Thursday, February 4, 2010

#18 - George of the Jungle

Mid 1970’s. Same relative time-frame as the previous Memory Remix post, wherein I bared my budding manhood to the world and was immediately punished with a vindictive and impromptu gymnastics routine. Mom and Sharon were still dragging us to the evil skating rink on a fairly regular basis, but I think the tromps to the bowling alley had died off.

(At least for now. Mom would soon meet the man who would eventually become our step dad, and he loved to bowl, among other things. There’s at least 150 blog posts with that whole mess. Every day was a surprise with him. You never knew.)

Anyway, it’s definitely summer, because we were spending tons of time outside, running the neighborhood and not necessarily LOOKING for trouble, but we certainly answered the door if trouble should knock. You know how it was with boys that age, 10 or 11 years old, back in a time when we didn’t have all the electronic babysitters that kids have these days. You made your own fun. You took dirt and nothingness, applied a little bit of creativity, and you made it interesting.

The neighborhood we lived in was still very much under construction. Houses were constantly springing up all around us. But we were still out in the country, away from city life, long before anyone had to really worry about people taking things that were lying around and didn’t belong to them. So the home-building crews would just leave their stuff at the jobsites at the end of the work day.

Three seconds after the crews disappeared down the dusty road, us boys would invade the jobsites looking for treasure.

Not that we were ever going to take anything. (Okay, there was one wild boy in the gang that would have stolen anything that wasn’t nailed down, but he knew that the rest of us weren’t keen on the thievery concept, so he refrained. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there was a time when even criminals were decent. Progress isn’t always a good thing, right?)

So there we’d be, running through the shells of houses, picking up interesting power tools and pretending like we knew exactly how to use them. Or trying to figure out what each of the rooms would actually be once they had real walls. Sounds simple, but it was much more interesting than playing in your own yard where you already knew how everything worked and there was that constant threat of your embarrassing sister wandering up and trying to join in.

Eventually, we would grow tired of running and screaming through the 2x4 studs and calling each other douche-bags. (We had no idea what that really was, but it sounded deliciously dirty and therefore fully qualified as an insult.)

Usually, our decision to vacate the house would be exacerbated by someone tripping over something and skidding across the rough concrete of the newborn slab foundation, leaving behind a trail of skin. You couldn’t cry when this happened, of course, because that’s what babies did. But the non-skinned boys would always discreetly agree that it was time to exit so that any shame for the victim was avoided. Concrete hurt, and we all knew that. Time to go, and don’t look at the one boy barely holding back tears. The oath of random brothers in play.

Once outside, we would then head for the holy grail of the construction site: the huge pile of gravel that was somewhere on the property. This sounds mundane, but great things could be done with this innocent pile of rock. We had no idea why mounds of gravel were necessary (we didn’t build the damn houses, we just played there) but we were quite appreciative when the gravel would appear.

Because then we could play King of the Hill.

And actually, this is a rather vicious and wearying game. One boy stands on top of the hill, and everybody else tries to run up the hill and knock the first guy off the hill so that he tumbles down in defeat. The knocker then becomes the new King. Rinse and repeat until it was dinner time.

And really, this game was kind of a drag if you weren’t the current king. The guy on top could see you coming, while the guys on the bottom had to race up a very unstable slope and swat at you. The Top Guy could very easily step out of the way and send you hurtling down the other side. If he was a particularly vicious and unkind ruler, he could trip you at the summit so that your Plummet of Defeat also involved some painful acrobatic tumbling.

Somewhat primitive, yes, but this is just what boys do. They try to one-up each other through physical tests of strength, or at least physical efforts of tripping. It was just the rule. You had to constantly strive to show that you were better, even if you weren’t really interested in showing that. Everything was a contest. Which leads to the focal point of this story.

It all started with a bicycle.

Bicycles were cool. You simply had to have one if you wanted any kind of street rep. There was no discussion on the matter. If you did not have a bicycle, your rank in society was in question, at the very least, and you might even be subject to merciless torment, depending on the budding testosterone levels and the heat of the day.

I did happen to have a bicycle, which gave me a leg up, but it was a very questionable example of a bicycle. I’m not even sure how I came into possession of this thing, but it had been clearly modified over the years. Things were just not right about it. You couldn’t put your finger on it, but some critical wow factor was simply amiss with that contraption.

