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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Biker Down!!!

In Pace Requiescat
Kawasaki Vulcan VN900LT

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

Despite the picture that television and the movies paint, rarely does anyone sense any anticipatory moments before serious events occur. That’s certainly been the pattern in my life. One moment you’re sailing along, immersed in the mundane things that seem to carry us through the day. Then instantly, it all goes sideways. Usually it is some kind of accident that happens, whether in or out of a vehicle. The suddenness and violence by which the event is thrust upon us leaves us dazed and confused.

I’ve certainly had my share of these events in my life and even when recalling them in their lurid detail, I still find myself wondering why I couldn’t get that anticipatory tap on the shoulder.

It was a new motorcycle, well, new to me anyway. I had been bike-less for the better part of two years, as we sorted through some tight financial times. And it was a thing of beauty. Long, low, sleek, just the right amount of chrome, it joined the long line of dream chariots which have shared my garage over the past 17 years. I remember the day we closed the sale and I joyfully rode the bike home from the dealership – taking the long way, of course. The throttle responded to my hand and the bike leaped ahead down the highway, flitting among the sun-dappled shadows. Consciously, I held back. I had never owned a cruiser-type before and I had yet to learn is traits and balance points. Nevertheless, my spirit soared as I rode, the bike’s voice, that guttural roar echoed back from the rocks and trees and spread in my wake, like a noisy contrail. After a couple of hours, I returned home, backing the machine into the garage. Almost reluctantly, I shut the engine down. In the resulting silence, I contemplated with quiet joy a new relationship begun.

For about a month, I rode often on open roads at high speeds and inching along city streets in heavy traffic. I was getting comfortable with the bike, although I would still have an occasional awkward moment. As far as I was concerned, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

It was a Monday. It had rained most of the weekend and, as happens here in the mountains, when the storms cleared out, they left an atmosphere cool and bracing. It would warm up in the afternoon, but as I stood in the garage that morning, I wavered between my summer and winter jackets. Both had armor inserts, but the summer one was made of a very breathable mesh. Shrugging, I decided on the winter coat, figuring that if it turned too warm, I could simply remove the liner. The ride into work was utterly uneventful. I parked the bike in my assigned space, removed my gear, packed it in my duffel bag and headed into work.

The day passed quickly and as the clocked ticked onto quitting time, I grabbed my gear and headed up the street towards the parking lot. Approaching my parking spot, I could see the bike from a distance, the chrome catching the sun’s rays just right. I began to feel that familiar quiet joy, the anticipation of the ride home. As is my custom, I took my time donning the gear. I put on my chaps, zipping up the legs. I had owned them almost since the beginning. They were cut from a very thick piece of leather, a thickness I had not seen in any set since. They were old and faded, but comfortable. I had left my boots at home that day. They were very heavy and carting them between the parking lot and the four blocks to work got to be just too much with everything else I was carrying. The jacket came next, going over a sweatshirt. Then came the helmet and the gloves. Finally, I swung my leg over, turned the key on and punched the starter. The fuel injected V-twin responded instantly with a gratifying rumble. Engaging the clutch, I rolled out of the lot into the street.

Johnstown is laid out in sympathy to the rivers that flow through its valley, so navigation can be confusing. I had the choice of taking the expressway out to US 219, a four-lane divided highway running south to Somerset. While it was a safe ride, it was a bit, well, boring. A better more invigorating option was Pennsylvania 985, a road that followed twisting valleys, among steep tree-covered hills and picturesque streams. While not Deal’s Gap, it was curvy enough to be interesting. I opted for that route home. I headed east out of downtown, turning onto Franklin Street. Now, I had a choice here. I could turn onto Valley Pike and head out through Ferndale, or I could stay on Franklin, passing through Roxbury. The problem with this choice was a stretch of Franklin that passed in front of the hospital.

Memorial Hospital, like so many other structures in Johnstown, is stuck to the side of a hill. Franklin snakes through a narrow gap with the Hospital on one side and a plethora of Medical buildings and banks on the other. As a result, the traffic is always heavy and slow, spiced by the additional challenge of pedestrians sprinting across the street, threading themselves between the cars. But it was late, almost 6:30 p.m. and I figured the traffic would be thinned out by now. So I made the fateful decision, gliding through the Valley Pike intersection and heading up the gentle hill. I was going slow, perhaps 30 miles per hour. To my left, I could see a car exiting a parking garage. It had stopped, but as I got closer, it lurched forward, as if it was going to try to get into the narrow space between me and the vehicle in front.

