Good Ole’ Briggs and stratton

I’m going to take a guess and say the year was probably 1966…. that would make me 8 years old in that photo. We lived in a small town called Yucaipa, in the foothills of the eastern San Bernardino mountains. The town was maybe around 8,000 population at that time, right about 2,600 feet elevation. My father was a contractor and began building custom homes around the town, so we moved a few times… always into a new house that he just built. This boyhood home was at the top of Yucaipa, in the hills…. the only house on a dead-end street of about 800 feet in length. Across the street was an asphalt embankment that rose up to an old abandoned peach orchard about 5 feet above the road, and even though the orchard was not tended, it still produced some peaches. I would go with my Dad and pick a few, take them home, cut them up in a bowl and pour cream over them. 

I was one of 5 children….. a sister being the eldest… 18 years older than me, then my two brothers, another sister 5 years older, and then me. The eldest sister and my two brothers were out of the house before I could recall… my sis getting married when I was born, and my brothers both entered the military…. The eldest brother, Jim, into the Navy…. and Bob into the Air Force, leaving me with my sister Carol to grow up with. 

I will admit I was a handful as a youngster…. always into something. I had a great curiosity about how things worked. My Dad being a contractor always lots of “stuff” in the garage… screws and nuts and bolts… and old lamp cords. I got the brilliant idea of borrowing one of those lamp cords, and a pair of diagonal cutters, and stripped off about 1 1/2 inches of the cord covering, then got a light bulb, and holding one of the bare leads to the end of the bulb with my thumb, and the other bare lead on the threads at the side of the bulb, I plugged the cord into the wall. After a few sparks and a nice 110 jolt, I remember dropping everything, pulling the plug out of the wall, and then looking at the groove burned into my thumb from the bared wire. Let’s just say I gained a real respect for electricity from that incident. 

My brother Jim has always been a fun loving person, and indoctrinated me to many things as I grew up. He lived in the Los Angeles area, but would come up on Sundays quite a bit to visit, and sometimes would stay for the weekend. I remember the maroon Chevy Impala SS he had, equipped with an 8-track tape player. That’s where I got indoctrinated to early rock music…. The Beach Boys, Little Richard, Nancy Sinatra, Arthur Lyman. I remember Jim one weekend showing up with a bright red 1963 Corvette Stingray convertible that he traded in his Impala for. I eventually got over the loss of the Impala, especially after he took me for a ride in the Vette down the winding Live Oak Canyon road. 

Jim was also a motorcycle enthusiast, and the first motorcycle of his I can remember was a Yamaha 305 Big Bear Scrambler… later on, that gave way to a customized 1960’s Triumph 500… then came a Kawasaki 500 Mach III… and finally he bought a Honda CB 550, 4 cylinder. I remember the Triumph well because that’s the bike he used to teach me how to ride. I would drive with Jim on the back, and of course at 8 years old I was too short to reach the ground, so when we came to a stop sign, Jim was the one to hold the bike up until we got moving again.

On Sunday mornings I would hang out at the entrance to our street, just hoping to see Jim coming up the road…. the Impala or the candy apple red Triumph. I spotted him!! It was the Impala… and he turned the corner to our street, and I raced after him, excitedly, on foot. Jim was the one who taught me how to ride a motorcycle, how to throw a football and a frisbee, took me to the Saturday Night Stock Car races at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, and to the Can Am races at Riverside International Raceway to see Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, John Surtees, Denny Hulme and Mark Donahue.

As I came running up to the house, Jim told me he had something for me. Out of the back seat of the Impala he wrestled out a Mini Bike with a 1hp Briggs and Stratton engine! I couldn’t believe it! I was absolutely berserk with glee! We just looked at it for a while… then put a little gas in the small tank, pulled out the choke, and wound the cotton rope with a round wooden handle around the starter pulley and gave it a yank. The repurposed lawnmower engine sputtered to life, and my legacy on my own two wheels began! I’m sure when Briggs and Stratton opened in 1908 in Wisconsin, they never dreamed they would have given rise to a whole new recreation. 

I must have ridden a million miles on that mini bike…. at least it seemed like that. I couldn’t wait to get home from school so I could ride until sunset. Now I had a mini bike of my own… no longer would I have to ride on the back of my friend’s bikes. I buzzed up and down our dead-end road… perfect spot as there was no traffic. We had a dirt trail that skirted the edge of the peach orchard diagonally up to Flag Hill park almost half a mile away. I rode that dirt trail incessantly. Just across the street from the park entrance was the long, winding driveway that led to the house of my best friend Gary. We rode that driveway too. 

