The Year of the Flexible Flyers
The year was 1932 and the nation’s economy was at an all-time low. The disastrous crash of ’29 had left its mark, and we were experiencing a time that was to become known as the Great Depression.
I was in the eighth grade, and we all started school that fall with few clothes and school supplies. There was no lunch program, and for many students there was no food to bring. So those of us who could bring something to eat shared whatever we had.
I remember that whenever any of us had an extra penny, we would put it in an envelope and hide it; when we had twenty pennies saved, we would take them to the store and buy two cans of Vienna sausages, a treat far better than candy. Then we would find a secluded area, put all our lunches together, open the cans of sausage, and divide everything equally. Those were special days.
As Christmastime approached that year, we didn’t feel the excitement that usually comes with the holiday season. We understood about the Depression and knew there would be very little for any of us.
But there was one desire we all had, though none of us would have mentioned it to our parents. A new sled had appeared on the market called the Flexible Flyer. With its sleek finish, sharp runners, and smooth handlebars that steered it easily and gracefully, it was the Rolls-Royce of all sleds.
We all marched to the hardware store one day after school to see the new wonder sled. “How much are the sleighs, Mr. Evans?” one of the boys asked.
“Well,” he replied, “I think I can sell them for $4.98.”
Our hearts sank. But that didn’t stop us from dreaming the impossible dream.
School was finally dismissed for the holidays, and when Christmas Eve came we had our usual Christmas play and party. We returned to our homes, happy, yet sad, feeling keenly the weight of those depressed times.
I awoke early Christmas morning but was not anxious to get up. My mother finally called, so I dressed and we all went to the living room where the tree was. I was surprised to see that the tree had been redecorated and was more beautiful than ever. But the biggest surprise was still in store. There underneath the tree, with a big red ribbon tied around it, was a shiny new sled—a Flexible Flyer!
I let out a startled cry and dropped to the floor, sliding my fingers along the satiny finish, moving the handlebars back and forth, and finally cradling the precious sled in my arms. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked up at my parents and asked, “Where did you get the money for it?”
My mother wiped away a tear with the corner of her apron and replied, “Surely you believe in Santa Claus. Open your other present.”
I opened another box and there was a beautiful dress, and though I loved it, my eyes were on the sled. I could only stand and gaze in awe. I was now the owner of a Flexible Flyer.
After our midday Christmas dinner, Mother announced, “Put on your boots and bundle up warm. We’re going to town. We have another surprise for you.” I didn’t think anything could compare with the surprise I already had.
Dad hitched up the team to our big sleigh, I loaded in my new sled, and we went to town. As soon as we crossed the bridge I saw what the surprise was. Kids were everywhere, and so were Flexible Flyers. Main Street had been roped off so that we could start at the top of the hill and glide all the way down across the bridge without danger from cars. The entire community had turned out. Boys and girls were all jumping up and down, some were crying, most were throwing their arms around each other and shouting, “You got one too!”
Our parents finally got us calmed down long enough to listen to instructions. Three farmers with their horses and sleighs would take turns pulling us to the top of the hill where we would start. The older boys went first, running and then flopping “belly first,” as we called it, onto their sleds. We watched as they glided effortlessly over the crusted snow. Faster and faster they went, crossing the bridge and coming to rest amid the cheers and clapping of parents. We all took turns, and as the day wore on we got braver and wilder. The boys discovered they could do tricks by dragging their feet in a certain way, causing their sleds to turn around and tip over. We all got caught up in this adventure, tumbling in a tangle of arms and legs, laughing helplessly as we slipped around, ending up in a pile of bundled bodies.
As night drew near, our parents called for us to stop—it was time to return home for chores. “No, no,” we cried. “Please let us stay.” Reluctantly they agreed, releasing us from chores for this one time only. When they returned it was dark, but the moon shone brightly, lighting the hill. The cold wind blew over our bodies; the stars seemed so brilliant and close, the hill dark and shadowy as we made our last run for the day. Cold and hungry, but happy, we loaded our Flexible Flyers and returned home with memories that would last a lifetime.
Everywhere I went in the days that followed, my Flexible Flyer went with me. One night I decided to go to the barn, as I often did, just to watch Dad at work. I noticed that one of the stalls was empty, and I asked, “Where’s Rosie? She isn’t in her stall.”
There was an awkward silence, and my dad finally replied, “We had to sell her. She cut her foot in the fence.”
“Sell Rosie?” I thought. “Gentle, friendly Rosie?”
“But the cut would have healed,” I said. “Why didn’t you sell Meanie? She never does anything we want, but Rosie always leads the herd into the barn.”
