A Hundred Dollars
for a Handful of Nails
Transcript of Keynote Address by Paul Niquette
Internet Version
Copyright ©1990 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.



Less than an hour is all I have. Cornfields pass on either side of my rental car, blurred by speed. Columbus, Nebraska lies "straight ahead," an expression given new meaning by the Lincoln Highway, Route 30, which leads west from Omaha.

Today's effort began at dawn with a frenzied limousine ride from my home in New Canaan, Connecticut to La Guardia and included a dash across the DesMoines Airport to change planes.

My briefcase lies open in the seat beside me. I must check the directions.  Lindo Kinzli gave them to me over the phone. He did not sound like a farmer -- as if I would know how a farmer is supposed to sound. I dare not make a wrong turn. To catch my return flight in Omaha, I must depart the Kinzli Farm in less than an hour.


May 2, 1976 marked the transfiguration of an undistinguished life into a singular adventure. That was the day I travelled halfway across the country to see -- well, to see a bicycle. Sounds crazy, doesn't it.

The title for this story is "A Hundred Dollars for a Handful of Nails." That's what it came down to in the end. You see, I had this problem, and...

Maybe I should start at the beginning. For that we have to go back to the early fifties, at a time when a certain undergraduate first felt the stirrings of world destiny. He unleashed his post-adolescent fury in the defense of natural resources. The insufferable prophet continued his rantings for twenty years. By the early seventies he found himself living in a dream world, the leader of a high-technology brain-trust of a major corporation (see The Future is Not What It Used to Be).

A better beginning for this story might be April 1, 1971 -- two years before the October War and OPEC and gasoline lines. Our card-carrying 'futurist' began a private research project. He wanted to see for himself what it will be like to live in what he called "The Post-Petroleum Age."

It was an exercise in self-denial -- or as his colleagues thought, bizarre behavior. Most significantly, he renounced the use of an automobile and took up bicycling. The personal experiment lasted for five years ('71 - '76), transcending four of the coldest New England winters in living memory. Which brings the bicycle into our story, although not yet an explanation for the frantic trip to Columbus, Nebraska. For that we need to meet Jim Spillane.

November 18, 1974: He strolled through my home, stooping and squinting. Each piece in my collection stood embarrassed before the scrutiny of New England's most respected authority on antique bicycles. A journeyman toolmaker by trade, Jim Spillane radiated an enthusiasm for the high-wheel relics of the nineteenth century. His collection was the best I had seen. I needed his help.

My personal experiment, simulating the conditions in the Post-Petroleum Age, was in its fourth year. Commuting by pedal power had fostered an intense interest, first in the technology of the bicycle (the most efficient form of personal transportation) and then in its history. Collecting followed, as interest turned to passion -- "the logic of the heart."

"How the hell tall are you, anyway?" Spillane asked. His voice reminded me of Dennis Day, with a rasp. Before I could answer, he whisked his hand level with his head, striking my arm below the shoulder. "You've got a problem, all right."

There are problems with being tall. Not just the seats in theaters and airliners, either. The tops of all the refrigerators in the world are filthy. People are always looking up your nose. And consider the extra care needed for descending stairs with bifocals on. But the biggest problem for me was finding a high-wheel bicycle big enough for me to ride.

In the 1880's, "Ordinaries" were built in different sizes to fit their riders, like ready-made trousers. A wheel too large meant the rider would not be able to reach the pedals; too small, and legs get jammed under the handlebars. The "average" size, if such there be, was 52 inches in diameter. The largest I had seen was 58 inches, still far too small for me. Though they were manufactured by the tens of thousands, only about 300 of the original high-wheel bicycles still exist, nearly all in collections. The largest wheels on record were 60 inches, according to Spillane, but only a few were made. People were smaller a hundred years ago. Somewhere in the world, there must be a 60 incher. I was determined to acquire it. Spillane would restore the machine to riding condition. And, by god, I would ride the thing.

Spillane handed me a tabulation of all the known bicycle collectors in the world. He had marked it up with the most likely leads. There were 120 of them. I walked Jim Spillane to his car and shook his hand.

"Don't worry," he said. "We'll find you a big bike."


A year and 120 inquiry letters later, no luck. I would never ride a high-wheel bicycle. Spillane's words echoed in my ears: "Don't worry, we'll find you a big bike."  Then the call from Michigan, and here I am racing across the plains of Nebraska.

"Must be some mistake," Carl Wiedman had told me on the phone. "Nobody ever built one with a wheel larger than 60 inches in diameter." As historian for the Wheelman, Carl sure as hell ought to know. But he had spotted an unlikely listing in an antique dealer's magazine.

