The four lanes of Kingshighway rumbling with 70’s muscle cars, Fast Back Mustangs, GTO’s, and Dodge Chargers ran through the heart of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The primary route North and South taking American V8s directly to Saint Louis Cardinal baseball games or south, past Memphis to white sand beaches of Florida. 10 to 12 miles per gallon was good gas mileage.
Six o’clock was time for getting home for dinner, it was now ten till six, to get home on time I would be stand up peddling and had to make my Evel Knievel move, cross the snake river cannon at rush hour, “Kingshighway”.
I was not to be late for the family meal.
My approach to this daring maneuver was beyond most grade schoolers. I had to avoid the stop lights. Too much trouble. I positioned on a side street, timing stop lights and traffic breaks. And then peddle like heck for 8o feet to safety, always made it.
Today, I had to wait on a purple Road Runner with the stickers! And then a red Pony, Alright, clear. I jumped, now with five minutes to spare, the rest was downhill. Home in time for a warm meal, for I was for a mini-Knievel on a motocross bike without a helmet.
Every male 1970s suburban baby boomer had a bike, a banana seat, traditional “ape” bars with some fruity tassels, giving an easy rider look. Schwinn was the brand to have, the Harley of banana seat designs.
I had a knock off alpha super flyer, something or the like. It cost way less than a Schwinn and just a good, from a distance they looked the same. My parents were both from Missouri, the Bootheel, where cost way less was a mantra of life, people didn’t boast about how much they paid for “seen of TV” or in a magazine, NO, people from the Bootheel of Missouri bragged about how little they paid for it.
I changed my super flying, not a Schwinn with channel locks. In the back of a magazine was an ad for motocross handlebars, all the way from California. I saved up the money by working odd chores for my father at his GE appliance store, sweeping out the warehouse, cleaning the Red Twin I-beam Ford F150 service trucks or cutting down boxes to fit in the dumpster. The ten-speed style seat was purchased at Kmart. My boomer bike was born. Where you knew the neighborhood kids were was by the pile of bikes in the yard if they weren’t riding Arena park’s dirt track. In addition, pony league ballparks and a central public building with wide stairs were the playgrounds for bike riders during the afternoon hours after school. I was now racing home after pulling bike wheelies, cross sliding in dirt, then jumping small humps.
My 1970s American home will always be somewhere between Father’s Knows Best and Fast Times at Richmond High. Warm meals waiting, my father removing his Florsheim wingtip shoes, aproned mother standing in the kitchen, sisters studying in their rooms, a home filled with the sounds and smells of family.
Dinner time table questions were challenging. Better to ask than being asked.
“So dad how is it dinosaurs got in our gas tanks?” I asked, preempting any discussion about what I should do to improve myself.
He answered. “Long ago all the dinosaurs died, leaves fell on top of their bodies, wind and storms blew dirt over the leaves, compressed them and it turned them into gasoline.”
And that was his answer from the 70s.
“Oh my, my” mother explained, “Gas is almost $0.60 a gallon”.
The next day Mom was bustling through her momma bear day, fueling the V8 cub transport with the liquid gold bubbled from beneath dirt. AGAIN.
World events were closing in so fast even a Montego could not escape. American suburban moms’ eyes were flashing panic: OPEC oil embargo? Over another war? How did dirt and rocks create the first energy crisis here in the heartland? The great Dow idol moving up and down, rumors of the Great Depression, talked about by friends or relatives who had lived through it. There was a hush keeping news away from children.
There was no getting away from the world of the 1970s pre-apocalypse. Often, I found my father’s magazines after he clinched bad news in the American man’s fist.
Eyeball searing Time magazine Covers, articles keenly reporting casualty counts, tortured American soldiers, massive destruction and strange sounding places. The news media had learned the power of THE REPEAT, repeat, repeat, repeat to affect the public mindset. The beast unleashed repetitive videos of crashing planes burning, exploding ammo dumps that powered resistance in the mines of the turmoil.
“Oh, my gosh. This world needs Jesus,” mother prayed.
