By Doug Mayer
“We’ll take it!”
My dad and I were looking at exactly 1.5 1971 model year 47 cc Arctic Cat Prowler minibikes. The cost, in 1977 dollars, was something like $150. I anted up half the cost from my meager passbook account.
I would not have been more excited if the Grateful Dead had dropped by for dinner. (Hey, I had older brothers. I was a cool kid.)
If my dad had known the unsupervised mishaps that would ensue, he would have thrown me in our right-hand-drive '66 VW Microbus and never looked back.
The year before, my parents had ditched suburban life, opting instead for dirt roads, party-line telephones, an Ariens snowblower and evenings spent enduring fuzzy TV reception. They weren’t back-to-the-land types. They just wanted to get the hell out of New York City.
My nearest friend was four miles away, in Center Sandwich, New Hampshire. (Go ahead with the baloney jokes. I’ve heard them all.) My older siblings were off in college. This was a dozen years before the first Macintosh computer. My after-school excitement consisted of splitting firewood while our Newfoundland looked on.
Boring doesn’t even start to describe it.
Enter Arctic Cat. In the 1970s, they made gas-powered minibikes. For kids. That’s right. Toy motorcycles that went non-toy speeds, like 40 MPH and up. If I had to pick a side in the debate, “Arctic Cat versus Ivy League Education: Which Instills the Most Life Lessons?” I’d have a hard time deciding.
- I learned about engines, without any Youtube videos or Chilton’s manuals. I spent winters ripping that bike apart on our porch, cleaning and studying each part.
- Over the course of those years, I gained enough mechanical self-esteem to disassemble and break probably a dozen appliances and machines in the ensuing three-plus decades.
- I learned how stupidly satisfying it is to fix something with your hands.
- Rebuilding the carburetor, I gained enough Zen calm to rival any Buddhist monk this side of Lhasa.
- I learned I loved the smell of grease and gas. Especially on my hands and blue jeans. It made me feel impossibly old and cool.
- I learned that my dad was usually right. Especially when it comes to matters of physics, in particular acceleration and braking, and impacts into stationery objects.
- I learned that my body is not nearly as breakable as you might imagine.
- I learned that exhaust pipes are incomprehensibly hot.
- I learned proper interaction with officers of the law, when “Lester the Arrester,” as our overeager town cop was known, pulled me over with full lights-and-siren for driving a non-road-worthy minibike on a desolate dirt road. Lester asked me for my driver’s license. I was probably 13 at the time.
- I learned the value of a helmet—a lesson that came at the same time that I learned that you can flip a minibike right onto you, if you’re not careful. (See above: Physics. And, sorry Mom, if you are learning this for the first time.)
Nearly forty years later, there aren’t many minibikes for sale. I’m sure liability lawyers had a hand in their demise. Those 47 cc engines have been replaced by some things I’m glad I missed as a kid. (See: iPhones, social media, online stalkers, and a cultural trend towards arresting parents who let their kids play unsupervised.) And a few things about which I’m flat out envious. (See: Ultimate Frisbee, social media, iPod shuffles, and private browsing windows.)
But there are still a few minibikes out there. And if you’re a parent of a kid between 12 and 16, here’s my advice: Drop the helicoptering attitude, forget about what the disapproving neighbors and relatives will say, buy a good helmet, plan a stern lecture, and start looking right now on eBay or Craigslist.
I’ll help. Here’s one now.
Endure the argument with your spouse, turn from that page on eBay, beam at your kid and tell him, "We’ll take it!”
Hurry up and do it before it’s too late.
Your child will thank you for it.