"Farmer lives in someplace called Columbus, Nebraska," Carl told me over the phone. "He claims to have an old bicycle with -- now get this -- a 64-inch wheel! Gotta be measuring the thing wrong." Wiedman had dug out my letter -- one of the 120 -- and called me. "If you're still interested," said Carl, "you might want to give the old farmer a call."

If I were still interested! I didn't even take the phone away from my ear: Directory Assistance in Nebraska gave me Lindo Kinzli's number.

That might be his farm up ahead. Slow down.

Hah! And there it is! Leaning against a tree -- a huge damned bicycle. The solution to my problem.

Turning off the highway that day, I put my mind through a last-minute review of "The Strategy."


"The conditions are as complicated as the opportunity is important," said I.

Facing me were six technocrats and business scholars, the elite team which had come to be known throughout my company as 'The Kitchen Cabinet' (not always with affection). They had been summoned by my cryptic meeting notice: "Big Bike Briefing."

"A bicycle has been found," speculated one member, an expert in solid state physics.

I beamed. "On a farm in Nebraska."

Huzzahs from around the table.

"A 64-inch wheel! I must go there tomorrow and see the thing for myself."

"And buy it, certainly," said one of the financial analysts. "What do you need from us, money?"

"The owner cannot just sell it to me," I replied. "He has already listed the bicycle all over the country on a sealed bid basis, the bids to be opened on May 9th."

"A strategy," said a corporate strategist. "You need a strategy!"

I took my seat and gazed earnestly around the table. "I must win the bidding! With your help, the end of my long quest may soon be at hand."

If one wanted to reduce the world's knowledge of Management Science by half and only had one grenade, ground zero was that conference table. Turn off the lights, these guys glowed in the dark.

The room echoed with the sounds of lofty debate. The so-called Delphi Technique was deployed to identify the issues. Decision Analysis weighed the risk factors: psychological and economic. The market research specialist called down to his office for reports. A task force lead by a sales management veteran departed to caucus for an hour with his staff.

Hand-drawn flip-charts magically appeared. They mapped advantages and disadvantages for each strategic element (see The Rational Process).

Finally, the econometrician took the podium and concluded the briefing, referring to the charts, which were by then slashed with red markers and taped to the walls around the room. There were Three Points left.


A quick glance at my notes. First Point: Be likable. The Kitchen Cabinet laughed at that one. It's essential to the strategy, though, so I must somehow ingratiate myself with Mr. Kinzli. "How do you do, Mr. Kinzli," I will say. After that, what?

The Second Point in the strategy, like the first, came from the marketing experts: Identify ego builders. Appeal to the old farmer's pride.

Third Point: If all else fails, offer $100 over anybody else's bid.

Hmm, that last point still doesn't seem right. I resisted the idea yesterday, but the financial analyst who recommended it held firm. "You want the big bike, don't you!" he said with finality.

Gravel driveway under the wheels. That must be Mr. Kinzli standing in the yard. Farmer, all right. Straw hat, boots. Here goes...


"How do you do, Mr. Kinzli," said I. My eyes were drawn to the huge riding machine leaning against the tree. Be likeable, I whispered to myself. "Nice place you have here."

Mr. Kinzli shook my hand strongly and gave me smile with every part of his face. It was the only time he did that. He might have been in his seventies, my height, and, for the rest of my brief visit, all business.

"You grow corn here, am I right?"

Kinzli nodded.

"I was born in Salina. That's in Kansas, you know." I pointed over my shoulder.

Kinzli shook his head and pointed over his shoulder.

"Center-pivot irrigation -- do you do much of that?" asked I, reciting from material dug up by our market research staff and memorized on the plane.

Kinzli shook his head.

"The man who invented the center-pivot, Frank Zybach, lives in your town, I believe." I could feel the grin on my face tiring. "Do you happen to know him?"

"You came about the big bicycle," Kinzli grumped. "Don't you want to take a look at it?"

"Why, yes, ha ha. Might as well, ha ha."

We strode toward the tree.  The machine was more splendid than ever I imagined.  In metal, it was as attractive as any object I had glimpsed since puberty. I groped for Point Two of The Strategy: Ego Builders.

"Mr. Kinzli, if I should be so fortunate as to win in the bidding, my intention is to keep the Kinzli name on this magnificent treasure in perpetuity. I shall have -- "

Kinzli held up his hand. "Why would you want to do that?"

" -- a special placard made and..." My voice stuck.

"Let's get something straight," said Kinzli. "On May 9th, I am going to open all the bids, and the highest will win. Nothing you plan to do will change that."

Lindo Kinzli's wife came toward us carrying a tray of lemonade. He introduced me to Hedwig. I checked my watch and tried to relax.

