Monday, February 23, 2009

More Speed Than You Need

I was sitting at the corner the other day, having a cup of coffee, and just taking in the morning. It was clear, and warm. A good day to do something if you had the ambition to do it. I didn't. I was content to just sit. None of the usual gang was around. Nobody to talk to. That was fine.

A couple of pre-teen kids wheeled into the patio on their BMX bikes and with the effortless grace of practiced riders wove circles through the tables, one hand loosely on the bars, the other holding cell phones. The two of them were both talking to parents, and both held the edge of the receiver tucked under the ear flaps of black plastic safety helmets. Safety Helmets. On a twenty inch, one speed bicycle. It looked wussy, nerdy, and incongruous with the casual grace they both displayed on their bikes. Contacting Mom on the phone no doubt came at the insistence of over cautious parents. But it was the State of California that forced them to wear the safety helmets. Risk is against the law. After a few circuits through the patio they pocketed the phones, and took off through the parking lot.

Twenty inch Stingray bikes were the forerunner of the BMX machines, and they were a new thing when I moved out to California in 1963. I never had one. In Michigan you had a twenty four incher until you were old enough for your feet to touch the ground on a full sized twenty six. And then, depending on what you liked, you either got an English Racer,with a three speed rear hub, and hand brakes, or you had a Schwinn, or Evans cantilever (beach cruiser style) with a one speed, and coaster brake. I had an Evans with a horn tank, headlight, and rear rack. It was more space age looking than the racers, but it was corny, and out of style in California. Besides, it had a flat tire. That's why I borrowed my brother's bike, also a twenty six inch cruiser style, (although without the embarrassing tank and rack), for the speed run down Sierra Vista Drive.

That was one thing that La Habra California had that Trenton Michigan lacked- hills. Our shabby old rental house sat at the very foot of the well to do Heights. It was uphill to school, uphill to my friends' houses, and very very uphill to the top of Sierra Vista Drive. The street was steep enough for the first maybe half a mile or so, then it made a sharp right turn, and went ski slope vertical in a long sweeping left until it straightened out again for several hundred yards to the dead end at the top. It was just too cool to be believed. Like having your own private roller coaster within walking distance. With great effort I could pedal the heavy old Evans most of the way up the straight part, but once you hit the turn you had to get off and push. My brothers, and I used to see how far up we'd dare push before hopping on for the thrill ride to the bottom.

One October evening after dinner, I decided I'd try to make it all the way from the top of Sierra Vista with no brakes. That was the year I went as an accident victim for Halloween. I pushed up to the house which marked the highest point from which I'd run the hill, hopped on, whizzed around the turn and out onto the gentler slope of the straight section. Feeling confident, I slammed on the coaster brake, skidded the back tire around in a 'brodie', got off, and started for the top of Sierra Vista. This was going to be great. I could tell everyone I'd made it. Dare other kids to try, and then show them how it was done. I was ready. Sort of. When I actually got all the way up there I had second thoughts. This was considerably farther up the hill than I'd ever tried it before. But it had to be done. And I wasn't going to fudge it by using the brake. No way.

But I wasn't going to push my luck and pedal for extra speed either. I backed the rear wheel up against the cul de sac curb, lifted my feet, and as the bike began to roll I put them on the pedals. No brakes. It had to be no brakes or it was cheating. I was accelerating like a motorcycle when I entered the long sweeping right. I had never gone so fast on anything in my life. This was faster than a car. As fast as a plane. I held to the middle of the left side of the street for fear of an approaching car. I straightened up to make the ninety degree left hander that would shoot me out onto the straight part of the street. But centrifugal force did me in. The curb got close, and then closer, and then grabbed my front wheel. The last thing I saw was someone's black mailbox atop a four by four in the parkway. There was *WHOKKK* a huge flash of light, and the next thing I was aware of was someone running across their front lawn. I saw the mailbox some yards down from me on the sidewalk. I sat up, then pulled myself to my feet. Then both nostrils turned into blood faucets. I remember, with some detachment that I painted an entire square of sidewalk red with the blood that gushed out of my face. I was pretty disoriented too, but I knew what had happened. And I hadn't broken any bones, except for my nose. The mailbox absorbed much of the impact when my face knocked it off the top of the four by four. Who needs a fucking helmet?

No one called an ambulance. The people who owned the mailbox called my folks who came and got me, and drove me over to La Mirada Hospital. The doctors gave me a quick once over, and sent me home. I had two black eyes that earned me some serious status in the seventh grade, and it was a long time before I could breathe through my nose again. The septum is still just a tiny bit crooked but not enough to notice. My face was so black and blue, that, as I said I just added a couple extra bandages, and used it for Halloween that year. My brother's bike was ruined.



julie said...

My brother went out on his bike as an accident victim for Halloween one year. He got tapped by a car, driven by a couple dressed as a priest and a French maid. They brought my brother to our door, and my Mom, seeing them (and their pale faces - accident boy scared the crap out of them), almost fainted, believing her son must have been killed or something. No injuries that time, just a slightly mangled bike.

He never wore a bike helmet. His wife seems to think he turned out just fine.

Ricky Raccoon said...

“Yeah, but you should see the other guy...I mean, mailbox…”

Great story, John. Awe man, I was laughing. You got me with the “faucets”.
I stopped forgetting my favorite bike reading it. I still forget the color – it was probably blue. But I’ll never forget the back tire called a “slick” which was about 3 inches wide and square in cross-section. Had a chrome back fender like a motorcycle that swooped up at the end. Had a banana seat too and long handle bars I can see the seat like it was yesterday – it was definitely blue, but made of sparkles in the vinyl, white groves like grout ran perpendicular to its length every couple inches. And the sissy bar. The bike was right off the set of the Brady Bunch.

Speaking of sissies, what I miss in the neighborhood are the dogs. There were no invisible fences like today. In this neighborhood everybody has them. You have to if you want a dog. But back then the dogs went everywhere. In fact they always seemed to be on the way to somewhere else. I remember one day here my wife said the power went out and she could see the dogs all running together down the street. Like they had a leader who was going from house to house setting them free. “Let’s go fellas!”

Oh…what’s a helmet?

Bloody noses. Used to see those all the time too.

mushroom said...

That made me laugh. Thank you, John. I had one of those old single-speeds with the tank and headlight as well, red and white. The last time I cried because of an injury was when I overshot a gravel intersection on that bike, went across the ditch and was thrown into a stack of split oak fence posts.

After that when I got hurt, I cussed instead.

walt said...

I guess I was always a wimpy child, for I "rode carefully." I only was given one bike, and as I recall, it was made clear that unless I could inherit my older brother's, I wasn't getting another one.

No one had thought of helmets in those days. Who needs helmets when ya have "prudence?" You remember prudence, don'chu?

We didn't have hills either. To me, the whole idea just seems "too fast!" Still wimpy after all these years...

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Heh! That poor mailbox! :^)

I used to love those stingrays. They were more comfortable to ride...most of the time. OTOH they could be quite "uncomfortable" when making Evel Knievel style jumps.