Standing on Pringle Street near Kettner Boulevard, looking up a precipitous grade of snaking asphalt, I tried to imagine Freddie Hafner's thoughts - aged 41 — one second before his death. Dressed in purple mesh tank top, gray cut-off jeans, brand XJ900 purple-and-white tennis shoes, music pumping through earphones into brain, Freddie blisters like a blur of blue on his bicycle. Then a truck. At 45 miles an hour, Freddie swerves, loses control -bam! - hits a curb, flies 35 feet. Freddie dies, impaled, chest first, on a fire hydrant.
That such a death occurred two blocks from my apartment - as I sat, listening to soft rock and sipping a diet Dr. Pepper, blissfully contemplating a next day's adventures - bothered me. Standing on Pringle Street beside the hydrant, I felt like an ant: a hundred different times, I thought, it could've been me.
For my seventh birthday, Dad gave me my first bicycle - an ugly, orange-painted hunk of iron and rust (dented fenders, balloon tires, tattered seat) that he'd bought for five bucks.
Dad put me on the seat — feet dangling above pedals - and (for whatever was goin' through his mind) sent me on my first ride.
And first crash.
"Guess you have to wait to grow into it," he said. While waiting to do that, I first removed the fenders, eventually sanded off the orange and rust, got around to painting the bared metal luminous black, and - for the cherry - replaced the seat. In two years, I had a decent bike - Yo! - an indestructible bike. Flying off dirt jumps and concrete curbs, tumbling down the sides of steep hills (showing off), once hitting a car head on (sailing over hood 'n' roof 'n' bouncing off the trunk) -me and The Bike were seemingly impervious to hurt.
Then puberty pounced, and it was a time to be cool.
Stupidly (as soon I would see) I sold The Bike. I purchased in its place (on layaway, ten bucks a month) a $60 Western Flyer from Chuck's Hardware: a metallic-red, lever-operated, 3-speed racer - the ''rad'' of its day.
It lasted one week.
Big dumb sister wanted to take it for a spin. Never figured she didn't understand hand brakes. *'I can't stop!"
Seconds after sister disappeared over the hill, I heard the crash. Wisely, she'd taken her chances against a stopped pickup truck (instead of continuing down the long, steep road) and came out slightly bruised, scratched, and hyperventilating. But my new bike - it was totaled.
I didn't buy a bicycle again for almost ten years. By then, I was a Vietnam veteran, bored and unhappy, estranged in a surreal world of make-love-not-war phoniness. I tried all the typical thrills, but after Kill Or Be Killed, it was hard to get a rush. One day, meandering on an aimless stroll, I happened to peek inside a Goodyear tire store that sold bicycles on the side. Walking in with a checkbook, I rode out, wobbling, on a bright-brown Tour de France 10-speed. Learning to shift into multiple-gear ratios (while steering and pedaling) took a day or two; yet, I had rediscovered something wonderful and, for the times, unusual. (In 1972, kids and grad students rode bicycles; politically correct transportation was Barefoot Express or hand-painted Volkswagen minibuses.)
Up and down the high hills of my college town, I found liberation from the mundane existence of normal breathing. I pumped up the tallest, biggest hills in timed sprints, then circled at the top, like a hawk, until I’d caught my breath. The steep streets were perfectly paved, smooth and rockless, serpentine chutes down endlessly convoluted slopes. ’Cept for sneakers, shortest cut-off jeans, and battle-dressing wrapped 'round my brow - I was naked. Full strength back, I'd shoot the hill. Legs a blur of motion, back arched, I felt omnipotence surging from my heart. At 40 mph I'd take the middle of the road and slalom (using quick, rhythmic shifts of weight and angle) between tightly spaced yellow dashes.
Then again, the sprint: goal always to just hit 50 mph; any faster, the bike would go into rapid wobble, at which point, the tiniest pebble could cause the bicycle (and me) to self-destruct. My addiction to risk was pure: a fix of ultimate speed -and I was living. Cars puttering 5 over the 25 miles-per-hour speed limit were like turtles around which, at the last second, I'd zip. I was immortal. Even when I wrecked.
I'd just sprinted to the top of a half-mile of hill and was circling, sweat funneling down my back's groove, thighs swollen, battle-dressing soaked. I hit it. Pick up full speed. Pass two cars. Suddenly my bike freezes - I stop pumping - then begins to wobble. Can't brake; everything'll flip. S-curve and bottom of hill getting close; there, a stop sign - and crossing highway of barreling cars and trucks. Hands touch brakes, three quick squeezes, then full. Deceleration barely perceptible - cycle careens into the leftward curve, slides, hits the curb - and I fly. Naked and wingless, weightlessly somersaulting through hot air, I hit and roll across the back of my shoulders, ricocheting into the air, and land backwards on both feet, smack in the middle of a Union 76 station.
"Nice flip!" yells a kid in a pack of kids.
Without pause, I race to my bicycle.
"Lucky ya didn't kill y'rself," utters an old man, pumping gas into a motorhome.
Defying likelihood and expectation, my bicycle was structurally intact - a little scratched paint, slightly bent back rim - and completely rideable.
I crossed the busy highway and headed up the next hill. As cars passed me by, I noticed their passengers twisting around to look at me. I could feel sweat pouring down my back and into my cutoffs. Too much sweat. I reached back and touched the wetness. When I brought my hand back, it was covered with blood. Damn! I scraped my back off.