Part Three of The Strategy, the contingency plan, seized my consciousness: Offer $100 Over Everybody Else's Bid. Before I could speak, Lindo Kinzli gestured toward a small building across a field.

"My father, Frank Kinzli, built that log cabin when he homesteaded this place. He died two years ago at the age of 93. He bought the bicycle from its original owner, a Texan. My father taught me one thing: Integrity in dealing with all men."

Kinzli fixed me in his gaze and took a sip of lemonade. "Now, you take that fellow who called me from up in Chicago." Kinzli pointed at the horizon, and I followed with my eyes. The air was so clear, I almost expected to be able to see the Chicago skyline. "He offered me thousands of dollars -- sight unseen, right over the phone."

Kinzli turned abruptly and pointed again. "There's a collector back in New Jersey who wants to come here on the 9th and, after all the bids are opened, make a higher offer."

"After the bids are opened?" asked I.

"And what do you think of the scoundrel out there in California! Why, he called long distance and offered me $100 over everybody else's bid!"

I swallowed hard. "Mr. Kinzli, I -- "

"Oh, don't you worry," said Kinzli, pointing back toward Illinois. "I told that fellow in Chicago to put his offer in writing just like everybody else." Kinzli waved his hand around toward the east. "The collector in New Jersey is not welcome on my land! And as for that crook in California, I got his name. I won't let him have the big bicycle if he offers me the moon and the planets!"

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Mr. Kinzli," I sighed.


Shake hands -- race the clock from Columbus to Omaha -- turn in the car -- change planes in DesMoines -- limo from LaGuardia -- home after midnight -- in the office at ten.

John Antonio, candidate for the Kitchen Cabinet, is waiting. Our appointment was for nine. Interview begins with my apology. Big Bicycle possesses my mind. Antonio detects distraction, extracts explanation. Story pours out: Spillane, Wiedman, Kinzli. Antonio laughs.

"Write down your bid," he tells me, and I do. He writes one, too, and we swap. I swallow hard. His is higher. "It will be the winning bid," he assures me.

"How do you know that?" I ask.

"My specialty is bidding," he answers. Antonio jokes that if I win the big bike with his bid, he gets the job.

In the night, bone weary but unable to sleep, I hit upon a strategy of my own. I took pen in hand. "Dear Mr. Kinzli," I wrote. Hands trembling, I sealed the envelope with Antonio's bid plus my letter inside. I began growing a handlebar moustache. May 9th, the phone rings.


"This is Lindo Kinzli," said the voice. "I just called to tell you that I got your bid and that so far it is the highest."

"So far?"

"There were a whole lot of them, too. Seems like every antique dealer and museum in the country wants that big bicycle. Even the Smithsonian bid on it. A movie studio in Burbank sent in a goodly offer, although Hedwig and I can't figure what they'd do with the thing."

"Any collectors?" I asked.

"Must have been a dozen of them. Which is why I'm calling you. There's one more bid coming in tonight by telegram from some antique collector back east. He won't win it though."

"You know that already?"

"Sure. Yours is the only bid that included crating!"

Parenthesis. That was my part of The Strategy. I closed my teeth over my lower lip and slapped my knee. Wait 'til I tell The Kitchen Cabinet, I thought to myself.

Mr. Kinzli chuckled. "A lot of them said in their letters they'd pay for the shipping; some, the insurance. You were the only one to say anything about the crating -- hah! -- which I wasn't even going to charge for."

"It seemed only right, somehow," said I, as if shrugging.

"Well here's my problem. I want you to have the big bicycle because -- well, first, I like you."

"Thank you, sir. But, -- "

"Second, I got to thinking about having my name on that bicycle in perpetuity. I like that, too. Now the problem is, if the fellow back east comes in with a higher bid -- well, I just thought I better warn you."

"Warn me?"

"I might have to charge you a hundred dollars for a handful of nails."

"All right, Antonio," I said grimly over the phone. "You have the job. When can you arrange to -- "

"You got the big bicycle, then!"

"Is that any surprise?" I asked.

John Antonio could not tell if I was serious. "Did you use my number in the bidding?" he asked.

"Look, we have a big company to run, here. Let's not waste time talking about hobbies."

"What was the second bid -- if you don't mind my asking?"

"To win, it didn't take anything like what you said, John."


"Your number was $17.76 higher than it had to be."

Long pause on the phone. John Antonio, the newest member of The Kitchen Cabinet, laughed. "You son of a bitch," he said.

The 64-inch Expert was mine. I had won the Kinzli auction fair and square. A provenance from the Columbia Bicycle Company, formerly Pope Manufacturing, authenticated the prize as the Largest Bicycle in the World. And it was the only one they ever built.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, would you like to see The Kinzli Bicycle?


The Big Bike
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