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Santa was working overtime in Vista!

by Jim Cunningham, CyclArtist

It's getting to be Xmas again. Last year, about this time, Mr. Stuart carried in an old girl's balloon tire bike. A J. C. Higgins, with horn tank, fenders, lights, rear rack... all the toys. Now rusty & dented, rotted and twisted, it must have been quite glamorous when new. Usually, when one of these comes in, the customer wants to know "how much it's worth", then tries to sell it to me. Not Mr. Stuart, he wants it restored, "just like new." He listens patiently to my "We can do it, but it will be expensive, much more than replacing it with something similar" speech, then says, "This bike is important to my wife, Becky. She's had it since she was twelve still rides it once in a while, but recently, she's been depressed about it, keeps saying she should have taken better care of it. She's tried to clean it, but she breaks out in tears. I've gotten her other bikes, but this one means something. I want to surprise her for Xmas, so to bring it here I told her I gave it away when I cleaned out the garage. I'm still in the dog house."

I looked back at the bike, the saddle fabric had decomposed, exposing horsehair and a rusted base plate. "You know, Mr. Stuart, I doubt an exact replacement could be found, for this saddle, but here is a very similar new one, for about $40." He shook his head, "Becky will notice. She knows every inch of the bike, and there must be a hundred photos of her with it." Accurate restoration then. "To rebuild the saddle we'll have to find matching cover material, then make a metal stamp to reproduce the logo on top, and a form to shape the cover, then replace the horsehair padding, re-plate the hardware, repaint the saddle frame, get the leather stitching done in the same style and thread then reassemble... it's hard to estimate... do you think it is worth, um... $100 more than the new saddle?" He nodded and replied, "Two years ago, I contacted bike collectors all over the country looking for this model in better shape or fresh parts. Nobody had one. They said to keep in touch and be patient. I've sent out letters every three months since." He had done his homework.

So I worked through the estimate, detail by detail, trying to anticipate the problems that had been brewing for 40 years. Nothing was standard on this bike. Later, checking with collectors, I learned that this was one of the few JC Higgins produced in West Germany. An experiment, only a year or two.  That explained the odd mix or US and European parts and made the task of finding replacements much harder.  The only collector I found who had this model Higgins was unwilling to give up his spare headlight cover,  I'd have to make one to cover the 6" long hole in the front fender.

Anyway, we'd do this one the hard way... if Mr. Stuart could handle the estimate. Maybe he can easily afford whatever it takes. But when I gave him the total, I could see he was pained. The expense was not easy for him, I should have guessed from the 8-year-old Toyota he drove up in. "She'll be very happy," he said.

Then he told me: "This bike was a Christmas gift for Becky when she was twelve years old. She rode every day, except in the rain or snow, when she kept the bike in a tool shed behind the house. The following Christmas Eve, the family was all in bed, when the fire started. They barely made it out, not even time to take the photo albums. Becky watched the three-story Victorian home Grandpa had built burn to the ground. They lost everything... except this bike and a few tools in the shed. This Christmas will be the 40th anniversary of the day this bike survived that fire. I want it under the tree again, exactly as it was when Becky was twelve and still in that old house."

Now here was one of those jobs that give purpose to CyclArt, one of the ones that I try to remember when things get really tough. And soon after Mr. Stuart left, they got tough again: A bout of flu ran through shop and kept us half-staffed for weeks. A visit from the County Health Department kept us busy and entertained for days. (Did you know you need a current MSDS for every chemical product used in your shop? In our case there are more than 200!) A major account dumped a huge rush job on us, then delayed payment. An electrical problem burned out our circuit panel shutting down our blasting and spray equipment for days. We had more than the usual number of jobs fail final inspection to start over... From Thanksgiving Day on, all of us were working maximum hours to catch up with the work and the bills. There were twelve, 16, 18-hour days, four hours a night sleep, sanding frames at 3 a.m. in a cold shop.

Becky's Higgins presented its own set of problems: the distinctive saddle fabric took 10 phone calls to find and was only available as a $100 minimum purchase from New York. The graphics were different from every other Higgins art on file so we had to draw and print them specially for this bike, a three-day project. Then, reassembling the hub, a delicate, worn disk retainer clip snapped. Without it, the coaster brake would not function. A desperate search on December 23rd left us making a replacement from scratch. A two-cent part became a six-hour project in a "snap".

