Sea story: Growing up on a bike (1953-1963)

1952-Austin pedal carWhen I was four and five, Mom was the buyer for a national toy company. As you can imagine, we had obscene Christmases, because she could get the latest toys and games for wholesale or less. 1952-Princess_Elizabeth_watches_her_son_Prince_Charles_playing_in_his-toy carI remember having a pedal-powered Austin car identical to that of Prince Charles (his was green; mine was cream-coloured), and such luxuries.

The downside of being a national buyer in those days was all the travel. So Mom put us in boarding school at Sunny Hills in Hockessin, Delaware. We enjoyed it, surrounded by kids our age in a safe place. That is where I started first grade. David and I lasted less than a semester, but that is a different sea story…

On of my favourite “toys” was a bicycle, which I loved to ride all over the campus, as fast as my little legs could pedal. It had training wheels, of course, which I trusted the way that we depend on seats belts today. Most of the other boys were already riding on two wheels, and they taunted me about my training wheels. But I was adamant: I absolutely would not let anyone touch those faithful guardians of my skin and pride.

One day, one of the teachers was watching me fly around the curves and race the other kids. It was a sunny autumn day,  the country air fresh and invigorating. He stopped me at the end of the drive.

“Jonathan, why do you have those training wheels?” he asked.

Terrified that an authority figure was about to remove them, I shouted, “Please don’t touch them. I’m afraid to fall!”

“But Jonathan, they’re not doing any good.” He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Get off the bike and I will show you.”

I obeyed, and I looked where he pointed as he held my bike by the handlebars and rocked it back and forth.

“See? The training wheels have come loose and pulled up just like the landing gear of an airplane. They are so high that they don’t touch the ground when you turn. You are already riding on two wheels.”

I was dumbfounded. Yet I still had to articulate the obvious (a habit I would not soon break).

“You mean I don’t need them?”

“Nope.” He pulled an adjustable spanner (crescent wrench) from his coat pocket. “Would you like to take them off? I’ll help.”

I put out my hand and nodded. Together, we removed the training wheels, which he held while I remounted and cautiously started down the drive. It felt exactly the same.

I don’t know what he did with the training wheels, but the rest is history.

Riding around on my little bike opened a whole new world for me, especially in our new neighborhood in West Annapolis. I got to watch the men digging big holes for what became Annapolis Junior High School. During the day, the sidewalks and cul-de-sacs were all mine until our neighbours came home from work.

Riding the rails in Rome.

The bicycle stayed behind when Mom moved us to Italy in September of 1956. After living in Florence for three months, we moved to Rome, where I grew up. My cycling career took a brief hiatus while I adjusted to life in the big city.

It was a very different time and a very different place. 

1956-Marshall PlanThe Marshall Plan was still helping to rebuild the countries of Western Europe devastated by World War II. My first memories of Rome as a nine-year-old boy were of broad boulevards with almost no automobiles. Those who did not take public transit rode bicycles, and the well-off had mopeds, which were just bicycles with a friction motor on the front wheel.

1956-weapons posterThere were large color posters on almost every block showing the different types of German and Allied ammunition that we might find in the empty lots where we played, with strict instructions not to touch and to call the Carabinieri.

In spite of the left-over grenades (I kept hoping to spot one, but never did), Rome was a very safe city. Almost without exception, Italians love children, and they make it their business to be sure that children are safe. Our mother may not have been aware of it, but there was probably no way that my brother and I could get in trouble or be seriously hurt when she was not around.

dandj1956Being a single mother raising two boys had its advantages – for us boys. Mom raised us by the book: Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit by Adele Davisand Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock (not the Vulcan). Beyond that, she was clueless. Not having grown up in a traditional nuclear family, she was not aware of the normal shenanigans and risks that children  experience. For example, it never occurred to her that we got out of school about four hours before she came home from work. Mary, our governess-maid-cook-etc., was not paid to babysit us, although Mom may have taken that for granted. To Mary however, I was almost grown up, because in her world, school only went to the fifth grade, and I was in the fourth. Her pre-teen and teenage siblings were all working just like she was.

1956-Tram RomaMom gave us an allowance those first two years. I think it was 100 lire/week. That was about 16 cents US. My brother David ate his in candy each week, but I used most of mine for tram tickets. The capolinea (end of the line) of the No. 8 tram was just outside our building on Via della Giuliana, and the four lines that looped all the way around the city without a capolinea, the ES/ED, CS/CD, stopped at the end of the block, at Piazzale Clodio.

