Bicycle lessons from the Jersey Shore

I remember every bicycle I ever had as a kid growing up in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Not that I had that many. My parents were frugal and, with four children, they didn’t often spend money on things like bicycles. When they did, it was usually for something special like a birthday or Christmas gift. So, from my childhood to my early teen years, I had a total of three bikes.

The first one was a hand-me-down from my older brother. It was a very plain, red boys bike with chrome fenders, white wall tires and a coaster break. As with most people, the day I learned to ride that two-wheeler stands out in my memory. With the help of my dad and some neighborhood kids, I peddled away miraculously on my own in front of our house at 1526 Treeneedle Road. It was the summer of 1967.

Having your own bicycle—especially one you were proud of—was one of the first things in life that got a kid going on being independent from their parents. Initially, maybe you were allowed to ride to the end of the block and back. Later maybe you were allowed to stay out past dark on your bike with the other kids from the neighborhood.

Then, once all of the rules had been explained, you were allowed to ride your bike all the way around the block. Back then, the rules did not involve wearing a helmet, elbow and knee pads, using hand signals to make turns or stops or even riding with the car traffic on the right side of the road. If those things even existed, we didn’t know about them.

No, the main thing was this: you were to only ride around the block and go nowhere else; you were to do this once and the next time you wanted to do it, you needed to ask again. Permission to ride around the block was a one-time arrangement.

For me, my first time around the block was a big deal. I road south on Treeneedle, east on Little Hill, north on Northstream, west on Apple Place and back south onto Treeneedle. I saw some kids I did not know; I saw other kids that I had heard about but never met before; I saw some kids I knew from school who lived in the next neighborhood over.

The feeling I had that day was like I was on top of the world. Even though the ride was just a half-mile and took around five minutes, it seemed to me to be a long trip. I was so proud that my parents trusted me enough to let me do what I really wanted to do. In that moment, as a seven-year-old, it seemed like all things were possible.

A short time thereafter, one of the older neighborhood boys showed me how to ride my bike with no hands. This was a skill that many boys (and some girls, too) learned and showed off. Normally, when riding a two-wheeler, your upper body is hunched over while holding on to the handlebars. When you ride with no hands, your body is upright and you can see everything quite nicely; there is no need to worry about anything. Also, when you rode in this position, the other kids could see you coming and knew immediately that you were peddling with no-hands.

Then one day, after ignoring repeated warnings that I was in for disaster, I took a major spill on Little Hill Road. I struck a driveway curb and toppled head-over-heels and landed square on my face. Worse than running home crying with my bike in tow, was the nasty scrape down the center of my forehead, nose, lips and chin. I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “you really did it now.” That scrape took weeks to heal and was a constant reminder of the risks involved in dangerous bike behavior.

Anyway, by the time I got my first brand new bike as a Christmas gift, the style everyone wanted was inspired by the Schwinn Sting-Ray. These bikes had a banana seat, “ape hanger” handlebars and the all-important sissy bar. By the late 1960s, the Schwinn Sting-Ray was everywhere and all the other bicycle manufacturers were trying copy the low-rider, wheelie style. So, the kids who had a Sting-Ray with a high-loop sissy bar were the envy of the entire neighborhood.

My parents were concerned about the behaviors they feared would come along with these bikes. Being that they looked like motorcycles, they thought that Sting-Rays would bring a kind of “biker” culture to the neighborhood. Secondly, my parents knew that we were completely fearless and would try various dangerous tricks on these bikes like popping wheelies, brake skidding, ramp jumping and other stunts.

In the end, my Christmas bike was a three-speed, Sting-Ray knock-off with front and rear hand breaks. I’m not sure, but I think it may have come from K-Mart. Although I was disappointed, I was glad to have a brand new bike that had good colors and chrome and looked pretty cool.

One of the unique features of this bike was the way the handle bars were constructed. Instead of a continuous bar that slid through a clamp on the stem, the two bars were welded to a flat piece of metal that was bolted to the stem. While this design gave my bike a very distinctive look, it also created a problem.

