Our first Christmas together she gave me a gift; it was a two-drawer toolbox she had found on sale somewhere. As toolboxes go, it wasn’t anything special, it wasn’t some budget-busting Snap-On deal with drawers mounted on precision bearings crafted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it was just a simple stamped metal no-name box with a small “When the Green Flag Drops, the Bullshit Stops” sticker on it that made me chuckle. Up until then her biggest concern had been whether to major in dance or in history. What did she know about toolboxes or green flags?
In many respects I was an alien creature; a carnivorous, two-wheeled, former camo-clad imperialist with a penchant for main battle tanks. She said she was first drawn to me because she had never seen anyone list their blood type and allergies on a motorcycle helmet. I tried to build a cross-cultural rapport with bacon and bikes (she didn’t eat meat up until a few weeks previously when I had pushed a BLT her way); toolboxes, bacon, rides on the back of my Honda… dance or history major? Tank commander-kneedragger meets dancing vegetarian and aspiring historian. How long could this last?
Somehow a year passed. With the approach of the second Christmas, much had happened. She had been accepted into a foreign studies program at Fudan University in China and would be leaving soon, I had started racing and she had attended both provisional novice races that summer and early fall. That should have told me something right there, but I was young and headstrong and still learning. Very little told me anything in those days.
She insisted upon attending every race. She kept lap times, she cleaned visors, she dumped baby powder on bike seats.
That Christmas she gave me a set of safety-wire pliers. How many Christmas gifts from the 1980s do you still have? How many can you even remember? The ones you remember, the ones that last decades, that’s the trick.
Our first real Christmas together in a cohabitational sense was spent in what was known to friends and ne’er-do-wells alike as simply, “The Shed.” It was a one-room, unheated shed with a single bed, complete with running water in the warmer months, surrounded by loblolly pines which doubled as my ISDE course at the head of a dock. It sat in its corrugated-roof splendor at the end of a ¾-mile dirt and oyster shell drive on a peninsula that jutted into Milburn Creek, so named after the family that had lived on and worked that ground since European settlers had ran aground on North America there in 1634.
Our landlord – for all intents and purposes, our surrogate grandfather – was a man named Mark Milburn. Mark’s family had farmed that land and worked those waters for more than three centuries, and it was Mark that had built the shed we lived in; first to house chickens, then to house outboards, and finally to house us for the princely sum of 35 dollars a month.
His office was in what was called “The Oyster House,” due to the fact that during Mark’s heyday as a waterman, he had employed a number of people to process and pack the bivalves before shipping them to market. The Oyster House that first Christmas housed Mark in his office with his eternally burning woodstove and locally renowned bad coffee, along with my race bike and tools in an adjacent room also used to store potatoes. I wrenched amongst spuds. Race bikes and potatoes and a wise old waterman with bad coffee: how long could this last?
We started our own little tradition that Christmas in cutting down a particularly ugly little pine, dubbing it our “Charlie Brown Tree,” and it was under that first tree – scraggly shrub really – I found my safety-wire pliers all wrapped up with a bow. The same pliers that still sit in that same old two-drawer, stamped metal toolbox in our Haulmark trailer in the driveway today over 30 years later.
She insisted upon attending every race. She still does.
I always feel an urgency to this season. Winter coming and the growing sense of watching riding days pass by gets more acute. The nice days, the nice hours really, become more precious as they dwindle. Soon there will be none at all and the snow will fly. How long can this last? But I still have those safety-wire pliers and that two-drawer tool box with the sticker on it that makes me chuckle. And, yeah, the bullshit does stop, and we all race to the checkers.
It’s not about a set of pliers or a toolbox; it’s about these safety wire pliers and this tool box, and the meaning behind them. It’s about the memories, and the people, and their love, and the meaning that time and experience has attached to them. It’s about a young woman buying safety-wire pliers despite not being fully aware of what they are or how to use them, for a guy chasing something she doesn’t fully fathom yet. It’s running races whose endings have not been written.
Events in recent years – in recent days even – have reminded me that the gift of these people, these gifts, on this spinning rock can be as fleeting and as wonderful as those autumn days in the face of a fast closing winter; these are the treasures of the holidays. Make every lap count.
Ride hard, look where you want to go, and have a safe and joyous holiday season.
For my friend, Mr. Elmer C. Curry, September 1936 – December 2016, who never missed an opportunity to give me a hard time for not riding a Harley. Godspeed, Elmer.