For Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” the Red Ryder Range Rover BB Gun with the compass in the stock was the best Christmas gift he ever received. For the record, I never received a BB gun of any type as a gift, and the only reason I ever owned one at all was a minor miracle in view of my mother’s staunch opposition to the very idea of a BB gun. Unlike Ralphie’s dad, my father supported Mom in her view, thanks to the fact that one of his brothers had in fact shot out another brother’s eye with his BB gun when they were children.
But that’s another story.
Today I tell the tale of the greatest Christmas gift I ever received, and how it almost didn’t arrive.
Christmas in 1963 promised to be a good one at our house. Dad’s job was in no immediate danger of layoff, and the textile mill had been running a full schedule for many months. In comparison with some of the recent lean years, we were doing quite well financially.
For years I had been lobbying Mom, Dad, and Santa Claus for a new 26-inch bicycle. All my friends had big bikes by this point, and I was still peddling the same 20-inch bike I had learned to ride as a six-year-old. Now I was 12, and, thanks to an early growth spurt, very near my full adult height. My old, small, slow bike put me at a distinct social disadvantage. “Buzz bikes,” 20-inch bikes with banana seats and cool enough for older kids to ride, would not enter the scene for another couple of years.
When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we knew it would be a white Christmas, even though official weather bureau records to this day say it was not. Several inches of sleet and snow fell after sunset. The roads around our neighborhood, especially the unpaved ones, were impassable overnight. The sun of Christmas morning brought warmth, and road conditions rapidly began to improve.
The pile of gifts under our tree on Christmas morning was promising. My brothers, being younger, dived into the pile enthusiastically. I hung back a little, scanning the room for any package that might hide a bicycle. But I found only a couple of small boxes bearing my name.
Santa had been generous to both brothers – they got all the toys on their lists, as far as I could see. I got a box of Orlon socks (which everybody got, thanks to Dad’s company discount), and my yearly Timex watch.
The first watch I received in second grade was exciting, of course. It was an acknowledgement that I was becoming a man capable of telling time and keeping his own schedule. But because Timexes usually died within a year, I had received a replacement nearly every Christmas since, so by now a new watch was a non-event.
And that was all – the room was full of toys, boxes, and wrapping paper, but no unopened gifts. I looked carefully through the whole house, trying to hide my growing disappointment. No bicycle, anywhere.
So, I told myself, this was the year I was fully acknowledged as a grown up, trying to put a positive spin on the fact I had received gifts that were downright miserly compared to those my brothers got.
“Santa needed the money to cover their gifts,” I told myself, choking back disappointment and trying desperately to prove that I was big enough to accept the harsher realities of life. I was being trusted to help keep the illusions of Christmas in place for my little brothers. No matter how hard it might be, I would not let the family down, I thought, defiantly proud of my newfound maturity. But, I told myself bitterly, I had really wanted that bike.
“So, what did you get?” Mom asked me innocently.
“Oh, a watch and some socks,” I said. I tried to sound nonchalant, but I’m sure I sounded as miserable as I felt.
“Oh, that’s nice. It looks like everybody had a good Christmas,” she said as she looked at my brothers playing with their new toys. She sounded a little disappointed on my behalf, I thought.
The phone rang. Dad went to answer, which was a little unusual in itself. Dad normally preferred to let someone else talk on the phone.
He talked for a few minutes, then called me to the hall where the phone was.
“It’s Grandpa Nelson,” he said as he handed me the receiver. “He wants to talk to you.”
A little confused, I took the phone. Why would Grandpa want to talk to me?
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, there,” came Grandpa’s cheery voice. “Howya doing? Was Sanny Claws good to ya?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. This conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and I still didn’t know why Grandpa had called me.
“That was some sleet we had last night, wasn’t it?” Grandpa Nelson said. “I bet Sanny Claws had trouble getting to all the houses.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I repeated. I began trying to think of a way to get off the phone. Maybe non-answers would discourage a long discussion of the travel difficulties of a mythical gift-giver.
“Well, you know, I thought I heard him sliding off our roof last night, but it was snowing so hard I couldn’t tell for sure when I looked out,” Grandpa continued undeterred.
“Why don’t you come over and see what he brought me?” said Grandpa. Maybe he was finally getting to the point, but this didn’t make any sense, either. Our family tradition was to gather at his house after lunch on Christmas, so we’d probably see him in a few hours anyway.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said hesitantly. I looked at Dad quizzically.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s take a ride and see how the roads are.”
“Okay,” I answered. Maybe I was considered old enough to ride along on Dad’s “checking the roads” ride which followed most snow events. He had to get to the mill to maintain the machinery even when it was closed. He would drive the roads to see if he needed to put on chains. This sometimes hazardous ritual he normally performed alone.