Dad didn’t say anything, and suddenly I knew. Rosie had been sold to buy my Flexible Flyer. She was the best and would bring more money; and my parents had given the best they had—for me. I had always understood that my parents treasured me dearly, but until that moment I had never known a love so great. I ran from the barn in tears and hid myself behind the haystack.
I returned to the hill the next day and told my best friend about Rosie. “Yes, I know,” she said. “My dad took ten bushels of apples from our cellar and took them to Pocatello and sold them door to door. He’s never had to do that before. That’s how I got my Flexible Flyer.”
A growing amazement overtook me. “But how did they know?” I asked. “I didn’t ask for a sled, so how did all the parents know we all wanted Flexible Flyers?”
Little by little we began to put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone had a similar story to tell. Then we began to realize how the entire community had united in one monumental effort of sharing, trading, peddling, extra working, and, most of all, caring, to buy the Flexible Flyers. None of us ever had the slightest hint of what was going on right under our noses. That had to be the best-kept secret of all time in so small a community.
When school resumed and we marched into our classroom and stood by our desks waiting for the teacher to say those familiar words, “You may be seated,” it seemed we all stood just a bit taller. Not that we had grown in stature, but we had grown in a different way. Nothing had really changed, yet everything had changed. The economy was still the same and we still shared our lunches and saved our pennies for the sausages, but inside we had all changed. We were happier, we played harder, and we studied more diligently. It was as if we had all committed ourselves to be the best we could be, to make our parents and community proud of us. It was the only way we knew to say “thanks.”
When the snow finally melted and it was time to store the sleds, we were reluctant to part with them. We clung to them as a child clings to a favorite blanket. They had given meaning to our lives and provided us with a sense of identity. That terrible monster, the Great Depression, no longer seemed such a threat to us. Somehow we knew there would be better times, a brighter tomorrow, and a more prosperous future.
Many years later, long after I married, I asked my mother how they had pulled that secret off, and who started it. Her eyes twinkled. She gave me one of those warm, loving smiles that only a mother can give and replied, “My dear daughter, you must never stop believing in Santa Claus.”
One More Car
I grew up during the Great Depression in the little town of Taylor, Arizona. In those days there were no jobs around Taylor, so when I was seventeen years old, a couple of friends and I decided we would hitchhike the 250 miles to Phoenix to find some kind of work.
It was the first week in December of 1933, and we rode part of the way in the back of a cattle truck. We had to get down between the cows to keep warm.
When we arrived in Phoenix, we found out that there was no work to be had. Many men were standing in lines waiting for the free soup the government was giving out to those in need. You could buy hotcakes for ten cents, but we didn’t have a dime; so after a while we joined the soup line.
We looked for work and somehow survived for two weeks; then Christmas drew near. One of my friends had a sister who lived not too far away, and he and my other friend decided to go to her house for Christmas. But I was determined to go home.
Early the next morning, the day before Christmas, I started hitchhiking.
I didn’t get to Flagstaff until 5:00 in the afternoon. That was halfway home. The sky was steel gray and it was bitterly cold, with eight inches of snow on the ground. There were holes in both of my shoes, so I found some cardboard and cut pieces to fit inside to keep my feet a little drier. Then I started down the highway again, trying to get another ride.
Since it was Christmas Eve, there wasn’t much traffic. It grew darker and colder, and I became more and more dejected as the few cars swished by in the snow and the chill of the night penetrated my thin coat.
By 10:00 I had become so cold and numb that I began to wonder what it would be like to freeze to death. I was so tired that I knew I’d never make it unless someone stopped soon. Several more cars passed me by, and I had to talk to myself to keep going. “One more car,” I said. “If the next car doesn’t stop, I’ll lie down under a tree and let it happen. One more car.”
In a short while I could hear an engine in the distance. “This is it,” I told myself, taking a deep breath as I held out my thumb. Swish.
The car went by me. I closed my eyes and sank to my knees in total despair.
In my misery, everything was shut out of my mind for several seconds; but then I heard a sound. The car had stopped and was backing up! I struggled to my feet, heart pounding. In the car were two men from my hometown of Taylor. They had recognized me as they passed.
At about 1:00 A.M. I was safely deposited at the front door of my home. I could see there was still a light on, and as I came quietly through the door, there sat Dad and Mom with their heads in their hands, praying. When I spoke I was greeted with joyful cries and tears. Mom told me they had been praying all evening and into the night for my well-being and safe return home.
There were no presents that Christmas. Dad killed an old rooster next morning, and that was our Christmas dinner. Yet I have never felt the spirit of Christmas more strongly than I did that day as I sat with Dad, Mom, and my brothers and sisters and felt the warmth and love of our family.