Thursday, December 25, 2008

Phantoms, Part 5

Author's Note:
It's funny, I'd walked away from this piece for a while, picked today to look it over again, and realized just how appropriate it would be to put up the excerpt where I'd left off.

This is dedicated to my late-Grandmother Nunemaker, who sent me on the wild-goose gift chases described below every Christmas (the most memorable led to my first computer, appropriately enough), and to my late-Dad, the first person out of bed on Christmas morning his entire life, even after he had kids of his own.

In the bike shop where I work, I hear it almost every day: “Oh, I had one just like that.” The customer is usually male, mid-fifties, responding to the Schwinn Black Phantom reissue cruiser that hangs from our ceiling. I would guess that eighty percent of these glassy-eyed nostalgia sufferers never owned a Phantom. Most probably owned another model in the Schwinn line, or perhaps a bicycle built by Schwinn to be rebadged as a department-store model. After all, in 1950s America, the Schwinn Black Phantom was, without question, the best - and most expensive - bike a kid could have. Granted, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, the original Phantom was nothing new, borrowing from balloon-tire technologies Schwinn perfected two decades earlier. However, unlike its prewar ancestors - the Motorbike, the Autocycle, the DX, the Excelsior - Phantoms had all the toys. Deep black and red enamel, blinding chrome on just about everything, tubing junctures smooth as poured liquid, flowing curves, long antique white pinstripes, real leather saddle, drum brakes, fenders, built-in wheel lock, rear rack with working taillight, working headlight growing organically from the line of the front fender, and a small button on the side of the imitation gas tank controlling the battery-powered horn inside. Everything about the bike was big and overbuilt, from the wide balloon tires on rolled steel rims to the long cowhorn handlebars. In one bicycle, Schwinn blended all the fantasies of postwar Americans, adult and child alike. Style, polish, power, and features - if they sell cars, Schwinn reasoned, why not bikes? The Phantom brought ten-year-old boys to tears of desire, a machine-as-identity lust that would eventually be transferred to four-wheeled vehicles like Mustangs, Corvettes, and Camaros. In its time, it was simply the ultimate bicycle. Even fifty years later, the Phantom still stands as a defining moment in bicycle history, pursued by collectors like a two-wheeled Holy Grail. So I can’t blame these glassy-eyed men in my shop for the blur in their memories, the hardening of want into remembered ownership. My own father, now fifty-four, suffers the same illness.

On March 3, 1954, for his ninth birthday, my father received what he remembers as a Schwinn Black Phantom. That morning, my grandparents probably gave him something small, pretending that the gift-giving was over. Then, just as disappointment set in, they handed him a small note: “Look in the hall closet.” In the hall closet, another note: “Look under your pillow.” I see my grandparents exchanging smiles over coffee as their son scurries around the house. Under the pillow: “Look on Mom’s dresser.” On the dresser: “Look in the garage.” Since it was March in Illinois, I’m certain my grandmother stopped him on his way out the door, insisting on a coat and hat, adding one more delay just as the suspense reached its zenith.

Finally, a warm coat wrapped over his pajamas, he burst into the garage, and there it was: his Schwinn. Black, with cream trim. Black-painted fenders with matching cream pinstripes. A rear rack. Chrome springer fork. Big. Gleaming. Most birthday presents would require a bow, but the Schwinn had enough style simply propped on its kickstand. They rolled it outside into the bitter Illinois winter, stood boy and bike in front of the garage door, and snapped a picture in the snow.

In the next four years, my father would shear off the coaster brake fixing strap (as well as several of grandpa’s replacement straps) and shatter the front axle jumping the bike off what he calls “a small wall.” The social mores of preteens would shift, decreeing that bikes were no longer “cool,” and the bike would be abandoned in the garage, then sold. But forty-four years later, if I could just find that photograph, my father would still be a pudgy, grinning nine-year old in his winter coat and hat, the piles of snow would never melt, and his Schwinn would remain unridden, unbroken, and unquestionably cool. Would I have the heart to tell him his bike was the less-expensive, less-coveted Panther, not the Phantom it has become in his mind? Would it matter?

1 comment:

Thom said...

Perhaps a very similar photograph of my father will suffice!

From the family archives

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