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Robert A. Mills

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Blogs by Robert A. Mills

SECRET SANTA
12/11/2010 7:05:03 AM
WRITER’S CRAMP: No Op-Ed Blog will be posted on Saturday, Christmas Day, December 25. As I am entitled to a much-deserved holiday, I may (or may not) also skip New Year’s Day, Saturday January 1. You will be notified, as usual — stay tuned. (PATTY ROBERTS, Part II -- will appear next Wednesday. Rmills)

SECRET SANTA

We once had a marvelous Secret Santa system that worked perfectly and saved a ton of money and frustration until somebody who had won the lottery or something threw a monkey wrench into the plan and insisted we return to a more traditional modus operandi.

The original idea stemmed from years of delirious Christmas mornings when we would all meet to watch each other open presents no one really wanted, few could afford, and most of which wound up in the basement dust bins or were returned as soon as the stores opened the next day. It was hardly fun and games. But what the hey; it was Christmas.

It got me thinking about the year I was seven and living in Watertown NY. My grandparents sent me my first bicycle: a 28” Hiawatha with balloon tires, extra wide handle bars, deluxe coaster brake, a huge saddle seat, a front fender headlight (batteries not included,) an Air-Flyte speedometer, ornate chain guard, braced rear platform with saddle bags, solidly encased center struts, rugged kickstand, and of all things, an honest-to-God altimeter mounted next to the speedometer — an overall monstrosity that weighed at least 800 pounds and must have cost 5 thousand dollars.

Completely assembled and shipped intact from Ohio, it was my Christmas present for 1938, and that was the year Watertown received 3,500 feet of snow (as it does every year.) The magnificent bicycle, with its altimeter set at zero, leaned on its steel kickstand in our vestibule from December 25 until May 22, the day the snow began to melt.

With eyes glazed over, I stared at it daily for almost five months — giving a bicycle for Christmas to a seven year old who lives in Watertown NY is not child abuse — it is abject torture — and the day I took it outside for its inaugural spin both tires were flat. In fact, the tires on that bike were flat at least 900 times in the next five years. I spent more hours repairing the inner tubes with All-Hazard Puncture-Proof Patches than actually riding the bike. I inhaled enough sealant fumes to become an addict by age twelve (I blame my grandparents for the brain damage that resulted in failing Latin and Algebra three times.)

A frail lad, a spindly waif who weighed barely ninety-seven pounds until age thirty, a whimp destined to have much sand kicked in his face, I developed legs Charles Atlas would have admired from pumping furiously to reach speeds of 3 mph (downhill.)

That ensuing summer of 1939 the bike, however, became a godsend. Transportation from our house on Woodruff Street to the library, where I spent most afternoons, would have been impossible, not to mention my group piano lessons downtown on the Square with saddlebags stuffed to overflowing with sheet music. My mother hated to think of me navigating the dangerously horrendous traffic in metropolitan Watertown, but I had no choice.

All went well until that fateful Saturday in August when I was struck by a car and sent flying.

Actually, the car merely bumped me from behind (probably my fault for making an erratic, wobbly and signaless turn,) and the worst of it was a slightly dented rear fender. Of course, the back tire went flat, but it may have been leaking well before the accident. I flew off the bike and, unable to support it, let it fall to the ground like a dead horse. I knelt down beside it as the frantic old motorist got out and rushed to my aid.

“You okay, kid?” he cried, looking at me as if expecting to see blood gushing from every pore.

“Yeah, I guess so. My bike’s ruined, though,” I said, my voice breaking, mustering up my most plaintive Fibber McGee whine.

“Yeah, look, I didn’t even see you, for cryin’ out loud! You sure you ain’t hurt or nuthin?”

I shook my head and spread my arms to show him my neck was not broken and my torso was unscathed. Begrudgingly, I gave him a thumb’s up.

“Good! Thank God!” he cried. “Look, I ain’t got no insurance or nuthin — would fifty bucks be all right? — we can forgit the whole thing, right! Even-Stephen! Right?”

I ‘walked’ the bicycle home (about twelve blocks) with two twenties and a sawbuck bulging in my smudged jeans. Unable to tell my parents about it, just mumbling incoherently about my “doggone flat tires,” having no way to ever explain what I was doing with $50, I hid the money inside the pages of “Toby Tyler and the Circus.”

A year later we were transferred to Syracuse, and both the money and the book disappeared in the moving. The bike stayed with me until about 1944; I think it was junked (after its 2,000th flat tire) when we lived on Breckenridge Street in Buffalo.

It was not until The Big War was over — we were living in Virginia by then — that I had saved enough money from my paper route to buy a Victory Bike ($27), a lightweight, bare-bones contraption that weighed less than three pounds, had tubeless tires and was a joy to peddle. And enjoy it I did — for about a week before it was stolen from our back porch and never seen again.

My father’s insurance man came by to file a claim. “How much was the bike worth?” he asked.

“I dunno. About seventy-seven bucks,” I told him.

“Hmmmm.” He reached inside his briefcase for his checkbook. “You got a copy of the police report?”


Copyright©2010 by Robert A. Mills


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