Leaving House and home

December 2, 2014 § 30 Comments

When I saw the big yellow Penske moving van with the tan pickup hitched up behind it, I almost shed a tear. After two years of threats, Brad House has moved to Texas. Do the poor Texans have any idea what they’re in for? Do they remember Radical Reconstruction?

Few people have made a bigger impact on cycling in the South Bay than Brad. Whether it was the bright orange catmuffs he began wearing a couple of years ago, items that make an already ridiculous looking sport even sillier, whether it was his cycling shorts whose rear panels had expired in 2002, whether it was his “all the guns, all the time” right wing views that made the NRA look soft on the 2nd Amendment, or whether it was his random habit of opening his mouth and jamming it full with both feet, Brad was a force that none could ignore.

In addition to his uncanny ability to say the exactly wrong thing at the perfectly wrong time, though, Brad has made the South Bay an exponentially better place to ride for hundreds, if not thousands of cyclists. Foremost among his contributions was his advocacy. Cyclists, as everyone knows, are whiny little bitches. They will complain about their two free team kits, their 25% shop discount, and their “free but turn in at the end of the season” team bike for hours upon endless hours. Just try getting your average wanker to show up at a city council meeting and advocate for something cycling related, though. Ain’t ever gonna happen.

Unless your name is Brad House.

The same energy with which Brad broadcasts batshit crazy political views that will make Texas seem like a moderate-liberal enclave is the same energy he brought to council meetings in the South Bay. Brad always found time, always made time, to advocate for cyclists’ rights. And he invariably articulated his position thoughtfully, persuasively, and intelligently — so much so that the suit-and-ties on the city council had no clue they were dealing with a cannonball that was looser than a $5 hooker.

Brad is the first cyclist I ever met who refused to back down to bullying cagers. He didn’t simply control the lane, he controlled the very oxygen in the street. He was the first person I ever rode with who took his rightful place smack in the middle of the lane and refused to be bullied out of it. One time on the Donut a cager with a latte honked at him to get out of the way at a stop light. She is probably still getting the dents out of her hood.

In contrast to his aggressive defense of his right to ride in the road, I never heard Brad talk shit about anyone, ever, and it’s not only because he loved to talk about himself. It’s also because, beneath all the flibber-flabber and blibber-blabber, he saw himself as a kind of Pied Piper for new cyclists. Although they’re ashamed to admit it now because their mentor wears those orange catmuffs, hundreds of people in the South Bay got hooked on cycling, and improved as cyclists thanks to the friendship and encouragement of Brad House.

Nor were Brad’s contributions limited to advocacy and raunchy tales in mixed company that would make a porn star blush. Every race promoter in Southern California owes a debt to Brad, who promoted races here for decades. Whether it was the San Pedro Grand Prix, one of the best and most challenging race courses ever, the annual drag race held out at LAX on Westchester Parkway, the countless hill climbs in PV, or cyclocross races, Brad invested the time and passion and legendary cheapness that is required to put on a bike race.

Yet for all his cheapness, he was a generous guy. I remember five years ago at Woodland Hills I was bonking before a race. “Brad,” I said, “got any food?”

“I think I got a candy bar somewhere,” he said. We went back to his pickup and he rummaged around on the floor in the back seat for a few minutes, stirring up more dust and trash and filth than you would think could be contained in such a small vehicle. “Here!” he triumphantly called, holding up an opened package with a half-eaten Clif Bar in it. The expiration date said something on it about the Jurassic.

But no candy bar ever tasted better, and on the fuel generously supplied by Brad I went on to finish 72nd and didn’t fall off my bike.

Despite his welcoming mien to beginners and his extremely sketchy bike skills and his wildly flapping elbows and his crazyman catmuffs, Brad was also a successful bike racer, and he never tired of reminding people that he had more California State Champion jerseys than anyone in history. Whether that’s true or not, he certainly had no shortage of them, and along with his expired rear short panels and unblinking brown eye, those flashy jerseys were a sight to behold.

