If I told you that 2001 was the year that everything changed, I bet you’d nod your head, your memory crowded with images tinged with darkness and destruction.
But I’m not thinking of September. For me, the change began on a false spring day in mid-February, blue skies, high-50s. The kind of day where Mt. Rainier dominates the southeastern skyline, its glistening glaciers a sharp counterpoint to the heavens. The kind of day where your heart leaps with a sense of joy and anticipation: spring is almost here!
That day, I had an appointment on Microsoft’s main campus, only a few miles from my townhouse. I needed to channel my inner computer novice to help design a smartphone. My reward for donating two hours of my time to the cause of better software would be a gift certificate at the Microsoft company store.
But I wasn’t thinking much about my task or my reward. The appointment was an excuse to fire up the Ducati since winter, evidenced by the prior week’s snowfall, had seriously cut into my helmet time. I was jonesing for a ride and reveled in the distinctive Ducati rumble while warming up the bike. What a beautiful day!
I escaped from the user experience lab and into the sun, startled by the unaccustomed brightness. I fumbled for my sunglasses, smiling at the thought that Seattlites own more sunglasses per capita than people in any other American city. We certainly don’t need sunglasses very often during winter, which is probably when we misplace them, only to dash off and buy a new pair when el sol returns.
I made my way to the bike, vaguely realizing that I wasn’t ready to go home. The 15-minute surface street jaunt from Bellevue to Redmond, maximum legal speed, 35 mph, had whetted my appetite for more helmet time. I just didn’t know it yet.
Let’s see. What time is it? Going on noon. Mike’s office is close-by, and near the company store. I used my not-smart-phone to see if he wanted to go to lunch.
“Sure!” he replied.
“Why don’t we ride over to Fall City?”
“Sounds like fun!” I say.
In retrospect, I can’t explain why I made that phone call. We weren’t dating. We were friends who had met in 1998 at an annual summer campout called The Gather; Mike was waiting to take delivery on his 1999 Harley, I had just bought a 1981 BMW. We chatted at a group events throughout 1999, jointly planned a surprise birthday party for a mutual friend. In 2000, we started going to the occasional movie or concert together, shot pool a few times. That fall, though, he was the person I had called when a close friend died and I wanted someone to go with me to the funeral.
Then, like today, I didn’t question the thought; I simply made the call. But today’s exchange would have repercussions far beyond my having my first crash.
It was an uneventful lunch. The peach cobbler was a German-style “crisp” not the hoped-for Southern-style cobbler. I wanted a taste of home, peaches with a little cinnamon and soft dumpling-like goo with a light crust. Instead, I got a few peaches with a rock-hard oats-and-sugar topping.
That tiny disappointment did not dent my exuberance, however. The ride, complete with an ear-splitting grin and mental giggles, was the real reason for our sitting in the Fall City Grill. We are 30-odd miles east of Seattle, but urban sprawl has long tentacles. We avoid development on the ride back, seeking out the rural, treed, curvy roads. Mike lets me lead; after all, I am the one on a sport bike!
Dairy farms dot the landscape, hugging the western edge of the Snoqualmie River flood plain on one side while resisting the pressures of urbanization on the other. The twisty bits of the ride behind us, a sense of serenity envelopes me. Maybe it’s linked to my south Georgia roots. Maybe it’s the memory of my years working in Pennsylvania’s dairy industry. Maybe it’s simply the act of slowing down. It is, however, a false sense.
I notice a speed limit sign, 35 mph, and double-check my speedo. Up ahead, a large barn and outbuildings squeeze both sides of the road. Off to my left, a large barn cat meanders towards the road, as though preparing to cross. Consciously, I slow down; unconsciously, I squeeze the clutch.
In the motorcycle safety class, we tell students what to do when a dog approaches. You slow down, and then upset the dog’s mental path to your tires by speeding up. We don’t talk about cats, and I’d never thought of a cat as a hazard, so there are no alarms going off. Instead, I coast, clutch squeezed, and watch the cat.
For a moment, as we are almost side-by-side, I think the cat will wait for me to pass. Then he seems to leap into the road, straight at my front tire. I know this because afterwards I realized that I had looked down, a cardinal sin for motorcyclists. Instinct takes over and I do the wrong thing: I flinch, slightly turning the handle bars, and probably grab the brake.
