Three Birthdays, Three Christmases

It all started with Rocky Kauffman.  I was 11 years old, just shy of my 12th birthday and in sixth grade.  Rocky invited me over to spend the night at his house.  Rocky’s dad had a little money so Rocky’s house was bigger and nicer than mine and he had more stuff.  AND, Rocky’s parents weren’t as strict as mine so he could do more stuff.  Had more stuff, could do more stuff.  Rocky himself wasn’t one of my better friends, but going to Rocky’s house promised to be fairly fun because of the more stuff angle.

If I remember correctly, I went over on a Friday night – probably right after school.  Shortly after I was there, Rocky asked if I wanted to ride his minibike.  I didn’t know anyone at the time who actually had a minibike and hadn’t ridden one, so it sounded pretty cool.  We went to the garage and got it out – a Honda 50.  He drove, I rode on the back and we took off around Rocky’s neighborhood.  After we’d ridden for a while, he explained how it worked (no clutch, three speeds) and let me drive.  We continued to drive around the neighborhood and even took off on the shoulder of a very busy street to visit a park just down the road (remember, Rocky could do more stuff).

It was a BLAST.  It was FANTASTIC.  I LOVED it.  We rode and rode that evening and got up the next day and rode some more.  As I remember it, I wanted to ride until my parents came to pick me up.  I’m guessing Rocky probably got a little sick of riding because it was pretty much all I wanted to do once we got it out.  Since he could ride it any time he wanted, I’m sure he grew a little bored with my “this is the best thing ever and I never want to stop” obsession.

When I got home I told my dad all about it.  At length and in detail, I’m sure.  I even mentioned how great it would be to have one…

Now here’s where I should probably give you some context.  I grew up in a very supportive, loving home and was provided for completely.  I have absolutely no complaints about my childhood and am very thankful to God for the parents and family He gave me.  But the value of a dollar was never overlooked.  And expensive gifts were NOT the norm.  I had several friends who were from situations not as economically well-off as mine who received more gifts and more expensive gifts than I did every birthday and Christmas.  Going crazy buying gifts was NOT the practice in my family (a tradition I’ve continued with my kids today – my kids love to tell me about all the incredible gifts their friends receive – I always explain that it’s sad that their parents don’t love them enough to teach them about scarcity and delayed gratification, and how blessed my kids are to have parents who do).

So that being said, when I mentioned to dad how nice it would be to have one, I just did it as sort of a Hail Mary – I didn’t in a million years think it would go anywhere.  It was a minibike worth hundreds of dollars – that was simply not happening in the real world.  What I didn’t know, however, was that my timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  The real world was changing.  Unbeknownst to me (but knownst to dad), dad had been thinking of getting a motorcycle for himself.  My dad at the time was 45 years old (this was the fall of 1975), and I guess he’d reached the point in life where owning a motorcycle sounded pretty good.  So when I came home and started raving about how fun it was to ride a minibike, I think he saw it as an opportunity to head to the local Honda dealership and look around.  He now had an excuse.  Whatever the reason, dad’s response just about caused me to have a gastrointestinal incident – he said, “OK, let’s go look at them.”

So we headed down to the Honda dealership.  The night before I’d never ridden a minibike or even thought about owning one, and suddenly we were heading to the dealership to look at them.  Now don’t get me wrong, I still wasn’t at all thinking that I was actually going to get one – that was STILL too much of a leap for my mind to make.  And I’m sure I was pretty quiet the whole way down for fear of saying something stupid and ruining the whole thing.  But just the fact that dad didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand and was willing to actually go look was pretty amazing.  Even if all we did was look, it would be fun.

We got to the dealership and dad asked to see the Honda 50s.  They brought one out and I sat on it and (I think) rode it around the parking lot.  It was fantastic.  Brand-spanking new (1976 model year).  Orange sparkle paint on the gas tank and chrome fenders.  Nicer than Rocky’s because it was newer.  And – unlike my Free Spirit 10-speed that my neighborhood buddies made fun of because they all had Schwinns and Fujis – it was name-brand.  New.  Top-of-the-line.  Not used, not off-brand – just simply the nicest minibike you could buy.  WOW.

