A Pearl Harbor Bicycle: A child’s memories of Dec. 7, 1941

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I finished my paper route and was eating a cheeseburger and sipping a chocolate shake in the Bon Ton on Main Street in Polson, Montana, on Dec. 7, 1941, when the radio carried news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I knew little of Hawaii, and less of Japan, but I knew that sales of bicycles would be frozen if we went to war. I rushed home and begged Dad to drive to Kalispell right then, on Sunday afternoon, to get the bike we had talked about since summer.

My skinny-tired bike was falling apart from constant spills and shakeups on the pothole-filled, rutted, gravel streets of Polson. The wheels were out of line after several attempts to replace missing spokes and the broken frame was brazed in two places. Flat tires often delayed newspaper deliveries.

The bike baskets were not big enough for all my papers. My paper route covered the entire town. It reached from the lakeshore to Grandview Addition and over to the hospital by the southern foothills. Sunday papers were so large I could not carry them all in one load, so I divided my route in two. In bad weather, customers at the end of the route often called and complained that they were not getting their Sunday paper until 10 a.m. — after they returned from church. I alternated the route so that each half received early delivery every other week. It seemed fair to me, but resulted in half my customers being unhappy all the time. I explained that sometimes the papers did not arrive in Polson until 7 a.m. or later, but that did not matter to people who wanted their paper before breakfast.

There were two paper routes in Polson back then, The Daily Missoulian, and the Sunday edition of the Spokesman-Review. The Missoulian was a larger, more profitable route, but the Sunday Spokesman was popular and made about half as much money in one day as the Missoulian did in seven. I had the Missoulian route, but I knew Bill wanted to get rid of his Spokesman route. If I had a decent bike, I was sure I could handle both newspapers.

Dad agreed a new bike would be ideal for delivering papers, but pointed out that the price of the one I wanted — $42 — was equal to a month’s wage for men working for the WPA. I was saving my money, and each week purchased savings stamps, later converting them to war bonds, but for now, the bicycle was out of reach. I had one $25 bond and a stamp book started for a second one, but my bond was nowhere near maturity. The $18.50 purchase price would grow to $25 in 10 years, but cashing it early meant less money. Adding up the present value of bond and stamps, I figured I was more than $20 short.

Money was not the only obstacle to getting a new bicycle when war was looming. Earlier that spring, President Roosevelt established the Office of Price Administration in an effort to control inflation and to prevent profiteering, hoarding and speculation. Rationing of several items was already in effect. Dad believed that bicycles would be declared a strategic commodity, available only to those who could obtain permission from our local ration board. As it turned out, that regulation did not go into effect for several months, but the threat of continuing to patch up that worn out skinny-tired bicycle was real.

Dad saw the urgency in my face when I begged him to drive to Kalispell that Sunday morning more than 70 years ago. We figured out how much money I had and he agreed to loan me the difference. He phoned Mr. Wheaton at the bicycle shop and persuaded him to open his store if we could get there by four o’clock. The trip to Kalispell, some 70 miles north, was made in record time. Only a few months later gas rationing and a 35 mph speed limit would have made that trip impossible.

With my new bicycle neatly fitted into the back seat of our car, we were back in Polson by suppertime. The net profit from my paper route was less than one dollar per week. On our way home Dad delivered a lengthy eye-opening lecture on how long it would take me to pay off my debt.

On a recent trip to Kalispell, I wanted to see if I could find the bicycle shop that played such an important part in my life when I was 13 years old. I remembered it on a corner on the west side, about First Avenue I guessed, and somewhere between First and Fourth streets. It was a two-story brown clapboard building with large windows. Inside the display window, I recalled a bicycle with a curved frame that enclosed a streamlined red and white tank containing batteries for the headlight and horn. It had chrome fenders and a luggage rack over the rear wheel. The bike had “longhorn” handlebars, a spring-mounted front fork, large balloon tires, a red and white chain guard, a sleek headlight on the front fender, the newly invented kick-up stand, and New Departure coaster breaks. All this weighed more than 40 pounds. It was the Schwinn “Phantom” model, and Mr. Wheaton added baskets and other accessories.     

How I had longed to have that bicycle for my paper route in Polson. Dad knew Mr. Wheaton, and several times we had stopped by to visit or drove by the shop just to admire the bike. Mr. Wheaton was a friendly man who liked kids, and always carried a rag to wipe his hands of grease when he was fixing bikes or motorcycles.

