Young readers may not realize—wait. Who am I kidding? No young people are reading this. LOL
Readers of any age, but most likely my older friends who are trying hard to cheerlead my struggling writing career, (thank you, sincerely) may need a quick refresher course on The Moped. A common sight today, mopeds were a damn big deal in 1978. Hardly anybody had one.
And back then, way back in the “olden days” of my teenagerhood, they were still a work in progress. A few of us might even remember that moped prototypes of the later 1970’s began with actual, physical bicycle pedaling to coax the engine into gear. I can’t speak for Europe, where mopeds and Vespas might have been a common thing in Italy since… forever. But seeing as how I never crossed the Atlantic until I was 30 and the Internet wouldn’t be around for 20 more years, I was pretty blown away the first time I ever saw one.
Think of it like seeing an iPhone for the first time. A marvel. A creation to be instantly coveted. Just as an emotionally balanced human cannot simultaneously skip and frown, this same human could not also ride a moped and frown. It was zippy, motorized happiness on two wheels, requiring no driver’s license and no exertion.
The first time I laid eyes on a moped was in the front display window of my Uncle Bob Perry’s hardware store in downtown Fremont, Nebraska. It was August of 1978, and my family had driven for two solid days, from my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, crossing three states: Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with virtually no onboard entertainment of any sort, mind you, with the exception of reading (made me nauseous) or looking out the window— to visit my Nebraska relatives for summer vacation. I was just about to start the ninth grade in September, and was at that tender, “difficult” age when it was really hard to be around me for more than seven minutes. I may or may not have complained the entire trip.
The only thing that soothed my excruciating separation from my friends back in Shreveport and all the fun they were no doubt having without me, was getting to spend time with my cousin Brian, a well-intentioned but mischievous reincarnation of Peter Pan if there ever was one. Brian could, and still can, soften even the most miserable person on earth with his contagious laugh.
I have never met anyone else like my cousin. Brian has always seen the world through a different, highly distorted lens. The closest celebrity comparison I could draw would be to say he is part Randy Rainbow, part PeeWee Herman, part Yahoo Serious and part Bart Simpson. Most functioning adults typically want to strangle him after about an hour together. But in a loving way, if that makes any sense at all. He exasperates people with his pranks. He would give you the shirt off his back. And then he would probably tell a nearby police officer you had just stolen it. He has no “off” switch.
Fortunately or unfortunately, (I think I might be the only one here to select “fortunately”) I was drawn to his quirkiness from my first memories of family gatherings. I live for the moments when I am allowed to play his sidekick. Almost anything I ever uttered as a kid that garnered a laugh was pilfered, with almost sacred admiration, from his endless impromptu comedic schtick. Even my children will tell you about the time he kept dropping small cookies into the velour hoodie our elderly auntie was wearing at the time.
Brian was kid #9 in a family of ten children, so it seems very natural to me that he would need to carve out his own little niche, create a way to differentiate himself. And differentiate he did. The Perry’s were a resilient family. There was much laughter, and they did love one another fiercely. Yet there was definitely a “sink or swim” aspect to these cousins. They were all swimmers, some stronger than others. Brian just needed to invent his own stroke to stay afloat.
Brian’s biological mother, my aunt, Cathy Kollmeyer Perry, passed away quite suddenly in 1964, leaving my Uncle Bob in charge of raising their seven children, the youngest being only two years of age. Brian was the second youngest, aged three. Tragic in any day and age, but especially challenging in an era where fathers weren’t schooled or accomplished in even the slightest way to the endless and menial tasks of childrearing. The universe dumped Uncle Bob smack in the middle of a shit storm of climate change magnitude, but that in itself is an entirely different chapter of family lore.
After a few years of single parenting, Uncle Bob met and married my sweet Aunt Faith, who had three young children of her own. I was very proud of the fact that my cousins were a bona fide “Brady Bunch” blended family. This Brady Bunching created four boys of almost all the same ages, and it was virtually impossible for me to tell one from the other, even though two out of those four boys (Aunt Faith’s) had red hair. You would think that would’ve helped me a little, but I was just as bad with names then as I am now. As an only child and the youngest of all the cousins, I was always timid and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of boisterous older children at our family reunions. Much like today, I could never keep anyone’s names straight. Especially in Brian’s family where the names of the original seven kids all began with the letter B.
