One of the joys of being a kid is the sense of absolute freedom – where the only responsibilities you have consist of common-sensical things such as remembering to get dressed in the morning, and not setting yourself fire or consuming shards of glass throughout the course of the day. You are truly “care” free, and the concepts of fear and failure are as distant to you as the prospect of old age and a walking cane. There comes a time, however, when life begins teasing the mind with tantalizing glimpses of possibilities. A time of science at its purest, unfettered from caution, where daring discoveries are pulled from the jaws of death by the pure of heart. When the mind becomes obsessed with the boundaries between what you know, and what you imagine to be possible “with just a little extra effort.”
For me, the magical age of enlightenment came when I was five (going on six), and its catalyst was a neighborhood nemesis: the universally dreaded “Suicide Hill.”
Just about every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in has had some variation on this theme. What we kids called “Suicide Hills” were really just roads engineered by adults to lead children into adulthood. They did so by presenting a challenge that only the most timid, or sane, child could ever resist: the potential to combine human and mechanical apparatus to achieve faster than possible speed. That they did so while simultaneously presenting an equally high potential for disaster only added to their allure. Silent monoliths, they summoned the brave to tests of courage and opportunities for glory.
One night, while walking around the block with my mom and babysitter, we came across the wreckage of a boy and his bicycle and the aftermath of one such test. He lay bleeding in the road, a magnificent mess covered with a profusion of wounds the likes of which I had yet to see. As mom and the babysitter helped him off the ground, he tearfully explained how the accident had happened, noting that his high rate of speed had been the cause of his near demise. Apparently, he had heard of our hill and decided to take its test, only to meet his failure approximately half way down as his front tire had wobbled catastrophically out of control, throwing him from the bike to skid quite some distance on the pavement. The fact that he was only wearing shorts at the time of the crash meant that he had accumulated a rather spectacular array of cuts and scrapes over almost every square inch of exposed skin.
As he spoke, I noted these facts with some curiosity, intrigued by the apparent causal links between speed and disaster. Up until that point, my only dealings with the hill had had been casual. The hill was, to a five year-old, a near vertical slope that dropped in a perfectly straight line, past eight houses, before flattening out at an intersection flanked by two empty lots. The first of these was filled with pine trees – perfect for war-games and evenings of flashlight tag – while the other, fringed with a triangle of swampy land with a creek running through the center, was the sight of crudely constructed bicycle park that all the neighborhood kids had assembled out of “borrowed” scrap lumber, bricks, and mounds of red clay. One ramp in particular was special, for it had been constructed in the distant past by an unknown genius. It was built at the edge of the swamp, two feet high out of a mound of hard packed red clay, with either side a perfect forty-five degree angle. One side of the ramp faced the hill, and the other faced a ten foot wide finger of the swamp itself. The accepted thinking was that whoever had designed it had envisioned a brave rider, by taking advantage of the extra speed granted from using the hill as a starting point, would be able to use the ramp as a catapult to launch himself over the the ten feet of goopy mud, and into eternal glory. Up to then, no one had ever managed to successfully use the ramp for its intended purpose, and many half-baked, hill ignoring attempts to jump it had only resulted in short plops into a disgusting soup of stagnant and stinky mud
After listening to the injured kid’s story, and being particularly impressed by his mention of the notoriety of our hill, I resolved to be the first in the neighborhood to successfully navigate the hill. It should be noted that my intentions were not entirely altruistic. In the coming months I was destined to start my first year of elementary school, and it was my belief that a successful attempt would not only boost my reputation with my local peers, but establish my credibility with my future classmates as well.. I was more than a little insecure, you see.
My planned venture was not without its detractor’s, however, nor its risks. While I was on a quest for knowledge, my friends had apparently decided to embark upon a parallel quest of investigating my mental well-being. The word “crazy” was bandied about, as were vivid descriptions of the types of injuries I could expect to sustain should my experiments meet the same ignominious end as the first kid. Nevertheless, I vowed to press on, waving off concerns over my physical safety with a categorical “harumph” of dismissal.
I was no fool, you see, no mad scientist heedlessly venturing into territories unknown. I had paid attention. I had noted that the majority of the injured kid’s damages had come about due to a notable lack of protective clothing. This I intended to address with a thorough application of layers of clothing better suited for Minneapolis winters than Atlanta summers. Two pairs of jeans, double socks, and four t-shirts would serve as a suitable “scrape barrier” between me and the road should we twain ever meet, and a little league baseball helmet would suffice to keep my brains inside my head, where they rightfully belonged. My bicycle’s tires were properly inflated, and the playing cards and cut up straws used for “motorcycle sound effects” removed as unnecessary distractions.
