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When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Interview: Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Riding Bike in the Fifties" is a book that took years to put together.  For most of those years he has been writing about hot rods and custom cars.  We asked Al Drake a couple questions why he wanted to write about motorcycles.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?
Drake: In 1971 I wrote a long poem called "Riding Bike."  It was inspired by the TV show “Then Came Bronson” where Michael Parks is riding around the country on his motorcycle and getting into trouble. I did a reading of it with sound effects. After that, I wanted to put that poem together with four essays I’d written and some photographs and some old advertisements from magazines I’d bought years ago. And then it grew, with other people contributing their experiences.

Q: Who’s the audience?
Drake: I don’t know any more. I was interested in it, and I wrote it for myself. But I think there’s an underground – there are cadres of people who are interested in British motorcycles and the 50’s. I’ve never written anything with the idea of the audience in mind… just talking to myself.

Here's a newspaper clipping of Roy Burke showing off his hill climbing trophy. This picture didn't make it in the book, but we wanted to share it with you. There's a great photo of him in his Engineer Boots in "Riding Bike in the Fifties".
Q: If you had to sum it up, what's the theme of Riding Bike?
Drake: It looks back at a time when there were fewer restrictions, so I guess we should celebrate that. You didn’t have to wear a crash helmet, you didn’t have to have insurance, you didn’t have to have a big wad of cash, and there were plenty of places to ride. So I guess I’m looking back at that.

Q: Anything else you'd like to say?
Drake: It was kind of a wild time. There was less traffic, and that’s what saved a lot of people. I guess, I hope that there will always be people who want to know what it was like, riding bike in the fifties.
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Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Sometimes, on certain mornings in early fall, when there is a light fog and the air holds a hint of moisture, I can recall so clearly the sound of a single’s exhaust. The mist put a layer of moisture on the chrome, and I’d wipe dew off the seat with a rag, tickle the carb and mount the bike. Using the compression release, I’d kick the piston through until it was on compression stroke and kick it without the compression release, maybe once, maybe more, until it fired. The exhaust was crisp, sharp, with a bark as I cracked the throttle." 
 Thus begins “Riding Bike in the Fifties,” hot-rod historian Albert Drake's most recent book. It's a journey into memory, back to a time that has to be called the Golden Age of Motorcycles. British bikes--BSA, Triumph, AJS, Matchless, Norton, Velocette--had invaded roads and race tracks previously dominated by Harley-Davidson and Indian. In the open land surrounding cities bikers were blazing trails, making Hare and Hound courses. If there was a rule it was "run what ya brung", never mind about insurance, licenses, headlights, mufflers, crash helmets. There never was a time when so many were so free on two wheels.

“Riding Bike in the Fifties” is jammed with first-hand accounts of riding and racing motorcycles in the 1950s and vintage black and white photographs and illustrations. Topics range from “What We Wore,” “Where We Rode,” to “The Morning Speed Run,” and “Three-Wheeling.”

131 pages, 10 x 7 x 0.3 inches, perfect-bound (September, 2012)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-27-7; Signed copy...
$19.95 

Order from Flat Out Press,
or directly from the printer.
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The Maps of "One Summer"

The original edition of "One Summer" from 1979 included two hand-drawn maps that I made of the Lents area as I remembered it from the late 40's, and as it appears in the story. This large map shows the general Lents area, including directions to Portland and Gresham. In the 1979 edition it appeared on a fold-out page. In the more current edition the map was printed on two pages.



Here's the legend indicating where key points of "One Summer" occur within that map.



















I also drew a detailed map of Chris' neighborhood, "downtown" Lents. It shows the old Lents grade school, Rexall Drugs, the Oregonian branch, and other features of the landscape that appear in the story.

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"Tilt"

I have a good long essay called "Tilt" in the May issue of the GoodGuys Gazette. It's about Sam Mullen and Bob Knowles, a car crash and the best pinball game ever.  Includes Dorothy McCullough Lee, the first female mayor of Portland (known for her hats), and her attempt to wipe out vice and pinball games.
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The Lents Collection

It seems as if transportation, or failing to travel, has always been entwined in Lents’ fate.  The town was originally founded by Oliver Lent when his oxen-drawn wagon broke an axle, and the family decided to stay put.  Later, the Mount Scott Trolley, aka “The Galloping Goose” hit the end of the line in Lents. In the mid ‘70s it looked like the end of the world had come to Lents in the form of a giant earthen berm, but it was only the construction for the I-205 freeway, severing the neighborhood from the city, while allowing North / South traffic to speed past the area.

Given this history, it’s not surprising that Albert Drake, drawing from his experiences growing up in Lents, decided to pursue writing about cars and the neighborhood he grew up in.  His non-fiction books, such as Street Was Fun in ’51, and Overtures to Motion, document the cars and personalities of the ‘50s.  But some might be surprised that before he decided to try hot rod history, Drake wrote poetry and fiction.  Some of the books have been hard to find, so Flat Out Press is reprinting them in a new edition which we're calling the “Lents Collection.”

Perhaps people have read Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby, and gathered from these an image of Portland in the ‘50s as a clean, safe suburban neighborhood.  Drake’s “One Summer,” however, shows a neighborhood frayed at the edges by wilderness. Things, such as the old Lents school, are cast aside, but the new things aren't quite in place yet. There's an uncertainty and dangerousness to this feeling, but there's also freedom and excitement.