After dad talked to the salesman about the minibike, he asked about a bike for him (this was when I realized there was more to our little outing).  The salesman pointed him to a beautiful silver 1976 Honda 200 road bike (compared to bikes today this sounds really small, but back in the day not everyone was riding Harley cruisers – and since dad had not owned a bike before I think he wanted to start a little small – he actually didn’t own it for long before trading up to a 550).  Dad liked the bike a lot and asked the salesman, “How much for both?”

Whoa!!!  HOW MUCH FOR BOTH????  HOW MUCH FOR BOTH!!!  We’re BUYING these???  I’m getting a minibike?  I’m getting a minibike!  My dad – MY DAD – is buying me a MINIBIKE!  It was like I had just gained entrance into an alternate universe where kids got whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.  My mind started to buckle as it struggled to comprehend what was happening.  I AM ROCKY KAUFFMAN.  My dad buys me stuff all the time – no big deal.  I wanted a minibike so I told my dad and he of course took me right down to the motorcycle dealership and bought me one – of course he did.  This is just how my life is…  ARE YOU FLIPPING KIDDING ME!!!!????  I’M GETTING A TOP-OF-THE-LINE MINIBIKE!!!  THAT MINIBIKE RIGHT THERE IS MINE TO TAKE HOME!!  50 CCs OF PURE HEAVEN IS MINE!  I have a minibike!  I have a minibike!  I have a minibike!  ROB LOY HAS A MINIBIKE!!!!

It was at this point – while the salesman was finalizing the deal and the paperwork – that my dad drew me aside.  I don’t remember the exact conversation but it went something like this: “Rob, you obviously realize that this is MUCH more than we’d normally spend on a birthday present for you, right? [Note – my birthday is in November, six weeks before Christmas – we purchased the minibike in October I think.]  That being the case, this is going to have to be your only present for both your birthday and Christmas this year, OK?  And actually, it’s much more than we’d spend in one year on birthday and Christmas combined, so it’s going to have be your only present for next year’s birthday and Christmas, and the following year too.  So that means if we do this, it’s your only present for the next three years.  Are you OK with that?”

Okay…so I’m not Rocky Kauffman.  Welcome back to the Loy family, Mr. Rob.  THREE YEARS??  Yikes!  I take this home and it’s no more gifts until 1978?  THREE birthdays, THREE Christmases, ONE gift.  Wow.

Actually, I’m overstating my reaction.  The three years really didn’t phase me that much.  I wasn’t much of a negotiator as an 11-year-old, but my father could’ve told me this was my last gift for life and I would’ve taken the deal.  It was a brand-new Honda 50 with orange sparkle paint, a top speed – according to the salesman – of over 40 mph, three speeds and no clutch, chrome bumpers, AND ALL MINE!  I said to dad, “That’s fine – I understand.”  [Looking back, I’m sure my dad would’ve been HUGELY disappointed if I would’ve said ‘no’ because I think I was his cover for getting the motorcycle he wanted – if only I’d realized I was actually in a pretty good negotiating position I might’ve opened some presents in seventh and eighth grade.]

So we bought it and took it home.  And I rode the wheels off the thing.  It was absolutely FANTASTIC.  I rode it around our yard so much that I wore a dirt trail into the yard that encircled the whole lot (this is so funny to think about now – NO ONE would allow their kid to do this today – understand, we didn’t live in the country, we were in the suburbs with a bunch of other houses around – today, the way people are so careful about their yards, no one would put up with a dirt trail encircling their house – and if someone did, they’d almost certainly hear from their neighbors about it).  We had a one-acre lot and I made it into a racecourse.  I rode and rode and rode and rode – and loved every minute of it.  I won thousands of races against riders no one else could see (oftentimes coming from back in the pack late in the race).  I rode in good weather, bad weather, hot, cold (mostly hot, to be honest), muddy (had some restrictions here put in place by mom), and, unlike any other toy or bike or game I ever owned, never got sick of it.

