About 15 years ago, I grew interested in something I saw in old-time photos.
While looking through Victorian picture albums, I was intrigued by the sight of a bicyclelike contraption with a front wheel almost five feet high.
So I decided to pursue my fascination with the 1880s Victorian highwheel. I located one for sale in Illinois and bought it, a $4,000 gamble.
I figured it'd be difficult to master, but I'd sell it if things didn't work out.
When the bike arrived, I took one look and swore I'd never ride it. But I tried. I wore kneepads and elbow pads and took many a spill, practicing on Sundays on roads at an industrial park
My goal was to ride it in public, a one-time, surprise gimmick for the Tamaqua Heritage Festival. After eight months' practice, I was ready. When the big day arrived, I bravely rode down Broad Street in celebration. The late Joe Plasko, friend and co-worker, was there to grab a photo.
Turns out, the highwheel is a ton of fun, a sensation unlike anything else.
Yes, it's dangerous. Seven years ago, I fell and broke two bones. But the machine is addictive. It provides a natural high, a feeling of euphoria, and a view of the world from a different perspective.
Plus, it re-creates a special moment in history. The highwheel was the first machine to allow man to use his own power to travel far on land. It inspired the car, the airplane and the first paved roads in America.
Simply put, the highwheel gave man his independence, no need for a horse.
I soon was invited to ride at other places. My "one-time gimmick" turned into a time-consuming hobby. I gave presentations in Reading, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, then New Jersey and New York. I took part in festivities at the Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell and Thomas Edison's anniversary celebration. All were humbling experiences.
Two weeks ago, I took the highwheel to Lewisburg, where I explained the amazing machine to Linda Ruth-Tosetti of Connecticut. She's the granddaughter of Babe Ruth.
I spent time with her at the Union County Fourth of July Veterans Festival. She told me a great deal about Babe.
In turn, she was amazed by my riding machine and even insisted on getting up in the saddle. With the help of a nearby folding chair, she did it. And I took plenty of photos.
Of course, she didn't actually ride; we held the highwheel in place so she'd be safe. But it takes a lot of courage to jump up into that high seat. I was impressed by her fearlessness and told her so.
"I can see that you take after the Babe."
Days later, she emailed me.
"Thank you for your patience with me on your bike! Always wondered what it looked like up there."
I don't know if the great Bambino would've dared jump up onto a highwheel. But Babe definitely was crazy about bicycles.
His parents couldn't afford to buy one, and so he borrowed one for his first ride. He took it around a ballpark at Fayetteville, and then crashed.
His granddaughter apparently inherited that same sense of adventure. In my eyes, she hit a home run when she jumped up onto the saddle.
And so I met another new friend thanks to a one-time gimmick that turned into a major-league pastime.
Today's aluminum BMX bikes are great. They're far safer, lightweight and more practical. But to really have fun with modern bikes, riders build ramps and half-pipes in order to soar.
A highwheel soars all by itself. No ramps needed.
For me, nothing beats the excitement of the venerable, 125-year-old riding machine. The daring men and women of the 1880s realized it.
So don't be fooled by old-time photos with dour faces of seriously proper, uptight people.
Those stuffy old Victorians knew how to have fun.