring for me. Perhaps I didn’t like that its pitch and volume bore no relationship to speed. As I hear my Big Wheels in my mind, the ticking detracts from the “natural” sound of the tires directly reflecting my effort–or the incline of the hill–as though it presaged my addiction to the wind in my ears when I later flew on my bicycle.

I was an intrepid rider.

The Big Wheels was meant for drag racing, not touring. I remember getting tired pushing myself over the mounds of grass that grew in between the sandstone slabs on the far side of the block. More than once, I hefted its handles over my shoulders and awkwardly carried it back to the concrete sidewalk nearer home. There, it was easier to get up to a speed that gave me the momentum to cross over each of the spacers in between the squares of cement. “Bump bump, bump bump, bump bump,” the front wheel and then the back two went over the cracks.

Year old sister sitting on our Big Wheels
Youngest sister, wishing her legs were longer.

Though that first Big Wheels in the family was mine, I think of it as having belonged to both me and my next younger sister. Before long, my knees didn’t fit under the handlebars unless I pulled the seat out of its peg holes and let my bottom move all the way back. With nothing to push back against, it was impossible to get any speed. I remember standing on it, trying to use it like a scooter, one leg pushing the vehicle forward. That wasn’t at all satisfying. My desire to ride it long outlasted my physical size, and so it became “ours.”

In my last memories of our Big Wheels, it sits in the garage, one back wheel with a hole growing in it and the big wheel itself about to split the seam around its diameter. It is dwarfed by a line of bicycles, each locked to a long chain running along the floor. The Big Wheels isn’t locked. Its neon body has faded to a light orange. The dials have peeled off center of the handlebars. The seat might be missing. The long hill at the end of the driveway is, of course, much shorter and not that steep. But I will always feel the speed, the exhilaration, and that grating skid of plastic against pavement that was our Big Wheels.

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