A few months ago, I wrote a story (which I’d recommend reading first if you haven’t already) about my mom and her bicycle trip through Switzerland, up and down Susten Pass, and even though we grew up in different times, there were some parallels in our childhoods that I realized only after I’d written most of this story. It made me smile, and we’ll get to those in a bit, but first, join me in another trip through the time machine, this time it was on a speeding black bicycle, in Germany, many years ago…
I was 16. My sister and I had saved up money from our newspaper delivery routes and gone over there for the summer to visit extended family and help our grandparents (Oma and Opa) out. We had pretty much free rein to do what we wanted, but we loved our grandparents and helped them however we could.
“We’ll be back at 10:30” I told Oma as we went down the cement back steps to get the bicycles out of the shed. We needed them to ride to the next town to say goodbye to a friend who’d visited for part of the summer. My sister thought we’d be back much sooner, but for whatever reason, 10:30 was stuck in my mind, so that’s when I said – actually insisted – that we’d be back.
Our friend’s name was Philippe, an exchange student from France who was heading back after visiting some – well, I was going to say cousins – but that’s not really the case… He was a friend to Ulrike, who was a cousin of some family friends (brothers Martin and Wolfgang) and their family had been friends with ours for generations – to the point where it was hard to tell where family stopped and friendships started. There was a significant overlap.
To get there, we traveled from Ludwigsburg to Kornwestheim, in Germany, (about 10 km/6 miles) by bicycle because he was leaving that morning to go back to Paris. It would be a long, long time before we saw him again.
With our dad in the military, we’d grown up all over, but spent a good bit of that time growing up or visiting there in Germany, and we learned that one of the things that happened behind the scenes for us when we visited was that someone made a bicycle available for each of us. In my case, someone had made a black, very old NSU bike available to me for the summer. It had been around since WWII or before, and I was told it had been a soldier’s issue bike that had indeed been used back then. (This is the model. Mine had lost the front fender though, but that front brake, saddle, and that oversized “gepäckträger” – the rear cargo carrier are exactly as I remember them) At some point in its history, it had been “upgraded” and now sported a three speed rear wheel and a gear shifter to match, so one could ride up steeper hills than before, and ride faster on level ground than before.
That was a good thing…
Stopping when coming down from those steeper hills was another thing entirely.
See, that coaster brake was part of the upgrade, but it was either full on or full off, no middle of the road (no pun intended). I learned that if I so much as breathed on it, the back wheel locked up, and I would skid to an abrupt, barely-controlled halt.
The back tire itself was in pretty decent shape. The front tire still held air, but really, that was about it. There was hardly any tread left, and in some places the threads were showing through. The reason for this was that the front brake had not been upgraded, in fact, it was original, and was more of a rubber skid pad in a metal box that was pushed down directly onto the tire via a lever and rod assembly. This did indeed slow the bike down, but had the added effect of sanding the tread off the tire with road grit and the like, so it wore much faster than the back one. In fact, the week before this story happened, I’d gotten a flat on that front tire, and had to patch it, so every time the wheel went around, it’d bump a little as the thicker patched part hit the pavement.
What surprises me now as I write this is that every bit of the detail above, while it is extensive and feels almost overdone, is actually relevant to the story.
So we rode over to Kornwestheim, leaving the house around 7:00 or so because it was one of the hottest summers in Europe in years, and we wanted to go over and back before it got hot.
My sister had Oma’s bicycle – something that was about 40 years old at the time, and I had that soldier’s bike.
The thing about that patch I mentioned earlier is that at low speeds, it didn’t do much. From experience on my paper route, I liked a lot of air pressure in the tires. The good in that was the bike went farther and faster on less energy. The bad was that you felt every bump on the road, and in my case, I felt the bump caused by the tire patch.
Once I got going really fast, the patch caused the whole front end to start bouncing and shaking, eventually becoming as smooth and comfortable as, uh, riding a bicycle while hanging on to a paint shaker.
