Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Second Note: Original artwork by my daughter Hanna – see more of her work here.
By Way of Background:
My childhood friend Jon was widely known for his willingness to attempt almost any stunt, no matter what risk was involved. His exploits included hayloft diving, jumping creeks and ravines on his bike, and bull baiting. In tribute, he was often known locally as “That Reckless Little Hooper Idiot” and locals widely predicted Jon’s demise in some spectacular manner before he attained the age of eighteen. We boys, though, envied Jon his daring, and sought to match him in some manner. One summer day, I finally hit on a way to one-up old Jon. If I could do that, the guys would all be envious of me, instead of Jon. Provoking the envy of my peers was suddenly a matter of great importance.
The great day came and found me perched on my bike with a great task before me. A faint breeze gently ruffled my hair as a July sun stood high and hot in the sky. Somewhere behind me a meadowlark sang; the air was thick with the smell of growing corn, and to my left a herd of dairy cattle watched expectantly.
I shifted nervously on the seat of my bike.
Before me stretched a great vista; the valley through which ran Waterloo Creek. Northeast Iowa’s terrain is ancient, for unknown reasons untouched by the last glaciers. Unlike the bulk of the gently rolling state, northeast Iowa is marked by wooded hills, steep slopes, and deep valleys carved by coldwater streams. Unlike the rest of Iowa, where roads were neatly laid out in one-mile squares, northeast Iowa’s roads and highways meandered along creek valleys, wandered up ravines to make their way “up top” and, on occasion, dropped precipitously down steep hillsides. It was just such a slope that faced me now. The tiny town of Dorchester lay at the bottom of the hill. I stood astride my bike at the top, where our gravel road turned onto the State highway. That very ribbon of asphalt lay before me, beckoning me into town.
That summer, my fourteenth, found me already experienced with steep hills. A kid growing up in that country had to know about hills. To go anywhere in northeast Iowa means climbing hills and descending hills. While us kids frequently traveled on foot, occasionally a bike like my aging ten-speed was pressed into service. This generally involved pushing the bike up hills and climbing aboard for a hair-raising descent on the other side.
Sometimes it was beyond hair-raising. The hill that the State highway followed into Dorchester was one such slope. Earlier that summer, Jon had tried that very hill earlier in the summer on his ancient coaster bike and chickened out before reaching the first bend. His hair was still showing several gray streaks, and his eyes were still expanded to the size of grapefruit. And the Hooper driveway alone deterred many a lesser man; it dropped sharply from the barnyard to the highway at such an angle that gravel would not stick to the surface. Yes, Jon was a pro, and the Dorchester hill defeated him.
But I thought to do Jon one better. I had skill, quick reflexes, and a reasonably well-kept ten-speed; Jon had reflexes that would have shamed a hibernating possum, and a rust-encrusted coaster bike that was new sometime during the Hoover Administration. My fourteen-year old ego swelled at the thought of doing my year-older friend one better. Jon had been beaten by The Hill. I would conquer it and prove myself the better man.
That was how I came to be there, alone, on that July day.
I looked again down The Hill. Somehow it hadn’t seemed that steep the day before, when Dad and I had gone down the road in the pickup.
The breeze rattled the leaves on the oaks leaning over the road as it dropped off into the valley; the sound was a beckoning.
This was it. My mind was made up. I would ride down that hill, collect a bottle of pop from the store, and ride with it back to the Hooper place to prove who was, after all, the master of The Hill, and so the most daring of all the local boys. With that thought firmly in mind, I kicked off and pedaled resolutely out onto the highway shoulder.
A car passed me on the highway, a big car, a shiny new Buick. As it passed, I saw a familiar face watching me from the back window; a girl from school, Rhonda Walters, a fourteen-year old enchantress with big dark eyes. A side bet: I would ride this hill, impress the young Rhonda, and be the envy of all the guys at school. Better still, I now had a witness.
The going started to get steep right here, as the highway turned to drop into the valley. Not too bad; I gently applied a little brake to keep my descent reasonable.
I continued to pick up speed.
I wasn’t too worried. My ten-speed had new pads on good center-pull brakes. I figured that, if I didn’t let my speed get too far out of hand, I could handle things.
The Hill had other plans.
The slope started to pick up a little as the highway passed the turnoff to the old quarry. By now I was beginning to travel at a speed that was a tad alarming; I ground down harder on the brake, as wisps of smoke began to emerge from the pads.