And it had a banana seat.

Now, I wasn’t schooled in the mechanical history of bicycles, but I knew enough to realize that they didn’t always have banana seats. I’m not sure if they ever SHOULD have had banana seats, those elongated, slightly-phallic things that could probably seat three separate individuals if everyone positioned themselves just right. I’m sure they were a fad at one point, but that era had faded into the dust by the time I assumed ownership of this vehicle.

So I was cool, but only on a conditional basis. To seal the deal, I had to prove that I could also ride the thing, and ride it in a macho manner that would completely dispel any inclinations to brand me a sissy. I must prove my worth.

Bit of background: My training in the proper operation of a bicycle was notably minimal. This critical schooling took place when Mom was still married to Dad, and we still lived in Tulsa, so, at most, I was 6 years old. Dad plunked me on a bicycle, (screw the training wheels), got behind me, and started running and pushing the bike when my own pedaling efforts proved unsatisfactory.

Dad ran faster and faster, my tiny feet flying off the pedals that were whipping around in a blur, and then with a tremendous grunt Dad shoved me forward with Herculean strength. I shot down the quaint little urban street with amazing velocity, left to my own devices. Dad did not believe in expending any wasted time on things like nurturing, carefully-controlled learning environments, or my unknown capacity to save my own ass.

So basically, I had just a very few seconds to either learn how to control a speeding vehicle, or die. After several jarring pedal-whacks that tore hunks of flesh out of my legs, I managed to get my feet properly positioned and was actually somewhat responsible for the speed of the bicycle, although I had to pump my legs with incredible rapidity, looking like a hamster on diet pills.

The body can do amazing things in times of stress, and somehow I gained mastership of the bicycle. And the wobbling stopped. I could actually steer the thing. I did a few lazy arcs back and forth across the street, my heart racing but now in a good way. I was riding a bike, on my own and not dying. I eventually did a full turn and headed back up the street toward home, grinning and happy.

Dad was already walking back in the house. I hadn’t been killed, so he was done. No congratulations, no kudos. My smile and the speed of the bike tapered off. I was six years old, and already knew this routine, knew this wall. There was something missing in him, something he couldn’t give, or didn’t know HOW to give. I slowly pulled up to the curb in front of the house, dismounted, thought a bit about things that six-year-olds shouldn’t have to think about, then went to put my bike away.

Flash forward to the boys in the hood at the new house in Broken Arrow, after the divorce, with the neighborhood gang assessing my ride. One of the older boys had a question: “Can you ride that thing down The Hill?”

The Hill. This was located on the next street over, to the east. The area around our house and the accompanying street was flat as a board. As was most of the county. But here and there in the burg were these odd hills that rose dramatically out of the landscape. Probably had something to do with the pressure of massive glaciers back in the day, but who knows, I’m not a geologist. We just had these random hills, that’s all we knew.

And The Hill in question was a real humdinger. The street where it was situated started out flat as hell like most of the streets, but then you suddenly encountered this mind-boggling, very steep incline that shot up at an amazing angle. If you were in a car, you had to shift into the lowest gear just to get up the thing, since the road was gravel and traction was always in question.

So this menacing hill became a proving ground for the entertainment-starved boys in the neighborhood. If you could ride your bike DOWN the hill and survive, what with the astonishing speeds you couldn’t help but attain, then you were pretty hip and worthy of admiration.

I gulped and carefully considered my response to the inquiring older boy. “Well, I haven’t tried it on this bike.” (I hadn’t tried it on ANY bike, but I was hoping to save my ass here.) “This thing’s pretty old. Maybe I better wait until I get a better bike…”

Luckily, the gang took another glance at my modified ride and decided I was probably right, maybe not a good idea to take the Mt. Everest plunge on something as questionable as what was currently between my legs. But the big boys wanted to make a run anyway, so all of us made our way to the next street over.

Once at the base of the mountain, us younger guys took up a watching position down below, while the older guys made the long trek to the top, pushing and shoving their bikes ahead of them since there was no possible way to ride UP the hill. Then, one by one, the big boys plunged over the crest of the hill and raced downward, shooting past the peanut gallery at the base with amazing speed, the wind pressure flattening their cheeks into ghoulish masks as they zoomed to the right or the left of the ancient tree in the middle of the road.