More than his racing exploits, his kindness to others, his advocacy, his passion as a promoter, and, when he worked at the bike shop in San Pedro, his ability to take a perfectly functioning bike with a minor problem and turn it into a rolling catastrophe, Brad will be remembered by most as a friend — someone who was there when you needed him, often there when you didn’t, too kind to hold a grudge, and always looking forward with enthusiasm and passion to the next ride.

I’ll miss you Brad, sort of.

END

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Is cycling a civil right?

December 1, 2014 § 30 Comments

Although legally accorded the right to ride in the roadway, bicyclists are hardly treated equally by motorists, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, or legislators. It is a commonplace that, as with the Olin Milton case in Los Angeles, egregious acts that result in the death of a rider are simply not prosecuted. Daily harassment, violence in the form of being hit by motorists, verbal assaults, physical confrontations, and the low-level hatred spewed out by cagers and non-cyclists give the conflict distinct similarities with the way that white society interacts with black.

Many cycling advocates have noted the similarities and have framed the right to use our roadways without fear of harassment and death a civil right, one on the order of the right to vote and the right to participate in society without being attacked because of the color of your skin. Freedom of movement is one of the most important civil rights, and a society that restricts it and punishes those who choose to get around without a car is, the argument goes, as egregious as being deprived of the right to vote.

Other similarities abound, one of the biggest being the “separate but equal” doctrine of those who support bike lanes. Reminiscent of Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark Supreme Court case that permitted racial segregation as long as the facilities were equal, bike segregationists promote the idea that it’s okay to keep bikes out of the roadway as long as they have a separate “bikes only” place to pedal — no matter that the bike lane is filled with debris, doesn’t go where the roads go, is inconvenient, and doesn’t keep cars from swiping in and killing you.

So it’s persuasive to say that the right of cyclists to use the roads is on a par with the civil rights movement, especially when cyclists die on what is almost a daily basis.

It’s persuasive, but it’s wrong.

The civil rights movement did not stem from a narrow denial of a single right such as the right to freely use the roadways. It stemmed from a comprehensive system of oppression, originating in the slavery of millions of people that deprived U.S. citizens of the right to vote, to marry, to receive an education, to work, to receive equal pay, to receive health care, to travel, to obtain accommodations, even to use public toilets and public drinking fountains. These wrongs were not based on an individual’s choice of transportation, i.e. bike v. car. They were based on the color of your skin.

If you were born black, you were denied equal protection of the laws — of all laws. If you were white, as Bill Broonzy sang, “You’re all right.” If you’re black? Get back, get back, get back, get back.

Whereas cyclists, state by state, try to affect their rights on roads via legislation, the wrongs that were fought against in the civil rights movement were the continuation of a war that killed 600,000 people and destroyed the lives of millions. The movement itself had to oppose and defeat state sponsored violence, lynching, the murder of children, the bombing of churches, and the killing of activists who simply sought the rights they were guaranteed under our constitution.

It damages cycling advocacy to try and claim parity with the civil rights movement, just like it damages people who protest modern wars to compare them with the Holocaust. By appropriating the language of such seminal events, you expropriate them as well. Your tragedy, however tragic, is not and can never be the Holocaust. Your death at the hands of a careless texter is not and can never be the enslavement of an entire race.

At the same time we can and should use the lessons of those who fought in the civil rights movement. They looked to David Thoreau and his theory of civil disobedience; we can look to the united front of civil rights marchers as we refuse to accept the slaughter in the streets and the separate, unequal facilities being foisted on us. By honoring the struggles of others and learning from them, without stripping away their hard-earned denominations and claiming them for ourselves, we do the right thing and actually give ourselves a chance.

END

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Light enough to kill you

November 30, 2014 § 37 Comments

I’ve always been a late adopter when it comes to trick bike stuff. Part of that, say, 99%, is out of sheer cheapness. Nothing makes me sadder than spending money on a bicycle part. Except one thing, which is the other 1% that explains my resistance to change — the only thing I hate worse than spending money on bicycle things is having a bicycle thing break while I’m using it.

