Posted June 30, 2015
There is a theme that has run throughout my life. It has to do with solving difficult, intimidating problems. These are three excerpts from my book, “Racing the Gods,” published by Octane Press, (https://www.octanepress.com/book/racing-gods), that demonstrate this theme. The first is from Chapter One.
Falling in Love With Two Wheels.
I call it the Close Second Child Syndrome. I’ve seen it in my nieces and nephews: if two children of the same gender are born fairly close together, and the first child is talented, the second child spends his or her early years in their shadow. My brother, Phil, is 18 months older than me, which is close enough that as kids we played together. Through no fault of his own, Phil is brilliant. For example, when he was five, he invented a super hero, Super Cowboy, who was a blend of Superman, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers. Phil drew complete comic books of Super Cowboy’s adventures, with his hero always wearing a cowboy hat and a cape. He had a sidekick, a cat named Dynamite, drawn in the comic book as a man with a cat’s head. Dynamite wasn’t very bright, but was very strong. When muscle was required, Super Cowboy called on Dynamite.
At that age a year and a half is a big difference, and Phil was always better at everything. He would organize the neighborhood kids, six or seven of us, and direct us to act out his comic book adventures. He was, of course, always Super Cowboy. I was always Dynamite, always the sidekick, like Robin to Batman, Festus to Marshal Dillon.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my older brother (and still do), and aside from the typical sibling rivalry, we got along well (and still do). But I wanted so much to find something I could do better than he could.
When I was around five, I found it. We had gone to visit my mom’s cousin’s family, the Carters. Phil went inside with my folks, but adult conversation bored me, so I asked if I could stay outdoors. It was a nice day.
“Just stay within hollerin’ distance,” my dad said, and I was left to entertain myself.
The Carters lived in a quiet semi-rural area just starting to turn from farmland to suburb. Their house was a former farmhouse, two-story and square, with a large, covered front porch. It had been built on a slight rise on the corner of two streets. I wandered around the house, looking for something to do.
I found a kid’s bicycle in the side yard and I tried to ride it. I took it down to the street but didn’t have much luck. I was able to get it going once and I found that just above a walking pace the bike was pretty stable. Getting it up to speed was the tricky part. I fell down many times. Then, somehow, my preschool mind figured out how to put it together by learning one thing at a time. The side yard was grass, a short slope down to the street where the grass smoothly gave way to pavement–no sidewalk or curb. I used the slope to the street to help me get up to stable speed quickly.
I started astride the bike at the top of the slope, pushed off, and coasted down the hill, into the street and stopped. I fell over many times, but the grass was fairly soft and I was determined.
Once I mastered that I started beside the bike, pushing off and swinging my leg over the rear tire to get on the seat, the way I’d seen older boys do it. This was difficult–swinging my leg over the bike upset the steering. Again I fell a lot, but with practice I learned to mount the bike while starting.
Then I added a 90-degree turn at the end of the coast, so I would be pointed down the street instead of across it when I stopped. On the next run I added a few pedaling strokes before stopping. Once I was good at that part, I added a U-turn and pedaled back to my start point.
Finally, I forsook the assistance of the slope and started in the street. That took a little time to learn and a few falls, too, but by then I was starting to get a feel for the bicycle. After a couple hours I was riding up and down the street with confidence. It was pretty exciting, being able to go to the end of the block and back in only a few minutes instead of 15, and swooping through the corner was downright thrilling. I wasn’t doing anything fancy, but it sure was fun. And there was a bonus: Phil didn’t ride a bicycle yet.
When the visit was over and my folks came out to collect me, I yelled, “Hey, Mom, watch this!” and rode the bike up and down the street, around the corner and back, while everyone watched from the porch. My mom just said, “Huh.” Dad didn’t say anything, nor did Phil. Our family finances at the time meant Phil and I got a bike to share and Phil learned to ride pretty quickly, but he never showed the enthusiasm for it I did, even after we both got our own bikes.
Thanks to this visit to the Carters two-wheel vehicles forever held a special place in my heart and in my life.
The second excerpt is from Chapter Two, when I first started racing motorcycles.
First Time on the Track
My first 250cc Production class practice at Sears Point International Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) was, in a word, terrifying. I didn’t know which way the track went and I kept finding myself in the wrong spot or at the wrong speed, or both. The track was hilly and there were many blind corners. The racers who raced here the year before were zipping past me at a remarkable speeds. I tried to keep up, but I wasn’t good enough.
After that initial practice session, I realized that the first thing I needed to do was learn the track. For the second practice I used the late apex technique I learned from that logging truck incident on Highway 36 a couple of years earlier. I would start a turn on its outside edge and stay there until I could see which way the track went. Only then would I aim for the apex and start opening the throttle. More experienced racers were still zipping by me on both sides, but I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t racing, I was learning the track. By the end of the second practice session, I had a pretty good idea which way to turn.