Ahead, I saw the Walters car rolling down The Hill; I seemed to be gaining on them. Rhonda’s eyes grew huge as she watched me slowly gaining ground on her father’s Buick. Rhonda’s Dad, having spotted me in the rear-view mirror, began to accelerate. He was no doubt hoping to avoid having his brand-new Buick rear-ended by a screaming fourteen-year old welded to a hurtling ten-speed.
Unbelievably, the slope got worse. By now, I had a white-knuckled death grip on the brake handles. A stream of thick black smoke trailed the bike as the brake pads ground away to nothing against the rims; I was quickly left with nothing but tortured sheet metal pad holders grinding futilely against the rims.
The Hill really started to drop off right about here.
As I accelerated, I began to feel the heat of air friction burning away my eyebrows. My hair was attempting to stand on end, but the Mach-level airstream kept it pressed back flat against my head. My eyes were peeled wide open; I tried to blink away particles of grit, insects, and other foreign matter but the blast of wind wouldn’t allow my eyelids to shut.
Mr. Walters hit the gas hard, but it did him no good. I passed the Walters auto at a considerable rate of speed; the shockwave of my passage nearly tore off both rear-view mirrors and left a nasty crack in the Buick’s windshield. Mr. Walters later told my father of the horrendous screech of brakes as my bike shot past his car; what he didn’t understand was that the long-gone bike brakes weren’t making any more noise by that point in the journey.
Two-thirds of the slope still lay before me.
The bike and I began to pick up more speed.
I discovered one thing about breaking the sound barrier that test pilots never learned, encased as they were in airplanes as opposed to being attached to a bicycle. When you exceed the sound barrier on a bicycle, the first thing that happens is that the gathering shock wave of air collapses on you, creating an effect similar to being hit in the face with a large piece of plywood. Then, there’s a sound like a huge explosion, only you’re inside of the explosion. Finally, you burst through into an eerie quiet, as the sounds of the mundane world are left behind your suicidal, screaming, terrified fourteen-year old self.
I managed somehow to make the last gentle bend before the highway broke into the last screaming drop into town. That last drop, known locally as White-Knuckle Hill, was the worst, but it at least was fairly straight. The highway crossed a bridge at the bottom, bore right and passed though the tiny hamlet of Dorchester. I hung on to the bike, picking up speed the whole way in. The air friction was beginning to cause my t-shirt and jeans to smolder.
Folks in town later reported a strange sight. A comet, some guessed, perhaps a meteor, a UFO, or else some strange new military low-level attack jet. Several eastern Iowa newspapers carried the story, and the identity of the strange phenomenon was speculated over for months. What was agreed upon was this:
At roughly 3PM on that bright, sleepy July afternoon, there was a tremendous BOOM on the highway through town. An unidentified object, shrouded in flames and screaming like a banshee, rocketed through town. The flaming projectile trailed a shockwave that shattered windows, knocked down several small children, and tore the door off a dump truck parked in front of the tavern. The mysterious apparition disappeared down the highway in the direction of Waukon and was not seen again.
Halfway to Waukon, I finally got the bike’s progress back under control. I finally managed to stop, staggered off the road into the ditch, dropping the bike on the ground. I was gasping so hard that I accidentally inhaled some passing birds. I didn’t notice that last part until hours later when I was had to pick several feathers out of my teeth.
The Walter’s Buick rolled to a stop at the side of the road, and Rhonda and her father got out.
“You reckless little idiot.” Rhonda’s Dad growled at me. “Put your bike in the trunk, and I’ll take you home before you kill yourself.” Rhonda stared at me open-mouthed, no doubt in awe of my courage and daring.
As I got in the car, I caught sight of my reflection in the window. My face was covered with insect remnants, a large grasshopper was still stuck in my teeth, my eyelids were turned inside-out and flattened against my cheeks and forehead. Wisps of smoke rose slowly from my shirt. Gray streaks were already starting to pop up in my hair.
Sensing his removal from the top spot in the Envy Sweepstakes, Jon showed up at our house the following morning. By that time, I had managed to scrub the insect remnants off my face, and my eyes had almost returned to normal. I still had a sort of terrified pallor, matched nicely by my newly snow-white hair.
“So.” Jon muttered. “I hear you rode The Hill.”
“Yep” was all I could manage. I still wasn’t communicating too well; I’m told a prolonged panic and near-death experience can have that effect.
Jon frowned down at his shoes. “Folks all over are calling you ‘That Reckless Little Clark Idiot.’”
Yep. Definite signs of envy.