At the first memory of my cousin Brian I was only about five or six years old and he must have been about eight or nine. He sensed right away I didn’t have a clue what his, or any of my cousins names were. Brian pulled me aside and looked me square in the eyes. “Okay, listen now,” he said. “I am Brian. You got that?”
“Yes,” I replied dutifully. He never bothered to make sure I knew anyone else’s name. Just his.
“What’s my name?” he responded.
“Brian,” I replied.
“Good,” he said. “What’s my name?”
“Brian!” I repeated, starting to giggle.
“Good! What’s my name?” and this went on for at least ten minutes, and for the remainder of the day I was periodically pop quizzed. The end result being that at the conclusion of that family reunion, I remembered no other cousin’s name except Brian’s. So, as you can imagine, a childhood bond of that type grew stronger at every gathering.
So back to the moped story of 1978: My Mom, Dad and I are standing on the sidewalk in downtown Fremont, in front of Kollmeyer’s Hardware store, the family business, with Uncle Bob and what’s-my-name Brian. We are gazing in awe and admiration at a sporty, yellow, pristine moped, soaking up the limelight in Kollmeyer’s front display window, probably the same way the French stared at a live giraffe for the first time in the 1800’s.
I am unable to declare what was more impressive— the fact that such a cute little motorized bicycle existed, or the fact that someone in my thrifty, no-nonsense, far-cry-from-early-adopter family actually owned one. Uncle Bob, my mother’s younger brother, is explaining to us how, in an effort to boost sluggish summer sales, he created his own version of Kollmeyer’s Monopoly (and no, I’d wager my firstborn on my certainty he did not spend money consulting any attorneys on the legality of using Parker Bros. trademarked board game for his promotion.) The brand-new yellow moped was the GRAND PRIZE. And the good people of Fremont were opening their wallets and responding with an enthusiasm that made his cash registers sing. The Monopoly contest was due to arrive at an exciting conclusion in just a few short weeks, and some lucky winner would ride away on a brand new moped.
Eventually, Mom, Dad and Uncle Bob head back inside the store. Brian and I remain on the sidewalk. The lure of the shiny new moped is simply too much for us.
“You ever get to ride it?” I ask.
“I sure did!” he replied. “It was so much fun.”
“Lucky!” I gushed, admiringly.
“You wanna take it for a ride?” Brian asks.
“What?” I gasp. “Can we really?”
“I think so,” Brian said, eyeing the display.
“Your dad said you could ride it?” I asked incredulously.
“Well, he didn’t say I couldn’t ride it,” he offered.
That was affirmation enough for me. It was Brian’s home turf and he was in charge, so I stood excitedly by as Brian entered the store and carefully removed the moped from the display in the front window. The last thing I was going to do was try and talk him out of probably the most exciting thing to happen to me all summer.
He gently wheeled the motorized bike out of the store. We walked it around the corner to the back alley. We might have had to find some gasoline for it, but this I can’t quite recall clearly. But finally, after much anticipation, we are ready to roll.
“So you sit here,” he instructed, “and I’ll sit here,” he said, situating himself on the same tiny seat behind me. We were both pretty skinny, so we barely fit. “So first you start pedaling, like this” he said, as he pedaled it like a regular bike, and then I guess he turned a gear or something, and the little motor revved to life.
And off we went, Brian laughing his contagious laugh and me grinning from ear to ear, on a madcap, Mr. Toad-like journey through downtown Fremont. No helmets, wind in our hair, warm sun on our shoulders, relishing every ounce of pleasure gleaned from being risk-takers— bold, adventurous teenagers on a carefree summer afternoon. This was The Life. No sweating from strenuous energy exertion pedaling like a dog. As the moped’s motor hummed, we felt as if we were zipping and flying over the streets of town.
