Monday, July 18, 2005

Childhood Recollection

Cleveland Hill peaked out at over 2000 feet above sea level. At least half was mostly covered by woods, lined here and there by residential streets that ran perpendicular off Cleveland street, which went from the populous summit to the base, straight down at a grade of steepness that frightened out-of-towners. A foreign family once got so scared they braked their Volkswagen beetle to a snail’s pace and crawled down the hill as it cut through the woods, their terrified faces staring forward as the street disappeared in front of them, like the track of an enormous rollercoaster. I had been going the other way, pushing the weight of my jet-black BMX bicycle up the hill from my friend Kenny Lieber’s house on Kenwood (?) avenue near the bottom to my house on Gray avenue near the top. Both Kenwood and Gray were dirt roads. They deserved the designation “avenue” simply because they ran East to West (?), the sort of logic Fayetteville, Arkansas city planners applied when they sent Cleveland street plummeting straight down instead of a winding spiral, as one sees coiling around an ancient ziggurat such as the tower of Babel.

The long journey up the left-hand side of Cleveland Hill – pushing my heavy bicycle as I walked – was an almost daily chore between the ages 9 and 11. All but one of my friends – Andy Boyd, Brian Quirk, Alison Danforth and Kenny- lived at the bottom of the hill and the other – Ben Tweraser - lived on another, older side of town near Wilson park in a stone house, on a different hill, in a different universe.

About a year after I got my bike – which probably made me ten – I installed a speedometer on the handlebar, with the black cable extending tautly to the hub of the front wheel. This was the late seventies, so the face of the speedometer looked a bit like a clock with a white needle that moved in a semicircle past a series of numbers the faster the bike went. Near the bottom was the odometer - a row of numbers that measured how far the bike had traveled since the meter had been installed.

Knowing how fast I could race down the hill was a fascinating concept, and the basis for bragging rights at Leverette Elementary School, poised as it was, at the summit. Without backpedaling on the footbrake, the white needle could pass thirty miles per hour just before the turn to Kenwood street would require me to brake, some 30 to forty feet before the turnoff. On a straight run to Andy’s house all the way at the bottom where Cleveland street met Sang Avenue, I could approach 40, where the numbers on the speedometer came to an end. I couldn’t help but wonder if the needle could move past 40. There was nothing, as far as I could tell, to stop it.

It was the morning of a summer day – either ’77 or ‘78 that I headed out for Kenny’s. I ate either a bowl of Post Fortified Oat Flakes or Post Toasties (corn flakes) with my trademark three teaspoons of brown sugar, got dressed, went down the steps to the garage to my bike. Our driveway was itself a miniature version of Cleveland street as it headed down to Gray avenue, flanked by two enormous pine trees, both upwards of thirty feet high. I glided down the paved surface and made a crunching sound as I veered right onto the pink river of dust and limestone that was Gray avenue. To my right I passed the Sullivan House, where there had once been an orchard of apple and cherry trees. Then to the left was the house where Brian Quirk and his family had lived before they moved to the bottom of the hill. Now there lived a wealthy eccentric from out-of-town who had expanded the house adding among other things a waterfall in the backyard. That brought me to the corner where Gray met Cleveland.

I stopped my bike, checked for cars, and pedaled forward, then turned left onto asphalt and headed down the enormous hill. By the time I passed tiny Ashwood avenue to my right, the speedometer was up to twenty. How fast could I go if I pedaled? Is it be possible to pedal while going down hill? I gave it a try. My feet spun round the axle. I tried again in attempt to match the momentum of the bike. The pedals spun incredibly fast. My feet pedaled faster than they ever had, but I found that they could match the bike’s momentum and even pass a threshold where they were no longer being spun by the force of the wheel, but actually add to its speed. My legs moved like the six million dollar man’s. My hair was blown back. The trees were a blur. I glanced at the speedometer. Yes! The needle had moved beyond forty! I was superman! There were no limits to my power.

At that instant I noticed that I had passed the spot where I normally needed to brake and the turn to Kenwood was right there, in front of me. Who needs brakes? I turned the handlebars at full speed, somehow imagining I would race like a rocket around the curve and bolt invisibly up the street, zooming round the cul-de-sac and – like the starship Enterprise – slingshot my way back to Kenny’s house. But that’s not what happened.

I turned the front wheel to the left, but the bike didn’t move to the left. Instead, the wheel snapped completely sideways, perpendicular to the bike’s frame, forming a T. The wheel stopped turning and planted itself, transferring all forward motion backward. The rest of the bike, and me with it, catapulted upward. I sailed through the air – just like superman - leaving my vehicle behind. But then I stopped. My head rammed into the curb on the opposite side of the street. It was the strangest sensation I have ever felt. My skull bounced. It soaked up the curve of the manmade rock formation. I could feel in bend in - and for a split second wrap around – and then spring back, once again sending me into the air. The thought came to me that how nice it was to have such an excellent skull with the ability to bounce, like a rubber helmet. I flipped around in the air and came down again, head first to the gravel of the road.

I was a bit stunned. But I got to my feet, noticing my bicycle next to me. I felt happy, powerful and lucky to have had this amazing experience. I staggered to Kenny’s front door and rang the bell.