Friday, February 1, 2013
We never learned his name, but the Kid would be hard to forget.
I was ten when the Kid appeared. Summer break had just begun, and all the neighborhood boys my age were gathered at the corner of our block. The Kid coasted up on an old bicycle that instantly told us he didn’t belong in our gang, but he asked me anyway, “Can I jump?” I was standing astride my new metallic gold Schwinn Stingray. My buddy Matt was making a final adjustment to the ramp we had just set up a short distance down the sidewalk.
The Kid was taller than any of us, and skinny, but he didn't look much older than we were. None of us knew who he was, or where he came from, but that didn't stop him from riding right up and asking that question, “Can I jump?”
“On that bike?” I asked.
“Sure, why not?” he answered.
Matt walked back from the ramp. “It’s ready,” he said. The ramp consisted of a plywood board leaned up against an assortment of bricks and cinder blocks collected from a nearby alley.
All my friends and I rode Schwinn Stingray bicycles that summer with banana seats and ape-hanger handlebars. We reveled in the thought that we rode the coolest bikes around, except for Brad. Brad had a Huffy. We pretended not to notice, but we were all very aware that Brad had a Huffy. The Kid’s bike was different from all of ours though. It didn’t even try to look like a Stingray the way that Brad’s Huffy tried. It was a taller bike, like an adult would ride. “You can jump if you want to,” I said.
Jumping was the reason we were there. Every week we set up the makeshift ramp and took turns riding our bikes over it. We jumped high over imaginary obstacles to the dismay of elderly neighbors who peered at us through foggy windows in the fall, and over neatly trimmed hedges in the spring and summer. “Someday we’ll jump over a car,” Matt would declare.
“Two cars!” one of us would add. This is what young boys did back in the daredevil days of Evel Knievel.
Without a word I pedaled toward the ramp to show the Kid how it was done. I quickly sped up to a pace that would launch me nearly two feet off the ground, and shoot me two yards down the sidewalk. An impressive jump by neighborhood standards.
Just before hitting the ramp I stood up on my pedals, and held tight to the handle grips. As I flew off the end of the plywood board I leaned forward just enough to keep the bike level with the ground, and braced for the landing. Then, as the imaginary crowd cheered, I slammed on the brake and did my signature half turn skid before circling back to the corner.
As I pedaled up to the gang I saw the Kid riding away. “Scared?” someone taunted.
“I wouldn’t jump that bike either!” sneered another voice.
The Kid rode across the street and up the hill to the next corner. Then he turned around and stopped. Even though the Kid was tall, his bike was too big for him. He stood there looking down at us with one foot on the ground, and his bike leaning way too far over to look comfortable. I didn’t really know what to make of him. But I do know if it hadn’t been for what he did next, that image of him up there on the hill would have faded from my memory long ago.
With a hard shove off the ground the Kid was suddenly back up on his bike, and peddling toward us. He accelerated faster and faster down the hill. As he neared the intersection his intent became clear. We scattered out of the way. Matt ran into the middle of the street and yelled, “No cars!” to let the Kid know that the coast was clear. With no curbs to watch out for in the neighborhood the Kid flew across the street and was now back on our block speeding toward the ramp.
“Oh no!” we must have all thought at the same time. Who would run to get his parents? We didn’t even know where he lived. I always hated running to adults for help. The last time I had to do it was when Kenny jumped into the telephone pole hole.
One Friday afternoon the phone company drilled a hole for a new telephone pole, and set an orange cone next to it to warn people away during the weekend. Well by Sunday Kenny just couldn’t resist any longer. He walked up to the edge of the hole and jumped in. Three of us witnessed the event. It looked like someone jumping into a swimming pool, except there wasn’t a splash when Kenny submerged himself into the earth. There was just a thump and grunt as he instantly disappeared up to his arm pits.
The next thing we heard was our own laughter followed by Kenny’s frantic screaming. “Get my mom!” he yelled. Not wanting to face Kenny’s mom, we pulled on his arms. We couldn’t budge him. “I can’t breathe,” he cried. Tears began streaming down his now bright red face. His house was four blocks away, so I ran and pounded on the nearest door for help. After I managed to spit out the details of Kenny’s stunt to Mrs. Olsen, she went back inside and made the necessary phone calls. A policeman came. A fire truck came. Kenny’s mom came. Half the neighborhood came to watch them dig Kenny out of the hole. We called him Kenny the Cork for a long time after that.
