There was a time when I rode more often. Between 1998 and 2003 I tried to do a substantial ride once or twice a week if I could. Nothing serious, really – maybe 20 miles here or there – but enough to keep the head clear and to keep sloth and obesity at bay. I rode much more seriously when I was in college, though, often doing 30 miles or more a couple times a week in addition to my usual riding around campus thing. At least until the bike wreck.
It was the summer of 1994. Unlike the previous summer when I worked two jobs and tried my best to keep busy, the summer of ‘94 was all about drinking beer – I had just turned 21 – throwing a baseball around and generally goofing off. I had a job at the Ohio State bookstore, but it wasn’t particularly stressful. I worked at the office supplies counter. If I didn’t feel like going in on any given day, I just didn’t. If I felt like leaving two hours early on a given day, I just did. I’m still not sure how I got away with that.
I used my ample free time to ride around Columbus. Sometimes it was a purposeful ride on a trail. Sometimes it was a long stamina-builder out in the country. Sometimes – usually with my friend Todd – it was just riding aimlessly all over the city. We’d head downtown and ride down parking garage ramps. One time we rode through a hotel lobby and across a pedestrian walkway over High Street. Wherever it was, and whether I was with Todd or not, rare was the day when I didn’t ride somewhere.
August 21st was going to be a great day. It was a Sunday, and I had tickets to see Bob Dylan at the Ohio State fair that evening. My first Dylan show, and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Figuring I couldn’t just wait around all day, I decided to kill some time with a ride. I hit the trial that follows the Olentangy river up to Worthington and back. It had rained the night before and there were a lot of puddles on the trail. I took things slower than usual from campus up to Worthington, but by the time I turned around to come home I was getting pretty confident. Too confident, it turned out.
I was somewhere between Antrim Lake and Whetstone Park, buzzing along at full speed, when I hit a puddle that turned out to be more mud than water. My bike slid out from under me but I kept going. As I hurtled head first – and, alas, helmetless – towards the pavement, I didn’t panic. I didn’t go blank. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Rather, I simply had this casual, almost lazy thought that more or less went “well, isn’t THIS fucking great.” I was more disgusted with myself than anything.
I don’t think I went unconscious, but I don’t remember the impact either. I was laying on my side, not yet feeling any pain, and feeling an immediate, inexplicable need to get back up. I struggled to my knees and then to my feet and turned around back the way I had come. Two rollerbladers were slowing down as they approached me. The woman went wide-eyed. The man started yelling at me: “Jesus! Are you alright! Jesus!” I really had no idea. Indeed, I hadn’t really had a conscious thought yet. As he started yelling it dawned on me that I could be injured. I decided to take a look at myself and see if I was.
“Hmmm. That left arm is hanging a bit lower than usual and I’ll be damned if I can move it,” I thought. “More blood than one usually sees on my forearms and knees too,” I calmly went on. I concluded the assessment by noting how difficult it was to triage the situation what with everything spinning around like it was. I was interrupted at that point by Mr. Rollerblader grabbing onto my good arm and my back and telling me in very slow and soothing tones that I’d be better off if I sat down on the ground. That was probably a good idea, because I’m pretty sure that I did lose consciousness a few seconds later.
I woke up, lying on my back. Mr. Rollerblader was hovering over me. He had been joined by a jogger and another couple of bikers. Rollerbladder was holding a little white towel to my head. I heard him say to one of the others that his wife had skated back to Antrim in order to call an ambulance. I also heard him say something like “ … I don’t think so, it’s just bleeding a lot.” I think he meant my head looked ugly but that he didn’t think I had a cracked skull or anything. At that point he noticed that I was awake. He told me not to move. I tried to sit up anyway because I’m kind of an asshole when it comes to stuff like that.
I made it to a sitting position but I couldn’t do any better. My head was throbbing, but the real pain was in my left shoulder. I looked down and, just as I saw how low it was sagging, Rollerblader said that he was pretty sure I broke my collar bone and maybe separated my shoulder. I felt nauseous and dizzy and I couldn’t hear very well. Eventually he eased me back to my back, saying something about how anything could be broken, so I probably shouldn’t move.
I have no idea how much time had passed when I heard the helicopter. It hovered several hundred feet above us. There was a lot of confusion – they weren’t airlifting me out of there, were they? – but it flew away a minute or two later. Turns out it was just trying to pinpoint where I was so the ambulance could find me. A few minutes later it backed slowly down the trail to where we were. I remember thinking how badly I wanted to ask the driver how hard it was to back all that way down the trail.
The EMTs got out and took a look at me. One of them moved the towel from my head and got what appeared to be a satisfied look on his face. He told Rollerblader that it was just a gash and didn’t look serious. They got a backboard and a gurney out and rolled me onto it. They also put a neck brace on me. Rollerblader and the others gave me little pats of encouragement and some assorted take it easys and were on their way.
