The spirit of Christmas present
His name was George Bean, and he advertised himself as The Yankee Auctioneer. By the time I was ten, he was at the height of his powers; and whenever his big boxy vans came to town, and his tent mushroomed up overnight on a patch of lawn near some recently sold house, he drew folks from several states around. I came , too; and though he never knew it, he spoke a single word one July morning that rearranged my sense of the world beyond western Massachusetts.
Mr. Bean was an auctioneer of the old school. Words were his real stock in trade: filled with patter and jokes, he was also possessed of a turn of phrase that made you want to sell your wagon, trade away all your marbles, and barter your jackknife to buy the drabbest objects. He had a wry wit, too, and knew just when the audience needed to be told that some ugly lump of junk was, in fact, an ugly lump of junk.
He was at his best, however, when the actual bidding began. He would open up with a singsong torrent of words so run together and so headlong that you felt you had to bid just to give him a chance to catch his breath. Maybe he never had to breathe; or maybe he could suck in air while he was talking. Whatever his secret, he was a marvel to hear: ''Startingatfive, who'llsay fivefivefive doIhearafive Thank You, five, now sevengimmmesevenseven whatamIbid THERE'S seven now ten, where's ten thankyoudownfront twelvetwelvetwelve needanice crisp clean twelve-dollar-bill whose got twelve AND fif-teen, fif-teen goin' at fif-teen . . . .'' He was tireless, he was flawless: he was the great American evangelist of Yankee bargain-hunting, converting us all from his tent-covered pulpit with the brimstone of his secular preaching. The numbers rose and fell, the objects came and went, and still the voice surged onward.
We, of course, had neither his stamina nor his persistence. We wandered in and out of the tent among the rows of folding wooden chairs, pulled three ways at once by the sound of his voice, the fascination of the goods set about for inspection on the lawn, and the lure of the ladies selling doughnuts at the back. And as we prowled, the inventory dwindled. Elegant highboys were knocked down to prosperous-looking strangers for prices quite beyond comprehension. Overwrought vases and dangerous-looking chandeliers disappeared into the backs of the station wagons of local matrons. But the most exciting things - the crate of handleless ax heads and rusted hunting knives, the two-seater bicycle wanting only pedals and chain and one seat, the home-built riding lawn mower solemnly promised to need only a new spark plug - were the preserve of boys, dads, and ordinary folk. There was always the hope that the bike would be held off until later, when the tent was nearly empty. Would it, could it, go for only two dollars? But the bidding always seemed to creep upward toward princely sums like eight-fifty, which none of us could even begin to match. More than once, I recall, we went home with nothing to show for our waiting but the grease of a few doughnuts at the corners of our mouths.
But one July day - even as I write of it across a quarter-century's span I can feel again the pitch of my own eagerness and the expection of disappointment. I had gone early that morning. I parked my bike in a bush, checked to see that my entire liquid assets (three dollars, I think) were safe in my pocket, and sidled up to the tent. And there, on the still-dewy grass, it stood: an old stand-up radio in a polished wooden case, nearly as tall as I was. It was almost unscratched: all its wooden knobs were in place, and even the gold grill-cloth over the massive speaker was unblemished. And the dial - a wide glass strip set into a foot-long brass frame - spoke of untold wonders: four different long-wave and short-wave bands, with colored dots and tiny letters marking the famous stations, American and foreign.
It was enough to make a small boy wilt: I could see at a glance that it was far beyond my reach. To be sure, it was not yet an antique: small-tubed radios had recently come in, and people were still busy replacing these older prewar models. But it was lovely; and I could see in the eyes of the dads who were beginning to arrive that it would not be given away.
I bode my time, however, and pretty soon the auction started, and I pretended an interest in the tasseled lampshades and china cups that passed before me. And at last Mr. Bean got around to the radio. I was sitting right down in front when his helpers - it took two of them - brought it in. He didn't seem disposed to spend much time on its merits. To him, I guess, it was just a warm-up for antiques yet to come. So he tossed a few words at it, and then asked, ''What am I bid?''
I think I leaped from my chair. I'm sure I shot my hand in the air. And I know I hollered as loudly as I could, ''One dollar!''
And there must have been, in the heart of that canny Yankee auctioneer, something of the spirit of Christmas that July day. He looked hard at me for less time than it takes to write this, and then his round features broke into a grin. He picked up his gavel, tapped in on the block, and said, ''Sold!''
The tent erupted. ''Hey, wait a minute,'' I heard a dad shout from the back. ''You can't do that,'' said another voice, as someone else yelled, ''Five dollars.''
I sat quivering. But old Mr. Bean stood his ground. He gaveled the crowd to silence. Then, in a voice full of both severity and delight, he said, ''I said sold, and I mean sold, to the lad in the front for one doll-ah!''
What happened next I don't recall.The howls subsided, I guess, and I fumbled out a dollar for the lady at the side desk and probably called my mom to come get me and my prize. I do remember, through the haze of disbelief, a couple of grudging congratulations from some equally disbelieving dads.
And the radio? It worked like a dream. Many a night I lay in bed, listening to Rochester or Wheeling, West Virginia, or Radio Moscow, or the BBC. As I said , old Mr. Bean put me in touch with the world.