So on the way there, we wound slowly, gently through farmer’s fields and people’s gardens, and there was one left turn right by a small orchard that took us up over a hill.
We’d done it once before, when we’d gone over to visit Wolfgang’s and Martin, and stayed too late and it got dark. Our bikes didn’t have lights, but theirs did. So Martin said, “We’ll ride front and back. You just follow my taillight, and Wolfgang will light up the road for your sister from the back.” So off we went… Martin rode in front, Wolfgang in back, with my sister and me in the middle. It was early August, there was no moon, so I followed Martin’s taillight up that hill, where we stayed pretty much together, then down the hill, where he accelerated way out in front of me. I squinted against the wind trying to keep him in focus, and then just as I blinked, his taillight suddenly tilted, shot off to the right, and disappeared.
I looked around frantically, it was pitch black, I was going down a hill at about 30 miles an hour, and my only source of light had just disappeared. In seconds I got to where I guessed he must have turned, and leaned hard right, turned, and hung on until I saw his taillight swing back into my field of view again. We were so far from any streetlights, that his taillight was really, truly, the only thing I could see. I was glad to have a frame of reference again. I’d lost track of where we were in the dark and had no recollection of what the road had looked like in the daytime.
And I didn’t recognize it the morning when we went to say goodbye to Philippe. When we got there that day, we got to the hill, turned left at the orchard to go up it, and I remember noticing that the road over that hill was typical in its German engineering… It was absolutely smooth. Perfect in every way. You could have laid a ruler on it, it was so straight going up, perfectly straight coming down.
And we sweated a bit as we made it up over the hill. We knew it would be a lot warmer on the way back, so we hurried to get to Martin & Wolfgang’s house where Phillipe and Ulrike were, chatted for a bit, hugged and then waved as Philippe left.
We hung out for just a little bit, got something to drink, then, as we felt the warmth of the day starting even in the shade, we headed back.
And the real story comes on that trip back, and takes all of about 20 seconds…
Now in all of the stuff I mentioned about the brakes, if there’s one thing I didn’t mention (or maybe it was obvious), it’s that I didn’t trust them.
So I had an emergency brake, one I’d tried out in front of Martin & Wolfgang’s house.
It was an 8 foot US Army flare parachute tied to the cargo carrier on back of the bike and held down with the spring clamp there (you can see the clamp in the picture here)
I’d practiced this.
And it worked. It really worked.
See, if you could reach back, grab it, yank it and all the lines out from under the clamp, and then toss it back hard and fast enough, it would open up with enough of a jerk to where you had to hold very tightly onto the handlebars to keep from flying over them when it opened.
I figured that this was for emergencies only, once you threw it, you were going to stop.
If you didn’t throw the parachute far enough, it’d get tangled in the back wheel. It would indeed still stop you, but a bit more abruptly, and with a bit less control…
The thermometer was solidly into 80 degrees Fahrenheit (a little over 25 C) when we started up the hill again, and I was thankful for the extra gears on the bike and pedaled to the slow, rhythmic ‘kathump’ of the front wheel going around. I don’t know how my sister did it riding Oma’s old single speed bike behind me, but she did it.
As a result, we were definitely not riding at Tour de France speeds. That “speed” up the hill allowed butterflies to flutter by, and grasshoppers played leapfrog with us. A dandelion floated past. There was a gentle breeze from the back, going about as fast as we were, ironically making us even warmer. I was looking forward to getting to the top, because I knew once we got to the other side of the hill I could coast and cool off down that wonderfully engineered road. Right past the gardens, in a little bit of shade, with the orchard at the T intersection at the bottom, where we’d have to turn right.
We didn’t stop at the top, my bike was still in first gear – so I pedaled – hard – for about 5-10 seconds in each of the 3 gears, then ducked down so that I’d cause less wind resistance, and go even faster, and only then did I sit up, lean back a bit, and let the air blow past me, through my hair, everywhere. I held my arms up high for a bit, letting the wind come up the sleeves of my t-shirt, joyfully cooling me off.