The Kid was going way too fast. All of us knew it, but it was too late to stop him. He’ll swerve around the ramp I thought. He’d be crazy not to. But he stayed in the middle of the sidewalk peddling harder and harder as the ramp got closer. We should have all been yelling at him to stop, but we just stood there speechless. I heard his tires hit the ramp, and I saw the board flex and bounce up as the Kid went airborne.
I don’t think any of us could believe what we were seeing. Not even Matt would dare to hit the ramp at full speed, let alone with the gravity of that hill pushing behind him. Why would the Kid do something so stupid?
When I was nine I met a bunch of strange boys who were rolling a big culvert pipe down our street. They said they were headed to the park to push it off the big hill. It sounded like a cool idea, so I tagged along. Then as we all stood at the top of the hill someone came up with a second cool idea. “I’ll do it!” I quickly said. For reasons I can’t explain I had just volunteered to ride inside the tube.
Moments later there I was, inside the thing. “Ready?” they yelled.
“Ready!” I yelled back. As soon as the boys started pushing I knew I’d made a mistake, but I couldn’t take it back. My head slammed against the inside of the pipe repeatedly as I bounced and rolled like a cat in a tumble dryer all the way to the bottom. The boys stood whooping and laughing at the top of the hill. When everything finally stopped spinning, I crawled out of the tube, and threw up in the grass.
Frozen with fear, we just stood there staring slack-jawed as the Kid soared high into the air. “Lean forward!” I willed, but he didn’t lean forward. In fact he seemed to be pulling back on the handlebars. The entire gang watched in horror. Evel Knievel’s infamous Caesars Palace jump replayed in my mind. “Someday we’ll jump over a car,” a voice inside my head whispered. “Two cars!” a second voice added.
The Kid would easily fly high enough to clear two cars on that day, but he was turning upside down now. He looked like he might even do a full back flip, but he had no landing ramp. Evel Knievel always had a landing ramp, but Evel never tried to do a back flip. If holding our collective breath could have helped the Kid complete the flip and land on his wheels, then he certainly would have landed on his wheels. He would have completed the greatest stunt a kid could have ever dreamed of pulling off. But nothing we did now could alter the chain of events that was about to occur.
At the peak of his jump the Kid abandoned the bike. Still tumbling backwards, he twisted and turned, desperately searching for the ground below. If he caught a glimpse of the ramp, it must have seemed very far away.
Nothing but concrete awaited the Kid now, like tarmac awaiting a crippled airplane descending for an emergency landing. But instead of firemen and medics, only a bunch of ten year old boys were standing by.
When the silence was finally broken there was yelling, and crying, and panic. I tried to run to the nearest adult for help, but the door flew open before I could even reach the porch. Mr. Harris bolted past me toward the Kid, with Mrs. Harris chasing behind. “Call an ambulance!” he yelled, and she ran back inside the house.
Mr. Harris tried to comfort the Kid as he lay in a heap in the middle of the sidewalk. Jenny Harris brought her dad a towel that he used to soak up the blood from the Kid’s face, and arms, and chest. Mrs. Harris yelled from the porch that an ambulance was on the way. Moments later she came running across the yard holding a green wool army blanket. They carefully lifted the Kid off the sidewalk and set him on the blanket in the grass. Mrs. Harris took Jenny back inside the house, leaving Mr. Harris alone with the Kid.
Some of the gang fled, but most of us remained in a wide semi-circle around the scene. The circle soon filled with onlookers from nearby homes, some muttering, “This was bound to happen eventually,” and others nodding in agreement. A siren could be heard in the distance.
Some of the gang’s parents started showing up. Brad’s dad came running over from across the street. He went straight to helping Mr. Harris tend to the Kid. He knelt down and assured the Kid that everything would be okay. “You’re going to be fine,” he said, “Just try not to move.” Matt’s Mom walked up and took him home. A couple other parents did likewise.
Soon the siren’s promise of help arrived. Two men in white uniforms quickly took over the Kid’s care. They asked him some questions and thoroughly looked him over from head to toe. Next they wrapped him in gauze, one damaged section at a time until there wasn’t much left of the Kid to see. Then they carefully loaded him into the ambulance, and shut the doors.
I was standing astride my new metallic gold Schwinn Stingray when they drove the Kid away. As he disappeared around the corner I pedaled up the hill to where his daredevil ride began. I turned around and stopped where the he had stopped. I watched Mr. Harris wash the blood off the sidewalk. I watched Brad’s dad dismantle the ramp, and discard its various parts. Only the crumpled bike remained as evidence of what we had witnessed.
Although we were told to keep our wheels on the ground after that, we were soon building other ramps on other sidewalks, and vowing to jump over a growing list of vehicles. To the best of my recollection, the Kid was never seen in the neighborhood again.