Via della Giuliana

Via della Giuliana

After school, I would hop on one of the trams and see the big City. The circular routes were designed for tourists, so it was a great way to take in all the sights, then get off where you started, all for a one-way fare (25 lire, or 6¢). The No. 8 crossed the whole city, and was the tram of choice for going downtown.

I would go to the front of the tram, and stand near the conductor, watching him start and stop the big vehicle, nudge it through the traffic, and ring the bell to alert distracted pedestrians. I wanted nothing so much as to drive a tram someday.

One day, I took the No. 8 all the way to the capolinea at the other end of the city. When we arrived, everyone got off except me.

Non scendi?” the conductor asked. Aren’t you getting off?

“No,” I said, “I’m staying, so I can go back home.”

“Don’t you know that you need another ticket for the return fare?”

I stared at him silently, shaking my head (and maybe looking sad). He ruffled my light blond hair and said, “Well, if you don’t get off, I guess I can’t sell you a ticket if you don’t get on.” He swung the rheostat control to the right and the tram rolled to the loop for the return trip.

1956 viale del muro torto

Viale del Muro Torto

The team on the No. 8 probably got used to me, because after that experience at the other end of the line, I made sure that I had two tickets, or enough money for a return fare. I especially liked the run up the Viale del Muro Torto, which ran from Piazzale Flaminio to the Pincian Gate, on a separated railway. The conductor could relax, because he did not have to compete with other traffic. He would let the tram run as fast as it could, and he enjoyed explaining how the rheostat worked, where the controls and bells were, and how the electric motor worked. I usually got off at the top of the hill and walked across the tracks to catch the No. 8 going home. Sometimes, though, I could walk through the Villa Borghese gardens and catch the CD or the ED back to Piazzale Clodio.

One day, the conductor let me drive up the Viale del Muro Torto. Few thrills in my life have matched the excitement of being ten years old and driving that tram.

Each day, Mom would come home shortly before supper. David and I would usually be in our room, doing homework, or maybe in the kitchen, chatting with Mary.

“Hi. Mom!” we would shout and run to hug her. David got her hips, and I got her waist.

“So, how was school today?”

“Fine.”

She never once asked us what we did after school. Neither of us ever volunteered.

My first traffic “accident”.

After a year and a half of riding the rails, Mom got us bicycles for our birthdays, and that was the end of my career in light rail transportation.

Madonna di Riposo

Madonna di Riposo

It was August of 1958. I turned 11 and David 9. We moved to a comfortable, ground-floor flat on the Via Aurelia, in the Madonna di Riposo neighbourhood, located at the top of the hill near where three broad, dual-carriageway avenues (Via Gregorio VII, Via Baldo degli Ubaldi and the Circonvallazione Cornelia) met and intersected the Via Aurelia. Our new school was located there.

Our new neighbourhood represented the western frontier of Rome’s urban sprawl, an effect of Italian prosperity in 1958. Construction was everywhere, but among the new, tall apartment buildings, there were still many empty lots covered with cane breaks. Significantly, the new flat was only two kilometres from our new school on the Via Aurelia. Mom did not want to spring for the expense of the private bus service for that distance, and she was right. We could ride our bikes, take the public bus No. 296 (for 25 lire), or just walk.

 Via Aurelia outside Rome


Via Aurelia outside Rome

Once we cleared the blocks northwest of our building, the Via Aurelia became a simple road, with the opaque walls of various Pontifical Colleges on one side and open country on the other.

She did not know that we could also hitchhike. If one of our classmates’ parents did not stop, we could flag a ride with the school bus. We lived after the last stop on the bus route, so unless they were running behind, the bus drivers did not mind stopping for us.

1959: at 12 and 10

1959: at 12 and 10

They recognized the two blond boys, and would pull over if we caught their eye. No one seemed to notice or care when we occasionally got off the bus in the school drop-off zone. Once David was older, we both rode our bikes most days.

David did not ride his bike around quite as much as I did. After all, at that age, two years was the difference between old age and the prime of life. On the other hand, I continued my habit of wandering around during the time between school ending and Mom getting home from work. Only now, I felt liberated: from tram schedules, from ticket prices, from the rails, from almost any constraints as to where I could go and when. We did not have as many hours in the afternoon as before, but I could go more places. And I did.