It was glorious.
A couple of things happened as I accelerated with my hands in the air. One, the wind was loud enough in my ears that it was all I heard, and two, without my hands on the handlebars, that gentle ‘kathump, kathump, kathump’ of the front wheel at low speed started bouncing the front of the bike all over the place, truly making it into that pedal powered paint shaker I mentioned earlier. All because of that patch I’d put on the tire the week before. Riding with my hands up in the air wasn’t an option anymore, and I had to lean forward and hang on tight to keep control of the front wheel, and the bike, and it kept accelerating as it went further down the hill.
Now this road we were on was the bottom part of a capital T- that turn I’d mentioned earlier by the orchard was a T intersection. <–that’s an aerial shot of the intersection>. We were coming back this time, from the bottom of the T and turning right…
And turning right was the thing to do. That was the paved road. Turning left put you into what was then a plowed field.
So that narrowed down the options quite a bit.
There was only one problem with those remaining options.
Well, actually, several.
One: the turn was essentially blind…
Two: You had to make the turn, because at the top of that T was that orchard with a huge, rusty, chain link fence around it with barbed wire on top.
So ideally, you’d take it tight. You’d line up as far left as you could ahead of time, then swing hard right into the turn, grazing the apex with the bike, then drift out as you hit the top of the T, straightening out and all (this is where I had lost, then found, Martin’s taillight in the dark from the earlier ride in the dark).
But I couldn’t take the corner too tight because there was a garden right on the corner, with enough bushes and trees to where I couldn’t see around all that to see if farm traffic (Tractor, combine, ox) might be coming down that road… which I wouldn’t see until it was right in front of me, with me closing on it at top speed…
Then again, I couldn’t take it wide, because if I missed the fence around the orchard, I’d fly off the road into that monstrously deep ditch that separated the field beside the orchard from the road. (that would be the ditch I hadn’t seen when I shot past it in the dark a couple of weeks earlier.)
Now that I could see, it dawned on me that I should have been terrified on that first time around, but it was so dark then that I couldn’t see things like monstrous ditches waiting for me by the side of the road.
Also, even though I could see now, I didn’t have time to be scared.
Right then I had to make a lot of quick decisions and line myself up just right, to essentially thread a needle at about 35 mph.
With a bicycle.
Options narrowed, decisions made, I lined myself up to thread that needle and take the turn, when I noticed, to my alarm, an old fellow had just left that garden right at the corner and had settled onto his bicycle, which was just starting to coast the last few meters down the hill.
This changed everything.
I tried to get his attention by frantically ringing my bicycle bell and yelling.
I had to start leaning right into the turn right then and realized that I now had to take the turn wider to avoid the old fellow, but I was going much too fast to take the turn that wide, so I hit the back brake, which instantly locked the back wheel. Because I was already leaning, the back of the bike slid out, skidding – so now I was going down the hill sideways, front wheel shaking, but tracking true, a prime example of oversteer if you’ve ever seen it.
This, um, wasn’t good…
To say I was in control at this point would have been wildly overstating things. I let up on the back brake and the bike flung back straight…
…which was good.
Except I was running out of space fast.
I had the front brake left, so I squeezed that handle for all I was worth, the rubber pad met the tire, there was friction, and the bike slowed down for a split second before smoke started shooting out from between the pad and the tire until the pad itself followed the smoke with a “thwip!”, shot out of the little metal box at the end of the rod, and was gone.
Which was when the metal box hit the tire and dug in…
…which was bad.
Losing the already almost shredded front tire right then would be infinitely worse.
So I let off the brake, and realized the old gentleman on his bike was going to be tootling around the turn, right at that precious apex of it, at about 5 miles an hour just as I came rocketing through the very same spot at about 30. By this time, I was leaned over as far as I dared, with that whole paint shaker thing working with centrifugal force against me, every time that tire patch lump hit the pavement, it bounced the wheel off the road just enough to scoot out a bit, making the eye of that needle I was threading with the bike infinitely smaller.
