by Frank Conte
Sixty-two years ago on the Fourth of July, Tony “Runaway” Bernabei, bet his friends from Cottage Street that he could bicycle down to New York City. “You’ll get heart trouble and this and that,” Bernabei recalls hearing some of his friends say — including some who went on to be doctors.
Heart trouble wasn’t on the young 21-year-old’s mind.
Breaking a record of sorts most certainly was.
And Bernabei, being a strong-willed “Abruzzese”, bet his friends he could make the sojourn in less time than a group of Wellesley College students “I can make it in 25 hours,” he recalls declaring to his friends.
A few weeks before a group of cyclists claimed to have made the trip in 48 hours. Bernabei never denied that he could beat that benchmark.
For down on Cottage Street where most of his brothers dabbled in boxing, baseball and football, Bernabei’s obsession was his bicycle, an 18 lb. BSA. And down on Cottage Street, in the First Section where every kid carried a nickname, Tony Bernabei was called “Runaway” because the oldest son would always scamper off on his two-wheeler.
“I used to live with my bike — 24 hours a day. I used to travel all over: Swampscott, Lynn, Salem. At midnight I would ride up to Wood Island Park and go swimming,” he recalls, “I did the trip without training.”
This was in the thick of the Great Depression. An unemployed laborer accustomed to 35 cents-a-hour wages, Bernabei had a lot of time on his hands. “I was a ‘walking and see more’,” he labelled himself at the time. There was nothing left to lose.”
Bernabei’s parents, Domenic and Josephine, gave their approval but in fine Cottage Street tradition they expressed a little concern. “They were proud but they were scared that I was going to get hit by an automobile,” he said. So Bernabei went out and bought a one-week insurance policy for 50 cents. “That’s how cheap money was back then.”
But the bets waged weren’t short money. “We set the date and had about $200 bet on it,” says Bernabei, “People still owe me money, but they’re all dead. Even the doctors are dead.”
Then most of the doubting Thomases packed themselves into a truck, fired off a few firecrackers in front of the Copley Hotel and gave Runaway Tony, a Cottage Street send-off.
“And I took off from Copley Square and went to Times Square, New York in 25 hours,” says Bernabei, ” It really took me 17 hours and a half.”
Well Tony, what happened to the other seven and a half hours? A road-side distraction — every young man found one in those days he said. And Tony Bernabei found his: miniature golf. “I stopped, got a bucket of golf balls and played minature golf,” he says. He also stopped to eat breakfast and dinner — and answer calls of nature.
So what was the ride itself like? Bernabei didn’t have a benefit of a nicely paved modern road – no Massachusetts Turnpike, no Route 84, No Interstate 95. All he had was the Boston Post Road. “That was only a two-car lane, I’m telling ya. There wasn’t traffic like there is today. Most of the roads were cobblestone,” spins Bernabei.
“When I started off it was raining like hell. We had to stop for a half-hour when we got into Providence because of the rain.”
Did you get a flat? “No, not one,” said Bernabei. I went with two bikes. Huh’?
Following Bernabei, packed in their automobile, were his Cottage Street friends — proving in his time that you always take a piece of home with you on the road. They had a backup bicycle for Runaway Tony in the trunk of their Ford.
He needed the backup only for a short distance when he broke down.
A blacksmith in Stamford, CT., though came through for Bernabei. “I fell down and broke one of my pedals,” recalls Bernabei.
Bernabei did not make the trip without resources. He brought Al Grande from Cottage Street. Grande had an uncle who had a bar and restaurant somewhere in Connecticut. There Bernabei feasted upon duck caccia tore.
Italians, it is said, never starve.
So on July 5, 1930, in the midst of a depression, Bernabei pedalled into Times Square. “We got there two o’clock in the morning,” he says, “They took me to a hotel across the street where I showered and then got into the car to get back to collect a few dollars.”
The newspapers, the Boston Post and the Boston Herald American, wrote him up. The President of Wellesley wanted to honor him at the Old Howard in Scollay Square.
But Bernabei had other things on his mind — like collecting on the bets. Back on Cottage Street, Bernabei did some head-counting.
” At that time a few dollars was a lot of money. So I tried to figure out who paid and who didn’t pay. Some didn’t pay but they’re all dead now. That was 62 years ago.”
Bernabei went on to build the roads upon which bicyclists have traveled. He ran a bulldozer. When he got married he gave up the bike. There were more serious things to do, like raise his two children. “When I got married I gave it up,” he says, “Then my son took the bike.”
And among the friends and family, Bernabei will be known not only for the bulldozer he operated, the roads he helped build but also for the famous bicycle ride to New York City.
Today as he sits on a bench in Central Square’s Bertulli Park, the 83-year-old retired bulldozer operator is asked, “Do you think you can pull it off today?”
He responds, “I think I could. I’m still walking around. Every morning I work hard. Every day I cut my grass. I’m still moving.”
Copyright Frank Conte. All rights reserved.
Republished on July 10, 2018