Fremont, Nebraska is not a big town at all, so it took us only a few minutes and an ounce of gasoline to clear the downtown city blocks. Soon we were on the edge of town, in a more residential area. We were on such a high from the freedom of flying over city streets, that it soon became apparent to everyone BUT the two of us, that we would have to find something to sustain our elevated adrenaline levels. “Time to prudently turn around and return home,” said no one on a Joy Ride, ever.
That was the cue for the two Mormons to enter. Two teenage young men with neatly combed, short haircuts are walking door-to-door in the August sun, spreading the Good Word, dressed in black slacks, pressed, white short-sleeved shirts and neckties as if they had just stepped off the Broadway stage of Book of Mormon.
“Oh look,” Brian said, “Mormons.”
“What are Mormons?” I replied. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had heard of Mormons before, because my Auntie Theo’s house, where we always stayed when we visited Nebraska, was very near a structure called Mormon Bridge, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Back in Shreveport, we had never had any Mormons come ringing our doorbell, to politely inquire as to our Eternal Salvation.
“Those are Mormons,” Brian said, attempting to point them out, but his hands were busy gripping the handlebars. “Over there.”
“Where??” I asked. The wind was whipping my long brown hair to hell and gone, so I still didn’t see the young men in the black slacks and white shirts.
“We’ll go around the block again and I’ll show you,” Brian said, hanging a right turn. “By the way, my eyes are closed!”
I couldn’t turn around to verify this, due to my hair in my face and the cramped accommodations. “They are not!” I shouted gleefully. “Shut up! They are not!” I shriek-laughed, as Brian swerved from side to side, pretending he was driving blindly.
We circled the block, returning to the point where he last spotted the Mormons on foot. At this point, it should be noted that the streets of this particular neighborhood were old and made of brick, and, obviously, very bumpy.
“There they are!” Brian announced, rounding the corner. In a sudden burst of idiocy, we decided to show off exactly how “cool” we thought we were, zooming by on a moped whilst the unlucky Mormons were slow of foot, unable to catch up with us as we were about to, so we thought, ride off brazenly into the horizon.
Brian let out a series of high-pitched beeps with the little moped horn as we zoomed past the young men, who observed us benignly.
“HI MORMONS!” Brian yelled to them.
Caught up in the moment, I chimed in, “Hi-ya Mormons!” Both of us in a loud, obnoxious, turd-ish, Ha-Ha-I’m-riding-a-moped-and-you’re-not kind of way; not a cheerful, friendly, greeting kind of way, I must confess. I guess we suspected we could get away with it. We were about to make a swift, vanishing exit.
But at that very moment of escape, such the thing of which John Lennon sang, occurred. Yep. Instant Karma. Distracted by the Mormon taunting, Brian neglected to notice an enormous, gaping pothole in the bricked pavement. He inadvertently drove straight into it, causing a huge impact with the front tire. I can recall the handlebars shaking violently as we spastically wobbled out of control, for real this time. The front tire lurched suddenly sideways as we were thrown from the moped and on to the rugged pavement beneath us.
I never lost consciousness, but we had both taken quite a fall. 1978 was also the summer before I got my contact lenses. My vision was so nearsighted that I was considered legally blind, and my tortoiseshell glasses, which I would describe as “Coke-bottle bottomed” because the corrective lenses felt as thick and heavy as the bottom of a glass Coca-Cola bottle or a mayonnaise jar, had been knocked off my face. Blind as a mole, I was crawling around on my hands and bloodied knees, frantically patting the pavement for my spectacles so I could get my bearings. Brian was equally disoriented. We must have made quite a sight.
Suddenly, the two Mormon boys appeared in my blurry, unassisted vision. One went immediately to Brian and the other to me. “Are you okay?” they asked each of us, teeming with concern. One Mormon found my glasses a few yards away and began to clean them with his shirt tail as he gently handed them back to me.
“Here you go,” he offered kindly.
Brian and I were steeping in shame and humiliation. I was simultaneously grateful and mortified.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” they asked again, genuinely concerned, as we tried to stand up and dust ourselves off, assessing the situation. “What can we do to help you? Do you need a bandage?” they asked about my bleeding knee. Still not sure what was hurting worse, my body or my conscience, I declined their offers of help.