Now, in all safety courses, they drill into you the necessity of continually scanning, especially in traffic. If you lock your eyes in one direction too long, you can miss a dangerous development in another. In warily eyeing the threat to my left, I waited too long to look to the front. When I finally did, I saw immediately that the vehicle had rolled to a stop. He apparently had used gravity to stop and the engine to hold the vehicle on the grade, because his taillights were not lit. I applied the front brake, while my right foot searched in vain for the rear brake pedal. The front wheel locked up and the bike began to skid. After about a second and a half, I realized that (1) the bike wasn’t slowing down, and (2) I was about to eat some tailgate. I knew that I had to lay it down. As we started to go down, I realized I had misjudged the bike’s center of balance. As a result, instead of a controlled slide, I slammed down hard on my left side. Acting on instinct, I kicked clear of the bike. In the next moment, I was on my hands and knees, my breath thoroughly knocked out of me, and my ribs in serious pain.

One of the few nice things about this incident was the location. Within seconds, I had two doctors by my side. They gently laid me down and I began to take stock of things. I had good sensation in all my extremities, and I didn’t feel pain anywhere else besides my ribs. My ability to breathe was returning and I felt like I was in pretty good shape, all things considered. Eventually, the first responders arrived and despite the proximity to the ER entrance, they insisted on moving me in an ambulance, a 200-foot ride that would cost close to $600. Once inside, treatment was immediate and professional. After the spinal assessment (which seemed to take an unconscionable amount of time), they finally with great care removed my helmet, chaps and jacket. I was relieved (it was VERY warm in there). Eventually, I was able to get word to my wife who made the 30-mile drive up from Somerset to join me in the ER. I could tell she was upset, but she hid it pretty well, favoring me with that classic look wives save for the husbands for those times when we do something extremely stupid.

Eventually, we left the hospital and went home, a very painful journey for me. The diagnosis was two cracked ribs and a severely sprained right hand (I guess I forgot to let go of the handgrip). The good news is that my gear functioned as advertised. Road Rash, the dreaded bane of bikers, had been warded off by the rugged design of jacket and chaps. The leathers were shredded, however, as was the jacket sleeves and gloves. My helmet had a sizeable rash on the left side. I contemplated with relief the damage I would have had if I hadn’t worn the gear.

Progressive, as always, was prompt and fair in their response. I heard from the adjuster the day after the accident. The bike was severely damaged. Among the items, bent forks, broken steering stops, dented gas tank, dented headlight, missing mirrors and turn signals, cracked windshield, bent highway bars, broken clutch lever, rashed-up saddlebags...of course, he had to total the bike. Fortunately, the settlement was enough to pay off the loan.

I stayed home for four days. The doctor had given me hydrocodone for the pain, but having a healthy respect for the dangers of opiates, I used Aleve and ibuprophen to hold the line. It was a hard four days. I couldn’t lay flat, so we piled up every pillow we could find, leaving me in a semi-reclined position. Getting in and out of bed was a 10- to 15-minute ordeal, so trips to the bathroom had to be planned with great care. But gradually, the pain began to ease and after a week and a half, my mobility was returning. I would still endure pain for a month, but that too began to fade and life began slowly returning to normal.

Cheryl endured this with the stoicism learned in 31 years of marriage, and once again I learned the value of a wife’s love. I will always remember that moment when she arrived at the hospital and slid through the curtain of the treatment room. Despite the look on her face, the fear I had been feeling vanished when she appeared. My kids were somewhat less sanguine. This was my third accident in 17 years and they all thought I should re-think this whole riding thing. But I know that I could no more quit riding than I could quit breathing. Plus, as I told them, I’d been in 6 car accidents in that same span of time and I still drove.

After a week or so of reviewing the events of that evening through my mind, I was bothered. In 17 years, I had executed numerous emergency stops, all without incident. Even given my unfamiliarity with that bike, I should have been able to bring the bike to a controlled stop from 30 mph without having to dump it. On my first day back to work, I drove down that stretch of Franklin, looking carefully for my skid marks. I found my answer.

Running down the middle of a traffic lane is a strip I call “the grease pit.” Especially on a stretch of road where traffic is heavy and slow, oils and other fluids drip from engines and transmissions, coating that center part of the lane. Bikers always need to be aware of that. My skid mark started right smack dab in the middle of the lane. This was why the front wheel had locked up and why the bike had skidded as long as it had. Had I been in my normal position, in the left-hand wheel rut, I could have stopped the bike safely.

We can all learn from adversity, and the lessons from this particular incident are clear:

  • If there is an alternative to a heavy traffic area, take it.
  • Keep the bike out of the grease pit part of the traffic lane.
  • And don’t ever let your vision get locked in one quadrant at the expense of all the others.

I’m healing up nicely these days, and I’m already combing the ads for my next ride. As I mount up and once again hit the road, it will be as a smarter rider and a much wiser man.

As it should always be.
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