The Ride and Fall of the Black Scorpions

In this day and age of smartphones, apps, video games, candy crushing, mine crafting, robloxing, movies and shows on demand, watching other people play video games on YouTube and an endless plethora of other mind-numbing and time-wasting distractions, it’s sometimes hard to believe that kids used to spend countless hours outside… just doing stuff.

Back then, you didn’t really need a reason to be outside. You just were. And that’s all that mattered. Especially to our parents. You’re driving me nuts, go outside, for cryin’ out loud! That was a phrase every kid of my generation heard a million times. Don’t get me wrong, we had our share of distractions. Saturday mornings alone were practically dedicated to worshiping at the mighty feet of the three-headed god known as Cartoons, Commercials and Cereal. But even then, we did that for maybe three to four hours tops, then it was time to do that ever popular childhood activity, going outside.

As a parent of three boys, I now find myself saying those exact words uttered to me by my parents long ago. Hey, you guys should go outside. Maybe walk down to the park or throw the football. More often than not, they look at me like I had just asked them to hunt, kill and skin their own food with nothing but a flint spear. But times and technology have changed, and with that, so has the accessibility of distractions and entertainment. There’s just no fighting that, I’m afraid.

Still, there was something to be said for those long-ago days, especially in the summer, when the neighborhood kids would gather like a roving band of traveling circus performers and wander all over town just looking for anything to occupy our brains and our time. We’d spend hours down by the Raisin River looking for weird bugs or garter snakes, or chucking rocks into it on a quest to find the perfect sploosh. Or maybe we’d see how long we could walk the local railroad tracks, maybe stopping long enough to place a penny or two on the rails, so we could check back later to see if they had gotten good and flattened by a passing locomotive. Or there was always the classic corn field hide and seek among the green stalks of sweet corn that grew in abundance around the outskirts of our small town.

But nothing… and I mean nothing… compared to the staple activity called riding bikes. That’s how we’d say it, Wanna ride bikes? Hey, we’re gonna ride bikes, you comin’? What were we doing all day? Oh nothing. Just riding bikes. It was more than an activity, it was often our common resting state. Hell, sometimes we’d all be in some neighbor kid’s driveway or front yard just talking and making jokes all while sitting on our bikes, like they were permanently fused to our butts.

Yes, bicycles were a big deal to us back in the day. Was your bike was very often part of your identity. You could pull up on your bike to a friend’s house and know who else is over there by identifying the various bikes piled up in the front yard. Sure, they were your most trustworthy mode of transportation, they’d get you down to the local drug store for a much needed supply run of comic books, trading cards and candy coffins filled with sweet-tart bones, then off to the park to meet up with the rest of the gang at the picnic tables, before cruising up to the town pool, beach towel around your neck and flapping in the wind as you sped down the sidewalk. 

But your bike also said something about you. Your bike scraped up and caked with dried mud? Then you were telling the other kids that you were an off-road daredevil. Was it pristine and shining in the summer sun after a careful wash? Then you were a gentleman of refinement and taste.

My first bike came into my life the Christmas of 1978 when I was six years old. It was an odd chimera of bike styles for its time. It was sort of a mix between a Schwinn Stingray (mostly in the seat), but with the addition of the new (at the time) BMX style handlebars and nobby tires. Even the seat didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was this odd sort of amalgamation of banana seat with a kind of off-road motorcycle look to it. The frame was like a proto-BMX style, like it knew what it was trying to evolve into but was more like the middle caveman in that ape to human evolution chart we saw in school.

I loved that bike, even though it took me a while to truly understand the freedom and possibilities for adventure that it represented. I didn’t even learn to ride it properly until the following summer, motivated by the fact that my neighbor friend’s little brother learned how to ride his bike before me. But once I got rolling (thanks to my older brother’s pointers and patience), I was suddenly getting a taste of freedom (along with the taste of a few bugs in my teeth).

I rode that bike to death. I pushed it to its limits of speed, ramped it off precariously balanced plywood ramps, rattled its frame down off-road wooded trails, and threw it down on countless driveways (we never used the kickstands). There were nights, lying in bed after an almost entire day on that bike, when I could still feel the nubby grips of the handlebars still on my palms, like a sailor who still felt the sea in his legs when walking ashore.

Later, I would get a newer bike. This time it would be a full blown BMX style bike. A Huffy, I believe. What’s odd about this bike is that I have no memory whatsoever of actually receiving it. Which is weird for me because when it comes to kid stuff and the accouterments that go with that, I have an almost photographic memory. I know I didn’t get it for Christmas or a birthday, those things are all cataloged neatly in my hippocampus. I suspect that it may have been an acquisition of happenstance, like my dad won it playing golf or selling a record number of office supplies or something, and I became the benefactor of such a windfall. All I know is that one day my old bike was there, and the next day a new bike had taken its place.

I can’t say that I loved the new bike. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool and I appreciated it. It was black and gold and of the popular style of the time, so it looked cool and rode great. But for some reason, I never connected with it like I did my first bike, that hybrid frankenstein thing that was part BMX and part cruiser.

That probably explains my dad’s ire when I came home one day with yet another bike. 

In the summer of 1983, at the height of BMX popularity when most of my friends were talking about the rad Mongoose bikes they wanted, I came across a garage sale a few blocks away from my street. Always one for treasure hunting (even back then), I perused the various used wares in hopes of finding some choice action figures or dusty stack of old comics to blow my lawn-mowing money on.

