Friday, June 27, 2014

Rocket Man

When I was a kid, our neighborhood consisted of a straight street that dead-ended in front of our house.  Across the street, acres of impenetrable woods faced us and we only had neighbors on one side of our house.  A dirt field was on the other side of the house.  For the real estate market, impenetrable woods and a dirt field don’t add up to a great place to live.  For a pack of prepubescent boys, we lived in Shangri-la. 

We three Towles boys played with a group of Irish kids, and we seemed to always get into some kind of mess.  Whether we were building underground forts or making large lakes from small streams or setting the woods on fire, our lives were filled with adventure and danger and risk, lots of risk. 

We, the Towleses and the McSweeneys, tried to push the limits of our daring, often resulting in injuries, minor and not-so-minor.  For instance, the time Anthony McSweeney fell out of a tree, we thought he was dead at first.   Then, he moaned, “I’m paralyzed,” and we all figured he was ok.  (He was swinging from one tree to the other when he fell, so we thought it was pretty funny, too).  Just multiply that near-death experience by about a hundred, and you can guess the kind of danger and daring we lived through. 

For the most part, we could rely on our parents to tell us when someone was going to get hurt, and to steer us in the other direction.  Often we didn’t obey those directions, but we could at least rely on them for a “safety compass” before we did something really stupid.  Our parents were the voices of reason, offering the drumbeat of sanity in our daredevil world. 

Except for the time Dad “fixed” Joe’s chain on his bicycle, our parents represented a safety in our dangerous lives.  Back when I was limited to the bicycle as my main method of locomotion, Dad was the “go-to” guy for any fixes or adjustments I needed to make on my wheels.  He seemed to know it all when it came to bicycle maintenance, from adjusting the seat to fixing a flat tire.  Until Joe’s “chain incident,” we were all pretty confident in his abilities.  Even the McSweeney boys talked about my Dad’s mechanical acumen, and they sometimes went to him for help. 

Until that fateful day, that is.  My older brother, Joe, needed some adjustment on his bicycle.  The chain kept falling off, and he couldn’t use his brakes.  With the chain off, Joe’s bike was a land missile, a speeding projectile without hope of stopping.  So Joe did what any of us would have done:  he took his bike to Dad. 

Joe walked his bike up to Dad, and confidently said, “Chain won’t stay on.  Can you fix it?”

Just as confidently, Dad took the bike from Joe, turned it over, and began work.  Within ten minutes, the chain had been adjusted, oiled, and put back on its tracks. Dad turned the pedals and the bike looked good as new. 

Joe said a quick, “Thanks,” and hopped on his bike, ready to continue the day of daring we had planned. 

Our house stood on the top of a hill, and our front yard sloped down to the street. Midway through his trip down the gravel driveway, however, danger came before Joe had planned for it.

As he went down the driveway, Joe hit a bump and his chain fell off.  Instead of being slowed down by the bumps in its path, Joe’s bike seemed to pick up speed with every hill he rode over.   By the time Joe hit the street at the bottom of the driveway, I believe he was going 732 miles an hour. 

The McSweeney boys and I had been waiting in our front yard for the bike to be fixed, so we were really surprised when the flash of Joe’s humanity passed us—and Joe was in a hurry.  We looked to see where he was going, but we only saw the impenetrable woods, and Joe pierced its darkness still riding his rocket bike. 

At first, I thought we’d never get Joe out of the impenetrable woods, mainly because it was, well, impenetrable.  We ran down the hill, though, and stopped at a four-foot, Joe-shaped hole that had burrowed through the forest.  It was like a cartoon hole that Bugs Bunny often makes when he goes through a wall or something.  Only this wasn’t a cartoon and Joe was a hundred yards into the woods with only his bike as protection. 

There were two reasons the woods were so impenetrable:  vines and thorns.  You couldn’t walk three steps without encountering one, or both, of these obstacles, but Joe’s speed overcame all.  By the time we had recovered from the shock, Dad had run down the hill and had entered the woods.  A few minutes later, Dad came out of the woods with the bike, and Joe staggered out right behind him. 

Miraculously, nothing was broken, except our undying faith in Dad’s mechanical ability.  Sure, we still trusted Dad to fix our bikes and everything, but I don’t think any of us tested him by riding down the driveway.  In Dad’s defense, I really don’t think he made a mistake when he fixed Joe’s bike.  The uneven gravel driveway pretty much flung that chain off its track, and I believe it would have happened if Joe were riding a brand-new bike. 

Dad’s reaction to the accident is the main thing I remember.   He flung the bike at the bottom of the hill, and walked Joe up to the house.  We followed them up to the door, but Dad asked the McSweeney boys to go home.  Then, we noticed Joe’s chest, arms, and back were filled with tiny briars.  All over his body, Joe was scraped, pierced and stung with the briars and sticks he’d encountered in the woods. 

For the next few hours, Dad, with tweezers in hand, picked and pulled briars out of Joe’s body.  It was pretty terrible for Joe, who had these hours of pain, but it was also pretty bad for Dad, too.  It’s tough enough trying to protect kids from their pain without being the inadvertent cause of it.

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