The next thing was to find a fast path through the turns. Racers call this path a “line,” as if the tires were ink rollers drawing an actual line on the pavement. Most corners have very few fast lines, sometimes only one, and a racing skill is the ability to find a fast line. During my first race I resisted the urge to try to keep up with the others and started looking for the good lines. I figured out a few things. Sears Point has a series of linked turns called the esses. If I tried to take the first turn fast, I would end up at the wrong place to negotiate the next turn. I had to slow down to go fast. Other racers were still zipping past me, but I tried to ignore them. I don’t remember where I finished, but I may have been last in the 250 Production class.
At my second race I continued to use the practice sessions and the race to try out different lines through the turns. I remember trying an inside line in the Carousel turn, finding a series of vicious bumps and thinking, this isn’t going to work. Before the race finished I crashed in turn 11, but I had enough track time to figure out a few things. For a number of corners the late apex worked pretty well. Eventually I found a decent line around the track, at least for the 250cc Ducati Diana I was riding at the time.
The final excerpt is from Chapter Fifteen in Part Two of the book, after I suffered the paralyzing injury in 1998 at the vintage race in Colorado. It shows how I used what I learned from riding and racing to make a big step forward in reclaiming a life after such an injury. This particular event happened after I met Dee, so it has to be around five years after The Accident.
Dee was an avid scuba diver when she lived in Southern California, with more than 800 dives in her logbooks, diving around the Channel Islands with occasional trips to warm water dive sites in the Caribbean Sea. She thought scuba diving would be a sport I could enjoy. I was quite willing to try, but first I had to learn to swim without using my legs. I had tried once in the small pool at Craig Hospital and it was a total failure. I couldn’t keep my head above water. I was pretty unhappy about that, as I had always enjoyed swimming. I had to re-learn how to swim.
This time I wanted to be sure there was enough time to try some different things. I scheduled some 50-minute sessions with a physical therapist that specialized in water therapy. Dee wanted to come along and neither I nor the therapist, Scott, objected.
We started in the kiddie pool, maximum depth 4 feet and warmer water than the big pool. In the first session we used two of those long closed-cell foam tubes (noodles) as flotation devices. I ran them across my chest and under my arms and found I could stay afloat with my face out of the water. I could even move a little by paddling with my hands, being careful not to let the tube get away. So far so good.
I ditched one of the tubes. This caused me to sink a little, but my face was still above water. Again I tried to paddle around so I wasn’t just sitting in one spot. Still doing OK.
When I tried it without the floatation tubes, it was not so good. I couldn’t keep my face above water and Scott on one side and Dee on the other had to lift me up, spluttering a bit. I couldn’t take a full breath anymore because of the lack of the lower abdominal muscles to help, so I couldn’t stay under very long.
“Let me think about this for a minute,” I said, so they parked me at the edge of the pool to think. This line of approach wasn’t going very well.
“Let’s try something else,” I said. “Let’s see if I can float on my back.” I had never been able to float on my back before. I would get horizontal to the surface, face up with my head barely out of water and my lungs full of air, and relax. Immediately my feet would start to sink, then my legs. My body would slowly go from horizontal to vertical at which point my face would go under as I continued to sink to the bottom of the pool. In those days I was rather slender, but with strong leg muscles. Muscles sink, fat floats. I didn’t have enough body fat to keep me up.
But that was then, this was later. My lower body muscles had long since gone soft from disuse, and I had gained weight at the assisted living home. My shoulder muscles had built up with all the wheelchair pushing I had done, but still I had a lot more body fat than before.
It worked. I could float on my back and keep my face out of water. Finally, some success. I could even swim, after a fashion, using my arms to pull myself from one side of the small pool to the other.
Scott suggested I had done some good work for the day, but there was still some time left. I had another idea. We had brought a mask and snorkel with us to the pool. “Let me try the mask and snorkel,” I said.
Swimming with the mask and snorkel. Scott is just above, keeping a close watch. Photo by Dee.
I put them on and, holding to the edge of the pool, stuck my face in the water. I started breathing through the snorkel, then slowly, carefully, let go of the pool edge. I knew Dee and Scott were at my sides, ready to lift me up if the snorkel went under. Not only did I not sink, I floated high enough that the snorkel stayed out of the water. As long as I kept looking downward toward the bottom of the pool, I could breathe.
I kept going, building one step at a time upon what I had managed to do. By the end of the session I was swimming from one side of the pool to the other, switching from being on my back free breathing to swimming face-down breathing through the snorkel, then back to swimming face up. Each time I switched from face-up to face-down I had to take a deep breath, roll, then blow hard through the snorkel to clear out all the water. The timing was tricky, but I managed it. I had a couple more water therapy sessions to refine the technique, and by the time we finished, I felt I knew how to swim again.