I squinted again, just like anyone does when they’re threading a needle, right? and hey, wait – I had an emergency brake in that parachute, right?
But using it would have required having a stable bike.
(Which I didn’t have).
And enough time to grab it.
(Which I was running out of.)
And having enough distance for it to open.
(Which I already had run out of.)
I held onto the bike, still leaning, threaded the needle made by physics, the fence, and the gentleman without hitting him, and had almost made it straight when I ran out of pavement and the front tire started sliding across the dirt, which had no traction.
Then things got interesting.
After the dirt, there was about a foot of grass in front of the chain link fence, which, according to my sister who was behind me, I apparently rode up, kind of like a banked curve. Near the top somehow, the barbed wire caught my left arm (I still have the scars) and pulled it back and turned me a little further into the fence, which would have been okay except for the fence post.
Made of steel pipe.
Embedded in concrete.
That I hit with my front wheel.
That shot me out back into the middle of the road, where I landed on my right elbow and spun around on it, grinding it into the pavement until I finally stopped.
I came to, in the middle of the road, facing uphill, wrapped up in the bicycle, to the old German fellow yelling the old German equivalent of “You dang kids! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” as I tried to get up.
At the rate he was yelling, I didn’t think it would help me any to explain to him that I was in that situation precisely *because* I was watching where I was going.
There wasn’t much to do but let him rant. I was sure he was going to get mad at me for bleeding all over his nice road…
The last thing I’d been aware of was when the front wheel hit the dirt. I didn’t hear a crash, didn’t see the barbed wire tear at my left arm, didn’t feel myself land on my right arm, none of that. The people in the house behind the orchard heard the everything and came running out and brought us in – did some first aid on me on the kitchen table to do their best to stop the bleeding, and then my sister insisted we trade bikes, so she was riding the soldier’s bike, and I was riding Oma’s, and we slowly headed toward home. But very quickly realized I needed more first aid stuff to keep myself from bleeding more onto that fine gentleman’s road, so we stopped at a pharmacy and got some more bandages, disinfectant, and ointment and then continued riding.
We decided to stop at our aunt’s house, and she cleaned me up and we got me all bandaged up and everything (Somewhere I have a picture of me with those bandages, and with my prized Star Wars t-shirt on)
Then, only then, did we get home (which was right next door)
We walked our bikes up the driveway, past the kitchen window, called into Oma that we were back. We leaned the bikes up against the shed before heading inside.
Out of instinct I looked at my watch as we climbed those back steps where we’d said goodbye earlier.
It was exactly 10:30.
It got me thinking…
A lot, actually.
See, I wrote this story, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s not so much an actual ‘story’ with a defined beginning, middle, and end as it is the recalling of an event, and I was wondering what to do with it, and then found mom’s story, and the parallels of shared memories a generation apart just threw me.
And maybe, maybe that’s the story.
See, this set of steps that I climbed with my sister, after a bicycle ride that had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
…was the same set of steps my mom had climbed with her brother, after a bicycle ride, that had had led to some unplanned stops and adventures…
26 years earlier.
Both of us got there later than we’d originally expected.
And the bike I ended up riding after the crash, (Oma’s bike) was the same bike my mom had been riding in Switzerland.
26 years earlier.
I did a lot of thinking about this at the time, like why did I know we’d come back at 10:30? How did I know that? Was it a fluke? a coincidence? something completely random? (I honestly have no idea and still wonder)
But I remember going up those steps and looking at my watch as if it were yesterday.
As I was writing, I actually laughed when I realized mom’s and my back brakes were just as ineffective, for different reasons, and how our front brakes died in exactly the same way. Really, that’s not made up – that’s the way the brakes were, and I remember the “thwip” sound the rubber pad made as it shot out, and the vibration in the brake lever as that little metal holder dug into the tire.