The importance of things not breaking on a bicycle is generally important, but with some components it is very, very important. Bikes have multiple back-up safety systems. When one wheel goes, you generally still have another. If the right brake fails, the left one is usually still working. There are multiple bolts to keep your handlebars in place. Two derailleurs. Thirty-two spokes per wheel. Etc.

But there are a couple of components whose failure can be catastrophic. One is the chain, and the other is the pedal. When your chain snaps, better hope you’re not out of the saddle. Same for your pedal. If it decides to go, and you’re sprinting or climbing out of the saddle, something bad is going to happen.

One of my current cases involves a pedal failure. The rider was out of the saddle and the spindle sheared off. It was a new pedal, and he suffered pretty severe injuries. We’re still waiting for the metallurgist’s report, but I will be very surprised if the pedal wasn’t defective. New, high-end racing pedals aren’t supposed to snap off when you press down hard them. The more I’ve looked at this pedal and its design, the more impressed I’ve been with what a flimsy piece of equipment it is. There truly is no “there” there.

Ever since the second generation of Look clipless pedals came out, I’ve exclusively used their pedals. Look isn’t the pedal company referred to above, by the way. Their pedals have traditionally been, well, bullet-proof. I used one pedal set for more than ten years. The pedals were fairly heavy and had a lot of metal in them.

Two or three years ago I upgraded to the top-of-the-line Look racing pedal, which had just come out. This was a major violation of my “don’t buy trick” rule. The pedals were super light and had a broad platform. I loved them.

Then one day about six months ago I was coming up to a stop light. I twisted my foot and the entire pedal body came off the spindle. Thinking the pedal had broken, I got off and examined it. It wasn’t broken. The pedal body screws onto the spindle by virtue of tiny, shallow, plastic threads in the end of the body. It is flimsy beyond any description.

I mentioned it to a friend, who said that in the heat of battle during the BWR, she’d tried to dismount going up a dirt wall and her Look pedal had gone flying off into a field. It too had simply come unscrewed.

I’d not thought much about the problem with my Looks until contemplating the design of the pedal that had sheared off at the spindle that’s probably going to result in litigation. What kind of design is it that would put such a crucial component subject to so much stress at the mercy of a few thin plastic threads? Were the extra couple of ounces worth it? What if the plastic screw-on edge had cracked, and the pedal body shattered when you got out of the saddle? Did anyone at Look know? Or care? How many people with Look pedals examine the pedal body assembly for cracks every time they ride? Or ever?

Then I thought about all the other trick bike items that magically appear on shelves every year, components tested in the field on pro teams where the “big” guys weigh 170, the “average” guys weigh 150, and the “small” guys weigh 130 — about the size of a rather large dog. And the “testing” of these products may only involve one season, where the component is maintained by a Pro Tour bike mechanic.

Shattered handlebars, carbon wheelsets that melt when real world big people descend on them, chains that are too weak, crankarms that bust off, and seatposts that break under the rider’s weight or the shocks of the road are only a few of the under-designed trick bike parts that I’ve seen break, and sometimes the consequences have been catastrophic. As the UCI prepares to further loosen weight requirements, look for new designs that are truly disposable, frames and components made — if you’re lucky — to survive a single race season, or maybe even just a single race.

Throw into the mix the thousands of idiots who’ve recently entered the sport and who have no idea what they’re buying, no experience with component failure, and no one to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, pal, until you get the late night tubs of ice cream under control, better steer clear of the 12-pound full carbon rig.” They think they’re buying something snazzy that will help them get fit; I think they’re buying something that’s not designed with them in mind.

After almost 30 years as a devoted Look customer I did some research and bought a heavier pedal, one with more metal in it, and one made by a company that seemed willing to compromise a little bit of weight for a lot more durability in a component where failure shouldn’t be an option. Because in the end, no amount of money from a lawsuit is going to compensate you for a catastrophic injury from which you never fully recover.

And if you save a few bucks in the process, which I did, well, winning.

END

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Thanks for blowing me off

November 29, 2014 § 19 Comments

Over Thanksgiving Dinner I had sternly lectured Sherri about forgiveness. “Sure, ol’ Puddinhead is a fourteen-carat asshole. But you can’t get too angry at him.”