"One Summer" evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Lents through the eyes of an adolescent boy. Drawing from personal experience, as well as historical events of Portland, Drake weaves the story of a teen in the summer of 1948 that is simultaneously nostalgic and honest. Chris and his friends read Real Clue and Detective Comics at the Mt Scott drugstore, hang out at the movies at a time when John Garfield was starring in "They Made Me A Criminal," and listen to "I Love A Mystery" on the radio. Meanwhile, hints of the adult world intrude on Chris' idyll: the responsibility of a paper route, involvement in petty crimes with his friend Mal, and a plane crash on 92nd Street. "One Summer" taps the feeling of being young, looking for adventure, and finding it in the most surprising places.

Interestingly, when Tri-Met published a study on Lents for the feasibility of the light rail project, they used “One Summer” as a reference.

Beyond The Pavement” is an attempt to merge a pulp dime-store paperback with a literary novel, while placing it in the same Lents neighborhood.  Selected as one of the 100 books that best define the state of Oregon and its people, it's an adult novel about hot rodding and changing times.

Mill Sederstrom suddenly returns from college, hoping to build a race car, get a good job, meet someone nice, but experiences only frustration in all of his pursuits.  He’s back living with his parents, cruising 82nd Avenue, and confused about where he’s supposed to go in life.  When this book was first published in 1979 the some of the street names were obscured – “Forster” instead of “Foster”, for example. In this edition the true street names have been restored.  Also, the events in the book include the spring break riots at seaside in 1962.

Of the three books in the Lents Collection, “Tillamook Burn” is the most compelling.  It’s a collection of short stories and poems that capture the mood of growing up in Portland, Oregon during and after World War II. "The Chicken Which Became a Rat" tells the story of a Japanese immigrant living in the neighborhood during the war, and was included in "Best American Short Stories of 1971."  Another story is of a father who needs to replace the U-joint for his '30 Hudson 8 so he can get to the new job on Monday with the Corps of Army Engineers. The first place is too expensive. So Chris and his dad weave through the Lents area looking for a used piece.

The poetry is clear-eyed and honest, too. As one reader has said “There aren't many middle-aged guys who won't understand [the poem] ‘Hearing Marty Robbins Sing White Sport Coat 20 Years Later.’”

All three books, "One Summer," "Beyond the Pavement," and "Tillamook Burn," were previously printed through small presses, and have been out of print and hard to find.  Now they are back in print, in a matching set, the "Lents Collection", available from Flat Out Press.
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Tillamook Burn

Now available as part of the "Lents Collection" of books by Albert Drake, the short stories and poems in "Tillamook Burn" capture the mood of growing up in Portland, Oregon during and after World War II. Highly evocative, they include memories of fathers, the fading Oregon landscapes, and studies of forgotten characters of the period.

"They drove in silence, the shadows already beginning to flatten, and soon the knife disappeared; the Indian sat back and sighed deeply, as if he was exhausted by simply driving. Chris suddenly found himself less worried about their being found murdered beside the road, and more concerned about the rumbling in his stomach. He dreamed of home, the cool shade of his back yard where he could be right now eating peanut butter sandwiches and reading comic books. When he left home, he had thought he would be right back, and how it looked as though he would be in Celilo tonight, hungry, fighting the cold desert wind."

Includes "The Chicken Which Became a Rat," from the collection "Best American Short Stories 1971." 
This book is part of the Lents Collection of fiction by Albert Drake.

Tillamook Burn
84 pages, 8 x 5.2 x 0.2 inches, perfect-bound (December, 2011)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-26-9; $9.95

Also available as an e-book on Kindle.
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One Summer

"One Summer" is a semi-autobiographical novel that evokes the sights, sounds and smells of small-town Lents through the eyes of an adolescent boy growing up on the edge of 1940's Portland, Oregon.

Drawing from personal experience, as well as historical events of Portland, Drake weaves the story of a teen reaching adulthood in the summer of 1948 that is simultaneously nostalgic and honest. Chris and his friends read Real Clue and Detective Comics at the Mt Scott drugstore, hang out at the movies at a time when John Garfield was starring in "They Made Me A Criminal," and listen to "I Love A Mystery" on the radio.

Meanwhile, hints of the adult world intrude on Chris' idyll: the responsibility of a paper route, involvement in petty crimes with his friend Mal, and a plane crash on 92nd Street.

"One Summer" taps the feeling of being young, looking for adventure, and finding it in the most surprising places.  This book is part of the Lents Collection of fiction by Albert Drake.

One Summer
122 pages, 8 x 5.2 x 0.3 inches, perfect-bound (July, 2011)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-24-2; $8.95


Also available as an e-book on Kindle.

Beyond the Pavement

Selected as one of the 100 books that best define the state of Oregon and its people by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, "Beyond the Pavement" is an adult novel about hot rodding and changing times. Set in the Lents neighborhood of Portland, Oregon in the '50s, Drake weaves local landmarks and historical events into a book that is both literary, and evokes the pulp fictions of the past.

Mill Sederstrom steps into a time warp when he returns from college to the small house where he grew up. But the world has changed, and Mill learns that one can't go home again-- not easily, nor completely anyway. Family pressures mount as his parents urge him to find the Big Job. He meets his younger brother, Tonto, and his gang--the "pavement dancers," a lethal group.

A woman takes him to a roadhouse called "The Place," but it is not his place, the gangster who owns it tells him. The tension between brothers grows when Mill becomes involved with Tonto's girl friend. The uncomplicated life Mill had hoped for soon becomes complicated, and when serious trouble threatens he has no idea which of the several antagonists is responsible.

This book is part of the Lents Collection of fiction by Albert Drake.

Beyond the Pavement
168 pages, 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.6 inches, perfect-bound (October, 2011)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-25-0; $12.95


Also available as an e-book on Kindle.
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