Santa Claus is real.
I can still hear the brakes skidding on loose gravel, the clatter of the creased baseball card jammed in the spokes — held in place with a clothespin. The blue bicycle Santa Claus brought me for Christmas morning some 25 years ago made a permanent believer of this native Gainesvillian.
Covering an assignment for The Times last week took me back to that memorable morning two and a half decades ago, as 36 local children were treated Saturday to a $150 shopping spree at Target, compliments of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 41.
Much like these children’s families, there were times when my folks were not doing so great financially. In the late 1980s, my dad had started his own business, and there were years following that when we really struggled and didn’t have the means for Christmas.
Someone — a school counselor, a friend or possibly a relative — had apparently reached out to one of the organizations that pitches in at Christmastime for families in need, and effectively made me the happiest kid in the world. After awakening that particular morning, my parents told me my present was out in front of the garage. Sporting nothing more than Ninja Turtles pajamas, I bolted out the door.
And there it was.
Shiny reflectors glinted from the spokes. Sleek factory stickers adorned its rugged framework. A bright, red ribbon was tied to the handlebars. The sky blue bicycle seemed almost to call out to me, and I jumped on, folded shut the kickstand, and pedaled fast down the driveway and up the road toward my friend’s house. The frantic shouts of my mother telling me to put on some clothes couldn’t stop me, and the icy wind numbed my whole body as I pumped my way up the big hill.
Knocking at my buddy’s front door, I tried to suppress the world’s goofiest grin as the knob turned and he looked me up and down inquisitively, still rubbing sleep from his eyes.
He squinted, mouth dropped open and we promptly high-fived. He sprinted around the side of his trailer and grabbed his own mud-spattered cycle, bringing it around. We rode side by side down the road, imaginations churning. We were jets — an F-14 Tomcat and stealth bomber — soaring through the air. Zooming past rusty fences and barking dogs, we were NASCAR drivers speeding down the track. We were on-call deputies in pursuit of high-profile criminals. We screamed at the top of our lungs, mimicking the shrill sirens.
When the cold weather got to be too much, we retreated to the basement of my parents’ house. Turning on one of those old-fashioned space heaters that glows orange when it gets hot, we huddled inches from the contraption, shivering. I grabbed a pair of defunct walkie-talkies from the drawer of a busted dresser, and our game continued. We radioed back and forth like officers of the law.
“Code 7524. We got a code 7524 at the Food Lion — ksssh.” I slurred into the walkie talkie, ending with my best imitation of radio static.
“10-4!” my buddy said, and we dashed out the door. There it stood, my stately bike. I flipped the kickstand on the single-speed and jumped on. We would spend many a day over the next couple of years, cruising up and down the road. Customizing our rides with stickers we dug from cereal boxes, with adhesive knickknacks we rummaged from yard sales. I can still hear the sound of those fat tires skidding across the pavement as I reversed the pedals and locked up the brakes, drifting into a graceful sideways stop — like the star of some low-budget action movie.
I loved that bicycle. It was testament to the notion that good things can happen, even when times are tough. My buddy, for one, understood how much that bike meant to me. When you’re young and your family doesn’t have much money, there’s a sort of mutual acceptance of one another’s circumstances. My friend got this.
Sure, we wanted the fancy clothes and expensive toys, and we envied the rich friends who always went on trips to Six Flags and Disney World. Simple concepts like central air conditioning even seemed like some brand of glorious magic.
So yeah, getting a brand-new bike was phenomenal. My parents told me it was Santa Claus who brought it. And, I realized Santa Claus wasn’t just a person; he was the spirit of philanthropy. He was the reason I got my bike. He was the reason 36 kids were treated to Christmas last Saturday at the Gainesville Target and more were treated by other organizations and companies throughout the county and beyond.
Santa Claus is the act of charity. Santa Claus is the unexplainable kindness of strangers.
And, Santa Claus is real.
Frank Reddy is a business reporter for The Times.