Revisiting the Crash Scene – 45 years later.
I found something the other day I’ve been looking for off and on – for 45 years. In 1969 I suffered my first and only big time crash on a street motorcycle, running off the road in a corner I’d attacked with hubris at far too high a speed. I separated a shoulder in the process of learning humility, and destroyed my first motorcycle.
Just graduated from the University of Minnesota 24 hours earlier, I headed west for my new teaching job at Rose Hill Junior High, driving the 1963 Mercury my father had given me and towing a double-axle Hertz trailer that held my beloved Yamaha YDS 3 250 and all of my worldly possessions. I was accompanied by my father and my step-mother, who had flown back for my graduation.
It was not a fun trip. Turns out that a 1963 Mercury towing a loaded trailer cannot cruise at a very high speed, but that would have been OK except for – the stepmother. He had married her on the rebound after my mother’s untimely demise from cancer, and soon realized his error. The fact that he was her 5th husband might have provided a clue, but she had told him he was the 3rd. She was a woman as sweet as the new day before, changed into a monster upon marriage. All the way west she complained constantly in the nastiest verbiage possible. I had never met anyone like her before. She was mad if we stopped, because we’d never get anywhere at that rate, and mad if we did not stop, because she was tired. It was horrible and continuous.
I was to stay at their “home” in Bellevue for a few weeks while finding an apartment for myself. First thing I did was to totally strip down the Yamaha and get it to perfection. This was not difficult on this bike, even for a person of no discernible mechanical ability like me. You take off the cylinder head, which could be removed by undoing 4 bolts, and scrape the heads clean of two stroke detritus. You remove the baffles from the exhausts and burn off the collected oily crud with a torch. Done.
Back together, the oil pump tank filled and wearing a fresh coat of wax, it was perfect, and called out for a test ride.
Since it would be a short ride, and because I was incredibly stupid, I took off wearing penny loafers with no socks, shorts, gloves, a shirt, and my beloved Bell 500 helmet – the finest piece of what little gear I owned. I meandered around and found this incredible road. Short, but full of twisting corners that I attacked with gusto. After two years of riding I was used to scraping the pegs, and did so all frequently. Occasionally they would fold up a bit. This was not hard to do on a Yamaha YDS 3 250.
The road was so terrific that when it came to a T junction I turned around to ride it in the other direction, but even faster. I ran into a corner marked 25 mph at about 60mph. Whee!
The pegs began to drag but I was used to that. Then they folded, and I had done that a lot as well. Then the solid metal peg mount began to scrape the asphalt. Had not done that before.
The mount levered the rear tire off the ground and I began to go sideways. I’ve always been pleased that I did not panic, and kept trying to save the day. I decided to put my foot down and “dirt track” it around in a slide, which would never have worked.
At that moment I ran out of road and flew into the ditch. I somersaulted mid-air and wound up reclining in the ditch facing back toward where I had come from. The smoking remains of my bike next to me, the front forks badly bent.
The next day my father found the site and noted a sharp spike of a cut-off sapling jutting into the air about 3 inches away from the imprint of my body in the weeds.
As I sat there I remembered things I’d read about crashes and used my hands and proceeded slowly, feeling for broken bones. I started at my feet, moved up to my legs, felt my arms, and was starting to think I had gotten away with it when I found the huge lump in my shoulder.
A couple of little boys came running up and were so excited. The first one blurted out, inexplicably, “That was cool! Can you do it again?” Since the front wheel of my bike was now touching the engine this was not likely.
The other said “My Mom’s a nurse – I’ll get her,” and scrambled up the hill behind me.
The nurse was more like an angel. She took me up the steep hill to their home and made me comfortable in her bed, which I found totally embarrassing. I was so concerned the blood from some gravel rash on my shoulder would ruin the bedspread. She did not seem to care, and called the best surgeon she knew.
The nurses in the Overlake Hospital Emergency Room had a dim view of motorcycles, and did not try to hide their contempt. The surgeon came in to look at me, and the first thing he did was to move my right arm in a big circle. Ouch. Then he did it again. Ouch again.
Then he said “It’s not dislocated, it’s separated.”
“That mean you have to operate?”
Now the nurses were really angry. Such language! One was assigned to clean the dirt and gravel out of my shoulder, which she did with a metal wire brush. Aggressively. I looked down and saw what appeared to be ground hamburger, with lines from the brushing crisscrossing the meat of my shoulder. I don’t remember that it hurt all that much.
My stay in the hospital was made more pleasant by the angel. She came to see me each day on her break, and brought me a milk shake. While visiting, she’d talk to me and pull the curtain around my bed, so she could enjoy, unseen, a cigarette! Hospital procedures have changed a bit since then.
I had gone back to the area to find the crash site a few times and never succeeded. It has now been 45 years, so the roads have changed quite a bit. The other day I wanted to go for a ride, and decided to try once more. This time I chose to ride through a housing development ignored previously. After about a half a mile of speed bumps and gentle curves I found the remains of “my” road, which is now less than a mile long.
I rode it one way and then, again, turned around to ride back, much more carefully this time.
There it was. “My corner.” The nurse’s house was still on the hill above it, but I did not take the time to ride around and up to it and see if she still lived there. What are the odds?
The experience left me oddly elated. I had put to rest a small mystery sitting in the back of my head for several decades.
Three months after the crash two more significant events occurred. The local school board lost an appeal to the Minnesota draft board, and I was now declared IA. This meant I was about to be drafted. I calculated that the Army would probably let me finish out my teaching contract, so that in the summer of 1970 I would assuredly be drafted. Then I would be sent to Viet Nam. Then I would probably die, as had a few friends from high school.
And so, with impeccable logic, I decided to purchase another motorcycle.
I called my Dad to give him a chance to talk me out of it. He spent 45 minutes using everything he could think of to throw at me. I was and always had been rash and impulsive (true), foolish and romantic (true), a daydreamer (true), and irresponsible (not really). As a long term parent now I can only imagine his desperation. His beloved wife had died, he’d entered into a disastrous marriage, his youngest son had almost been killed on a motorcycle, would probably now be killed in Viet Nam, and now wanted to buy another motorcycle. At the end he said “But… I’ve never been in your situation. Maybe you should buy a motorcycle.” How it most have hurt to say those words!
I bought a nearly new Honda 450 Street Scrambler. Just after that, President Nixon held the first draft lottery and my birthday was the 334th one drawn. The war was over for me.
That Honda became, literally, my best friend, and I put 19,000 miles on it in the next two years, including three cross-country trips that taught me more than I learned in college.
As for the crash, it was a very good thing. It taught me some humility, at least when it comes of motorcycles, although it did not seem to spill over to other things. It taught me that I was not the motorcycle riding god my ego had created. The crash affected nobody else and did no property damage, other than my bike.
Of course, I did not like the experience at all, and I know the memories of it helped in my not crashing in the 45 years since. I’ve ridden several hundred thousand miles now on over 500 motorcycles, most of those miles on winding back roads.
All in all, the crash was a good experience. Having said that, I think I learned enough that I need not do it again.
Copyright 2014 David Preston