Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bicycle Memories Part 2, “Going for a Spin”

In my last bicycle memories post I mentioned my old bike “Blacky." I had bought it at Sears early in 1971. It was a 3-speed with 26-inch wheels. I installed a speedometer/odometer, a light, and saddle baskets.

I needed those heavy-duty baskets to carry my newspapers every afternoon on weekdays and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I could pack a good 80+ pounds of papers at a time in those two baskets with a few across the middle for good measure. Doing that, it would only take me three back-and-forth trips to deliver all my papers. Fridays was my favorite; I could make the whole round trip without coming back even once.

I did that job continuously from the summer of 1971 all the way through the spring of 1975. I started when I was just about 14 years old and continued until a couple months before going into the marines. There was never a day off, never a vacation. Even if I was sick or hurt, I still delivered my papers. I don’t know how I managed that. It helped that I always had partners. First, there was my best friend, Kevin Courtney, followed by my younger brother, Kevin. How about that? —Two Kevin’s as partners.

Normally, I left Blacky at my grandmother’s house in town where The Saginaw News van dropped my papers off everyday. I’d take the bus to school in the morning, walk the ¾ of a mile to my grandma’s place, and after delivering papers on Blacky I’d walk the 1.5 miles cross-country back home. In the dead of winter, or in sweltering summer that meant hiking through muddy or frozen fields and woods in the evening darkness, many times in miserable cold or sweat soaking heat while being pelted with snow or drenched with rain. It might sound like I'm complaining, but I LOVED that part of my day the most.

I had to dress appropriately for that daily regimen, so “the cool people” at school considered me deplorably unfashionable with my grimy boots, K-Mart jeans and flannel shirt—not that I gave a hoot what they thought.

During the summers and on Saturday mornings during school I’d go ahead and ride the bicycle home. It was a nice break from the long trudge across the numerous farm ditches and furrowed fields. But this story is supposed to be about a bicycle memory—and so, here it is.

One especially frigid Saturday morning I was happy to finish my route without too much frostbite to toes and fingers, and struck out on Blacky up Main Street toward I-75 where we lived about ½ mile off the hi-way, south, down Beyer Road.

I rode that bicycle in virtually every extreme—through blizzards and driving rain, AND on that day, over slippery ice.

Two days before that one, a snowstorm had put down a fair amount of the white stuff, over 6 inches. That comparatively measly amount had little affect on me; I got good at riding on packed snow, or any kind of snow, without falling.

Of course I took a few spills before I figured out how to do that. When crossing slick ice I made sure that I kept front and rear tires lined up, no turning, no speeding up, and no application of breaks. Steady and ready was the way to go. By ready, I’m talking about my two natural training wheels—my feet—because along with my legs they made great steadying struts when I felt the bike starting to “lose it.”

It was still fairly early, not even 7 a.m. The sun was low and not yet at full bright. It was cold, very cold, somewhere in the mid-teens.

By keeping to the shoulder where the snow was untrammeled by car tires, and therefore not so treacherous, I was able to pedal along at a pretty good clip, between 15 and 20 mph. I kept my head low and hunched down so my nose was out of the blast of arctic air. Doing my best to breathe the relatively warm exhaled air still lingering inside the top of my parka, I tried never to take in air directly through my nostrils. I learned to breathe slowly through my mouth, which warmed the air a little. Try breathing frigid winter air directly into your lungs and soon you'll learn NOT to do it. Experience is definitely the best teacher when it comes to this kind of stuff.

On that morning I could see that wherever the traffic had packed smooth the snow that it had turned in some places into black ice, the most dangerous kind on which to drive. After the snowfall the temperature had risen enough to slightly melt the packed snow, but once night had fallen so had the temperature. If you’ve lived in cold climes then you know that that means black ice.

I had managed to avoid all the patches of black ice and I was making good time on old Blacky. I was so cold though, that all I could think about was getting my frozen butt back home under a warm quilt. Thoughts of hot chocolate drove my legs to pedal even faster.

Back then; the town of Birch Run had not yet sold its soul to the outlet malls. The place where all those hundreds of stores are now, at that time it was just a quiet road skirting around the now nonexistent Buster Brown Memorial Park and the Cardinal Inn Motel. I made it all the way to the I-75 junction where Beyer Road intersected Main Street just past the Sunoco Station. I was extremely careful in that area because of the traffic, but at that time of the morning it was still pretty quiet. Soon, I made the right turn onto Beyer and felt good knowing that I was less than 10 minutes from hearth and home.

I started down the fairly steep sweeping curve off the side of the I-75 overpass hill and really cranked on the pedals. I had Blacky easily going over 30 mph when I realized half way down the sloping road that I had perhaps made a deadly mistake.

Black ICE!

A whole stretch of it was now under my spinning tires and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I was probably going to go down in a flying scraping heap, but hoping against hope I put both booted feet down to give myself four-points of touch on the slick iciness. I had no idea what was next, but I was sure it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

My dragging feet had virtually no effect on my speed; I continued to fly over the frictionless surface. Then, incredibly, to my horror, my front tire was pointing left and continued to move leftward until I was sideways to the direction of my uncontrollable slide. My heart pounded crazily as I realized that I was in a slow counterclockwise spin going over 30 mph downhill on a bicycle over glare ice.

Could it get any worse? YES it COULD!

I had the presence of mind to look forward, down the road, one more time before losing sight of it from my spin. Aghast, I saw that at the bottom of the hill the black ice ended and dry pavement began. I knew that once I hit that iceless pebbly asphalt that I was going to go down in a painful tumbling pile of metal and parka.

The spin continued and I lost sight of the place where I might soon be horribly injured. Impossibly, I was now sliding directly backward. I was amazed to see that my front tire was no longer turning. Isn't it funny the things you notice?

‘How is this possible?’ I thought.

I didn’t understand why I hadn’t already capsized. My velocity was amazing; it felt eerie to be going that fast while so completely out of control. The spin put me sideways again--I had just completed 270 degrees.

At that point I saw that I was imminently about to fall because the pavement was now only a few feet away and coming on fast. I accepted my fate, knowing that I'd be lucky not to break something, like one or more of my precious bones.

Then, just as I hit the ice-free pavement, I completed the last of the 360 degrees of my inconceivable rotation. I merely picked up my dragging feet, regained the pedals and continued on as if what just happened had NEVER happened. In fact, that’s exactly what I thought.

‘No WAY, did THAT just happen!’

I completed the trip home still astounded at what I had just done. To this day the whole episode seems like a dream, but it happened sure enough.

Do I believe in guardian angels? Well, on that day, for those 5 or 6 seconds, I SURE did then!

Whenever I hear someone say "let’s go out for a spin," I always think of the time I actually did.


Ed said...

As my grandfather would have said, "sometimes you fall into shit and come out smelling like a rose".

PhilippinesPhil said...

Makes great compost and sure enough does result in healthy roses!

KA said...

.. Now I think I wanna try! I wanna go flying!

PhilippinesPhil said...

Kat, you're a bonafide nut!

Amadeo said...

Yes, black ice. That phenomenon here in California that goes with our unusual tule fog.

Got curious one day and actually examined it. Of course, over asphalt since one can't see it, it is transparent, it retains the color of asphalt - black.

And that transparent layer is very treacherous, even walking on it can be perilous.

Glad you came out unscathed.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Yes, that's a bit different than the black ice we usually get in Michigan. Ours usually forms over packed snow, so its actually a smooth glaze and can last for many hours. Its still basically the same thing as what you are talking about though.