The next day, December 24, after an all-nighter, there it was; complete... a perfect little time machine ready to carry Becky back to her last carefree Christmas. Seat post clamped in the work stand, suspended three feet off the floor it looked like sculpture, a gleaming monument to American arrogance and innocence. 1954 incarnate.

I spun the pedals, confirming the fender clearance, the heavy steel rim and tire spinning just enough off balance to cause the bike to pulse on the stand like it was alive. I let it spin. Finished! Just in time for CyclArt's traditional Xmas eve office party and twelve noon closing. The all-night session had done it. Finally! Time for myself; to catch some sleep and prepare for the holiday. Mr.. Stuart would be here in an hour, about mid party. I turned to wash up. One, two, three steps away, I heard the "clack!"

I'd never had a pivot bolt drop out of a work stand clamp before, but I knew the stand had released the bike before I turned to see it bounce. Bounce hard, jumping wildly away from me, crashing heavily into the steel stand bolted to the concrete floor. Before a second bounce, I caught the bike. The frame buzzed in my hand, the fenders still quivered from the impact. The dents and scratches were horrific, worse than anything the bike had suffered in forty years. The tank with hand printed decal, the two-tone pinstriped fenders and the frame all had dents and deep scratches from the steel corner of the stand brace. Repair would mean disassembly and repainting most of the bike. I looked at the time sheet on the job and estimated the required time; labor times, dry times and baking times, straight through, no breaks... 23 hours. Three solid 8-hour days. If two people worked, starting now, straight through, earliest completion was 18 hours; that would be 4a.m., Xmas morning. I called Mr.. Stuart, "I just had an accident, I don't think the bike can be repaired before Christmas: Will it be OK to deliver it December 28th?" He sounded panicked, "The family is all in town, and they’ve all chipped in and are expecting the bike on Christmas morning. Only Becky will be surprised... It's got to be ready!" "What is the latest I could deliver it to your home?" "Tonight?" "Can't do it, what about the morning?" "The kids are here, they'll have us up at 6a.m.! I planned to hide the bike at a neighbor's and slip out at 5a.m. to put it under the tree." "It will be there at 5 a.m.." "We could meet at the back door." "I'll get it there."

A promise. I try so hard not to make them. Promised jobs are like lightning rods. They are the ones that get hit, that have trouble. But how could I let the Stuarts down? Explain how severe the damage was, how unlikely the accident, how much time and expense were involved, how close it had been? There wasn't time, and worrying Mr.. Stuart would not help. 

I broke the news to Susan, my wife and partner, over hot cider. "Fix the Higgins!? You've been up all night! You are killing yourself! We're supposed to wrap presents! Our friends are coming to dinner! Don't we have a right to a life too!? She's not twelve anymore... Is it really that important to you?" I showed her the damage. "I need you to reprint the decals while I paint, then pinstripe before I start the clears. It's their Xmas... I promised." "You promised?" She gave that look, turned her back and stormed off, to the decal room. It's a good thing Susan and I work together. Who else could understand this passion, make these sacrifices and be so strong? Also good that we have no children... just a cat, the business and employees.

I turned to the crew, feeling like Scrooge, the boss, ready to tell an employee that he has to work late on Christmas Eve. I asked for volunteers, everyone had plans, family, holiday prime time, and no notice. Finally Roger suggested that he could help with the final assembly and delivery, coming in at 1 a.m.. That was enough, and it would leave me just enough time to wrap Susan's presents. The cat would have to under

There's a place in hell where you can't sleep, you massage cold metal with sandpaper, then wield a gun full of poison inside a brightly lit steel box, tethered to air supplies sealed in a Tyvek environmental suit. Every breath is amplified in the respirator, a continuous reminder of mortality, separating your impossibly delicate interior from the unseen cancer-trigger environment all about you. Paint is mixed from cans with warning labels demanding saintly procedures and describing horrific medical consequences. Coffee puts a jagged edge on the awareness of fatigue burning outward from your bones. Concentration is the lifeline; drop it for an instant, you'll have a run in the flowing paint, a scratch from the tool or a dent in the bouncing part; extending your sentence. You notice how sleep deprivation affects your dexterity as your scalpel makes precision cuts in masking film. The minutes bleed away. Clocks race ahead. There's time to think while your hands work; about what you wanted to do today, the things undone yesterday, and all the years you've done this.

Roger says the Higgins headlight helped him find the back door. He held the door open, Christmas smells pouring out, as Mr. Stuart silently beamed and wheeled the bike inside. Maybe this year he'll send a card.