A Christmas Bicycle Story from the 1950s - Doug Barnes

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas Bicycle Story from the 1950s

My brother Russ asks John the golden question, "What're you gettin' for Christmas?" It's just after Thanksgiving and Russ, John Gronski and I are just beginning to discuss the upcoming holidays. The setting is the 1950s in the small town of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

This dialogue is a recollection of one cold Christmas day warmed by memories that I had almost forgotten. My brother Russ resurrected my memories about this act of friendship about 10 years ago and I enjoyed all over again the gift of giving a bicycle for Christmas in times that were less complicated than today.

Self assured, John says, "I'm gettin' a new bicycle." At 9 years old John is a constant companion at our house, coming early and staying late. He often joins us for lunch.

I give my brother Russ a skeptical look. Russ acknowledges the look, but keeps a poker face. The coal mines in the Uniontown area of Western Pennsylvania now are all mostly closed and many fathers are out of work. John's father is no exception, but he does do part time work. I often see him during the week wearing coveralls and tinkering in his garage when other fathers are away at work. John's father is very nice, but quiet, reserved and somewhat reclusive. John is the opposite, outgoing, friendly and ready for any new challenge.

Despite high levels of poverty in Western Pennsylvania, bicycles for children still are a very common birthday or Christmas gift. Bicycles are considered essential for children's neighborhood transportation. Every child in our gang has a bicycle--except for one. John Gronski has to walk everywhere. Still John is an important member of the gang because he's enthusiastic about all our projects. Not only is he eager to go along with our many harebrained schemes, but he embraces them. John occasionally borrows one of our bicycles, requests that are met with no resentment. His limited transportation is a constant irritation for him.

Russ asks, "How do ya know you're gettin' a bicycle?"

"I've dropped some hints with my parents. I told'em how difficult it is ta ride double and ta keep up with yous guys on foot." Riding double looks either like a circus act or a lover's embrace. The extra rider sits uncomfortably on the cross bar in an awkward position or balances on the seat with legs splaying outwards. His hands grab onto the waist of the rider that's standing and peddling.

"It'd be nice if ya had your own bike so you could ride around with us." We often travel in packs to destinations such as friend's house, a baseball game, the corner store or exploring the local woods. It's a rare time when we can loan John our bicycles. These two wheel machines are the transportation lifeblood of childhood in small towns and communities all across the country. The gang rides and John walks, showing up late to wherever we're going. It's a repeated pattern that irritates John.

With a bright look in his eyes John says, "Don't worry. I'm sure I'll git one."

John's belief that he is getting a bicycle for Christmas becomes known by my whole family. John is like part of our family, sometimes even attending church with us. My father can foresee impending disappointment on Christmas morning.

One evening at dinner he brings up the topic with my brother Russ and me, "I hear John thinks he's getting a bicycle for Christmas."

Russ replies, "He not only thinks it, he's knows it."

"What do you think?"

"Don't really know. He never gets anything besides shirts and shoes for Christmas, but it could happen." Our father looks doubtful. He knows that John's father has difficulty keeping a steady job. A bicycle probably is perceived in his family to be an extravagant plaything.

My father has a very thick skin that covers a very generous nature. Part of this stubbornness stems from his experiences during World War II. He was in the war from almost the beginning until the end. His division landed in Sicily (Italy) and fought in Southern Italy. He witnessed the landing in Anzio (Italy) and the eventual capture of Rome. After another amphibious landing in Southern France he moved with his division by train to engage the Germans in eastern France. After crossing the Rhine into Germany his division went south and liberated Dachau, a major concentration camp near Munich. My older brother was born just after he landed in Sicily, so my father missed the first two years of his life. I was a product of his return, and I often think about being the result of a loving reunion.

The thick shell that enveloped him during the war did gradually erode as he reentered society to raise a family and work in a family business. Even as children we could see the change. During our younger years he was very strict, but that softened as we grew up. He had seen many poor and dislocated children during the war, and it had made him uneasy to think of John's situation.

My father worries for weeks about John's disappointment at Christmas. He finally decides to do something about it. One evening about a week before Christmas he takes Russ and me aside. He is fidgeting and tense, unusual for him. But in a firm voice he says, "I know John's not going to get a bicycle for Christmas."

I look at him surprised, "How do ya know?"

He avoids our eyes and looks away. "I really don't know. I just have a feeling." He then looks directly at us. "He's almost part of our family. I don't want to see him disappointed."

I know my father. Once he makes up his mind, right or wrong, it won't change. His expression is dead serious. This isn't a decision that has implications of life or death, something he often encountered during the war, but Russ and I understand the seriousness of the conversation.

