It happened two Christmases in a row! The best presents a boy (in the fifties) could hope for were under my tree. But, I had to wait an “eternity” to play with them.
The first time it happened, I was seven; it was a set of electric trains; I didn’t get my hands on them until late in the day, after my father finally had his fill, “showing me how.” The next year it was a bicycle; I didn’t get to ride that until the following spring. My sister, Madeline, and I both got bikes that year, second-hand, but freshened up with a new coat of paint. We didn’t care; they sparkled, as did our eyes when we saw them under the tree. But, into the basement they went for three long months.
Finally, the first robin arrived in our town and the bikes came out. We lived on a hill; it was too steep to learn to ride a bike on, so my father helped us push them to the top, to a flat street with hardly any traffic. I can still remember the exhilaration of staying upright while he pushed me. I remember even more vividly, the terror I felt when I looked over my shoulder and discovered he wasn’t there. I panicked and crashed to the ground. He eventually convinced me that I’d kept the bike upright all by myself and didn’t need his help, except to get started. I hopped back on, and like Hop-a-long Cassidy, my cowboy hero, I rode off into the sunset. One problem; I didn’t know how to dismount. When I came to a stop, I simply fell over.
My sister solved the problem. She raced ahead, jumped off her bike and caught me as I came to a stop. Later on, I just stopped near the curb and put out my foot. It wasn’t my fault; the bike was too big, like everything in those days. We had to “grow into” stuff: shoes, clothes, skates, sleds and yes, bikes. I went around in oversized jeans (we called them dungarees) with a six inch cuff, shoes with wadded up newspaper stuffed in the toes and to top it off, I had to use a curb to get on and off my bike.
I developed a deep relationship with that two-wheeler. It allowed me to leave behind my three-wheeler and the ridicule that went with it. I don’t think a cowboy ever loved his horse more than I loved that bike. It was freedom; it was status; and it taught me how to fix things. I learned to take it apart and convert it into a racing bike, by removing the fenders, reversing the handlebars and raising the seat. Sometimes, I decorated it with red, white and blue crepe paper and rode at the tail end of the parades in downtown Binghamton. A lot of kids did. We also “clothes pinned” a piece of cardboard to the fender support so it would flap against the spokes and made it sound like we were riding motorcycles. It didn’t take much to entertain a kid back in the fifties.
My mother loved the bike too. She sent me off to the market a few blocks away, just about every day. My favorite errand was a bread run. I always snuck a slice out of the middle of the loaf; it was the price my mother unknowingly paid for delivery service. I lost my concentration on one of those bread runs, distracted by the freshness of the bread I guess, and crashed into the side of a delivery truck. I was only slightly injured. More startled than anything. A neighbor passing by ran to my house and yelled in the door to my mother, “Come quick; Merlin has been hit by a truck!” Mom got a terrible scare, but I paid for it. Once she discovered I was okay she started yelling, and kept it up all the way home. Those gray hairs I allegedly gave her were painful for me too.
The bike got fixed and served me well for years. Then, the year I turned 12, I found a lightweight, English bike, with hand brakes and three gears under the Christmas tree. It was brand-new and the exact right size. I was ecstatic, but I’ll always think of that used, repainted first bicycle as the best Christmas present ever.