On the day of the test, as small crowd of kids had assembled to observe. As I positioned my bike at the top of the hill, there was a general murmur of appreciation at both my bravery and scientific preparation, as well as some less inspirational speculation on the number of injuries I was expected to sustain. Bets were placed on either outcome, and the odds were decidedly tilted against my success. I cast a malignant glare at the doubters, then squared my helmet on my head, hunkered down over the handlebars, and gently nudged the bike down the hill.
As I began gradually picking up speed, visions of my impending success danced through my head. As the wind whipped my hair and my vision began to blur, I saw myself standing proudly at the far side of the swamp, helmet tucked heroically tucked beneath my elbow, basking in the applause of my compatriots, humbly accepting their praise and congratulations.
Then the front tire began to wobble.
At first it was a minor shake – a trembling in the handlebars that I thought I could control by simply tightening up my grip a bit. This didn’t work as expected. The trembling increased. Exponentially. By the fourth house, the front wheel was rattling back and forth with such violence as to shake my entire upper body. My helmet flew off, and I heard it clatter to pieces on the pavement behind me. I stood up on the pedals, adjusting my center of balance in a futile attempt at stabilising the now out of control machinery of doom. Downward I plunged picking up even more speed.
By the sixth house, I had become convinced of the folly of my actions. I gripped the handlebars with the ferocity of a tiger grasping the throat of a leaping gazelle. My legs pinched together in a desperate attempt to fuse them to the crossbar of the bike, so that should the front tire go perpendicular, the weight of the bike might help to keep me earthbound rather than send me over the handlebars. My arms throbbed, and my breath had become trapped in my lungs due to an insane notion that an inflated body might somehow bounce, rather than splash, on the asphalt. I was not a particularly religious kid, having never really paid attention to the catechisms, yet I closed my eyes and began murmuring prayers of supplication to a Lord I hoped would make my inevitable death as quick and painless as possible.
And then, a miracle: the road began to flatten out! I glanced quickly up to see that I had made it down the worse part of the hill. I was not dead! I had not been thrown over the handlebars and horribly mutilated, or scarred for life! I was going to make it! I gently turned the still shaking handlebars towards the empty lot and the final obstacle: the ramp of ultimate glory.
And it was here that I discovered the one crucial detail that I had failed to take into consideration: the ramp wasn’t exactly in the best of shape.
Instead of retaining the perfect forty-five degree angle as originally constructed, weeks of test jumping by innumerable children had worn a groove into the softened red clay, converting the center path of the ramp into a parabolic swoop. When my bike hit it, instead of arcing gracefully out over swampy marsh, it lofted straight up into the air, dragging me skyward.
I was at the peak of my ascent when science, that bitch of a mistress, reasserted her dominance in our relationship and introduce me to the awesome power of gravitational physics. I began to fall at the exact same angle that I had taken on the way up. Still clutching the now useless bicycle, I crashed flat on my back on the crest of the ramp, the bike smashing down on top of me, the wind whooshing from my body and a cloud of red dust poofing out from beneath me.
Devastated, and in no small amount of pain, I lay there for quite some time. In short order I heard the patter of my friends’ excited approach, and their exclamations over how cool it had been to watch me take the hill. As they looked upon me, a few of the kinder ones asked if I was alright. When I nodded that I was indeed still alive, they began taking turns providing floral descriptions of just how high in the air I had gone, and how spectacularly awesome my crash had been. One went so far as to mention that the dust cloud I had kicked up reminded him of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. I tried to laugh, but my breath was slow returning, as if punishing me for my foolishness.
I continued to lay there. Not only bruised in body but also in mind. My experiment, so carefully thought out, planned, and nearly executed, lay in literal ruins about me. My bike, my scientific instrument, lay crumpled across my body, the handlebars and front tire bent beyond recognition. As the evening light began to fade, the neighborhood mothers began calling their kids to dinner, and my friends began to drift alone or in pairs. While my body was not broken, I felt no desire to move, so I continued to lay there, staring up at the sky as if some answer for my failure could be found written within the darkening clouds drifting over my head.
I was still laying on my back when I heard my dad’s car pull up to the corner. I’m pretty sure he had heard what had happened as my next door neighbor was notoriously gossipy. He sat there for a moment, the car idling, before asking if I felt like coming home to eat. I rolled gently off the ramp, carefully flexing my joints to make sure they were all in their proper locations, and rose to my feet. Still clutching the mangled handles of my bike, I dragged it behind me and walked dejectedly to the car. As I approached, dad got out and, without a word, opened the trunk and helped me load the wreckage. We drove home in silence, yet as we pulled into the driveway, he handed me a handkerchief to wipe the dirt stained tears away from my face. “You know,” he said, “I can straighten those handlebars out for you. And I think we still have a spare rim in the garage.”