1958-bastioni di michelangelo

Michelangelo bastion on the Vatican Wall, overlooking the intersection of Via Leone IV

One sunny day – I think it was still autumn before the rainy season started – I was heading toward our old neighbourhood in the Trionfale section. That required riding east over several hills on the Via Aurelia, taking a left at the back wall of the Vatican City and following the Viale delle Mura Vaticane downhill to the corner where our old elementary school was. On my right, the massive fortifications of the Vatican looked down on the traffic like so many ants; on my left, buildings built in the last two centuries rose from below street level until I reached the school, which went from a metre or two below street level to the grade. I revelled in that descent, which took me past the Vatican Museum across the street from the old school to the intersection with Via Leone IV, where the Viale delle Mura Vaticane ended in a T.

Via Leone IV

Via Leone IV

Traffic was always snarled at the end of the descent, because Rome had few traffic lights or crosswalks in those days. The growing crowd of Fiat 500 and 600 automobiles was injecting a new confusion and slowness into intersections that had previously flowed like water sluices, channeling pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters.

IMG_20150927_103536This particular day, I pushed my shiny new bike down into the traffic, planning to move smoothly around the cars, when a white Fiat 500 stopped suddenly in front of me. The brakes were useless, so I pulled back hard on the handlebars and lifted the front wheel.

An 11-year old boy does not weigh much, not that much more than a steel bicycle. I rolled up the rounded back of the car, over the roof and down the rounded front. As I dropped onto the front window, the driver braked, which caused my bike to move forward off the front of the car instead of down into the street.

I landed square on both wheels, still moving at breakneck speed into the intersection. The whole operation took place in a perfectly straight line, so nothing pushed me to fall to one side or the other.

I can only recall one feeling: embarrassment, bordering on shame. Embarrassed that I had misjudged. Embarrassed that I had scared the driver. Embarrassed that I had hit a car (well, had I really “hit” it?). I had not yet acquired the vocabulary for such occasions, but I only wanted to get out of there – fast. I sped straight for the corner of Via degli Scipioni which was pouring traffic into Via Leone IV about a half-block from the intersection. It was one way the wrong way (and still is today, BTW). I hopped onto the sidewalk and raced into the dark shadows of the side streets.

1956-via ottaviano

Via Ottaviano

I never knew whether I had done any damage. No one chased me, and I never read or heard anything about it again. I took a right on Via Ottaviano, two blocks away, then carefully made my way back home, my enthusiasm for adventure sated for that day.

Hermes the bicycle messenger: the Olympics.

When my 13th summer started, I was a First Class Scout, and leader of the Beaver Patrol, a gang of outcasts who had bonded to become one of the proudest patrols Troop 236 had ever seen. We were the boys who were always chosen last during games at recess; we belonged to no one’s clique. We were also uniquely well-equipped to go to summer camp without our parents that year. We lived in Rome, Italy, and the summer camp was at the Naval Air Station near Rota, Spain. We were multilingual, multicultural and comfortable on the road. The Troop crossed five countries, caught two different trains to Barcelona, boarded a coastal steamer to Cadiz, and a US Air Force bus to Rota. After camp, we took another bus to Gibraltar, where we boarded the SS Queen Federika by small boat in the dark at 0200.

Olympic Village

Olympic Village

Yet none of that prepared us for the adventure that awaited us when we debarked in Naples. Rome was a city beside itself. It may have seen armies come and go, and centuries of history, but we had no idea of the scale of activity required to catch up the years of procrastination to get the Eternal City ready for the XVII Olymipiad, which would open on 25 August. Construction crews were working around the clock to finish the Olympic Village (a huge housing complex on a drained swamp north of the ancient city), build highway interchanges, paint crosswalks, and erect traffic signals. The new traffic code was only implemented early in the year, and the traffic was even crazier than normal as confused drivers mixed with thousands of tourists and newcomers crowding in for the Games.

Olympic distintivoWhen the Games opened, Troop 236 set up a ticket-exchange service downtown in the Pan American Airlines ticket office on Via Bissolati. Ticket holders who could not use their tickets could come in and drop them off for someone else to use, and pick up tickets to something that they could get to, all free of charge. It was a big hit. We manned the ticket-exchange counter all day during the Games, and we could pick up tickets at the end of our shift for anything that was about to start, but had not been claimed.