But Grandpa Nelson’s house was at the end of a long private road and not on the way to the mill. It was a diabolical stretch of a narrow dirt road that was by turns muddy, sandy, and rocky. If any road was likely to be impassable, it was this road. Grandpa’s tractor sometimes got stuck trying to pull cars out of one particularly bad mud hole. Driving on that road in a snow melt was asking for trouble. So why was my usually cautious Dad suggesting it?
But we got into the car and drove up Mabry Road and turned onto Grandpa’s road. Almost immediately, the car began to slide on the wet, slick clay. Before long, we were nearly axle deep in mud, kept from sinking further, it seemed, only by the boulder-sized rocks the tires managed to grab onto at just the right moments.
The car, seeming to know that Dad had been a jeep and half-track driver in the Army, pressed on through the mess. But this ride just didn’t make any sense. I had never known Dad to risk getting stuck when he didn’t have to. A pleasure drive over to Grandpa’s house in such conditions was unlike him.
Still, we kept going, and the car managed to pull through all the mud and rock. We pulled around the circle drive at the end of the road and stopped on the uphill side of Grandpa’s old house. He came out to meet us, leaving Grandma Estie inside. She didn’t care for winter and rarely showed her face outdoors when the weather was bad.
In fact, seeing Grandpa come out to meet us – or anyone – was unusual. As the patriarch, Grandpa normally kept his seat in the recliner chair in front of the fireplace when visitors came. He could see their cars through the window by the chimney, so he rarely had to get up to know who was bouncing down his drive.
“Well, there you are!” he called as we picked our way through the melting snow, adding “That was some storm last night.”
He launched into a typical tall tale about where he had heard Sanny Claws’s sled rattling across the field after it skittered off the tin roof of the house.
“Yeah, for awhile I thought the dogs were going to catch them reindeer,” he concluded with a chuckle, “but I thought I heard bells a-jingling over the trees, so I guess they got away. Anyway, I ain’t seen hide nor hair of them nor Sanny since.”
I’m sure Grandpa saw me trying not to roll my eyes too hard as he finished his tale. He didn’t let on, but I still couldn’t understand why we were standing in his yard talking about such nonsense on Christmas morning.
Then Grandpa seemed to change the subject.
“But this morning, I did find something I can’t figure out,” he said with a characteristic twinkle that meant he was up to mischief.
“Take a look at it and see can you make any sense of it,” he said as he opened the front door and went inside. He soon reappeared, pushing and pulling a large cardboard box. He leaned it against the side of the house on the front porch.
As soon as I saw the words “Ship to: Pep Boys Auto Store, Gastonia, N.C.,” I broke into a grin. While Western Auto and Sears were where we all checked out and dreamed of the latest bicycles, I knew Pep Boys had a competitive selection.
“This thing must have fell off Sanny Claws’s sled when he slid off the roof. Now, what in the world do you think it is?” asked Grandpa Nelson.
I could barely answer through the grin that threatened to split my head in two.
“A bicycle,” I said.
“A bicycle!” answered Grandpa incredulously. “I don’t know. Let’s open her up and make sure.”
I pulled at the top flap, finally prying the staples loose enough to reach in and retrieve a chrome handlebar. In the dark interior I could see a shiny red frame and two wheels.
“Yeah, that’s what it is, all right,” I said triumphantly.
“A bicycle!” Grandpa repeated. “Now, I don’t have any use for such as that. Why do you think Sanny Claws would leave something like that here? ”
“I think it’s supposed to be mine,” I said tentatively. I knew Grandpa’s sense of humor, and I knew things would go easier on me if I didn’t spoil his fun.
“Yours! Do you reckon them dogs spooked the reindeer and he couldn’t get them to come back for it? Well, I’ll have to get shed of it somewhere, and I guess you would get more use out of it than I would, after all,” he said with a wink at Dad I wasn’t supposed to see. “Do you think you could take it off my hands?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to remain calm. The bisecting smile returned to my face.
The three of us wrestled the box into Dad’s car and we set off home. After re-negotiating the cross country obstacle course that passed for Grandpa’s driveway, we soon had the box open in our front yard with Dad’s tool box beside it.
It took awhile to fit together the seat, pedals, handlebar, and all the parts of the bike that weren’t pre-assembled. It took almost as long to pump up the tires with Dad’s ancient tire pump. But soon I was pedaling up and down the driveway on my new bike, the greatest Christmas gift I ever received. I now had wheels – 26 inch wheels. This was the beginning of the sacred mobility that would someday carry me into the larger world, into adult independence.
Of course, for now I couldn’t take the bike onto Mabry Road in front of our house. Mom was convinced I would be instantly struck by a car as soon as the tires touched a state-maintained surface. Winning the next step of freedom would take a few weeks more, but I was on my way, and I would never look back.