Down the hill I clatter in my coaster wagon, pushing frantically with one foot and holding the handle steady as I bounce and jolt over the cracks in the sidewalk.
Will today be the day of glory?
More power, more, more, finally, with no more pushes allowed, on the flat and rolling past the houses, the end of the sidewalk drawing near.
Agh! I roll pathetically to a stop one house too short.
Maybe if my parents had bought me a nice red Radio Flyer with thick rubbery tires instead of an off brand that sounded like a sack of tin cans falling down the stairs I’d have gone all the way.
Well, for a third-grader, there’s always tomorrow.
I read recently that it was a century ago this summer that Radio Flyer brought out its iconic red coaster wagon. By the early 1950s, that scarlet beauty was near the top of my birthday and Christmas wish list.
Unfortunately, that’s where it stayed. I never grasped why an adult thought that by shaking his head and grimacing and saying “Nah, you don’t want this” a child should instantly agree and go dry the dishes or something. But that’s how things like this were settled years ago.
Anyway, I did finally get the “other” coaster wagon, the one that even at its best stopped a house short of my goal, and that was sort of OK, I guess.
Do coaster wagons have the same panache today that they had when Harry Truman was in the White House?
I hope so, because if there was ever a doodad that represented America, this was it.
First of all, it gave you a chance to put some righteous speed into your games of cowboys, war or police. You’d ride to the rescue, shouting “the jig’s up,” or some other comic book lingo, depending on the scenario you and your buddies had agreed upon, but always arriving amid a smoky haze of blazing cap guns. Evil stood no chance against good guys on four wheels.
The coaster wagon taught you how to be part of a family as well. How many loads of groceries did a grade-schooler obediently lug home from the neighborhood market, accompanied by mom telling you what a good boy you were? There was an ulterior motive, though — Puffed Wheat or Cheerios with the crucial box top you needed for the secret code, ray gun or map of the Yukon to properly follow heroic adventures on the radio.
But there was a more serious use for wagons.
Sometimes I think the United States should recognize the unique contribution of the coaster wagon to the teaching and development of capitalism.
Every Sunday morning, before church, a young guy with a wagon full of enormous Sunday newspapers wrapped in colorful comic sections would arrive at our front door. His was the Duesenberg of wagons, huge, with wooden stake sides, befitting the merchant prince who brought us our Philadelphia Bulletin with political stories to anger my father and the exploits of Prince Valiant for me.
He wasn’t alone. On Saturdays, equally enterprising kids, who’d hooked up with storekeepers for a fee, provided “free delivery” of groceries. The Amazon and drones of their day, these kids with coaster wagons and the desire to make some cash were a vital service in the era of neighborhood marts and limited transportation.
Happy birthday, old wagon. Literally, you rolled into the lives of millions in ways inconceivable today.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]