The town where I grew up had one claim to fame. No, wait, there were two. Almost three.
First came the residency of an author rather well known in the early 1900’s. Rex Beach was the gentleman’s name, and he is probably best remembered as having produced The Spoilers, a book made into a movie in 1914, and remade 5 times after that, the last in the early 1940’s starring John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich. (I don’t remember having read it, but it must’ve been something!) Mr. Beach lived in Sebring, FL, during the last years of his life, dying in 1949. At one time the local lake was named after him, but he lost out to Ol’ Stonewall Jackson in the long run. (Lake Jackson works much better than Rex Beach Lake, in my opinion, although I’m sure Mr. Beach was much nicer to the local Indians than Gen. Jackson, so maybe he did deserve it more.)
The other claim was the Sebring International Grand Prix of Endurance which was, during its heyday in the fifties and sixties, one of the dozen or so automobile races that scored points for the World Driving Championship. During the two weeks preceding the race and for a day or so thereafter the town was transformed from a sleepy little central Florida citrus and ranching town into quite the mecca for international glitterati.
Needless to say, “The Race” captured the hearts and minds of small boys to a notable degree. And so it came to pass that, along about 1957 or so, Jeff and Lukey and the Fink brothers and I decided to hold the Great Sebring International Grand Prix d’Bicycle.
Ours was a seriously diverse neighborhood. I was the priest’s housekeeper’s kid. Jeff was the Episcopal kid who mowed lawns for the Catholic church. Lukey’s dad was a Southern Baptist minister, and the Fink brothers were Jewish. I don’t know how many Jews lived in Sebring at that time, but the Finks and their next-door-neighbors the Pasters were the only ones I’m sure of. In any event, for whatever reason, we all got along fine. I sometimes joke that I didn’t even know I was supposed to be prejudiced until I got to college.
Now you need to know that none of us knew, (so far as I’m aware,) of the Tour de France and other bike races. I doubt that we even knew that grownups actually rode bicycles when they didn’t have to. We didn’t know that racing bikes were practically another physical dimension of machinery from the one- and three-speeds we rode. All we knew was that we wanted to be a part of the racing world, and no one was offering 12- and 13-year-olds the opportunity to drive Ferraris and Maseratis, and so the Great Race began its brief history.
We knew that racers required sponsors, and that winners needed prizes. Someone–I’m not sure who–talked the owner of the sporting goods store, Mr. Wolfe, into providing some sort of minor bicycle accoutrement as a prize. Someone else’s mom came up with an embroidered t-shirt for the winner with–oddly, but I suppose inevitably–a patch sewn on from the “big race.” A track was laid out around the streets in the neighborhood. Lonnie Curl, the Chief of Police, agreed to let us block off the streets for the hour that the race was to run. We even got Doc Martin, (Joy’s uncle,) to agree to be the Race Physician–although he allowed as how he’d need to be “on call” rather than at the track itself.
Jeff and I talked Father Heiring into letting us use the parish mimeograph machine to run off flyers, which we then posted around town in all their smudged glory. It was left up to me to contact the editor of the Highlands County News, (later The Sebring News,) to insure that we got the publicity we needed. When I spoke with that worthy gentleman, he agreed readily and then asked, “Just how many entrants do you have?”
Kids get really excited about things, and tend to overlook certain details. It had never occurred to us that every kid in town wouldn’t show up just begging to be allowed to compete. Fact is, they stayed away in droves. Furthermore, it rained on Race Day, and our moms wouldn’t let us five entrants/organizers race in the rain. For some reason, we never set a rain date. I don’t remember what happened to the t-shirt.
Sic transit gloria mundi. Whatever that means.