I was around five when I got my first bike. It was a white Huffy with a Snoopy numberplate that said BARNSTORMER on it. I remember my grandmother said it was too big for me. I remember I thought it made me a big kid.
My father took me out back behind our house to our open field of about a quarter acre. We walked up to the top of the hill not far from where the poison ivy was. From there you could see down to to my Uncle Buster’s house. You could see the little stream where in the future I would find the lookie thing. You could see the creek and French Bay beyond it. I admired the view from atop my new throne. Two wheels, one behind the other. It seemed such good sense. And when my father shoved me off I might as well have been falling down a ladder. Nothing was real. Everything I knew was gone in the 10 seconds or so it took me to get down the slope to the dirt road, to the beautiful ditch beyond it where gravity finally embraced me and my white Huffy. And nothing was the same ever again.
I lived on James Street, just uphill from The Castle, my hometown’s lone ice cream shop. Most of the way down the sidewalk to The Castle was a big old oak whose roots had pushed the sidewalk up into a natural ramp. Then, as now, I had no sweet tooth, but I was an adrenaline junkie from a young age, and I must have hit that ramp a thousand times. And one of those times was the first significant bike wreck I can remember.
The bike was a Huffy Barnstormer. My very first bike. When my dad got it for me it was white, with a fat comfy saddle not too unlike a banana seat, and a number plate with a picture of Snoopy flying his Sopwith Camel on it. Of course, by the time of this bike wreck it was red and had been outfitted with components more closely resembling a bmx bike, or as close to one as I could muster in around ‘77 or ‘78. I don’t remember how I sourced the parts. But I definitely was a bike-tinkerer from a young age. One of the only things I’ve ever really enjoyed tinkering on is bikes.
The ramp was perfect. Big enough to intimidate, and on enough of a slope to hit fast and fly. And the two pieces of broken concrete forming the ramp didn’t meet at the peak evenly, there was a kicker, a little lip formed by the higher backside piece of concrete that would kick me up higher as I took off. To get an idea of just how far I was flying, and just how awesome I really was, I’d put a stick across the sidewalk and try to watch mid-air to see whether I’d reached it or not. If I had a friend with me, we’d take turns watching each other and marking the spot where we each landed to see who was jumping the farthest. And of course, sometimes we’d fill the space beyond the ramp with dangerous items to jump over, like broken bottles, or each other’s bike, or something else we’d find nearby. One day, feeling very proud of how fast and dangerous I was, my gym class teacher walked past on his way home from school. I had scattered a bunch of broken bottles across the sidewalk beyond the jump so I could fly over it all like Fonzie over sharks. My gym teacher scolded me for being unsafe, and told me to remove all the glass before I hurt myself or someone else. I didn’t remove the glass. I wasn’t quite yet one to be a wise-ass to adults back then, I developed that trait sometime after elementary school, but I definitely ignored his scolding at the time and continued living dangerously.
One day, however, I did crash really hard. It didn’t involve any broken glass or anything like that. I just messed up. I had been hitting this jump practically every day for some time. Years I would imagine. On this day, my friend Russ and I were taking turns jumping, each trying to jump farther than the other. As I’ve already said, the jump was at the bottom of a slope, and being the competitive guy that I am, I was really flying, really pedaling hard and trying to get as much speed as possible to hit that ramp with. So, I was pedaling out of the saddle, rocking the bike back and forth putting every bit of strength I had at about 9 years old into the effort, Russ was there next to the jump, yelling at me as I screamed toward him. I don’t think I ever hit it faster.
Now, I knew from my earliest days on the bike that when jumping a ramp, you need to land on the rear wheel first. You keep your weight back, the front end light, and land with the rear wheel first, just before the front wheel. Well, I hit the kicker wrong. I knew I was in trouble straight away, I immediately felt my weight moving forward, my front wheel dropping, the rear wheel rising; simultaneously I was turning the front wheel as my body struggled to right itself. Later as a BMX rider I would purposefully cross my wheel up like this when jumping. Cross it up, kick out my rear end, lay the bike down a bit flat in the air, a “tabletop” we called it. Tricks and controlled stunts that I copied from my BMX racer heroes. But on that day, I didn’t yet have those heroes, only Fonzie. And I was not purposefully doing any kind of mid-jump trick. I merely screwed up and was not in control and was holding the bars crossed so the bar-end was pointing right at my heart.
I landed, front wheel first, my bars crossed ninety degrees, and I just stuck it in the sidewalk like a jart in the lawn. All my weight crashed into the left end of my handlebars at my chest, at about my solar plexus. Bang! A sudden, stunning stop. It knocked the wind out of me completely. I remember Russ staring at me, his mouth hanging open, as I lay there confusedly unable to take the breath I desperately wanted. Then Russ ran away. He didn’t even take his bike, he just ran. I laid on the ground there next to my bike so scared and confused that I couldn’t breathe. I had never even heard of having the wind knocked out of you, so I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was dying. I could hear my wheezing attempt to collect air into my lungs, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t suck in any air. I thought I must have broke myself horribly. I was truly scared—terrified, actually, lying there alone next to the sidewalk unable to breathe.
In a fairly short time I was able to take some air in again. And then again, right about the time my mom showed up with Russ. I recovered, she scolded me for being dangerous, and I gave up jumping for the rest of that day as I recovered. A bar-end sized circle stayed embedded and scarred in my chest for a long time, and I thought of it as a badge. But it didn’t last near as long as my need to hit jumps and leave the ground. I still have that embedded in right about the same place as that bar-end scar, near my heart.