I roll the tape backwards, through the many Christmases that came and went, some in joy, some in sadness, some in anger or despair, and I arrive at the Christmas of 1957. What a year that had been. Bogart died, Sputnik was launched, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road got published, Bobby Fischer (at age 13!) became a chess champion, Elvis sang his new song, Blue Christmas, seemingly nonstop on the radio, and West Side Story opened in New York, a city that had just lost the Giants and the Dodgers to the left coast.
My father, reflecting on all this, or perhaps not, pulled back the living room curtains, peered out the window on this cloudy Christmas Eve, and wondered out loud how the Sharpers could possibly have afforded that ribbon-wrapped, brand-spanking new 1957 Chevy in front of their house, a car that made our faded maroon 1948 Plymouth look ancient, primarily because it was.
I was sitting on the couch, trying my best to watch Father Knows Best on our flickering 8-inch Motorola, but failing miserably, one thought and one thought only on my mind: what would I get for Christmas? It was a question not asked in eagerness but in trepidation. I never got what I asked for. Period.
What I got was what my parents could afford, which was usually not much. A banner year would be three presents, and socks were usually one of those gifts. What I really wanted, and never got, was a bicycle.
“What, do you think I’m made of money?” my father would say every Christmas morning.
Sometimes, I wished he were, but usually I just shook my head and tried to appreciate my Tinkertoys, knowing that a family of five that ate meat just once a week had higher priorities than a bicycle. Still, all my friends had bicycles, so it was frustrating not to be able to join them on their rides.
“Looks like snow,” my father said, a statement he had made several times during the day, although now, well past sunset, he clearly couldn’t see a thing in the darkness that engulfed everything but the Sharper’s new Chevy, which Mr. Sharper had parked strategically and boastfully under a street lamp.
Great, I thought, even if I get a bicycle, I won’t be able to ride it. “Uh-huh,” I said. “I think I’ll go to bed.”
“Bed? It’s only eight o’clock?”
“Not feeling well.” I trudged across the room, glanced briefly at the freshly tinseled Christmas tree, and climbed the stairs to the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, who was already in bed, fast asleep, dreaming of who knows what. I tried briefly to tune in Christmas songs on my crystal radio, but Elvis’s new song sounded more like Blue Static Christmas, so I turned it off, got into my pajamas, and went to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of my brother whooping for joy downstairs in the living room. “Neat-O!” he shouted. “Can I take it out, please, please, please?”
That got my attention. I scrambled out of bed and dashed down the stairs to see my brother pushing a bike—a bike!—out the front door. There must be a bike for me, too!
And then my heart sank. There was no bike under the tree for me, just a baseball glove, a ball, and a pair of socks, the standard trifecta of Christmas. I started to cry, the kind of cry that is so intense that you can neither breathe nor make a sound.
An instant later, I was being hugged by my mother. “Hey kiddo,” she said, “stop your crying; there’s one more gift I think you’re going to like.”
And then I heard it, the click-click-click of a bike being wheeled into the room by my father. And not just any bike. It was a red English racer, with white fiberglass fenders, an incredible three speeds, and tires no thicker than my thumbs.
I gasped, broke free from my mother’s embrace, and raced to take possession of my bike, the best Christmas present ever.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the real gift was seeing the look on my father’s face as he fought back tears, and the triumphant nod and wink he gave my mother.
It had indeed snowed that night, one of only three white Christmases in my memory. Not that it was a big snow—just an inch or so, enough to cover the street and blanket the cars, but not enough to prevent me and my brother from riding our bikes and making figure eights in the snow.