Just over the hill, behind Gary’s house, was the old reservoir, about a quarter mile up at the top of Grandview Drive. An above ground water tank was built next to the reservoir, so all the water was diverted to the tank, and the big concrete lined pit was empty…. the perfect playground for young boys. Imagine a large pond… maybe 1,200 by 800 feet in size… 40 feet deep… with concrete all the way up to the rim, which gave us this wonderful, banked and sloped perimeter. Now I had my own scooter to tear across that concrete bowl on! We rode that reservoir a lot.

Fast forward a year, maybe one and a half years, and Jim dives up on a Sunday morning, and pulls out of his trunk a 3 hp Briggs and Stratton engine to replace the 1 hp motor. We got busy swapping out motors…. well, Jim did most of the work, but I watched every move and learned. We yanked the recoil starter…. no more winding a rope around the notched pulley…. and the engine sparked to life. Now it was time to take out the new motor on a test ride….. it was akin to going from an Impala SS to a Corvette Stingray, in my mind. So much more power… and speed. Wait until Gary and all the other guys see me with my new motor! I couldn’t wait to get up to the reservoir and show them all what my bike with the bigger engine could do. 

There were 4 of us guys living within a quarter mile of each other with mini bikes… of course, Mike that lived down the hill from me had the best mini bike of them all…. a Taco with a 5 hp engine. He was hands down the king… In talking with Mike, and other guys that had mini bikes, I learned a very special trick that helped triple the performance of that little repurposed lawnmower engine…… The Governor Spring! Remove the governor spring, get a piece of solid wire about 2 inches long, bend the ends 90 degrees and insert into the holes where the spring was. Now when I twisted the hand grip, the throttle on the carburetor would respond proportionately, and that meant three times the speed! Instead of 15 mph, I was doing 100… well…. not really, but it sure seemed like it. One thing I know for sure… Briggs and Stratton would have been proud of their engines, as we put those little motors through hell, and they kept on going, and going….. and kept going some more. We could have been their R & D lab, for I know we exceeded the manufacturer’s specifications in every category.

My Dad gave me an allowance of 25 cents each week, and I would grab the gallon gas can and ride my bicycle about half a mile, down the hill to the Shell gas station on the corner of Yucaipa Boulevard and Bryant Street. A gallon of regular gas was 25 cents, and that would last me all week. I rode my bicycle down to the gas station, as opposed to the mini bike, because we heard all the horror stories of how the Sheriff would write tickets to those kids riding their motor bikes on the street…. some even said the officer would confiscate your mini bike and take you to the station in handcuffs! That was a tough dilemma for me, because in order to get to Gary’s house I had to ride a short distance on the street, and then for us to get to the reservoir, we had to ride about a quarter mile up Grandview Street. We built up our nerve…. the adrenaline rush of being outlaws for riding on the street… nothing was going to keep us from the sheer exhilaration of riding in the reservoir… not even the possibility of our mug shots being published in the Yucaipa News Mirror weekly paper. 

I know that I gained an understanding of why the Sheriff would occasionally drive by Flag Hill Park and the reservoir. It wasn’t because they were on a specific beat or route…. it’s because someone phoned the station and complained about those young whippersnappers out riding on the street again. Those outlaw kids….those Hell’s Cherubs and their mini bikes! It was inevitable that we would lose the use of the reservoir. We just used what the environment availed…. and we used it as long as we could. 

A new mobile home park sprung up the whole distance along Grandview Drive, and a little up from the reservoir. Now the Sheriff showed up every time we went there to ride. Makes me wonder why people are so eager to complain… why do we always look for the bad in everything first, and not the good instead? We sure had a blast while it lasted! Memories that will never fade!

I don’t recall what happened to that mini bike. Assuredly I outgrew it. Maybe it wound up in a scrap yard someplace…. or got melted down and made into some patio chairs, or a bed frame…. or maybe it became a new lawnmower deck. I would love to pull that rope again and hear the engine purr, take off up the dirt trail, be an outlaw again for the 30 seconds it took me to ride on the street to my destination…. to feel the freedom of having nothing more to do than experience joy with the wind in my face.

P.S. The original photo…. The boat that Jim showed up with one day. My Mom at the side with my sister Carol behind the wheel. You can see the back end of Jim’s 1964 Chevy Impala SS, and in the background my Dad’s 1960 Chevy Wagon, my bicycle carelessly left on it’s side in the driveway, and me on my mini bike with the 1 hp Briggs and Stratton motor.

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