As mentioned, one of the things we preteens did was build ramps out of scraps of wood and cinder blocks for jumping. This was around 1970 before BMX stunt riding and free-styling existed. I guess the kind of thing we were doing back then (along with other kids around country) eventually led to the creation of off-road sport bicycling and competition.

Well, a group of us put together a ramp made of a sheet of plywood laid on an angle to a stack of cinder blocks. We put the entrance to the ramp on the edge of our driveway and the lift-off point—which was about a foot and a half above ground—was in the front lawn. Since we knew there would be wipeouts, these would happen in the grass and not the pavement.

The object was to get your bike up to full speed and hit the ramp just right. At lift off, you’d yank the front end of your bike up just enough so that, when you came down, the rear tire touched first followed by the front wheel. We had a great time doing these jumps even though there were quite a few crashes.

After multiple jumps with my new bike, I started to notice a crack in the handle bar welding. I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening so I kept at it. On one jump, the bars snapped clean off the clamp and I went flying akimbo through the air onto the grass. You would have thought that my friends would have rushed to my aid or been concerned for the condition of my new bike. But no; we all burst out into uncontrollable laughter. This proved to be one of the funniest things that ever happened to me.

By the time I was in middle school, my parents began letting me ride my bike just about anywhere in Point Pleasant. For my thirteenth birthday, they bought me a black, 5-speed Raleigh Chopper Mark 2. This was a bike that I wanted more than anything. I remember the day my dad took me to pick it out at Point Pleasant Bicycle Shop on Arnold Avenue just this side of the border with Point Beach.

That Chopper was the envy of every kid because, even though it was not a fast bike, it was a wheelie bike that had a chunky, low-rider look: high-rise handle bars, a ribbed banana seat with sissy-bar, a T-bar gear shifter and redline sidewall tires. It was the signature smaller 16” diameter front wheel that really made the Chopper look different. I loved that bicycle more than anything I ever had in my life up to that point.

When I road it around town I was proud and told everyone that my parents bought it for me. I really took good care of it, too. We had a shed in the backyard where I kept it. I also had a bike lock to make sure it didn’t get stolen when I rode to school or other places around town.

I rode my Chopper everywhere: to the waterfront at Dorset Dock, over the Beaver Dam bridge onto the Princeton Avenue waterfront. There were many trips to the Manasquan River: out to the marina at Kings Grant Inn at Route 70 and to the beaches at Maxson and River Avenue. Clark’s Landing off of Arnold Avenue was also a regular meet up point.

Sometimes I would ride the full length of Bridge Avenue, from the end of the four lane extension all the way over the Lovelandtown Bridge and down through Bay Head to the ocean. I also made many trips in both directions across the old bascule lift bridge on Route 88. All the kids on bikes would line up at the stop barrier and wait for the gate to open after the bridge closed. We would get a running start and be more than halfway across before the cars could pass us.

And, since I had friends all over town, those Chopper wheels probably covered just about every road and street in Point Boro. Aside from the highways, I knew all of the main roads like Dorset Dock, Beaver Dam, Herbertsville, River Road and River Avenue, Bay Avenue and Arnold Avenue like the back of my hand.

Those were indeed some fantastic days in the summer of 1973. It seemed at the time like it would go on forever. But that kind of carefree biking would soon come to an end. I outgrew my Chopper when I started working summer jobs at age 14 and needed a more practical mode of transportation. By the mid 1970s, the Schwinn Continental 10-speed with ram’s horn handlebars, auxiliary break levers and two sets of derailleurs had become a popular bike among teens.

Nevertheless, the things I learned about biking during those early years will always remain with me: Be thankful to have a bike at all and be proud to ride it; Take care of your bike and don’t take dangerous risks when riding it; Get out and explore the world around you—you never know who you might meet or run into on your first ride around the block.

On Benjamin Franklin’s 313th birthday: The continuing public importance of printed books

The following introductory remarks were delivered to the 36th Annual Michigan Printing Week Association Ben Franklin Awards Dinner on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin at his study in London in 1767

Good Evening,

On behalf of the Printing Industries of Michigan and the Michigan Printing Week Committee, I would like to welcome you to the Annual Ben Franklin Awards Dinner.