“Why not? Nobody can stand the bastard.”

“Because cycling isn’t like the real world. In the real world when you meet an asshole, you avoid him forever. But in the cycling world, when you meet an asshole, chances are great that he’s going to be on every group ride you do for the next ten years. And when it’s your turn to fall off your bike on your head, chances are excellent that it’s asshole who will be there to call EMS or drag your corpse to the roadside so that the embalmer doesn’t have to get truck treads out of your face.”

“Easy to say, Mr. Turntheotherbuttcheek.”

“I’ve got a lot of practice. There’s nothing that happens in cycling that’s worth getting angry about, at least not for more than a few minutes. We’re too dependent on each other — on rides, in races — just being on someone’s wheel is a leap of faith of the biggest sort.”

Sherri shook her head. “Some assholes just need a good killin’.”

I had been excited all week about Friday’s SPY Holiday Ride. One of my buddies who had never done it before kindly offered to give me and the Wily Greek a lift down to San Diego. He, like many others, wanted to see how he would “stack up” against the monsters of North County on their home turf — a 60-mile, hilly, crushing, full-on dick stomping contest of the very first order.

Normally I don’t accept such ride offers because they are invariably accompanied by a phone call the morning of the ride saying, “Hey dude I got really sick last night and barfed and can’t make it sorry have a great ride.” There’s something about anticipating the ride that makes people sick at about 3:00 AM the morning of. I call it the poopy diaper effect.

At 5:00 AM I got out of bed, loaded my junk, and roused Mrs. WM. She loves getting up at 5:00 in the morning to drive me places. It is fun for her, especially if it is bicycle related.

A few minutes before we got to my teammate’s house, my phone rang. It was Wily. “Yo,” he said. “You still going?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t you get Poopy’s text?”

“No.”

“Yeah, dude. Poopy got really sick last night and barfed and can’t make it.”

I flipped through my phone. Sure enough, Poopy had sent a text at 4:58 AM. “That motherfugger,” I said. “I guess it was too much trouble to actually call.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“I dunno,” I said. “Mrs. WM needs the car today. I guess I’ll go home.”

“At least now you have something to blog about,” he said.

“Nah. I wouldn’t want to call out Poopy in public. Some things you gotta keep to yourself.”

I sat around and fumed for a couple of hours, then went out for a ride. It occurred to me not to be angry or hold grudges since, you know, we cyclists all depend on each other, but I was furiously mad. It’s one thing to lecture people, it’s another to have to practice what you preach, which I make a practice of never doing.

It was going to be hot so I took two water bottles. One of them was a very nice Specialized bottle with the premium nipple that had caused a big marital spat. I had found it on a ride and brought it home.

“What’s this?” asked Mrs. WM.

“It’s a water bottle I found.”

“You gonna drink onna nasty found bottle?”

“Sure. Just wash it up and it’ll be good to go.”

“I ain’t washin’ on no nasty found bottle. Maybe he had onna AIDS.”

“You don’t get AIDS by drinking old water bottles. It’s in perfectly fine condition.”

So Mrs. WM disassembled the actual nipple, including the two rubber washers on the inner nipple assembly, then took a toothpick and ran it inside the washer grooves. As I was peacefully sitting on the couch she came over with the toothpick, whose end was covered in a black, nasty slime. “Here’s onna your supposed okay water nipple,” she said.

I looked at the slime. “What the hell is that?”

“That’s onna your water bottle that you was gonna stick in your mouth.”

“Is it clean now?”

“Sure it’s clean. I been cleanin’ it!”

It’s been a great water bottle ever since.

The day’s anger management route was out PCH to Latigo Canyon. Latigo is a 40-minute climb if you are really, really good, and a multiple of 40 minutes if you are me. I decided to ride steadily and not push it. As the first section of the climb kicked up, some dude came whizzing by.

