I still marvel today that my parents were able to afford Christmas, since I seem hardly able to afford it over the years. I only had two kids at home at one time, my parents had seven. I have three brothers and three sisters. We always seemed to get more than enough presents though, maybe because we didn’t expect it. It seems so overdone these days. You can’t walk through the living room for all the presents under the tree even before Santa Claus purportedly shows up. When I was little, we were allowed to ask for one special “big” gift. One thing we wanted more than anything else. I got a lot of special Christmas gifts over the years. We always got more, but we got to ask for only one thing from Santa. Our lists were short.
We could hardly wait to get the Sears and JC Penny Christmas catalogs so we could look through them and pick out what we didn’t need but decided we wanted. We would always ask for the moon, and end up happy with whatever we got. As we got older, we would test out what we were thinking of asking Santa to bring by running it by Mom first. If she said something like, “We’ll see. You’ll have to ask Santa for it,” we knew we were good. If we got something like, “No, I don’t think that’s a good thing to ask Santa for. How about….,” you were back to the drawing board.
One year it had to be a bike of course. Santa brought me the coolest 26-inch Schwinn, two-tone, bike on the block. That was when bikes had fenders and headlights that worked on D batteries. In the summer we would add a motor sound to our bikes with playing cards and clothespins. You could get six or eight cards on each wheel and get a fair “chuck chuck” sound. Mom would start having trouble winning at Solitaire and realize that a few cards were missing from her deck. She started to hide her deck of cards.
I spent a lot of my lawn-mowing money on patch kits and inner tubes for that bike. I always seemed to have a flat tire. I got pretty good at changing bike tires over the years too. You had to use two screwdrivers in tandem to stretch the tire back over the rim without sticking one of them through the brand new inner tube, which happened a time or two. If it did, you started over and got out the patch kit. You also had to remember to put the screwdrivers back where you found them, which always seemed to be a problem for me. “Where’s my other SCREWDRIVER!” my Dad would bellow out from the garage.
I had some pretty good wrecks on that bike. Once when I was riding Jeff Hartman on the back, he got his foot stuck in the spokes and I went flying over the handlebars landing and sliding down the sidewalk, in front of Dr. Shunk’s office, on my face. I woke up several hours later lying on the couch with Dr. Booth looming over me. Ah, the days when doctors made house calls. The first words out of my mouth were, “Is my bike okay?” I wasn’t supposed to be riding people on the bike, but the fact that I didn’t suffer any permanent damage probably had something to do with me not getting in too much trouble. As soon as I was allowed outside I went straight to the garage to check on the bike. Some bent spokes and some scratches on the handlebar were all it had suffered.
I got hit by a car once, riding the bike to school, by one of the teachers. She didn’t see me or I didn’t see her as she came out of the intersection in front of the school. I ran right into the front fender of the Buick and went flying onto the hood of her car. I remember looking through the windshield at her shocked face, lying there spread-eagle, my face pressed to the glass. I didn’t suffer a scratch. I don’t think Mrs. Redding ever quite recovered though. She jumped out of the car screaming at the top of her lungs, “Oh my God, what have I done. What have I done,” running around the car with her hands up in the air. I felt sorry for her and kept trying to tell her I was okay, as she made the rounds. After a while I managed to sit up and slide off the hood. I checked my bike, made one last attempt to assure Mrs. Redding I was okay, and then headed off to the school bike rack. You know, I never had a bike lock for that bike.
The most embarrassing mishap on the Schwinn happened on the way home from junior-high football practice one fall afternoon. I slung my cleats over the handlebars and headed down Burkitt Street. As I began crossing Main Street with the light, the right cleat caught in the front spokes and locked the wheel. I went flying over the handlebars head first, again, and landed in the middle of the street. The light changed and four lanes of traffic started honking. Some kindly old gentleman jumped out of his car, having seen the entire performance, and wanted to know if I was okay. He helped me walk my crippled bike back to the curb. I learned how to straighten spikes a lot when I was a kid, but I don’t think my wheels were ever really round after that one.
I rode that bike for well over ten years, but secretly wanted the 3-speed English Racer that I had really asked Santa to bring me. The one where you turned the handle grip on the right to change from first to third gear, and the brake levers were on the handle bars. The one like my friend had.