Some scenes in Montana towns never seem to change. Even after 70 years, downtown Kalispell is one of those.

Perhaps long-time Kalispell residents might disagree with that statement, but when I enter town from the south on Highway 93, drive up tree-lined Main Street, circle around the courthouse and drive north on Main, I am transported back to the 1940s. Business signs have changed, of course. Here and there I notice a new building or two, occasionally I see a new storefront or a new coat of paint, but for the most part downtown Kalispell looks the same to me as it did when I was a boy. My father, mother, sisters and I often made that trip through town on our way to visit my grandparents in Whitefish, and the scene is etched in my mind.

City limits started at about 14th Street in the 1940s. There was little development south of town. Occasional farm buildings and open fields bordered narrow, two-lane Highway 93 all the way from Somers. The five of us in the family car kept a sharp eye as we approached town, hoping to see an airplane in flight. The airport was on the edge of town, surrounded by open space in those days.

The leafy tree-branch canopy over South Main Street is larger and more impressive now than it was then, but many of the clapboard-clad houses still sit sedately on manicured lawns. Where houses have been removed to make room for “improvements,” as on the west side of the courthouse between Ninth and 10th streets, I turn my eyes away and admire the magnificent refurbished three-story courthouse with its tower and spires set in the middle of Main Street, and remember my father and grandfather telling stories about its construction. The courthouse was built out on the edge of town in 1903, and remained a nearly solitary building until the property around it was developed in the 1920s.

North of the courthouse, many buildings have changed with modern architecture replacing some of the landmarks in my memory, but several brick churches remain. About Fifth Street, downtown is as I remember it. Many of the same brick buildings line north Main Street all the way to the train depot. When a modern glass-fronted building intrudes upon the scene, I look away, pretending it is not there. As I drive north I recognize the Masonic Lodge, and try to remember if the building on the corner of Main and First Street West ever had stairs leading down from that mysterious door 30 feet above the sidewalk.

Some of the closest avenues paralleling Main have been “upgraded” and “modernized,” but where classic buildings remain, Kalispell seems much the same to me, and I enjoy driving around just reminiscing. The old County High School, where my father went to school, and the old post office are now surrounded by modern parking lots and tacky new buildings, but beautiful tree-shaded Victorian houses still line avenues on the east side of Main, and modest wood-frame houses still mix with small businesses on the west side.

Where I thought the bicycle shop should be, I found an empty gravel-covered parking lot. Next door, I saw a large building with skateboards and models displayed in the window. I went inside and saw rows of exercise machines, bicycles and a repair shop in back. Several 10- and 12-year-old boys were admiring 10-speeds and mountain bikes. I asked the saleslady what happened to the bicycle shop that used to be at the corner.

“Well, this is it,” she said. “This is still Wheaton’s. We tore down the old building and moved into this new one several years ago.”

She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Go ahead and look around. There are pictures on the wall you might recognize.”

There were pictures of the old Wheaton Bicycle shop, of 1920s vintage Indian motorcycles, and of Mr. Wheaton as I remembered him. I watched the repairman carefully explaining to a teenager how to care for his new mountain bike, and marveled at how lightweight new bikes were.

The saleslady came over to me again and asked, “Did you shop here when you were a boy?”

I said, “Yes, I bought a Schwinn bicycle for my paper route.”

She found a scrapbook and we went through it looking at pictures of old bicycles, and there it was — the red and white “Phantom” model.

“I bought that bike from Mr. Wheaton on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941,” I said.

She looked at me quizzically for several moments, then said, “My. You have a very good memory.”

The date did not ring a bell for her. It was not her generation.

Most generations have those defining moments that stick in our memories. We all have those “Where were you when?” questions that frame our lives. Sometimes these are important, history-shaking events: “Where were you when you heard of JFK’s assassination?” or, “Where were you on 9/11?” Sometimes the events are trivial, but stay in our minds nevertheless: “Where were you when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show?” or, “Where were you when you heard that Elvis died?”

 Most people of my generation can tell you where they were when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. For me, the date will forever be associated with chocolate milkshakes at the Bon Ton, a mad dash to Kalispell and the finest bicycle a Montana newspaper boy ever owned.

© Irle White 2012                 


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