For me as a kid — as indeed for all kids — Christmas was a time of hope and fear.
Hope: get something really cool. Fear: get something that your parents or grandparents thought to be cool, but that you knew, thanks to your snarky friends/siblings, was not merely undesirable but actively embarrassing.
I don’t remember the bad presents — those have vanished from memory. I do remember Dec. 25, 1953, when my unbelievably cool grandmother, then 82 years old, gave me a green and silver three-speed English Raleigh bike for Christmas.
During the era of balloon tired, single-speed Schwinns with coaster brakes, this was an amazing piece of technology. Three speeds!!?? Hand brakes??!! A derailleur??!! I was the coolest, happiest kid on the block.
My bike transformed me from a chubby, panting wannabe who couldn’t keep up with everyone else into the fastest rider in the neighborhood. And besides that, it was English!
Foreign was cool — domestic was, well, domestic.
“Made in America” meant that it was reliable, cheap and boring. Made in France, or England or Italy meant exciting design, high prices and unreliability — but in a cool way.
A Jaguar XK120 roadster was the epitome of cool, especially when compared to the boring, dependable bedrooms-on-wheels that Detroit turned out by the millions.
And who cared whether the XK broke down and left you walking two or three times a month? If you were cool enough to own one, you could fix it yourself or, better still, call your butler and have him pick you up in your even-more-unreliable Ferrari.
Alas, adolescent fantasies must end.
We grew up, got married, had kids and drove Detroit iron — but we didn’t have to abandon our dreams. Those bedrooms-on-wheels disappeared, replaced by big, comfortable, fast, flashy, practical cars that could carry six adults and still outrun anything on the road.
The ’58 Chevy Impala convertible with the 348 tri-power! The ’57 Ford Fairlane convertible! The mighty ’57 Chrysler 300!
During the early 1960s, you could’ve bought any of them for a thousand bucks — or less.
As Forest Osborn wrote, posting on Ken Leonard’s blog about all things Ford, “My first car was a 1957 Ford convertible … I traded it for a ’63 and wish I had it back now because they only gave me about $500 for it as trade.”
But suppose that you wanted a really cool car, as fast as a Ferrari, as stylish as a Jag, as reliable as a Chevy?
You went to your Chevy dealer, and bought a ’57 Corvette, or to your Ford dealer for a ’57 T-Bird.
The ’57 fuelie could outrun anything on the road — until the ’60s muscle cars hit the market.
The 427 Corvette!! The ’69 Mercury Cyclone with the 428 super cobra jet!! The Hemi ‘Cuda!! “Four-speed dual quad positraction 409!” “Turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO!”
Times change. Cars aren’t cool. Detroit is in ruins. The Chinese make cheap, reliable, boring stuff — and it’s not cool. What is?
In these sour, quarrelsome times — nothing!
The super-rich will always find toys to amuse them, such as tanks of embalming fluid containing the carefully sectioned corpses of sharks or farm animals, labeled “art” and priced accordingly. The comfortably wealthy build much-too-large houses, with entryways better suited to airport hotels in the Sun Belt.
The rest of us would happily settle for a flat-screen TV, a lightly used Ford pickup or just a dishwasher that doesn’t make weird noises. It’s consumption without the anticipatory joy of acquisition, life defined by stuff that isn’t fun.
So what do we do? Buy better stuff? Live off the grid and stop being ruled by our stuff? Give the stuff we don’t need to people who do?
That seems like the best idea.
So during the next couple weeks, I’m letting go. Out the door with it — to Goodwill, to the Salvation Army, to other worthy charities. Like so many of us, I have too much stuff — time to get rid of it, with one exception.
If I find a green and silver three-speed English bike in the back of the basement, I’m keeping it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 227-5861.