I see Russ look away to collect his thoughts. It is hard to think when confronted by a determined look. He then looks back and says, "We never give him anything for Christmas, so what're you going to do?"

My father says, "I know that, but I'm going to buy him a bicycle just in case he doesn't get one." I'm younger, but I see a problem right away. Such a big gift is unusual and not socially acceptable in our close knit neighborhood.

Russ is thinking the same thing. "But how'll you give it to him?" The implication is that we don't want the bicycle to come between us and our friendship with John.

"I don't know yet. I still haven't figured it out. Not even sure I'll do it." Our father then looks at us directly and says, "You have to promise me you'll keep a lid on this secret." I squirm in my chair. A friendship is on the line and this is a matter that has to be handled delicately.

As the days pass Christmas is coming soon and the matter hasn't been resolved. My father finally makes the decision and goes to the Ross Brother's Sporting Goods store. He purchases the bicycle two days before Christmas.

Our dinner table often is the time for serious family discussions. It is the only time all of us are together. That evening just days before Christmas as we are sitting at the table after dinner my father breaks the news. "I've purchased John a bicycle." It is stated as a matter of fact, not open for discussion. "I still haven't decided how I'll do this, but you have to keep the promise you made. Never say anything about this to John."

I'm surprised as I almost had forgotten the previous conversation about the bike. Russ looks at me, with a glance indicating the serious of the matter. He then turns and looks at my father, "We cross our hearts and hope to die if we tell anything to John." He then throws me a quick glance and I make a motion crossing my heart with my fingers, but to be honest, I hope won't die. With this action the secret pact is sealed.

Christmas morning finally arrives. I open my presents in a frenzy. Toys and wrappings fly everywhere. For my family, Christmas is one of the most cherished days and it is celebrated with no thought for next month's bills. Along with Russ I'm coming down from the high of my new found treasures when I hear a knock on the door. I know it's John as he came every year to our house on late Christmas morning. Russ and I, still in our pajamas feel the cold air rushing through the door as we crowd the doorway looking out at John bundled up in the cold.

Two boys in front of fireplace during Christmas in the 1950s
Two Brothers during Christmas in the 1950s
Source: Doug Barnes


Beaming John says "I told ya, didn't I."

My brother says, "Wow, Mr. Claus was good to you this year."

"I told ya I'd git a bicycle." With one hand on his hip and the other sweeping down in a grand gesture, John continues, "and here it is." We see a bright shiny red, American-made bicycle.

Despite the cold I say, "Let's take 'er out for a test ride."

Russ and I abandon our new gifts. After dressing we get our bicycles from Granny's (our grandmother's) garage right behind our house. Despite the cold John, Russ and I ride all over the neighborhood as if floating on air. We make the neighborhood Christmas rounds with John. He soaks in the congratulations from all the gang members.

Our father always insists that we tell the truth. In an ironic twist this time he had instructed us to lie about John's bicycle. I understood this is a white lie to accomplish a good deed, a moral conundrum that doesn't bother me at all.

Later that day our father sits Russ and me down at the dining room table. He knows that to keep us quiet he'd have to tell us all the details of the events that transpired on Christmas Eve.

"After you boys went to bed I retrieved John's bicycle from its hiding place in Granny's garage. I rolled the bicycle over to his house. I really wasn't looking forward to talking with John's father. He was surprised to see me so late on the night before Christmas."

Our father paused and looked at us intently. Our eyes were wide open soaking up the experience. I thought how nice it was to share a secret with him. "John's father came out on the porch and saw the bicycle. I said to him 'John's at our house most every day. I learned that he wanted a bicycle for Christmas. I had an extra bicycle in the garage that I bought for one of my nephews. There was some confusion and his parents had already got em a bicycle. I'm not here to interfere with your family. This is an extra bicycle and it's yours. You can do whatever you want with it.' "

I say, "So he took the bike and gave it to John."

"Yeah. He took it, but I had no idea whether he'd give it to John. I was glad to see John show up with the bike this morning. Now you know the whole story. Let's keep all this quiet. Don't even tell any of the gang." After this we never talked about this in our family again. Russ and I kept our promise.

Kids are naturally selfish, but after that Christmas the saying "It's better to give than to receive" rang true for the first time in my life. My own Christmas presents are soon forgotten and I enjoy the gift of giving every time I observe John's happiness riding his very special bicycle. Reflecting back, I think all the destruction my father had seen during World War II made him think that life's short and an opportunity to make one child happy shouldn't be missed, no matter what.

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