He was riding a wankish red bike with three chain rings, MTB pedals, and a helmet visor. I was tempted to let him go, fully expecting to see him again, when I noticed his legs and kit. The kit was very pro, and he looked super fit. “Hello,” he said in an is-it-English-South-African-Kiwi-or-an-Aussie accent as he flew by. I pedaled up behind him and noticed a yellow ANZ tag on his seatpost. “Air New Zealand?” I wondered.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

He smiled. “Woody.”

“No kidding? What’s it short for?”

“Woodrow.”

“I’ve only met one other Woodrow my entire life.”

“Oh, really? Who’s that?”

“My youngest son.”

It was his turn to be surprised, and we chatted about names, he chatting while I gasped out little chopped syllables. He was flying. Woody, who’s only been biking for two years, is a pilot for Air New Zealand, and had brought his beater bike to get in a ride during his layover. “I don’t want to get m’heart rate over 160,” he said, as mine pushed 180, then 280, then 1,000.

Before long the residual anger I’d had about being stood up by Poopy was wholly replaced by the burning pain of the climb and the gnawing fear that Woody was going to ride me off his wheel with a helmet visor and a triple. I hung on, barely, and after we crested the top I gave him lots of advice about how to climb properly. He seemed to listen.

We descended Kanaan Dume and got back on PCH. Woody put his head down and started going somewhat fast. For the next twenty miles he averaged a solid 30 mph. It was all I could do to tuck and suck. When we reached Will Rogers Park I sprinted around him for the win, then gave him lots more advice about how to get strong on the flats. He seemed to listen to that, too.

We parted company in Manhattan Beach and I pedaled, decrepit, back home. It had been a great day, the water from the water bottle had tasted fine, and I wasn’t angry anymore.

END

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Thar she blows

November 28, 2014 § 17 Comments

When I was in 3rd Grade I rode my bike to school with Jeff McMahon. In Texas we pronounced it “Mack-Mu-Hon.” I was a middle class kid and Jeff’s family was pretty redneck but we didn’t know it meant anything that one of us lived in a house and the other of us lived in a trailer, and we were friends because we were both in Mrs. Opal Smith’s class and took the same route to school.

Whether you were a middle class kid or a redneck, in those days every boy in Texas had a handkerchief. A handkerchief, along with a pocket knife, was one of the earliest symbols of manhood. You don’t hardly see it anymore, but older men, especially in the country, would make a big deal out of blowing their noses. It was as manly as scratching your nuts, only manlier, because you could only scratch your nuts with other guys whereas you could blow your nose anywhere, and you did.

There was a whole ritual to it that fascinated every southern boy who ever lived. You’d be sitting in the middle of dinner and Ol’ Grandpa would reach into his back pocket and pull out a big colored handkerchief the size of a bedsheet, turn his head a little to the side, and blow his nose.

You could tell by the length and the force of the blow, as well as by the sounds of mucous as it issued forth, whether it was “a good ‘un” or not. Then Ol’ Grandpa would take the wadded up hankie, which was now filled with so much snot and boogers that if he’d blown anything else his head would have caved it, and unfold the hankie like he was reading the newspaper to take a brief look at his creation.

If you were sitting next to Ol’ Grandpa you’d try to sneak a glance to see if it was “a good ‘un,” and if you were lucky you’d get a glimpse of some big old green clump of snot just before he’d fold up the hankie and stick it back into his pocket. No one thought it was nasty beyond belief or abnormal in the least. Just stick that ol’ snot-filled pillowcase back into your pants and sit on it for a while until you needed another big blow.

I still remember when I got my first set of hankies. Granny picked up a set of three at the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, a blue set for me and a brown set for my brother. We tore open the packages and blew our noses on the soft cotton until our noses hurt, but since we didn’t smoke or have a cold, our mucous was always clear and white, and when we’d do the unfold-and-check it was always disappointing to see that we hadn’t been able to blast out one of those green monsters.

One morning Jeff and I were riding to school and he took out his hankie and blew his nose. “I got a danged cold,” he said, making a big deal out of his blow.

“Yeah, me too,” I said, and counter-blew. By this time I was using white hankies because they showed up the results better. We both checked our results, riding no-hands of course, and then stuffed the hankies back in our pockets.