I have enough time to think “I’m going to …” and then my brain says “I’m crashing.”
The Ducati goes down on its left side, skidding along the right side of the road for 30-40-50 feet, coming to a stop on the gravel and grassy shoulder. I fall left side first, sliding down the middle of the road. Mike splits the gap, successfully avoiding both moving obstacles.
Once I stop sliding, I do a quick body check and lift my head. I see Mike parking his Harley on the shoulder, past the crippled Ducati. Adrenaline-fueled, I leap up and run to the bike, turn off the key, prepare to stand it up.
Mike materializes next to me.
“Are you OK?”
It’s the first question we ask a rider who has crashed. When I’m teaching newbies, I steer the rider away from the bike. “Walk around a bit,” I suggest, watching for a limp, any sign of adrenaline-disguised injury.
“Yeah. Looks like I only skinned my knee, got lucky,” I reply.
Mike helps me take inventory. One torn glove; very scuffed boots; reparable damage to the left arm of my jacket. My helmet reveals no impact marks. A little blood seeps through the now-less-than-paper-thin knee of my blue jeans. But there are no gaping holes, no ripped flesh. Later, I would discover a cracked rib and road rash the size of a dollar coin on my left knee.
Then he helps me inspect the bike. The clutch lever is broken and the gearshift lever bent, inoperable. Tank flattened and down to bare metal on the left side. Windscreen in pieces. Front and rear turn signals bent, lenses lost. Left exhaust pipe pretty scratched up. The left handlebar-end looks like someone took a grinder to it.
I pull out that same not-so-smart phone that helped get me into this mess and call, not AAA, but my mechanic.
Like Mike, the first thing Herb says is, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, but the gearshift lever’s broken so I can’t ride the bike!” I wail. “What do I do? I’ve not been in an accident before!”
Herb smoothly segues from mechanic to personal assistant. He calmly reads me AAA’s phone number and explains that we can call the insurance company later.
All the while, the star of this drama, the barn cat, lies in the middle of the road, dead.
A fertilizer truck rumbles past, the driver having dodged the dead cat at the last minute. I should feel bad about killing the cat, but my emotions seem on hold. Although I don’t want another vehicle to further crush his body, the thought of touching it leaves me a little queasy. Mike takes care of it.
Movement from across the road signals the arrival of a bevy of school-aged children.
“Why did you kill our cat? You should slow down!” the oldest boy shouts.
I want to tell him that I had slowed down, that I wasn’t a squid who does 100 mph on these populated country roads, that it wasn’t my fault. I bite my tongue.
The AAA flatbed finally arrives. It’s now rush hour, the afternoon gone. The bright sun has to turned to drizzle, signaling winter’s return. I don’t want to be stuck in the wrecker with a stranger for the hour or more it will take to get across Lake Washington and into Seattle. Mike senses this and volunteers to take me to Ducati Seattle. It’s only the second time I’ve ridden two-up since I bought my bike, two years prior.
Later, the requisite paperwork signed with dealer and AAA, I realize I’m supposed to be meeting people for dinner, back on the other side of the lake. Mike once more plays shuttle driver. The adrenaline is long-gone. I’m stiff and tired and wonder if I’ve broken a rib. I make as quick a get-away as possible, and Mike takes me home. It’s late, I offer the guest room; it doesn’t make sense for Mike to ride 40 minutes to go home, only to turn right around and ride back to work.
Sometime during this memorable — magical — day, Wednesday February 21, 2001, my world changed. The man I called without thinking when I needed emotional support, the man I called without thinking when I wanted someone to play hooky with me, would quickly become the center of my life, my rock.
The center would hold through my 10-day stint (post emergency surgery) in a French hospital in August 2001 and major surgery in Seattle on September 12, 2001. The center would hold through the death of my 16-year-old Cairn terrier, my dad’s botched bypass that left him a double-amputee, and my mom’s death.
Five motorcycles and a scooter now grace our garage. We’ve ridden 800+ miles in one 24-hour period, had breakfast at Alice’s Restaurant in California, explored the Alps on rented BMWs and putted around on scooters in Freeport, Grand Bahama.
The center continues to hold.
Version 2. Written while participating in a Poynter class, the art of the personal essay.
Updated 14 Feb 2011 with photos .