Monday, December 27, 2010

Western Flyer bicycles, Icicles, and Christmas

I have been meaning to get on here and write this but the Holidays sure do come around faster than they used to when I was a kid. There's so much to do, and so little time. I mean, it takes awhile to pen those letters to Santa you know... You know?

It's been bitter cold, for Charleston, these last few days. Early on this month we were in the 20's and with my old heat pump completely overwhelmed by the cold, and unable to get the house a comfortable "warm", the wintery mornings reminded me of growing up on Dewey Hill, with that old oil furnace in the living room that never managed to heat up any room but that I went back in time... Back to

1962 - 1963

It was a tremendously cold winter - not just in Charleston, S,C, where I lived but all across the south... But who cared? It was December and Santa was coming and THAT was all we could think about. Letters to Santa seemed to fly from the crayons with a will of their own and I suppose Mama despaired of ever having a stamp to mail a regular letter... I was intent on getting Santa's attention. 

I wanted a bicycle. A shiny one, preferably red, with lots of chrome and a horn, and those fantastic streamers that hung from the rubber grip on the handle bars. I'd seen it at Western Auto when I had gone with Daddy and Mama on one of our trips to Pinehaven. Pinehaven was like Times Square in New York! There was a huge concrete platform in the middle of the parking lot and there were a dozen stores surrounding it. There was an Edward's 5 and 10, Western Auto, Ann's Vogue, Three Sisters, an appliance repair shop, a Singer Sewing Machine store, and others... But at Christmas they strung strings of lights from the base of the concrete pad to the top of the thirty foot pole embedded in the center. Multi colored lights, the huge old fashioned bulbs that screwed into the little sockets... And at the top was a HUGE star. When that was all lit up, there was no doubt that Christmas was officially on the way! It was like the official start of Christmas when Santa rides in on the Thanksgiving parade. "Let's ride over to Pinehaven" was like saying "Let's go take a look at Christmas!" to my ears.

Oh, and I wanted a doll. A baby doll. There was nothing that smelled so much like Christmas as the rubberized plastic of a new baby doll. You very seldom find them that smell that way anymore. Once in a blue moon, although rarely, I'll pick up a baby doll in the store and hold it to my nose. Even more rarely, it will smell like baby dolls did when I was a child and I get a trip back to my childhood, waking on Christmas morning, running into the living room and the feeling that my eyes should have been about twenty times bigger in order to take in all the glimmering lights reflecting from the tree onto shiny plastic, ribbons, bows, beautiful wrapping paper, tags that read " To: Sue - Love, Santa". I never noticed that his handwriting was just like my mother's. But there, snug in her beautiful pink and white box, a plastic window separating her from the rest of the world, was my doll, my baby doll... my Patty. I had already named her you see... because I had already FOUND her in my parent's closet. I suppose I must have had a slight tiny, eensy weensey smidgen of doubt about Santa...otherwise I mightn't have been hunting, right?  Carefully I had snooped and snuck and found her, and had even taken her out of her box and cuddled and loved her and named her... and just as carefully I had always put her back and Mama was never the wiser for it. Luckily she never tagged the doll as being "From Santa". Whew!

