Wednesday, October 13, 2004

"Evel Knievel"

I have already mentioned my cousin in the story about the accident with the Austin Healy. As you might have gathered from that tale, he was an unconventional fellow that often managed to get himself into some rather unique, if not bewildering, situations.

In those days I had a Triumph Tiger motorcycle as my sole means of transportation. I had rescued the bike from being a fixture in some chicken coop, and was quite proud of the restoration job. This effort had inspired my cousin to buy himself a brand new Yamaha scrambler as his first vehicle.

The day he acquired the bike he showed up at our place. It was so new that he did not have time to remove the protective sheet of plastic covering the seat, but he was eager to go get some action, and he knew just where. There was this railroad bridge not too far away, with a long set of steps running down the side. It was the perfect spot to put his new bike through its paces.

Soon we were there, and I looked at the scene with trepidation. This staircase to heaven had three risers joined by two landings, and from our vantage it was looking quite steep. The only way one could pull this off was to do so in one shot.

There was no room for error, and no way I was even going to attempt this. My bike was not built for this kind of thing, anyway. I strongly cautioned him to think again, but like most humans he had an aversion to advice not asked for, and soon enough he was crawling up and down the staircase as if he was doing this kind of thing for a living.

His initial success was rapidly boosting his confidence, and he was busy goading me for being chicken when he spotted two gals walking on the bridge. Instantly his demeanor changed from being amicable and he became deadly serious.

He turned his bike around and roared off a few hundred yards. Perplexed, I was looking at the dust cloud he was leaving behind when I realized he was only getting ready for the run-up to his special trick, number 404. After a few seconds he was turning around and here he came, accelerating fast.

I gave him a wide berth, and the girls, realizing that they were about to witness an important event, had stopped at the top of the staircase and were watching the show.

Instead of approaching the problem slowly and deliberately as he had done before, I could hear him picking up speed and working the gears. Then miraculously, only a few feet from the staircase (he must have had a moment of doubt) I saw his brake light flicker. But too late – by now he was on the staircase and climbing.

Unlike his previous attempts when he kept the bike in first gear, this time he started his ascent in third. Alas, that was no good and the bike ran out of steam about halfway to the top. He was forced to downshift.

By the time he attempted to change gears, the bike was already going so slow that he was in danger of stalling. He only had a split second left. In his rush he tapped the gearshift, then immediately had to put his feet down to keep the bike upright. However, the shift was indecisive and he only succeeded in positioning the selector between third and second. Effectively the bike was now in neutral. Or, in reverse if you want.

There was no space to jump clear or turn around, and no time to attempt any number of other possibilities. Desperate to protect his brand new bike from damage, he got his right armpit over the banister and attempted to grab onto the supports. With his left hand on the handle bars and his body between the bike and the railing he was fighting feverishly to keep the bike from touching the metal.

Then he started to slide backwards. As the man and his machine were gathering speed towards the base of the staircase, his body was being folded in between the bike and the metal railing. All the while his ribcage was hitting the steel supports, making a sound not unlike a stick being pulled down an old fashioned washing board.

He did survive to get in even greater trouble later on in life, but for now he was in pain and that was all that mattered. The exhaust left a baseball-sized blister on his right knee (which healed relatively fast), but it took him several months to loose the technicolor bruises on his back and chest.

Somehow, he forgot all about the girls he wanted to impress, and he managed to restart his bike and take off. I did not see him for a week or so.

Did we learn from his misfortune? I wish I could say so, but we were young then and destined to learn the hard way.

Jan Tik


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