The bell rang and we went into class. Mrs. Smith was a stickler for politeness and proper language, which was a source of endless frustration because of all the little rednecks in her class. She also forbade talking unless you raised your hand. Jeff, who was the nicest little Baptist redneck you ever saw, never cussed or caused trouble. He was one of those shy kids who wanted to blend in, and he did.

Mrs. Smith had her back to the class and was writing something on the blackboard, when Jeff took out his hankie and gave it a little blow. Mrs. Smith heard the noise and spun around. “Did you say something, Jeff?” she snapped.

“Why, no ma’am,” he said.

“Well I heard you say something. What did you say?”

“Oh, I didn’t say nothin’ Miz Smith. That was just m’snot rag.”

“Your what?” her face froze. “What did you say?”

Jeff, who had probably never heard the word “handkerchief” before, calmly repeated himself. “I said it was m’snot rag, Miz Smith.”

All hell broke loose as every boy broke out into hysterical laughter and the girls shrieked and giggled and he almost got sent to the principal. It was only towards the end of Mrs. Smith’s excoriation that he even realized that “snot rag” wasn’t something he was supposed to say. Then his ears turned bright red and he hung his head in shame. We all thought he was going to cry, but he didn’t.

On the way home he turned to me. “If I cain’t say snot rag, what’m I sposed to call the dang thing?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I said. “We always call it a handkerchief at our house. Or a hankie.”

“A hankie? Sounds like a durned girl.”

From that day on, Jeff stopped carrying a snot rag. I did, too.

END

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Thanks!

November 27, 2014 § 44 Comments

Sometimes I wonder what to write, but not today. This one is easy.

My blog gets about 1,037 visitors per day. Some of the visitors read what’s here, some of the visitors take the extra step to comment, and some of the visitors take what is much, much more than an “extra step.” They send me $2.99 a month and become subscribers.

What do subscribers get that no one else gets? In terms of content, services, or other tangible things … well, nothing.

But it is the subscribers who keep me going.

People who fiction do pretty much the same thing, whether they’re great, good, mediocre, or terrible. We channel the vagaries inside our heads, the strangeness of our daily lives, and the wonders of existence into words.

I don’t know why I do it, but I do know this: When people, the vast majority of whom are strangers, send me $2.99 each month to thank me for my efforts, everything I do and write feels worthwhile. Is it strange that satisfaction and self-worth are so cheap? Not to me, because it’s not cheap at all. Rather, it’s an act of incredible kindness and generosity.

Plus, $2.99 fits squarely inside my “money value matrix.” When people are talking about whether “x” amount of money is “worth it,” I always ask this question. “Would I bend over to pick it up if it was lying on the sidewalk?” Since I would pick up even a penny if it was lying on the sidewalk, $2.99 is a whole $2.98 more than my minimum estimation of “Is it worth it?”

The other side of the satisfaction I get from your contribution is obligation. It’s a bit of a challenge at times to crank out 1,000 words on a daily basis, more or less limited to the topic of “Cycling in the South Bay,” and to make sure that in each post there are no glaring misspellings or egregious grammatical bloopers that rouse the ire of Billy Stone. In fact, the challenge is at times so great that I’m tempted to just say “Fugg it” and be done with the whole thing.

But I don’t, and that’s because of you, who send me your monthly $2.99. That money means something to you, and you earned it somehow, and you went through the horrible experience of interfacing with PayPal to set up your subscription.

That money means something to me, too. It means that you value what I do. You value it more than one of these, the same as one of these, but slightly less than one of these. And what makes your contribution even more meaningful to me is that you give it when you could simply keep reading for free.

And finally, your gift makes my lifelong dream real by turning me into what I’ve always wanted to be: A professional writer.

Thank you.

Seth

END

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Freshie pokes

November 26, 2014 § 15 Comments

“You’re gonna die,” my brother said with grim satisfaction. I looked at the horrible purple bruises up and down his arms.

“What happened?”

