Every Christmas, Leon Chamberlain tells the story of the bicycle to his children and grandchildren. He has written it here for our benefit. -CG
I love going to bicycle shops, so when I recently accompanied my adult daughter to a bicycle shop to select a graduation gift, I lingered among the rows of sleek, new bicycles. Inevitably, I was drawn to what are now called “retro” cycles. The sight of those old-style bikes brought to mind my first bicycle and all the memories that came with it.
As I recall, I wanted a bicycle when I was just six years old. Even at that young age, my hope was tempered by the realities of the time. World War II had just ended and items like bicycles were very scarce. I was also quite young to receive such a coveted Christmas gift, so I knew the chance of getting a bicycle that year was slim. When Christmas passed without a bicycle, I held my hopes out for next year when I would be seven.
Leon Chamberlain (left) stands with a friend outside their home on Navajo Street in the Poplar Grove neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah.
As the war and its scarcities grew distant, I grew more hopeful that there would be a bicycle under the Christmas tree. But when Christmas came and there was no bicycle, I struggled to hide my profound disappointment. My disappointment mixed with jealousy when I learned of my friend’s good fortune. His dad had salvaged a bicycle at a junkyard and fixed it up for Christmas. “Maybe my dad could go to the junkyard and find me a bicycle,” I thought. But the spring and summer months passed without a bicycle, and it wasn’t until the next Christmas season that my longing was once again renewed.
Leon Chamberlain standing on the south side of his home on Navajo Street.
It was 1948, and to me it was the mother of all winters. There was over two feet of snow in our yard, and the streets in my neighborhood were coated with snow and ice. The wind blew drifts so high we could climb to our rooftop and slide down the drifts banked up against the garage. I was eight years old, and my guarded yet unflagging hope for a new bicycle never left my mind.
That Christmas Eve, I could not sleep. Through the darkness, I crawled on my belly from my bedroom to the living room to see if the bicycle had arrived. I strained my eyes through the dim light, but I couldn’t discern a bicycle. I repeated this exercise several times without any success. The anticipation was excruciating, and as the first gray light of morning entered my room I pled with my parents to be allowed into the living room.
There it sat. A 26-inch balloon-tired Yale bicycle. A Yale? Yes, a Yale. I was very familiar with the brands of bicycles by then: Schwinn, Columbia, Raleigh and Roadmaster. I had never heard of a Yale and have never seen anther one since. That did not matter. I had a bicycle and that’s all that mattered.
I did have a problem, though: I wanted to ride my bicycle and there was literally no place to ride it. Despite blankets of ice and snow, I braved the below-zero temperature and immediately set to work shoveling a path for my bicycle. Beginning at my back door, I tunneled a 25-foot square course through the snow. I could barely reach the pedals as I shakily guided my new bike though the narrow course I had cleared. As ice formed on the spokes, the bike became more difficult to ride, and after a few trips around the course my enthusiasm waned. My patience was again tested as I was compelled to wait through the long winter in anticipation of riding my new bike.
That Yale was the only bicycle I had growing up. When I got tired of the color, I painted it a different one. I would completely take the bicycle apart from one end to the other and reassemble it again. I knew that bike backwards and forwards and probably rode it several thousand miles. I had no desire to have another bike, and it wasn’t until my interests shifted to cars that I parked my Yale in the back of the garage, never to be ridden again.
Leon Chamberlain with his ’51 Ford.
His first car, a ’41 Ford, didn’t last too long*
I have since bought several bicycles and enjoyed riding them, but as I shopped with my daughter it became clear that while I could buy any bicycle in that shop, none could bring the happiness that my Yale did. It wasn’t until many years after that Christmas that I discovered that my Yale was second-hand, and that my parents had much difficulty acquiring it.
Perhaps at some future time I will again have the chance to ride my Yale along the streets of Salt Lake City, the breeze blowing in my face, my shirt unbuttoned and my hands behind my head. It doesn’t get any better than that.
*My ’41 Ford had been through a lot. I remember driving to West High School, and my friends in the back were complaining they were cold. Before I knew it, my friends had built a small fire on the floor of the car to warm them up. The brakes also went out in that car. I remember carefully driving all the way home from West High to Navajo Street without having to use the brakes. Unfortunately, I did not calculate how I would eventually stop the car once in the driveway and sailed right into the garage door.