My cousin and best friend during my childhood days in Lawrenceville, Illinois, was John Vaughn, who passed away on Nov. 23 at age 64. The following column appeared in 2018 and now is reprinted in his honor. Good night and may God bless John Vaughn.
Christmas of 1967 was not shaping up to be a holiday of any spectacular means for my little family.
Mom was working extra hours at a place called Jiffy Cleaners so her weekly paycheck could include a few extra bucks for Christmas, and little brother and me attended to our studies at St. Lawrence Elementary School the best we could when you consider neither of us ever encroached on the title of scholar. I passed the Chicago Daily News in the early morning hours and saved my Christmas tips to buy mom and little brother something for under the tree.
Christmas Day was on our kid radar of course, but the holiday meant more about being out of school for a couple of weeks instead of Santa Claus, presents or family traditions.
Most Christmas Days in our little town of Lawrenceville, Illinois, turned out the same for us.
We opened a couple of gifts under one of those awful silver aluminum trees with the rotating color wheel and got a special cup of hot cocoa mom fixed only a couple of times a year. The rest of the day was spent waiting for a father who never came to visit or, if good fortune smiled upon us, spending the afternoon and evening at my Aunt Margie’s house on the other side of town.
Only the childhood Christmas of 1967 remains among my fond memories.
As I told you earlier, Christmas approached with little fanfare.
Sure, Santa Claus had come to town in early December and held court inside his candy-cane striped workshop-on-wheels at the town square during the afternoons, evenings and a few extra hours on the weekends. If you timed it just right, you could have your visit to the jolly old elf shared with hundreds of listeners over radio station WAKO.
Despite the fact my little brother and me went a couple of times to see Santa each year, neither of us made the big show on WAKO.
After our annual pilgrimage to see St. Nick, we headed to Aunt Margie’s house for supper since mom worked late evenings at the dry cleaners. If we got there in time, perhaps I could ride my cousin Johnnie’s bicycle.
Johnnie had a green Schwinn Stingray that was all the rage in our town, complete with a sissy bar and hand brakes. He could ride that majestic bike on streets or off road over hills, dales and massive rock piles located at a concrete mixing plant across from his house.
Oh how I wanted a Stingray bike, and Johnnie had the perfect one for my tastes. It was green, my favorite color, with a banana seat and high rise handlebars.
While most friends, classmates and Johnnie cruised around town on Stingrays, I tried to keep up on my red, two-wheeled blacktop beast that people referred to as a conventional bike but seemed like a brontosaurus to me. The thing had balloon tires fatter than villain King Tut on the “Batman” TV show and a coaster brake which worked about seven out of every 10 times I punched the peddle.
Unfortunately, I arrived too late this night to ride Johnnie’s bike. But then something magical happened. While we ate supper, my cousin informed me he was selling his Stingray to raise money for a new 1967 model since his had aged a whopping three years.
Out went the sugar plums and instantly images of Johnnie’s Stingray danced in my head. I wanted that bike more than anything for Christmas and rushed home to mom to make my request and erase the couple of items I had scribbled on my Christmas wish list.
Mom listened as I described Johnnie’s bike from wheel to wheel, forgetting she had seen it perhaps a hundred times. She did not say a word but went straight to her work of not raising my hopes too high.
Christmas was going to be tight again this year, but she would see what she could do, she told me.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I realized I must visit Santa Claus again to revise and extend my earlier wish list remarks.
If I could only broadcast my Christmas wish over the airwaves, someone was sure to hear and help my mom out with the Stingray. Alas, my second visit to Santa did not include any airtime, but I made sure to be on my best behavior nonetheless.
A week before Christmas mom told me the horrible news how Johnnie sold his Stingray before she came up with enough money to buy it. Mom was not sure who bought it, but I knew it must be true because Aunt Margie, who never told a fib I was aware of, also offered me condolences over the matter.
“Old balloon tires will have to do for another year,” I thought to myself as once again I erased and amended my Christmas wish list.
However, this time I left the list blank and decided whatever Santa brought on Dec. 25 would only be a Christmas consolation prize.
Christmas morning arrived with no green Stingray by that awful aluminum tree, but the hot chocolate took a little sting — no pun intended — out of the situation. This Christmas sunk lower on my list of childhood memories when mom announced we were staying home the rest of the day because Aunt Margie had taken ill.
Nothing over the two channels we could tune in on our black-and-white TV interested me, so I went out on the front porch to sit in the chilly air and ponder what might have been had the fates not been against me.
A few minutes later Johnnie showed up on his new bike to show me a kid’s lifestyle I could only dream about.
“How do you like my new bike?” Johnnie asked as he skidded to a stop by our front steps.
“It looks just like your old one,” I grumbled.
“This is my old bike, uh, I mean this is your new bike now and Merry Christmas!”
The clouds parted, mom laughed just inside the front door and Aunt Margie’s Studebaker station wagon drove up carrying two new bikes. One was Johnnie’s new ride and the other a purple Stingray for my little brother.
Mom’s extra hours at the dry cleaners turned my worst Christmas into a holiday miracle, at least in my prudent opinion. Mom and Aunt Margie hatched the Yuletide plot relying on my cousin not to ruin the surprise.
A finer bike was never had by a kid than my green Stingray with a sissy bar, hand brakes and high rise handlebars. Proudly I pedaled along the streets, hills and rock piles in Lawrenceville for three years before we parted ways.
Soon after the Christmas of 1967 I learned there was no Santa in the physical sense of the word, but that did not phase me. You see, I could always believe in my mom and Aunt Margie.
Doug Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.