For years now I’ve been searching for a Murray Wildcat.
You may remember Murray-Ohio. The company built cheap bicycles from the 1930s to the 1990s, the kind other companies stamped with their name for resale. When I was a kid, that bike of yours from Sears or Western Auto probably came from Murray’s giant factory in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. – my hometown.
The factory is still there. About 43 acres under a single roof, it’s roughly the size of 30 football fields. I remember as a kid being told it was the world’s largest bicycle factory. Now it’s a big, mostly empty building. Locked gates keep out people who don’t want inside, who watched helplessly as their factory strangled on cheap Asian imports.
This is not some self-indulgent, fuzzy-headed reminiscence of a small southern town that will never be the same. Okay, maybe it is. A little. My search for a Wildcat is probably a metaphor for my search for that same small town. More on that later.
What I’d really like, though, is that bike. It was so cool. I delivered newspapers on icy Tennessee mornings on the thing, hung out with friends the rest of the day while straddling its banana seat. I lived on that bike. Heck, I loved that bike.
So what’s a Murray Wildcat look like? To the right is an advertisement from the 1960s, found thanks to the magic of Google. Doubt I’d find one for that price today, but I’ll happily write a check if someone’s selling.
Back to the metaphor, the search for the bike and my hometown. Neither of my parents worked at Murray but it seemed nearly everyone else did on my street and in town. Bicycle production at the factory slowly faded away, replaced for a while by lawn mowers, but fewer and fewer people worked there. Today L’burg seems to have two chief industries: neon-lit fast food joints to fatten people up, and pharmacies on every corner to deal with the caloric consequences.
So for me, a Murray Wildcat reminds me of the town I grew up in, not the town I visit today.
I’ve tried the usual searches: the obnoxious eBay, the bizarre Craigslist, even a guy in L’burg who rebuilds old bicycles. No luck, at least not in finding one that looks something like my original with a single speed and plenty of memories. Below you’ll see a rusty beat-up version that looks a little like my old best friend. Heck, it might even be my old bike, or what’s left of it. If so, I apologize old friend for what’s become of you.
My bike got sold decades ago. At age 14 I’d moved on to a bigger paper route and bought a motorcycle (yes, you could get a license back then in Tennessee if you knew how to fudge a cycle’s horsepower). At 16 I got a Honda 175 and later a car, and with each purchase my newspaper route got bigger, the hours longer, and the money better. My poor old Wildcat gathered dust in the shed. One day a guy looked at the bike and made my dad an offer he couldn’t refuse.
When he told me, I just shrugged. I was 20. In other words, stupid.
There are worse midlife crises to have. I could want to replace one of my three motorcycles I owned in my youth or even a big, thumping Harley. But all I want, for a reasonable price, is that Murray Wildcat probably too small for me to easily ride. With it I might recapture a bit of that small southern town — where people made things.