My name is Kevin Donley and it is once again my privilege to serve as your Master of Ceremonies this evening.

We are meeting tonight for the 36th year to acknowledge the contributions of our industry colleagues and to raise money for the education of a new generation of printing professionals.

Tonight, we will be recognizing Admore as Company of the Year and William Kessler as Individual of the Year recipients of the Ben Franklin Award. We will also be recognizing two graphic arts students who are deserving recipients of the Ben Franklin college scholarships.

This year we mark Benjamin Franklin’s 313thbirthday. As always, it is appropriate to take a few moments to look back on Franklin’s life for the benefit of both inspiration and, by connecting our own time to his, for insight.

As many of you know, one of Ben Franklin’s enduring contributions was the establishment of the first public library. At the age of just twenty-five, Franklin and a group of his tradesmen friends—who were members of a debating club called the Junto—established what would become The Library Company of Philadelphia, an institution that exists to this day.

Among other things, Franklin believed that the only way to settle debates during the Friday night Junto meetings was to consult authoritative printed texts. In this way, the Junto library became something of a colonial version of what we know today as fact checking.

Franklin drafted the Articles of Association for the The Library Company of Philadelphia and they were signed by 40 subscribers and dated July 1, 1731

However, at that time, standard English reference works were very expensive and hard to find in colonial America. At Franklin’s suggestion the group decided to pool their resources and signed up fifty subscribers who invested 40 shillings and then agreed to pay ten shillings per year for fifty years thereafter. They bought books and rented the facilities needed to establish and maintain the first American lending library.

If you were a subscriber, you could borrow the books in the library. If you were a member of the public, you were able to come into the library and read the books available in the collection.

For Ben Franklin, who never took credit for the idea, there was much more to the library than settling matters of opinion and debate. From the time he was a teenager and throughout his entire life, Franklin was in pursuit of his own intellectual development and education. He also consistently shared and encouraged the same among his fellow citizens.

As Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “these libraries have improved the general conversation of Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies.”

In other words, writing these lines toward the end of his life, Franklin saw a connection between the public lending of books to the average citizens, the level of discourse within the colonies and the movement for American independence.

Books. Ben Franklin was talking about the importance of books. We always have to remember that—even though many of us are involved in marketing and promotional printing today—our industry is connected with this history; that our industry is rooted in great traditions associated with literacy and public awareness and the sharing and spreading of great ideas.

Here in Michigan, we know something about books. Despite some challenges we have faced recently in our local book manufacturing capacity, we remain a major producer of printed books for publishers across the country and around the world.

Now, after more than a decade of speculation about the imminent death of print brought on by electronic technologies, trade book sales have increased for five years in a row. Meanwhile, the number of independent book stores has grown by 40% over the past ten years.

What’s more, while the number of printed books has been growing again, sales of eBooks—and especially children’s eBooks—have been declining by double digits every year since 2015.

What does this mean? Are we going back to the days prior to the personal computer and the Internet when going to the library or the encyclopedia was the only way to consult authoritative texts? Of course not. It should be pointed out, for example, that the growth of printed book sales can be traced entirely to one retail company: Amazon.

In any case, there is an ongoing public thirst for printed books. Part of this attraction is reading for entertainment and reading as part of a social experience. It has been reported, for instance, that Instagram is partially responsible for the growth of indie bookstores. Using the hashtag #bookstagram, 25 million photos of bookstores have been shared on Instagram. People are being drawn to these boutique bookshops to find the perfect match for their reading style and subject interests.

Another part of this loyalty to printed books is that people are increasingly today—as in Ben Franklin’s time—looking to settle arguments and answer the big questions of our time.

As for the preference for printed books over eBooks, it turns out that we all have something called “spatial orientation memory” that is hard-wired into our brains. This particular type of memory is the part of human psychophysiology that helps us locate where we are in the broader immediate context.

When we read a book, we are subconsciously relying on the tactile experience of our location on a page and within the chapters of a book. This is one of the key aspects of how we remember what we have read; spatial orientation memory is an enabler of reading comprehension and retention.

