Tom Purcell, 3/3/2008 [Archive]

Material Kids

Material Kids

By Tom Purcell

I wish I hadn't lent my bike to my sister Kris.

Maybe I better explain.

The Children's Society, a charitable group in the UK dedicated to improving childhood, released the results of a recent survey. It found that kids are way too materialistic these days.

Look at the average suburban kid. He or she is outfitted with more technical gadgets and trendy, fashionable clothing than a model in Abercrombie & Fitch. Many of these kids appear to get whatever it is they demand their guilt-riddled parents buy for them.

Peer pressure puts kids in a competitive race to own the latest, the coolest and the most expensive junk with the hopes of impressing the other kids and fitting in. The survey finds that the kids most influenced by commercial pressures suffer more mental-health issues.

It certainly wasn't like that when I was a kid in the '70s. Most households had only one income earner. Our parents didn't have the cash to buy us the junk we wanted. Which brings us to my bike.

I'd been hoping for a new bike for Christmas and finally got one in 1972. It was a Huffy spider bike -- complete with long handlebars, a banana seat and neon-green paint that made it the coolest bike in the neighborhood.

I was consumed with so much joy that day, I couldn't imagine any gift that could make me happier. But then my godmother Shirley gave me a top-of-the-line bicycle odometer. It wasn't one of the cheap devices that every kid bolted onto his front-wheel fork; all the cheap ones did was register mileage.

No, this odometer bolted onto the handle bars. It had a real display that measured both mileage and speed. I spent hours seeing how fast I could get the bike to go (I hit 44 miles per hour one day while peddling like mad down a long hill in the county park).

And I spent hours trying to rack up mileage. That was prestige in those days -- the more miles on your odometer, the cooler you were. But my lust for mileage proved to be my undoing.

One beautiful summer day, my sister Kris asked to borrow my bike. She wanted to go for a ride in the park with her friend. Eager to record more mileage, I handed it over without a thought.

But Kris didn't make it to the park that day. She rode to the Murphy's Mart department store a few miles away instead. It never occurred to her that my beautiful Huffy spider bike -- with its highly coveted odometer -- might require a lock. It was long gone by the time she exited the store.

I've been a writer a long time and still can't find the words to describe the pain I knew that day. I wonder how kids today might respond to such an experience. Would they even care?

Or would they just assume that green Huffy spider bikes grow on trees -- that pestering Mom and Dad will instantly produce another?

That couldn't happen in 1972. We couldn't afford another new bike, but my father found one in the bargain paper. It was a Murray five-speed with dual hand brakes. The shifter handle had been snapped in half, but otherwise she was as good as new.

And though I never would have a top-of-the-line odometer again, I rode that bike many enjoyable miles. I hold fond memories of both bikes, because I was, in many ways, luckier than kids are today.

Many parents didn't have the dough to spoil their kids with material junk. Peer pressure has always existed, but most kids in the '70s couldn't use materialism as a means to express it.

No, parents used their limited means to give us only what we needed. And what every kid needs more than stuff is love and stability and a mother and father who are always there for him. Lucky for me, my parents provided an abundance of that.

And that was even more valuable than a Schwinn Orange Krate spider bike, the most coveted two-wheeled machine in the history of kid-dom.

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Sales at or call (805) 969-2829. Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications."

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