“No, no we are fine, just fine” we replied, even though we weren’t really sure if we were fine. Our scrapes and injuries hurt like hell, but we were both so ashamed and embarrassed, we were willing ourselves to be in perfect shape.
“Sorry about that,” we mumbled apologetically to the Mormons. They reacted with great kindness and maturity, as if they hadn’t heard any of the childish name calling. I mean, it all makes perfect sense. They didn’t have to gloat—they had clearly “won” this battle. I’m sure their faith was imminently strengthened that day—think about it— the way they were able to glimpse the swift and mighty hand of Divine Retribution, the immediate justice of their Almighty, literally flicking us right off of our sin wagon like you would a mosquito on your forearm. They probably felt like they had witnessed a miracle, now that I think about it.
So I wish I could say, at this point, that the shame and embarrassment was the worst of our problems.
While one of the Mormon boys was helping me adjust my glasses, the other one had gone to try and pick up the mangled moped.
“You need some help getting this back home?” he offered.
Brian and I stared mutely at the battered little motorbike, which moments before had been a pristine and generous giver of Joy Rides. Post pothole, when one held the handlebars in the normal, forward-facing position, the front wheel was bent at a complete 90 degree angle. In other words, handlebars facing north, wheel facing west. Dents and scratches were everywhere, and because of the distorted front wheel, we couldn’t even test the motor to see if it would start back up.
After finally assuring the Mormons that we were in fine shape to proceed, Brian and I endured a lengthy and silent trudge back to Uncle Bob’s hardware store. Together we held the moped upright and walked it back to the store, keeping the handle bars turned at a severe right angle so that the tire would face forward so we could push it.
I will never forget Brian and I wheeling that mangled moped back into the store. We attempted to use the back entrance, to call the least amount of attention to ourselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. All sound and activity in the store ceased the moment we entered. The only sound I can remember was the damaged tire making a rhythmic, pathetic squeak as it cycled limply over the linoleum floor, heralding the death knell of the once coveted Grand Prize. All eyes were upon us, awash with a mix of both pity and smirk. Employees and customers, in stunned silence, some quietly giddy over the opportunity to be eyewitnesses to fresh, small-town gossip, recorded our every step as we solemnly escorted the moped’s corpse through the store like pallbearers.
Furious would be an understatement for my Uncle Bob’s reaction. So furious, in fact, that he had to put his anger on hold. Which must have been excruciating for Brian, who knew the hammer was going to come down, hard, at a later date. All eyes were on Uncle Bob, who was smart enough not lose his wig in front of an audience…his employees, his customers, his sister and her family. If there was going to be a beating, he didn’t want any witnesses. I am joking here but if I were Uncle Bob, capital punishment would have definitely crossed my mind.
Brian hated to see us leave that day, for so many obvious reasons. We kind of wished our injuries had been a little bit worse, so as to diminish the severity of the punishment that was sure to follow. We might have tried to smear a little more coagulating blood around near the injury sights, for maximum effect. And of course Uncle Bob was not informed of the Mormon taunting, and how the Instant Karma factored into the whole accident. Brian and I considered that an unnecessary detail. We blamed the entire debacle on the deplorable state of Fremont’s roads. Until we couldn’t resist telling the full story at the next family reunion, and the next, and the next. Luckily for Brian, by then all his father’s anger had evaporated.
While I received no punishment and our family conveniently headed back to Louisiana shortly afterward, Brian had to work at the hardware store the remainder of the summer to repay his Dad for the full cost of the moped. If my cousin resented me for any of that, he never let on.
Along with my mother and father, Uncle Bob resides in the Great Beyond now too. Hopefully he has earned some sort of “Preferred Seating” or at least an extra special chair, for all he had to endure raising Brian. I picture him sipping a Scotch, puffing on his cigars, relaxing in the shade of his beloved Winnebago that was destroyed by an engine fire, shaking his head and laughing with us as we rehash our old stories. We like to think that way though, don’t we.