It was everything I thought it would be.  My expectations were off the charts and it met them.  It was something I could do by myself any time I was home.  I didn’t need friends, I didn’t need my siblings, I didn’t need my parents.  And because I had an actual piece of equipment that I was wholly responsible for, I learned how to take care of it, how to check the oil, how to change the oil, how to start a cold engine, how to gently warm up an engine (never rev a cold engine), the importance of keeping it clean.  I also learned how to ride in all kinds of conditions.  In short, it was the best ‘toy’ any kid could want.  I just absolutely loved the thing.

BUT – it was my only gift for THREE years.  THREE.  And to an 11-year-old, that represents a goodly portion of a life.  At the end of those years, was I glad I did it?  Was it worth it?

Before I answer that, here are a few more aspects of the story you should know:

#1 – My mother HATED the deal.  And I mean HATED IT.  I have no idea if she knew my dad was planning on actually buying me a minibike and himself a motorcycle, but I KNOW she knew nothing about the birthday/Christmas deal until after it was agreed.  To this day, if this topic somehow gets brought up my mother responds like someone just told her she has to spend the day watching baseball.  To her credit, she bought me small gifts in years two and three just so I had something to open on Christmas.  The gifts were nothing big or exciting, but I did at least have something to open and didn’t just sit there watching everyone else have fun.

#2 – You might wonder if my dad actually followed through.  After all, this is the kind of thing a parent can say they’re going to do and then when it comes down to it just let it slide (as a parent I’m somewhat renowned for being a slider).  Three years is a long time to adhere to a no-gift-giving agreement.  But I can tell you He absolutely did.  You have to understand my dad.  Best dad a kid or man could ever want, but he was hardcore when it came to financial things.  And since we’d both agreed to the deal, he was going to follow it, I was going to follow it, and my mom was essentially going to follow it.  I didn’t get any gifts in 1975, I got just what mom smuggled to me in 1976, and the same in 1977.  It wasn’t until my 15th birthday in 1978 that things went back to normal.

#3 – The agreement lasted three years but my time riding the minibike ended up being essentially two.  I grew eight inches during seventh and eighth grade, so by the time the third set of birthday/Christmas came around I was pretty much done riding because my knees were up against the handle bars (in hindsight we maybe should’ve gone with a Honda 70, but all I knew was the 50 because of what I’d ridden, and the 70 would’ve probably cost me another birthday and Christmas).  I think we sold the minibike during my 9th grade year (for $200 if I remember right) so the actual riding era was pretty brief.

So with all that being said – was it worth it?  Oh ABSOLUTELY.  Have you seen the movie A Christmas Story about a 9-year-old boy (Ralphie) in the 1940s and his quest to convince the adults in his life that he should get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”)?  Do you remember how the movie ends?  The camera shows Ralphie and his brother in bed asleep.  Ralphie is holding his brand-new BB gun that his dad gave him (I’ve seen the movie multiple times and every time I watch the scene where his dad surprises him with the gun, I get tears in my eyes).  The narrator (if you’ve not seen the movie, the narrator is Ralphie as an adult looking back and telling the story) says, “I held on to my new black beauty, the greatest Christmas gift I’d ever received or would ever receive.”  That’s how I think of the minibike.  Yes, three years were a lot (I have a lifelong friend who likes to ask me every Christmas, “Did you get anything this year or are you still paying off the minibike?”), but as an 11-year-old I considered it the best gift I’d ever received and as a 55-year-old my opinion hasn’t changed.  I will never get a better gift than that.  It was so much fun and it was so unexpected and it was SO far beyond anything I’d ever realistically hoped for.  Three birthdays?  Three Christmases?  It was a bargain.

I loved my minibike so much that I always swore if I ever had kids, I’d buy one for them.  So, when my sons were eight and six, I bought them both Honda dirt bikes.  The older one got a 70 and the younger one a 50.  I even bought a 230 for myself.  We had a blast riding them for years until they outgrew them and I sold all three.  I didn’t, however, make the dirt bikes their only presents for multiple birthdays and Christmases.  I didn’t even make the bikes a birthday or Christmas present at all – I just bought them.  In hindsight I probably didn’t do the boys any favors.  I allowed them a soft and easy upbringing and deprived them of the he-man childhood I had.

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