EDITOR’S NOTE: Joanne Brand is among 20 authors who contributed their childhood memories of World War II to Top Dog Publishing’s best-selling book, “WAR KIDS—The Littlest Generation.” Today, she shares with us another childhood memory. She has also written her own book, “Ten Miles from Aspen,” a review of which accompanies this story.
By Joanne Morris Brand
When I was a child, my family lived in the small town of Spearfish, South Dakota. We lived on Main Street. My mother, a widow, could only afford to buy one bicycle for my brother and me when we were about six years old. So it was a boy’s bike. I was so short that I could not reach the pedals if I straddled the bar. So, I learned to ride by leaning to the left side, putting my right leg under the bar, and balancing the bike as I pumped up and down the street.
I must have looked like a strange circus act, but I got pretty good. I took on any dare from playmates to try something different and bicycling that way succeeded in showing people I could do what I set my mind to. As I grew inch by inch, I finally got my leg over the bar and then had to learn to ride the correct way. I accomplished that in no time…maybe leaning a bit to the left, but balanced.
The streets in Spearfish were divided by alleys, which ran along the back of the properties of homes and businesses. This cut the square blocks in half. Many alleyways were adorned with hollyhocks along the back property line. I made hollyhock dolls with those pretty flowers. The back yards contained the family gardens and some with a shed. Businesses may have had a building in back for storage.
After World War II, my mother worked at the J.C. Penny store, but wanted to go back to teaching, which she had done before she was married. My father died in 1942, two days after my fifth birthday. Mom needed to go back to college to get her teacher’s certificate. This meant no income, except my father’s VA pension, plus maybe a small amount saved. We had to move to a less expensive place to live.
We moved a couple of blocks from our house to a three-room apartment above stores on Main Street. It was a small place for the five of us which included my mother, sister, brother and my grandma who moved in with us after my father died. “We’ll manage,” was my mother’s motto. The back side of Main Street, where the apartment sat and the other side of the alley, was occupied by small homes. She walked about two miles to and from the Black Hills State Teachers College for courses.
It was 1946, I think, when I was about nine years old and I was always busy at play. I found a new playmate that lived in an apartment above her family’s store. She and I played paper dolls in her bedroom. We also played games with my brother and other children in the block, games such as Ollie Ollie Oxen Free and another game where we threw a ball over the roof to see if the person on the other side of the garage could catch it. “Gotcha,” “I caught it,” “I made it before you,” and so forth, were yelled until the games began to get boring.
I often bicycled around the block on my brother’s bicycle. There were a couple of boys who lived around the corner and they bragged about how fast they could bike around the block and through the alley. They made fun of me because I was a girl. “You’re a panty waist. We can beat you every time. Go play with your dolls,” they taunted me.
I just knew I could go faster than those smart-alecks, and decided I’d do it. “I’ll show you what fast really is!” I yelled back.
I took off at a fast speed, cut through the alley and pumped as hard as I could and leaned forward with eyes determined and jaw set while gripping the handlebars. As I neared the end of the alley I planned to turn left onto the sidewalk and race to the corner. Well, I over-calculated my speed and as I turned onto the sidewalk I lost control. I slid across the sidewalk and hit a tree head-on! I came to an abrupt stop, still hanging onto the handlebars and my eyes wide with surprise. When I jumped off, the bicycle just stood there as if imbedded in the tree. “You stupid tree!” I yelled.
I was so embarrassed, but grabbed the bicycle and pulled it back. The front wheel was pushed in and twisted at an angle. It was jammed and would not spin. I could not push or ride the bike. “Told you so,” the boys yelled and laughed as I tried to move the bike away and pull it back home.
I didn’t want to tell my mother that I was racing. “The tree just wasn’t supposed to be there, Mama, and it got in my way.” Now, I was sure any mother believed that! As I recall I was not scolded, but my mother could not fix the bike and she could not afford a new one either. Later my uncle came and fixed it.
I wanted to show those boys, but I was given a strong warning to forget it and not to race. That was hard to abide by, but I tried. I never crashed again and I always watched out for what was around the corner. You never know what will come up when you turn a corner.
Bashing a bicycle into a tree taught me a good lesson.