It was easy to attract tourists to the counter, because American Boy Scouts in uniform were an unusual sight, and we were easy to recognize. (It was a simpler, more innocent time.)

I worked the counter for a couple of days, then my mother came in with a request for an interpreter at the Olympic Village, for the USA Crew Team. Our representatives in the 8-oar crew event happened to be the team from the US Naval Academy. I leaped at the opportunity, because I had always wanted to go to the Naval Academy to become a Naval Officer.

Lago Albano

Lago Albano

My new job began every morning at the Olympic Village. I would ride my bicycle to the gate, show my day pass, and ride to where the team was getting on the bus to go to Lago Albano, the lake in a volcanic crater where the rowing events were held.

USNA crew

USNA crew

I would interpret for the coach, the midshipmen and anyone else around us. After the day’s practices, we would ride the bus back, and I would hang around and interpret for them until lights out. The food at the Olympic Village was unbelievable, prepared by top-notch chefs from all over the world.

One service I provided was to carry things in my panniers. The midshipmen had to stay in the Village, as did the coaching staff. Being military, they were authorized to use the APO (Army Post Office) at the Embassy, so I would carry mail back and forth for them, as well as run errands downtown. The Team gave me a USA 1960 Olympic patch for my uniform, which the gate guards recognized, and waved me through. A real high for a 13-year old Boy Scout.

Our team was eliminated in the quarter finals, but by then, the rest of the USA team knew who I was, and asked me to continue to run messages and interpret. It kept me riding all over town, but I loved it.

That did not last. Mom showed up with another interpreting job for me during the last week of the Games. Jesse Owens RomeJesse Owens needed a personal interpreter, so I was detailed to accompany him until the end of the Olympics. I would ride out to the Intercontinental Hotel near the Termini train station, meet him in the lobby, then accompany him to the field and track events and any meetings he had. Rudolph in RomeNaturally, he had finish-line seats for the events in the Olympic Stadium, so we watched athletes like Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolf setting records and claiming gold medals.

The summer ended on a bittersweet note for me. As we went back to school, I was elected Senior Patrol Leader of the Troop. It was an honor, but I remember closing myself in my room and crying, because I would no longer be leading the Beaver Patrol. It was my first promotion, but it was also my first farewell as a leader.

Live from Vatican City: this is ABC News.

Among many other things, the 17th Olympiad in Rome in 1960 was remarkable for being the first time that the Olympics were broadcast on television worldwide. It took intense, active collaboration for the newsreels to be packed up at the end of each day and sent to London, where a jet was waiting to take them to the United States for broadcast throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Three years later, the competition among broadcasters had returned to normal, but the paradigm of airlifting newsreels to waiting aircraft still dominated. When Pope John XXIII convened the Ecumenical Council in Rome in 1962, the major news organizations of the world established almost permanent setups close to the Vatican City to cover the breaking news each day. Each broadcast corporation had its own lab preparing the newsreels from the tapes in the cameras, and its own aircraft waiting at Ciampino International Airport just outside the city.

After the Pope died on 9 June 1963, the competition to cover the papal election became fierce. The daily visual of black smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel was unintentionally tailor-made for modern television. Each news organization was hoping to be the first back to the United States with the pictures of white smoke from that chimney and the story reporting the election of a new pope.

A key, invisible link in this news communications chain was getting the tapes from the cameras to the lab for development. The cameras were at Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican City. The labs were in a residential neighborhood across Rome. The link between the two was usually a small car or a motor scooter, operated by stringers standing by to grab the tapes, and race the other messengers to the lab.

ABC scooped the white smoke that year. While the other news organizations’ messengers were still trying to push their way out of the Piazza San Pietro through the press of the crowds and traffic, the ABC messenger, who would turn 16 that summer, was weaving through the congestion on his bicycle, in a breakneck bid to beat the others to the lab.

All these years later, I can only remember the emotion and the thrill of that race. I remember being extremely proud of the ABC logo that was clipped my handlebars. I know that I was never in any particular danger, because traffic all the way across town was completely gridlocked.

Today, bicycle messengers are an essential element in delivering urgent courier material in crowded urban areas. Maybe I gave somebody an idea…

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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