By Mario Ziino Published Dec 14, 2003 at 5:58 AM

There's nothing like getting a shiny new radio-flyer as a kid. I'd have to say, those rolling red wagons defined my generation.

Everyone has an opinion as to what toy provided the most fun growing up. Video games have certainly captured the attention of youngsters for more than a decade. Before then, you might make an argument for dolls and trucks as among the most popular.

But let me make a case for red wagons.

First off, was it truly a toy or was it something we thought was a plaything? It sure garnished the Christmas tree well. Like a bicycle, a wagon was on every boy's wish list. But unlike a bike, wagon's needed no training wheels. And you certainly didn't outgrow one. In fact, that same wagon took on different characteristics as we grew.

When you think about it, wagons opened doors with its usefulness, not to mention filling our little pockets with the delightful jingle of change.

The look of those radio-flyer wagons back in the 1960s was classic compared to other wagons. It stood out. The radio-flyer was the Cadillac of kid's carts. Durable, this mode of kid-transportation was meant for carrying and moving.

Next to a two wheeler, or even a tricycle, kids in my neighborhood loved to take their wagons for a spin. Daring, but cumbersome at times, wagons were more fun going down hill. Like a sled in the winter, a wagon made inclines a thrill ride. Pulling the handle back over the carriage, like a boat's rudder, gave the passenger the ability to direct movement left and right or straight ahead.

What was also neat about wagons was the fact that they were a kid's type of a cab. Whether one took baby brother or the dog; or whether pop took you, the park always was a good destination for a wagon.

Loading up the wagon with a day's worth of toys meant heading to a friend's house. It was our version of a backpack.

There were those who hitched a wagon to the back of bikes. But the hazards were brutal. Bumps and sharp turns usually resulted in spills which resulted in scraped elbows and knees. A flipped wagon could bring a biker face-to-face with the pavement.

As we got older, that toy had more practical uses. When weekly allowances weren't cutting it anymore, kids started using their wagons to earn some money. It was hard making ends meet on just a quarter a week.

I guess that triggered our entrepreneurial brainwaves. The easy and safest was to make some kid-money was scavenging for soda bottles. Let me tell you, it was hard work. You'd have to look in trash cans, yards and playgrounds. Everywhere.

Excuse me? You never heard of searching for soda bottles? I suppose you don't remember when soda bottles were worth money? Listen, when you needed a few extra pennies (that was when pennies were real money) for a candy bar or a rubber ball or a squirt gun, soda bottles were manna from heaven.

Back then, those 12-oz. (no 16-ouncers back then) Coke or Pepsi bottles were worth two cents each. How about those 32-oz. Bon-Ton soda bottles? They were a whole nickel.

Collecting discarded soda bottles was a nice cash cow for kids first learning about making money and how to spend it. Anyhow, you needed a wagon to haul a couple of buck's worth of bottles to the neighborhood Drug Store or Dime Store to cash in those glass treasures.

Graduation day came when our territory expanded. That's when the order of staying in the neighborhood and the nightly street light curfew was lifted.

That red wagon gave kids a chance to earn more moola. We'd hang out at the local A&P grocery store and wait for the dough to roll in. It also was a rude awakening to competition.

Every Saturday morning, bright and early, there'd be a half dozen or so wagons of all shapes and sizes parked near the doors of the grocery store. You stood ready and willing, like a taxi stand, to give grown ups -- more like their grocery bags -- a lift. The best bet for service usually came from little old ladies. They needed the most help, but some times they didn't pay you as much.

There was no set fee. But a good block or two of hauling to someone's house got you 50 cents. Big money for just 10 minutes worth of time and effort. However, there was the occasional half a mile trip for a quarter. Darn those old ladies. Being a Good Samaritan was a hard lesson in life. The tendency was to remember them the next time and look the other way. Hey, we were kids, okay.

Wagons were built just right for lugging three bags of groceries. Every so often, though, a bump in the sidewalk would cause grief if a carton of eggs were onboard. So paying attention was important if you were bucking for a smile and four-bits.

Five or six trips were common for a Saturday morning. That usually meant two or three bucks. Not bad for a kid too old to watch cartoons and too young for a paper route.

Ah yes, and speaking of a real kid's job, look no further than being a newspaper carrier. Having a wagon and knowing how to add and subtract were perquisites to being a paperboy. A wagon was vital for anyone hoping to have a good size route. A route of 60 or more customers equaled opening your first bank account. And wagons with wooden extension rails were a must for those nasty Sunday morning papers.

Every carrier had a wagon. You'd pull up to the sub-station and park'em like a car. Each carrier marked their wagon -- either by spray painting the wheels or different parts of the cart. Red was the manufacturer's only color, so kids had to improvise. Black markings were common. I spray painted the word Satin on the side of mine because it looked like hell -- kid logic at its worst.

Part of a carrier's duties included subbing your own papers (that means put the sections together), tying the bundles together and placing them in your wagon.

Wagons were made for hauling newspapers. You could stack bundles two wide and probably two high without having to look back at them on your journey from house to house. Some kids would ride their bikes with the wagon trailing behind, but most seasoned carriers looked at that as not very practical. It was a pain hopping on and off every other house to deliver the papers. Besides, our elbows still ached from those wicked falls.

Of course there were a few downsides to the wagons. For example, delivering newspapers in the winter was a tough go when people didn't shovel sidewalks. Talk about getting stuck. The most awful would be dealing with deep snow on Sunday mornings, especially during the holiday shopping season. Boy, that's when you needed to recruit a friend or two, who had an extra wagon. As a last resort, waking good old dad at three in the morning with tears in your eyes might work once in a while. Having pop and a warm car was a treat. It also made the route go quicker.

Certainly other problems were the mechanical type. A broken or wobbling wheel was tolerable unless the cotter pins snapped. A piece of wood might give you temporary relief to finish the route. But a visit to the Badger Paint Store (later Coast-to-Coast) was in order if you wanted to avoid a new investment.

Of course the worst breakdowns occurred when the handle would snap loose from its hinge. The only repair that helped keep things rolling was taking the twine from a bundle and making a makeshift lever. But that took its toll on the palms.

Looking back, who would have thought that little red wagon under the tree, would be a subtle passage to the teen years? Next to a dog, it was a boy's best friend.