Yes, dear reader, there was a tree right smack in the center of the gravel road at the point where the street leveled off. I guess somebody thought this was a really cute idea, leaving the tree standing and making drivers swerve around it. It was Oklahoma in the 70’s, need I say more?

Eventually, all of the older boys made their run, and then raced home for dinner. The rest of the younger boys tagged along after them. Until it was just me at the base of the hill, staring up at the precipice above me as the lowering sun cast odd shadows across the landscape. And then madness seized me with its seductive hands.

I decided I was going to try it, hybrid bike be damned.

So there I went, trudging up the hill, shoving my piece of crap bike ahead of me. To say it took a while is an understatement. It took forever. Loads of sweat and strain later, I reached the summit. Wiping my brow, I turned to survey the perilous descent before me.

I could barely see the massive tree in the middle of the road, way down yonder. Oh boy. But something egged me on, and I was going to do this. I straddled my bike, took a deep breath, and rolled forward.

The first several seconds were deceptively easy. I really wasn’t moving that fast. I actually thought I might enjoy this little mission. But then gravity and physics muscled their way in, and before I knew it I was hurtling downward in a jaw-dropping rush of utter panic.

I lost all sense of time and space. I was beyond anything that I understood. I slightly lost my mind. Things were happening so fast that my quivering brain could not process the input.

Then the handlebars started to shimmy. I was cognizant enough to realize that this was not a good development, but I didn’t know what was expected of me to correct the situation. The front wheel was wobbling at an alarming rate as I approached the final third of the descent. Oh, this was SO not good.

Then the front wheel took on a life of its own, jerking dramatically to the left and completely locking up the bike. It stopped moving, but I didn’t. Suddenly, I was airborne over the handlebars. Stupidly, I didn’t let GO of the handlebars, clinging to them with some short-circuited fervor.

I slammed into the gravel roadway with a brain-rattling crunch. The demon bike landed on top of me, and both of us slid the rest of the way down the hill, completely out of control and subject to some law of nature that I hadn’t studied yet. As we tumbled head over heels, my bouncing body pivoted in a crucial way and I could see where we were headed.

Directly toward that freakin tree in the middle of the road.

Three seconds later, we hit the stupid tree. It stopped my descent with an alarming noise that didn’t sound healthy at all. The bike was wrenched from my grasp and landed somewhere else. Gravel dust was billowing all around as I tried to figure out if I would ever be able to walk again. It was too late to scream and I was too shocked to cry, so I just laid there as chalky grit covered my body.

Then I heard a car coming.

Some instinct that I didn’t even know I had kicked in. I scrambled to my feet (okay, great, I wasn’t paralyzed) and I searched for the bike. (Why I even cared about the bike at that point, I don’t know.) I spied the twisted metal a few feet away. I staggered over to it, grabbed one of the handlebars that had failed me, and half-crawled to the side of the road, falling into the ditch just seconds before the car thundered past.

I laid there for quite a while.

Eventually, I stirred and stood up, and then assessed the damage. I was bleeding in several places, but nothing seemed life-threatening. The bike, however, was a complete mess. The front wheel frame was so jacked that the tire wouldn’t even turn. And the banana seat, interestingly enough, was split.

So I took a deep breath, sucked it up, and started dragging the bike home. It took some time, because I wasn’t in the best of spirits, and everything hurt. What seemed like hours later, I made it to our yard, still dragging the hated, non-functioning bike.

Mom came racing out of the house, and it wasn’t until that exact point that I started crying. This is where I need love, people. Everybody act accordingly.

Mom determined that I would live, patched me up, and said all the right things. I felt much better, even though I vowed that I would never ride a bike again. (This conviction lasted approximately three days.)

Then Mom startled me with another question. “Well, are you ready to head to the skating rink? Kerry and Kristy will be there. Won’t that be fun?”

I almost died a tragic and dusty death, and now you want me to put up with the Hellion twins? You have GOT to be kidding me.

But she wasn’t.

I sighed and hobbled to the car.

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