ROCK HILL — Paul Baker knows the joys a bicycle can bring.
He remembers his first bicycle. His mother, Bertha, bartered for it, trading a chicken to a relative for it.
He remembers the first bicycle he earned, a Chicago Expedition. It had front light, a tail light and a horn. It was the sharpest thing in town, Baker said.
Baker shined shoes at Steve Johnsons barber shop on Curtis Street in Rock Hill to earn money for the bike.
On Wednesday, Baker worked to bring the joys of cycling and the Christmas holiday to the children of York County just one day after his 91-year-old brother, Earl, died in Florida.
Baker helped assemble the more than 200 new bicycles that were donated to the partners of the Sleigh Bell Network.
The network fills childrens holiday requests for toys and bikes and adds a good measure of Christmas cheer too. Last year, the network assisted 3,400 children. Network volunteers hope to help more children this year.
Baker installed handlebars, seats, wheels, reflectors and pedals and then made sure all the nuts, bolts and screws were securely tightened.
Sometimes, he stretched out on the floor to grab bicycle parts.
Sometimes, he straddled the bikes to make the final adjustments.
The work didnt always come easy; the screws were tiny and bolt threads tricky. But the work always came with a smile.
It was pretty agile work for someone who broke his hip in April.
Bakers skill, stamina and enthusiasm surprised his volunteer co-workers; Baker is 93.
For Baker, it was just another day of helping others. He has been volunteering for the past 20 years since retiring from then-Winthrop College, where he did maintenance work.
God blessed me; I have to do this, he said.
Baker has been a regular volunteer Wednesdays at Catawba Baptist Church where he helps distribute food.
Wednesday was his first time to help the Sleigh Bell Network. He said he will be there Thursday and possibly Friday, as long as there are bikes to build.
Ive always loved mechanical stuff, to see how things work, he said.
Baker learned a few things Wednesday. He mastered the cable-controlled brakes on the new bikes and learned how to adjust the handlebars and seats.
The work also gave him time to reflect on Christmases past and growing up in Rock Hill.
A Depression-era child, Baker said his family didnt suffer because his father, his mother and his two sisters worked at the Industrial Mill. Their wages and a garden next to their home put food on the table. Baker started contributing when he was 16, sweeping floors at the mill for 25 cents an hour.
Baker said he got the job because J.T. Hewett was so sunburned he couldnt come to work.
Such details come easy to Baker. He has an almost photographic memory for times, dates and places. Ask him how long he served in the Navy in World War II and he replies, 1 year, 3 months, 22 days. They were some of the coldest days in his life, as he was stationed at the firefighters school in Newport, R.I., where temperatures were frigid and it snowed.
Ask him about his family, and Baker will respond that his wife, Julia, was one of the prettiest youve seen. ... She was pretty inside and out. Baker also carries photographic proof in his wallet. The first picture in the wallet shows a youthful Julia at White Lake, N.C. Julia died May 4, 2011, he said.
Christmas is not the same by any means, he said, since wife died.
It is still very much a family affair, however, as he says he will be overrun by grandchildren and great-grandchildren when he visits his sons home.
Before breaking for lunch Wednesday, Baker surveyed his work and that of other volunteers. There were lines of bicycles and long tables full of toys. It was a workshop that Santa would have been proud of.
Aint this grand, Baker said It feels good to be part of something.
Don Worthington 803-329-4066