What all of this shows is that ink-on-paper print still holds tremendous authority and value with the public. While people are excited about the latest gadgetry, they are also understanding more and more clearly that learning and education, especially the teaching of children, depends upon a full sensory engagement with books. This is an experience that cannot today be, as of yet, duplicated by electronic devices and digital displays.

This dependent relationship of the public upon print also extends into the realm of information, marketing and communications. After a decade of enthusiasm and hype about the benefits of digital and social media, the ongoing problems associated with the credibility of these formats is driving renewed interest in print.

Study after study has proven that response rates for direct mail are magnitudes greater than email and social advertising. The public, including old-timers like me as well as millennials, go to the mail box each day with anticipation. We remember what we see there because we engage physically with it, even if it goes within seconds from our hands to the wastebasket.

So, it is on this note of optimism about our great printing industry that we will begin our award presentations this evening. Thank you very much for allowing me to introduce the 2019 Ben Franklin Awards Dinner!

Crabbing & molting lessons from Barnegat Bay

Growing up on the Jersey Shore and the Barnegat Bay, my brothers and I learned to go crabbing. We picked up different crabbing techniques from our friends and family members. Sometimes we just used a crab net and scooped up the creatures as they sidled in the water below us. Other times, when we wanted a more substantial catch, we’d use a cage.

The cage had a mechanism that allowed you to lower it into the water with a string and, when it touched bottom, all four sides would open up and allow the hungry bottom feeders to come after your bait.

Crabs are kind of like underwater rats. They will climb on top of each other and scramble around trying to get the last piece of food before the next crab can get it. They have very small brains (about the size of a pencil point) and are not involved in any kind of complex social cooperation. Usually the biggest crab, gets its way.

Anyway, our crab cage freshly bated with a piece of chicken (usually a neck or a leg), we’d lower it to the bottom of the creek or lagoon that fed into the bay. Our favorite spots were Beaver Dam Creek and Sunshine Harbor in Point Pleasant. Sometimes we would crab from a boat and sometimes from a bulkhead. Either way, we’d wait a little while and then pull up the cage. Collecting our catch, we would carefully toss the best crabs into a bucket of water one by a one.

It wasn’t that hard to learn how to avoid being pinched. You just had to grab hold of the crab at the back with your thumb on the top and bent forefinger on bottom and you could easily drop each one into your catch pail. This did not always work, however, especially with the biggest crabs. They had a knack for reaching around with their claws and catching you by surprise. It usually didn’t hurt that bad since you could flick them off of you pretty fast. But sometimes the bigger male crabs could latch on to you pretty good and help you have quite an episode of cursing.

If we were going by the book, we’d throw anything smaller than about four inches (across the body) and all the females back and keep only the larger males (the sex of a crab is easily determined by looking at the pattern of the apron on the underside of the crab; a long thin apron shape is a male and a round pointed apron is a female).

Some Jersey Shore folks would just crack those crabs wide open while they were alive and slurp away the crab juice and meat right then and there. Others would take them home and put a big pot on the stove and prepare a tasty boiled meal.

Anyway, on rare occasions, if you left the cage in the water long enough you’d pull up a soft-shell crab. We knew they were special. First of all because of their color; they were white on the underside and lacked the bright blue and red colors on their Jersey Blue legs and claws. They looked sick and were kind of floppy since they had no hardened shell. Since we crabbed for the eating of the creatures, we knew soft-shell crabs were, of course, very good to eat. You never wanted to throw a soft shell crab back no matter what.

Later on, we learned that soft-shell crabs were actually regular crabs that had recently molted; that is, they had shed their hard exoskeleton as part of the growth process. It was a real lesson to learn that when crabs molt, they are very vulnerable. During a process that takes about 72 hours, a crab must extract itself including eyes, mouth and the lining of its digestive tract from the old shell. If the crab gets stuck in this process, it will die. If a crab is successful in removing itself from the exuvia, a new shell begins forming almost immediately allowing the crab to grow. A crab will molt more than twenty times in its lifetime.

The moral of the story is this: If you catch a soft shell crab, boil it and eat it. If you throw it back and allow it to finish molting, it will grow bigger and surely pinch you when you least expect it.