“Freshie pokes,” he said with a smile. “Every time an upperclassman sees you the first week of class you get a freshie poke. Feels like this.” He hauled off and socked my arm as hard as he could. He clinically studied the tears that began welling up in my eyes to make sure he’d hit me hard enough and I wasn’t faking it. “Only about a thousand times worse. And it goes on all week.”

“All week?” I mumbled, lip trembling.

“Yeah, unless they peg you as dork meat. Then it goes on all year.”

The next year, 1976, it was my turn to start at Jane Long Junior High School. That entire summer I had dreaded the first week of school. “Ready for your freshie pokes?” my brother would say just before pounding my arm a few times.

The first day of school came and I went to the bus stop with my brother. He had long hair and was a tough guy. There were a few guys on the bus who looked even tougher, but no one gave me a freshie poke. I wondered if I would cry. “Probably,” I figured, looking at the size of the guys on the bus.

I stayed as close to my brother as I could until the bell rang. “See ya, dork,” he said. There were several big hairy guys dishing out freshie pokes in the hallways, but somehow they missed me as I scurried, terrified, from class to class.

After school I went into dad’s study. “I want to ride my bike to school,” I said.

“Okay.” He hardly looked up from his typewriter, a huge desktop Remington with no letters on the keys.

“I need a backpack.”

He looked up. “A what?”

“A backpack. I can’t carry my books to school on my bike without a backpack.”

In 1976, no one used a backpack for books. Instead, kids used these things called hands. And for a guy there was only one proper way to carry your books and binders, and it was under your arm, with one hand. Girls could use two hands and hold them out front. If you were a guy and you tried to hold your books out in front with two hands, even if you had a hundred of them, you would have been instantly beaten to death.

There was only one place you could get a backpack, and that was at a camping store. And backpacks weren’t for kids to take to school, they were for backpacking. I knew I was going to look stupid and would probably get punched up one side and down the other, but it seemed safer to go by bike, where I could time my arrivals and departures, than to have to run the bus’s freshie poke gauntlet.

Dad drove me down to a camping store by the Galleria. It was very unusual for my parents to buy me something unless it was Christmas or my birthday which, economically for them, fell on the same day. We picked out a little brownish-orange knapsack made by a company called Wilderness Experience. It was waterproof and had a little buckle thingy that you could strap around your waist to keep it from sloshing from one side to the other. The whole contraption screamed “Bash my face in.”

The next morning I aired up the tires on my Murray 10-speed, rolled up my pant leg, slung on my backpack, and cinched the “Punch Me” belt. It felt beautiful, riding my bike on my second day of school. No hanging around the bus stop, no bus gauntlet to deal with, only cars honking and trying to kill me, which wasn’t nearly as bad as a freshie poke. My commute went from an hour to twenty minutes.

I locked up my bike, unhooked the Punch Me cinch, and tried to jauntily sling the backpack over one shoulder, as if that would somehow deflect from the fact that I was going to be the only kid in a thousand with an orange dorkpack. As I walked through the giant blue gates, gates that were barred and looked like a prison entry, kids noticed, in the way they always do. No one has sharper eyes than a kid.

I stood at the main doors, praying for the bell to ring. My heart was pounding. About that time the buses began discharging kids, and an extremely mean looking, blonde redneck began striding towards me, grinning as he balled his fist. He had freckles and a chipped front tooth. “Freshie poke!” he said as his pals watched, laughing.

The redneck let loose with a punch. The last thing I saw was his fist and its giant knuckles, speeding towards my tender, bony arm. “Just don’t cry, dork,” I told myself. I flinched and twisted to the side, causing my backpack to shift around my shoulder. At the moment of impact his ham-sized hand slammed into the edge of my backpack and the sharp plastic edge of the oversized binder that I’d crammed in on top.

The force of the blow twisted me around and almost knocked me down, but it didn’t hurt and no one noticed. Redneck was holding his hand, limp, first cursing, then crying, then moaning in piteous agony. He’d broken two fingers.

The bell rang and I scurried indoors. I’m pretty sure I’m the only freshman in the Jane Long Junior High School Bicentennial Entering Class of ’76 who never got a freshie poke.

END

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