Another year I asked Santa for a “miniature” tape recorder. Miniature meaning “portable”. A smaller version of the bigger reel to reel recorder my Dad had. It had always fascinated me. I remember I said “Grace” for him on one of his “Christmas Radio Shows” that he was always putting together at Christmas. I didn’t think it sounded like me at all when he played it back, but everyone else he recorded sounded like them. When I got older we would trade “Radio Shows” at Christmas, instead of greeting cards. We would MC the shows, tell jokes in between recorded acts, interview special “guests” and pretend, for example, that Bing Crosby was in the kitchen after just having sung “White Christmas” on the show. He was, of course, on the record player, but it was fun and had really started those many years earlier when I got the miniature Sony tape recorder.
My first major recording after, “testing, testing, testing” (you always said it three times for some reason and it didn’t sound like me) was the 1968 Sugar Bowl game between the unbeaten WAC Champion Wyoming Cowboys and LSU. I sat in front of the TV and held the microphone in front of the speaker (no built-in microphone) for the entire game.
I can remember how excited we all were that the Cowboys were in the Sugar Bowl. The game was televised coast to coast in color! We had a black and white set. Wyoming led for most of the game, up 13 to nothing at half-time, then sophomore, Glenn Smith, came off the bench and became the first sophomore in Sugar Bowl history to win the MVP. They beat us 20 to 13. Smith ran for 74 yards in 16 carries and scored the winning touchdown on a 1 yard run. We never scored another point. Glenn Smith finished his career at LSU without ever starting a game. I sat there for two hours holding a microphone to the speaker of the TV and I never played it back. It’s probably still around somewhere. I lost interest in the tape recorder shortly after.
Another year I got one of those Hockey games where the players are connected to 5 levers on each side of the game. An oversize puck is dropped in the center and by pulling and twisting the levers in turn, the three-inch metal players can pass, backcheck, carom the puck and shoot on goal. One of the pucks was magnetic for a more controlled game and the other had a ball bearing in the center for a more fast-paced game. Within a few hours Christmas Day I was deadly with the ball bearing puck. I could control the puck to the Center and slam the shot on goal before anyone could react. Most importantly, before my Dad could react. I beat him game after game. Finally, late that day, in sheer frustration he ripped one of the controls right out of the game trying to block a shot. In fairness to my Dad, he fixed it later, but I was a bit upset that my greatest game of all time lasted less than a day before it was broken….by an adult.
The most amazing gift I ever received from Santa was a photographic enlarger when I was 16. It was the kind of gift that was clearly out of my parent’s price range. I didn’t ask for it, because I, of course, knew by that time how Christmas worked, who Santa really was, and how expecting something as expensive as a Bogen 35mm Enlarger was just ridiculous.
I had built a darkroom in the basement in the old coal room. I was developing my own black and white film and printing test sheets by laying the negatives on a piece of photo paper and exposing it to light. Then developing and fixing the sheet. An enlarger was the next logical addition. Developing and printing your own film was quite a process back then. Not like the digital cameras we have today, and the photo printers and all the software to fix the image.
On Christmas morning (we opened presents right after midnight Christmas Eve) I was handed a small shirt box, expecting just that when I opened it, but inside was a folded piece of paper and on it was written in my Dad’s perfect printing “Go To The Dining Room.” I walked into the dining room, flipped on the light, and there on the table was a Bogen 35mm Enlarger. I was absolutely, totally speechless. I couldn’t figure out how in the world this had happened. How in the world anyone knew what I really wanted for Christmas for one thing. How in the world my parents could afford it. I was just amazed. I probably never thanked my Dad near enough for that gift, but I learned later in life, when I managed those same Christmas surprises for my own kids, what that feeling is like. There is no better feeling in the world.
I was in the basement coal “dark” room almost the entire day and there was no heat down there. I made it upstairs for Christmas dinner and to say “Grace”. Saying Grace had been my job since I had first memorized it.
“Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” The same way I said Grace on the reel to reel that Christmas day when I was eight, on my Dad’s “Radio Show” recording, that didn’t sound at all like me.