That’s when I saw it. Parked neatly at the end of one long folding table piled high with old dishes and kitchen appliances, was a thing a pure beauty. I would later learn that it was an older Schwinn Stingray, but at the time, the brand name didn’t matter to me. All I knew was that looked cool, like it was leaning up against the folding table in a leather jacket and lighting a smoke, as it gave me a nod that said, What’s up kid? You looking for a cool bike?

I found out that they wanted a whopping $15 for it. Calculating inflation for 1983 dollars, that would be about $6.5 billion in today’s money. Or so it felt. But, luckily, I has squirreled away enough lawn-mowing, leaf-raking and bottle returning moola that I thought I could swing it. Sadly, after racing back home (on the bike I didn’t like that much), I found that I had only $12, and that included the two dollar bill my grandfather had given me. However, I had seen my dad employ a tactic in the past called negotiation, so I thought it was worth a shot. I ran back (on foot, since I was anticipating buying a bike, after all). Luckily for me, the guy running the garage sale was a pretty nice fella, and he knew a kid in love with a bike when he saw one, so after I explained how I was three bucks shy, but offered to mow his lawn, he smiled and cut me a huge break. He figured that $12 was close enough and then told me to keep the two dollar bill from my grandpa, stating that $10 was a great deal to finally have that thing out of his garage.

And just like that, I was the owner of a beautiful vintage Schwinn Stingray. The frame was entirely gold, with a long white banana seat speckled with golden glitter. It had massively high “ape-hanger” handlebars like a chopper I’d seen on Starsky & Hutch, and a high “sissy bar” behind the seat, perfect for strapping a rolled up sleeping bag or bookbag onto. 

Riding that bike back home was glorious. The way it silently glided down the street, my skinny arms reaching out to the glittering golden grips that were almost higher than my head, the way my body sort of leaned back into the seat. It was such a far cry from the hunched over, elbows out way we normally rode BMX bikes. Years later, I would see the movie Easy Rider and look at Peter Fonda on his chopper and think, Yeah man… I know how you feel. That’s how cool this bike was to me.

As I mentioned before, my old man wasn’t too pleased that I bought this (to him) out-of-style used bike, when I had a perfectly good (and practically new) BMX style bike in the garage. But he let it go with an exasperated shake of his head. I wasn’t spared any teasing and pointing from the other kids in the neighborhood, either. Again, this was the radical age of BMX, so to see a kid their age willingly ride around on such an archaic contraption was laughable. But I didn’t care. They can spin out on the dirt trails all they wanted. Me? I’m going to cruise.

That bike, that laid-back almost chopper-like bike, began to change how I thought about our favored mode of transportation. I started to understand that these two wheeled vehicles said something about us, about who we were. With that in mind, I thought it would be cool if we (meaning the kids of my neighborhood) unified under some sort of single identity that showed our love for cruising around on two wheels, burning up the road of our sleepy little town.

So I decided to form a gang. A bicycle gang. And we were going to be badass. I can only imagine that I got the idea from an episode of CHiPs or Dukes of Hazzard, but I somehow had the vague idea that there was such a thing as “motorcycle gangs” in the world and they all looked badass and had cool patches on their jackets. So I pitched the idea to the neighborhood kids. We would start a club, with the sole purpose of riding around on our bikes and looking cool.

I came up with the name The Black Scorpions. Yeah…. that sounded cool. And I drew up a symbol for our gang; a scorpion all in black (duh), but with a knife in one pincher and an axe in another pincher. And just in case people didn’t get the message that we were a badass gang of ne’er-do-wells and roughnecks, I threw out all of my entomological knowledge and added the blood red hourglass shape from a black widow spider onto the scorpion’s back. A little drippy writing of our name in an arc over the top and we now had ourselves a cool patch design.

I managed to get all of the members who agreed to join to go get an old white t-shirt or other small piece of fabric and quickly set out to hand drawing our logo onto six pieces of cut-out white cloth, one for each of the six members of our gang. We then all picked out our coolest jackets, mostly denim jean-jackets, and I proceeded to attach the patches to back of our coats (thanks to my mom’s stash of safety pins in her sewing basket).

We all gathered one sunny summer afternoon in my front yard, donned our jackets with our gang’s “colors”, and set out on our bikes to cruise around the whole town to let the citizens know that The Black Scorpions are here and we’re here to stay.

We felt so cool, all of us banded together in a show of solidarity with a dash of dangerousness, the tires of our bikes hissing down the asphalt and concrete of our town, our menacing emblems emblazoned on our backs, promising untold adventure for those we would call friends, and a swift slash of regret for those who would cross us.

That lasted about an hour.

Honestly, it was way too hot to be wearing denim jackets, that humid July afternoon. And the older kids laughing and pointing didn’t help. Also, my typography skills apparently left a bit to be desired because one kid looked at our back patches and said “What are the Blank Scorpions?” 

We rode back home with our super-cool jackets balled up around our handlebars or tied around our waists so as to avoid further ridicule and possibly heat stroke. I think I made a couple more attempts that summer to get the gang to wear their colors again, but either they weren’t into it, or their moms were all less than pleased that we saftey-pinned a thousand holes into the backs of all our jackets. Either way, that spelled out the demise of the notorious Black Scorpions gang.

But awesome jackets with patches on the backs or not, that summer will always live in my memories as a summer filled with cruising around town on my beloved golden Stingray, eating up the miles beneath my two wheels, arms held high on the ape-hanger handlebars, leaning back on the banana seat, chrome sissy-bar gleaming in the sun and knowing without a doubt that even though all the other kids were fitting in with each other on their new-style BMX bikes, I personally felt cool as hell.

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