Getting my attention away from the TV, was momma bear priority one. Mother signed me up for a group camp program doing some fun things outdoors. This came as a total surprise to me. Winifred Hirsh, fellow teacher at Junior High, where mother taught Home Economics, had recommended camp Zoe.
An escape from the world was now in order, planned and paid for by my loving parents.
It was all set. NO TV.
We left Cape Girardeau in the Flentge family truckster, a silver gray Ford LTD Wood paneled Country Squire. We listened to John Denver on a radio with knobs, as we rode to the magical place called Camp Zoe, now known as Echo Bluff State Park, in the heart of Missouri, where horses ran wild, canoes floated, AND safe children swam the crystal-clear cold water.
I arrived again at Camp Zoe at noon. I checked into my assigned sleeping quarters and situated my trunk at the end of my bed.
“Attention campers, swim schedule is: From 1 to 3 this afternoon beaches are open. Always report to the lifeguard at the dock before entering the water.”
I scramble fast, grabbed my scuba mask, and headed to the rocky beach to get in the clear water of Sinkin Creek.
When the loudspeaker came on to announce dinner, it amazed me at how fast campers rushed, even running, healthfully to the dinner mess hall. Once inside, I heard the buzz of campers in the clatter, the chatter, and vibration of young life. Excitement was more than just in the air. I would taste one of my favorite things, Ott’s dressing. I still purchase it today, just because that taste brings back the memory and smell of Camp Zoe.
Besides the water activities, Camp Zoe held dances at the tennis court a few times during my visits. We were getting the vibe of the disco music that was playing. Do the Hustle was a popular song.
Camp counselors had a scheme to keep the young campers in their sleeping bunks. They wanted no sneaking around and getting into mischief. Copperheads had a habit of laying on the warm sidewalks at night. So, the campfire story of poor Willie’s ghost would be activated for security measures.
Willie, was a teacher from the one-room schoolhouse just at the top of the ridge over yonder. He lived in the back of the schoolhouse. One night, mean kids had brutally blocked Willie in his classroom for giving them too much homework. They set the building on fire. Willie couldn’t escape and was burned, ALIVE. Every summer his charred ghost roams the hills, right here at Camp Zoe, looking for children who are misbehaving and out at night. If he catches them, they are never heard from again.
The counselors added evidence just to make sure we stayed in our cabins. Occasionally they would leave a little mark of a charcoal W on the sidewalk rocks to let the campers know Willie could still be out there, and it was an excellent idea to stay in our sleeping bags after dark.
Late one afternoon, the Camp Zoe owner gathered up a few of the stronger looking athletic boys from the screened cabins to go rappelling. I jumped at the opportunity even though I didn’t know what rappelling was. We hiked down to the end of the beach, up and around the trail to the top, then over to edge of the bluff.
We were packing purple outdoor mountain rope braided in a smooth silky texture for slipping through the hands. The rope felt very Californian. Being coiled, it consumed my shoulders crossing chests. We looked like soldiers. Counselors secured two lines to pre-selected trees, one for the rappelling and one for safety.
The devices for rappelling were a figure 8 loop and a safety harness.
The first camper put on the harness, checked the buckle settings and looped the rope in the figure 8 of the apparatus, turned backward and walked off the edge, never to be seen again. GONE, out of sight, a voice far away sounded, “ok, down.”
What the heck had I gotten myself into? I was very adventurous, really looking forward to the moment. But on second thought, this was crazy dangerous. I knew my parents were going to be furious with me if I wound up dead.
When it came my turn, I gulped, harnessed, looped up, and following the instructions, I walked off before fear set in. In the freefall, I would loosely hold my hands as the apparatus providing tension. I would drop a few feet, stop, drop a few feet and stop, drop a few feet and stop just like you see in the movies. The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds.
Fear had lost its grip on me.
The next weekend my parents showed up, found me alive and mostly uninjured. We rumbled out the gravel road in the Flentge family truckster, my trunk in the cargo rear and headed out of the Ozark hills, full of $0.60 gas.