Once in the ambulance the EMTs asked me questions and shined lights in my eyes to see just how messed up I was. I answered a couple of questions at first, but the neck brace was starting to freak me out. I’m claustrophobic and I have an intense fear of suffocation and I felt like the thing was smothering me. Instead of responding to their questions I repeatedly asked them to take the neck brace off. They said no several times, but after I insisted they went through what sounded like some legal routine in which they asked me if I understood what I was asking them to do, whether I took full responsibility for whatever happened without the neck brace and a lot of that kind of thing. I apparently satisfied them that I was lucid enough to make the choice, so they took the neck brace off. One of them told me that if I ended up paralyzed that I shouldn’t come crying to them. I think he was joking, but I’m not sure. I’d like to think that if they really thought I had a neck or a back injury that they would have just ignored me.
The hospital was rather anticlimactic. By then they had figured out that I wasn’t a serious trauma case, so they had me cool it on a gurney for what seemed like forever. Eventually I was shuffled into an X-Ray room. Then I was shuffled to an exam room where I waited for an even longer time. At least there was a baseball game on TV to help me pass the time. Eventually a doctor came in, examined me a bit and did some more light-in-the-eyes stuff. He told me that I had a clean break to my left collar bone and a concussion. The gash to the head was pretty minor and didn’t even need stitches. Same with my legs and arm. The treatment: lots of gauze pads, a funky looking brace that fastened with velcro straps to keep my shoulder immobilized and a big honkin’ prescription of some big honkin’ pain killers. I’d have to fill that myself later, but the doctor gave me the first dose and I was soon feeling pretty groovy.
When they went to discharge me they asked me who would be picking me up. Good question! Carleen was in France on a study abroad program, so she was out. My parents lived hundreds of miles away. Todd and just about any friend I could think of who could get me was out of town. My friend April was the only person I had them even try to call, but she wasn’t home. They ended up just giving me a cab voucher.
In the cab on the way back to my apartment it dawned on me: the Dylan show! I had been in the hospital a lot longer than I had realized and the show was going to start in a little over an hour. There was no way I was going to be able to drive in my condition – too many meds, way too dizzy, too much pain – but something told me that I needed to go anyway. I asked the cabbie if the voucher was good for two stops. He told me it was good for anything, so I had him take me to my apartment and had him wait outside while I changed out of my bloody and muddy clothes. It took forever in my condition, but I did my best to wash up, put on some clean clothes, grabbed my ticket, got back into the cab and told him to take me to the State Fair. I’m pretty sure he thought I was a loony, but the fact that I let him fill out the voucher himself – tip line and all – probably made up for it.
I found my seat a few minutes before Dylan took the stage. He began with “Jokerman” which was a song I never much cared for. “Lay Lady Lay” was a bit better because he lit into it like he was angry, kind of like he did on “Before the Flood.” “All Along the Watchtower” was good, but rather rote. Things ticked up nicely by the middle of the set with some “Blood on the Tracks” tunes and then a couple of obscure things like “In the Garden,” which was easily the best song of the show. He didn’t play “Like a Rollin’ Stone” at all, though, which would have shocked me if my fuzzy, drug-addled head had allowed me to feel shock. As it was I was groovin’ and I didn’t really care.
I headed for the parking lot and walked around for a good five minutes trying hard to remember where I parked before it dawned on me that I was stranded. I waked back into the fairgrounds and stumbled through the midway a bit, trying to think of how to get back home. I could walk it, I thought, but it was a few miles through some bad neighborhoods to get back where I needed to go, and I wasn’t in any shape for that. I wasn’t hopeful when I called April again – for all I know she was out of town – but thankfully she answered.
April met me at the gates of the fairgrounds and I got in. My shoulder was starting to ache again, and I remembered that I needed to get my prescription filled. April drove me to an all-night pharmacy way up in Dublin and then took me back home. When we got there, her husband Brian was waiting on my front stoop. Though newlyweds, neither of them were 21 yet, and I had spent the summer buying them beer. Brian got the lowdown on my bike wreck and suggested that, in celebration of my survival, we all get drunk. Seemed like a great idea to me, so we walked across the street, got a couple of cases of lager and spent the rest of the night in my apartment drinking beer and listening to Dylan. I didn’t go to work the next morning. Since I didn’t wake up until after noon, I didn’t even bother to call in.
That all happened sixteen years ago, and a lot of things have changed. I ride a bit slower now than I used to. I also wear a helmet when I ride these days. Dylan’s shows have gotten a lot tighter since then. I don’t mix heavy prescription pain killers with alcohol anymore and I haven’t slept past noon for any reason in over a decade. Brian and April are divorced and presumably buy their own beer. People carry cell phones around now, which would have been handy a couple of times that day. One of the few things that hasn’t changed is my regret over the fact that I didn’t get Mr. Rollerblader’s name so I could thank him.
If you’re out there, dude: thanks.