A Bicycle for Christmas

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In the little town of Crockett along the Carquinez Strait, where I grew up, bicycles were a big deal. Even though the town is mostly hills, and very steep ones, everybody had a bicycle. But not me.

I’m guessing I was about ten years old when I started seriously bugging my parents for a bike. I had owned a bike of a sort some years before. It was a kiddie bike with hard rubber tires like you might see on a lawn mower and instead of a chain there was a rubber belt, like an automobile fan belt.

I had learned to balance on it and to ride on the level, but whenever you tried to ride up even a fairly mild hill the belt would start slipping and you would be pedaling madly while going slower and slower and then going nowhere at all.

My great dream at that time was for a Schwinn like some of the more prosperous kids in town had. Schwinns had fat balloon tires and a “tank” mocking a motorcycle tank between the top frame rails, and most of them had a little battery powered electric horn that beeped when you pushed a button. Most of them had a big chrome spring in front that ran a primitive suspension system with maybe a half-inch of travel on the front forks.

They had a rear-wheel coaster brake which operated when you pushed backward on the pedals. The chainwheels were welded to the Ashtabula crank, so there was no fancy schmancy changing of gear ratios like modern bicyclists can do. Oh, yes, and one-speed rear wheels.

These bikes were heavy, designed for Kansas farm towns where there were no hills; they were totally unsuitable for Crockett, California. But like today’s Hummer owners, we were blinded by the bling.

Our family was not prosperous. Dad operated heavy equipment at the Selby lead refinery, now long gone. Mom was a housewife who sewed some of our clothes and mended the rest, made jelly and preserves in
the summer, and held the family together. Both my parents had lived through the Great Depression only a few years before I was born and they were not in the habit of extravagant purchases. Most of my toys were hand-me-downs from older cousins and a lot of my clothes had known previous owners as well.

None of that seemed very important to me; my only peeve, besides my lack of a bicycle, was that the style of baseball gloves had changed radically since the one that became “mine” had been manufactured. My hand-me-down glove would have been totally familiar to Christy Mathewson. Newer gloves were molded in neat shapes with pockets that trapped the ball. Mine was just a flat, puffy glove with a round spot in the middle with no padding.

I used to rub neatsfoot oil into it and put a ball in there and wrap the whole thing in rope, hoping to mold it to a new shape, but it never worked.

As Christmas of (I think) 1952 approached, my dreams of a new bike rose anew.

I should have been more aware that November. My father took to going down in the basement in the evenings and I was pointedly not invited. Did I smell lacquer fumes wafting up through the floor furnace? Not that I remember.

Christmas morning arrived and when I walked into the living room, there was a shiny maroon bicycle in front of the tree. My heart leaped up for just a fraction of a second, and then sank into despair.

Yes, it was a bicycle but it was a “24-inch” bicycle, what later became quite popular as the Stingray. But this one didn’t have the high bars and banana seat that would be so popular 20 years later. This one had dorky little narrow handlebars and the wheel rims were painted silver, not chromed (and a close eye would note that under the silver paint was the roughness of a rusty rim).

Dad obviously had rescued this poor, decrepit specimen of bicyclehood and spent many hours cleaning and painting the frame and putting a new chain on it, and getting new tires. It had been a labor of love, and I knew that, and I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, so I faked joy and gratitude as best I could, but my heart was a cold thing in the pit of my stomach.

Later that morning I rode the bike down to the elementary school yard, one of the few flat places in town, where there were many young people and many new Christmas bikes — shiny, chromium plated, multicolored, pinstriped, 26-inch, bikes cruising around and around. And I tasted bitterness and soul-killing envy.

For about a year I had the only small bike among all my friends. I can’t remember how I told my parents (or if I did) about my bike problem, but eventually Dad came home one day with a secondhand (but still in pretty good shape) 26-inch Schwinn. Black and cream color scheme, no fancy tank, but entirely good enough to allow one to hold one’s 11-year-old head high, particularly after I waxed it and chrome-polished the wheels and even the spokes.

Years later I told this story to my older cousin Dan, who had lived in the flat above us when we were growing up. And he told me the rest of the story.

Dan had an older brother, Jimmy, a special-needs child. Jimmy had spent several extra weeks in his mother’s womb. Doctors wanted to induce labor but Aunt Marie wouldn’t go for it. The baby was slow to walk and slow to talk, and though he grew up to be fairly intelligent, his attention span was short, he couldn’t run normally, and even his hands weren’t well coordinated.

He was doted on by his mother, which became problem when Dan was born. Dan always felt like he was in second place in the family.
And because his parents didn’t want Jimmy to feel bad about his physical disability, they refused to buy Dan a bicycle.

As I have mentioned, having a bicycle was a big deal in Crockett, and Dan, who was bright, athletic, and natural leader, was totally handicapped by not having this essential item of child society. He told me he used to give kids a nickel to ride their bikes.

“You know where your father got that bike?” he asked.

“No, I don’t.”

“He got it from me. I bought it for 50 cents, and I took it to your father and asked him to repair it for me. He said he couldn’t fix it, but later I figured out he had asked my parents and they told him not to.

“The bike ended up in a corner of the basement for some years, and one day he offered me a couple of bucks for it, and I sold it to him and he fixed it up for you. So you see, that bike didn’t just break your heart, it broke mine, too.”

And maybe that’s why when my own sons got big enough for bicycles I went to a real bike shop and spent too much money on a pair of beautiful child-sized 10-speeds. <

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