Try as I might, I couldn't find a bicycle. Not even a hint of one! I looked. I missed one place though. In my dad's woodshop in a corner, he had a big old wooden crate that he had built and in that crate he had old scraps of lumber, bits and pieces of plywood, and he kept it pretty full. I had lost interest in anything inside that old crate and I noticed that Daddy had thrown an old piece of dirty canvas on top of it that winter. I never thought to look under it. And I am glad because that particular Christmas morning, that bicycle was parked in front of the tree, a fire engine red Western Flyer, chromed out, the tag reading " To Sue from Santa" and streamers glistening pink and white and yellow and blue beckoning from the handlebars... and there, every child's safety net, attached to the back wheel, were training wheels. In my excitement of wanting a bike, I completely forgot that I didn't really know how to ride one.
Eventually all of the presents were opened, baby dolls were loved and hugged and tucked into bed, and it was off to Front Street to ride the bike. Oh, I loved it! It was the prettiest bike in the neighborhood (so I was a little partial) and the fastest. (I was also a little delusional, perhaps)
I rode and rode and nearly froze my fingers off. I'd go home for a few minutes to warm my fingers up and then it was out again, braving the sharp needles of icy air that pricked my cheeks, and stung my eyes and caused my chest to hurt when I breathed in that cold air while flying down the road... For days this went on and on. And the temperatures got colder, and colder. One morning we awoke to enormous icicles hanging from the eves of the house. I'm sure that they were at least a foot long. It was painfully cold. But it wasn't cold enough to deter me from my new bike. So I dressed warm, gloves, coat, a knit hat, socks and shoes, pants, and I went outside and took my bike off of the porch. And my Daddy came outside and told me to wait a minute while he did something... and the dreaded wrench and pliers appeared and he took the training wheels off!!! I'm reminded of a song that old Archie Campbell used to sing on Hee Haw - " Gloom, Despair and agony on me... Deep dark depression excessive misery..." I was devastated!! He couldn't! He wouldn't! He could. He did. " Now, ride" he said. Of course our yard was mostly sandy dirt with some dead grass and I couldn't even start off with a good pedaling. All of my excuses fell on deaf ears. He grabbed the back of the seat and walked me and my bike back up to Front Street - the ONLY paved road in our neighborhood. It was so cold that the trees were still frosty white and all of the houses sported honest to goodness long icicles, and breathing was like inhaling a spear of ice. Frosted breath fogged the air as I pleaded with Daddy to put the training wheels back on the bike, to no avail. "You're too old to be riding with these training wheels" he said, and that was that. I'd had them about a week, you know... No doubt I had quickly outgrown them! So he got me situated on the bike, and he held the handlebars, and ran with me a few feet to get me going and then gave me a little push as he let go, and I rode about 5 feet and toppled over. Again, and again, and yet again he pushed, and I pedaled and then either fell, or straddled the bike before I could fall. Coordinating a pedaling action, steering and then applying brakes was a LOT to achieve... It seemed I might be able to do one thing at a time. Pedal, or steer, or brake and fall. I was getting the hang of it, and Daddy went home and left me to my own, but with my brother there to oversee. I remember being launched from my brother's hold on the seat of the bike and then pedaling. Fast and faster and 10 feet, then 20 feet and then 50 feet and I was flying down the road, and then the wobbles hit. I wobbled, and teetered and wobbled some more and I tried to brake gracefully because I knew without a doubt that I was going to fall, and fall hard if I didn't. But the bike was having no part of that brake deal... No sir. She dumped my shivering frozen icicle self right on that pavement and she tossed me in such a way that I landed on my hands and knees and skidded a short distance. The road was coated in a thin skin of ice, but not enough that it smoothed out the rocks that made up the asphalt. My pants were torn on both knees and both knees were torn, and so were the palms of my hands. The strange thing was that I didn't feel it. I was so cold, so frozen, that aside from the jolt of the fall, I didn't feel the scraped knees and hands. I was pretty banged up, but when my brother finally got to me, and tried to make me go home, I refused, and got on the bike and rode away from him, and I never fell again. When I finally ached from the cold and my teeth were chattering so hard that I couldn't say a word that didn't sound like morse code, I conceded and we went home. Tincture of Merthiolate. Do you remember that? There was Merthiolate and Mercurachrome. Both were orange and one of them stung like fire and one didn't. We had the one that did. *sigh* Both knees required extensive cleaning and painting and bandaids and so did my palms.
I don't remember another winter that was so cold as that one in our little drafty wood clapboard house, with our old oil furnace and drafty windows, a twinkling Christmas tree, peppermints and oranges spilling out of stockings, and sparkling ornaments casting prisms of cheer across the room...But I don't remember any that were any warmer and cozier, either.


  1. Thought I was the only one that "smelled" dolls at stores!!! I just know that folks look at me and think I am batty as all get out! But you are right, the baby dolls had 'that smell' and it smelled sooooooo good to a little girl on Christmas! Our daddy told me and Susan that we had to learn to ride a bike before we got one!Thing was..the only bike in our yard was an old rusted one that had been Franklin's many years before..It didn't even have rubber tires on it anymore..only the rims..but by golly, we rode that bike with the no tires and we fell and we fell and we fell...but we LEARNED to ride by golly! That year we had a bike for Christmas...THE BEST CHRISTMAS WE EVER HAD AND EVER WOULD HAVE....I found out later it was thanks to our mama going to Christies and charging our bikes!
    This was a good post Sue Ellen..loved it! Oh and by the way...we all call you "Sue Ellen" because we did it back then to distinguish you from our sister "Sue" !lol
    love always,

  2. I can feel those sore knees learning to ride my bike. You described it to a tee.

  3. I love your memories. I can just picture a little girl you, flying down the road on that bright red bike.
    But now my knees hurt ;)