It was without a doubt the oddest Christmas request I'd ever made of my parents: I wanted the inner tube of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, a few of which were available at a military surplus store in downtown Rochester, N.Y.
I knew there were some in stock because my best friend Betsy had one and we'd spent much of the summer and fall jumping on the big rubber torus. Her older brothers bought it to use as a trampoline and it made a fine one, gyrating across the lawn under their synchronized bouncing like a self-propelled amusement park ride. Betsy and I quickly took to it with bare feet and buoyant pleasure, and I definitely wanted one to play on at home. There were some more at the store she told me.
Had I looked out the window that Christmas Eve, I'd have seen my father easing the family Chevy up the drive, the newly inflated tube in tow. Too big to fit in the trunk after he'd inflated it at the neighborhood service station, it half slid behind the car in the snow as my mother sat wedged in the open trunk with one arm around the beast. She rarely complained about anything, but later let it be known that hers was not the best seat in Santa's sleigh that night.
Next morning I was enthralled to find the thing, an elephant in the room if ever there was one. Relatives arriving for Christmas dinner walked gingerly around it, puzzled. When I explained what it was all about, my great aunt Ruth climbed aboard for a few tentative bounces, her coiled bun grazing the ceiling.
It was many years before I appreciated the delightful "swords to plowshares" irony of redeploying part of an Air Force bomber as a plaything. All I thought of as a kid was the sheer pleasure of bouncing against the counterweight of another child (most often Eddy, who lived next door and loved the tube as much as I did). As the tube migrated here and there, one side rising, the other falling as we jumped in tandem, we tried to maximize altitudes without sacrificing balance or tipping the thing up and over (we came close). Hours melted away as the soles of our feet and knees blackened from repeated contact with the rubber surface.
When the tube needed air we simply lifted it on end and rolled it up the two blocks to the station for a refill. Before long Eddy had his own tube, and we invented new moves and challenges by putting them side by side to make a figure-eight play platform. Never did either of us so much as sprain a finger or toe for all the wild boinging above our driveways (our parents soon realized that no lawn could hold up under the action).
The tube never caught on to become a widely shared fad – perhaps there were only so many B-29 Superfortress surplus tires to be had – so we always made something of a spectacle for passersby. Cars slowed and necks craned, inspiring us to ever more elaborate and athletic feats. If our parents held their breath at times, they rarely put a halt to things, unless the big doughnut approached a vertical plane and threatened to launch us across the yard. Having witnessed one of our gentler sessions, a local pediatrician declared to my mother that she could think of no better exercise for young muscles and bones.
I don't recall what became of this favorite and enduring Christmas gift. Most likely its rubber became stressed and damaged by thousands upon thousands of bipedal peacetime landings and it was finally fully deflated and loaded into the Monday trash truck.
I was in my 20s before I saw anything like it again. What appeared to be an exact replica sat in front of a garage in the tiny town of St. Jacobs in Ontario, Canada, which I was visiting with my fiancé. I caught my breath and asked the fellow standing at the entrance if it was for sale.
No, the kids wouldn't hear of it, he told me, giving me an odd, questioning glance. But I understood – down to my soles.