When I was twelve, my Christmas present was a brand-new J. C. Higgins 26” Flightliner bicycle. I was probably more surprised than Ralphie was when he got his Red Ryder BB gun. Money was not abundant growing up, and we kids didn’t expect lavish gifts. But Christmas morning, there it was in the downstairs hallway, shining brighter than the tinsel on the tree. It was a present far better than anything Santa had ever brought down the chimney.
It was the most gorgeous bicycle ever made. All red, white, and chrome, sleek as a Corvette, with whitewalls, tailfins and dual headlights. Just standing in the hallway on its kickstand, it looked like it was speeding, and I was sure it was faster than anything around, except maybe an F-104 Starfighter. Even the name “Flightliner” conjured images of jets coursing through the sky, as I would soon be coursing through the streets of Mt. Washington.
Well, not too soon, as it turned out. It was December in Pittsburgh, after all. Bicycle weather was a ways off, particularly as defined by my mother. She was sure if there was one snowflake lurking on the sidewalk or streets, my bike would find it, and go into an uncontrollable slide, and I would smash into a garbage truck or passing Sherman tank. Given my luck, she was probably right, but I think I would have only collided with a Corvair, or possibly a VW Beetle, so it’s hard to say who would have gotten the worse of it.
The winter weather didn’t cooperate, and for next few months I put dozens of miles on my lustrous two-wheeled beauty – all in the long hallway connecting the entryway and the kitchen. I’d climb onto the seat with the flair of Roy Rogers mounting Trigger, grab the handle bars, and tip toe five feet forward. Then I’d stop, and tip toe five feet backwards. My sisters thought I was crazy. They were probably right. When I wasn’t riding the hallway boards, I’d just sit on the floor and admire it. It was a true work of art. I’m sure that Michelangelo felt the same way when he looked at his completed David.
When spring finally arrived, I couldn’t wait to unleash my beautiful bicycle on the world. But first I had to carry it down the porch steps to the landing, turn 90 degrees to the left, down three more steps to the next landing, turn 90 degrees left, then down maybe 15 more concrete steps to the landing, turn 90 degrees right, and viola! The sidewalk! For a bike that looked like it could fly like the wind, it felt like it weighed a ton, to a somewhat too-slender twelve-year old.
I spent the next few months almost exclusively on my Flightliner. I explored every nook, corner, cranny, and crevice of Mt. Washington. Some of my friends began to wonder if I’d need remedial walking lessons. One day I decided to walk two blocks to the store instead of riding. A friend saw me, and exclaimed, “You’re walking! Did something happen to your bike?”
Sometimes my neighborhood friends and I would ride bikes together. We’d often attach balloons to the rear frame so the rotating spokes would produce that “motorbike” sound. If we didn’t have balloons, a playing card worked nicely. This made us very popular in the neighborhood. Most boys that age aren’t well attuned to personal interactions, but we always noticed the appreciative stares we received from people on the block.
I rode the tires off of that magnificent marvel for the next few years. I’m sad to say I don’t know whatever became of it. Like most of my boyhood treasure and trash, it seemed to simply vanish sometime after I had grown up and moved away. I’ve always hoped it got a second life, and even a third life, bringing wonder into the heart of some boy somewhere. That J. C. Higgins masterpiece surely held more magic than just one boy could extract.
I was never sure whose idea it was to make it my Christmas present. It was certainly the most expensive gift I ever received, and the most appreciated. I feel certain, though, that my dad must have picked out that streamlined beauty. No way my mom would have selected a bike that, while standing still, looked like it was going three times the mom-approved speed limit.
I don’t remember how profusely I thanked my mother and father for my bike. I’m sure it wasn’t enough, though. We never thank our parents enough. I wasn’t capable at the time of appreciating the financial sacrifice it must have been. Nor did it occur to me to marvel that my parents were enough in tune with me to understand not only what I wanted, but what would thrill me beyond measure. So, thanks, Mom and Dad. Visions of red, white, and chrome Flightliners still fill my dreams.
And Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night, and a good season, and a good year.