And I thought of the little ‘aha’ moments that came from the two stories.
Sometimes, like my mom, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and make it around life’s twists and turns.
And, sometimes, like me, you go blasting ahead, hanging on for dear life, and crash and bleed all over things.
In both cases you run the risk of people yelling at you. :-)
But then I thought about my Uncle Walter – riding in front of mom, and his friend Wolfgang, riding behind her, and realized that Martin and our friend Wolfgang had done the exact same thing… showing us the way, protecting us, and giving us someone to follow when we needed a guide, and someone to warn us of danger we couldn’t see (burning brakes in mom’s case) or light our way when we couldn’t see the road at all (in my sister’s and my case).
And I realized we all have people like that in our lives… People who will do their best to protect us from danger
Even if that danger is us.
I thought about the trust of riding behind Martin…
How I went around the same corner two separate times – and strangely, the one time when I had to trust someone else to guide me, when I literally couldn’t see, and didn’t use brakes at all, I made it.
And the time when I could see, and trust myself, I crashed.
But that first time – I couldn’t see anything but Martin’s taillight. Making it around the corner was simple. Follow the light and I’d be good.
The next time, well, there were so many more things to consider, and not much time to consider them in. The paint shaker, the brakes, the parachute, the old man, the number of ‘what if’s’ flew by me so fast they became a blur, and I made the best decision I could at the time.
I just made it late.
And when you do stuff like that, I’ve realized the people around you will often fall into two camps:
There will be those who drop everything and help patch you up and get you home when things go bad, like the folks at the orchard, our aunt, my sister.
And then there are people who will yell at you while you bleed…
Part of life, I think, is knowing which people are which, and maybe having that parachute handy.
I know that in life, if I go down that hill in the dark, I don’t want to go down without a light to follow, and have learned to appreciate the “Martins” in my life for all the help they give, even – or especially when they don’t have a clue they’re giving it.
See, Martin couldn’t see me behind him in the dark, he had to watch where he was going, and while he was there specifically for me to follow him, couldn’t possibly have known how totally dependent I was on his light for guidance.
That made me wonder how many times I’ve unwittingly been the light for someone following me, and not known it…
Or is this just a story about a 16 year old kid doing something that 16 year old kids do, and let it go at that?
Sometimes it’s just chaos, and sometimes, as my son has said, it’s simply this: “Pop, you are living proof that it is better to be lucky than smart.”
I have a hunch at least part of this story falls into the last category.
Let me know what you think, folks – I’m curious.
Take care – and thanks –
Actually finding the location there on the map was a tremendous challenge for me, both in trying to figure it out and realizing that the memories we have of our own history fade over time. Somehow, in researching this, I actually got back in touch with Ulrike, and it was she who finally found it for me. I was able to see it through Google Earth, and how much the area had changed over the years.
I was able to actually find the T-intersection (more of a cursive T)
I then saw that the “house” (top center) was actually a “Jugend Farm” – a youth farm, where kids get a chance to see what living on a farm is like, and get to actually work and get their hands dirty. Interestingly enough, it had a Facebook page , so on a hunch, I sent them a message, and got in touch with Markus, who is the son in law of one of the fellows who’d been involved with it from the very beginning. And it was Markus who took the time to go out and take, and then send me the pictures of what the road looks like now. He stood right about at the intersection and looked up the hill to get this photo:
And then he mentioned that they’d replaced the fence a number of years ago, but turned from where he was in the above photo and took a picture of the new fence, in the same spot the old one had been:
I haven’t been back to Germany since that summer, and it’s clearly been a few years since this happened. I wanted to make sure my memory was still accurate, so sent Markus an early draft of this story. He confirmed much about it, and sent me a note with this little bit in it, which, somehow, brought tears to my eyes.
“The building is still there, we are renovating it at the moment. The table is still at the same position right next to the windows :).”