Norman Rapp’s dad saved my life that day.
Maybe I better explain.
An article on MSNBC.com discussed how kids raised in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s are survivors. We survived chain-smoking adults, meat-and-potato diets and rough-and-tumble fearlessness of every kind.
It was the Evel Knievel era, after all. Knievel became famous doing wheelies and jumping his motorcycle over cars and buses. Every kid with a bicycle sought to emulate him.
We built ramps from warped plywood and set them on rickety blocks. We took our bikes to the top of Marilynn Drive — a hill so steep it may as well have been a cliff — and roared down it, made a left onto Janet Drive, then kept pedaling until liftoff.
It was a grand feeling to soar through the air – it was grand to experience a tremendous surge of adrenalin — though our landings weren’t often pretty.
This w as the early ’70s, after all. We didn’t wear helmets or pads. When our rear wheels hit the pavement, we wiped out plenty — we got hurt plenty, too.
The average kid then was covered with scrapes and bruises. When a landing went really wrong — when a kid went down especially hard — a mom would arrive, the moaning kid would be loaded inside a wood-paneled station wagon and off he’d go to St. Clair Hospital for stitches or a cast.
Which brings us to the day I could have died.
I was riding a five-speed Murray Spyder bike that year. My fifth gear allowed me superior speed and, thus, superior distance off the ramp. I held the neighborhood record for the longest jump — until some outsider broke it.
I wasted no time reclaiming my record. I rode to the tippy-top of Marilynn Drive. I started off in first and, pedaling like mad, pounded through the gears all the way through fifth.
I was moving faster than ever when I cut a hard left and continued on Janet. I pedaled faster and harder — the wind whipping through my David Cassidy hair – as I pointed my bike toward the center of the ramp.
A dozen kids stood on the left side of the road — some cheering for me, some against — while two others stood near the ramp to mark the spot where I would land.
Suddenly, as my front tire hit the ramp, everything went into slow motion. The jolt was spectacular. It caused my sweaty fingers to lose hold of the handlebars.
I remember floating through the air like a directionless missile – my arms flailing as my body sought to regain its balance.
I remember the tremendous impact that shot through my spine as the rear wheel hit the pavement — how my bike began wobbling wildly.
I was heading for a big, wooden telephone pole. I leaned left, then right, and, miraculously, avoided the splintery pole.
The worst was yet ahead. I was roaring toward a thicket of pine trees. Their trunks and branches would surely turn me into kid stew.
Then Providence intervened. His name was Norman Rapp’s dad.
Mr. Rapp, a welder, had built a giant street-hockey net. Norman stored it in the pine trees where I was headed. The net caught me like a glove. I didn’t suffer a scratch.
A doctor in the MSNBC.com article says that most kids of my era survived their childhood just fine. However, some were badly hurt or worse. A helmet could have saved them. I certainly wear a helmet now when I ride.
But it’s also true that whereas kids were once free to roam and explore – free to experience “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” — many of today’s kids aren’t free to do anything.
I regained my bike-jump record that day. I’m confident it will stand.
Even if a kid were daring enough to rig up a ramp and jump his bike now, he’d still be covered in more protective gear than a Transformer.
There’s no way a kid carrying that much weight will ever fly as far as I did the day I could have died.