What you’re about to read is a story I’ve been telling for a long, long time. If you’re one of my former students, what follows may ring a bell. It’s a crazy story, but it happened. I was there.
It was the summer of what, 1966? ’67? I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is it was a warm summer afternoon in Bourneville, Ohio, and I was with my two buddies Harold and Max. Some background is required here, however.
While I was around 10 or 11 years old, Harold was a little older, I’d say 15 or 16 and big for his age. As I recall, Harold had no neck to speak of, his head just sort of rested on his shoulders. In addition, Harold was, uh, a little slow. He also had a speech impediment. Someone told me he didn’t have a roof in his mouth. I don’t want to be insensitive here, but try talking without touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Not easy. Suffice it to say Harold was difficult to understand, but those of us close to him sort of knew what he was saying.
Max? Max was my age, small for his age and a Bourneville tough guy. I can never remember him not smoking. He always had a cig in his mouth from the day I met him, which was when we were probably around 6 years old. Not even kidding by the way. Max could whip any kid’s butt and was a con-artist deluxe. He’d have his friend’s mothers eating out of his hand, then turn around and cuss like a sailor around the rest of the kids in Bourneville.
Me? I wasn’t the best kid in the world, sort of a punk that could hang with the good and bad kids alike, which led to me being with Harold and Max on the summer day in the late ’60s. What happened is etched in my brain forever.
You know where the Dairy Hut is located in Bourneville? That lot used to be the home of a beautiful church. That’s neither here nor there, it’s just that I really miss that church. Anyway, on the day in question Harold and I were sitting on our bicycles in the gravel parking lot of said church. I was probably doing the talking and Harold was, well, probably just nodding and grunting. Thinking back, he was sort of an ideal friend for me, ya know? Good listener. Anyway, as I recall Harold and I were on little bikes with sissy bars on the back and butterfly handlebars out front, both popular on bikes at the time. I think mine had a leopard skin banana seat, which was the epitome of cool, trust me. Now that I think about it, it probably says a lot about Harold that he was maybe 16 years old, riding a 20-inch bike and hanging out with an 11-year-old.
Incidentally, Harold was so big he looked like one of those bears at the circus that had been taught to ride a bicycle. Just giving you a visual. Remember … big, no neck, tiny bike. But let’s move on.
As Harold and I are sitting there, Max rolled around the corner on a new bike. Well, not new but different. It was an older model 10-speed, which none of the kids in Bourneville owned or had ever seen, therefore making it unique and cool. According to Max, he had bought it for a cool $12 from a cousin in faraway Good Hope, Ohio, which is actually not that far away but for me, at the time, had might as well have been Jupiter. Anywho, as soon as Max rolled to a stop he began singing the praises of the 10-speed Huffy he’d obtained, complete with hand brakes and skinny tires, which seemed very European to me at the time. When Max explained you didn’t brake the bike with the pedals but with the handbrakes, we were amazed. I also remember it had those curved-under handlebars that seemed exotic as heck to a kid on a bike with tassles hanging from his handlebar grips. In addition, I may or may not have had a flag attached to my rear axle and flying 10-feet over my banana seat.
As we sat there chatting, it became apparent that Harold was totally enamored with Max’s bike. He was dying to take it for a spin. Alas, after a lot of begging from Harold, Max reluctantly relented.
Little did I know it was a set-up all along.
Max proceeded to tell Harold that sure, he could take the bike a spin, but if he was serious he really needed to experience the speed of the bike. In fact, Max said, Harold should take it up to the top of the hill in front of Twin School and really get a run, see how fast that sucker could fly.
Of course, Harold complied.
Max and I moved out to the side of the road to watch as Harold rode to the top of the hill, turned around, stopped, turned his hat around backwards, and gave us the thumbs up from on high. He then kicked off and began to pedal furiously as he started down the hill. All I could see was the top of his head and his knees pumping as he picked up speed.
Midway down the hill Harold was smokin’. That bike was burnin’ rubber, man, and I gotta say I was impressed. At that point I glanced over at Max, who had commandeered Harold’s little bike. Oddly, Max was smiling. I asked him what was up. Max’s answer, which in my mind will live in infamy — “That bike ain’t got no brakes.”
Well, technically it had brakes, they just didn’t work. Good God.
Meanwhile, Harold was drawing closer to us, U.S. Route 50, and beyond.
I guess Harold was probably 100 feet from the highway when he first hit the hand brakes. The look of horror on his face said it all. Nothing. He then tried the pedal brakes, which didn’t work because they didn’t exist. I do recall this resulted in him hilariously pedaling backwards, frantically attempting to slow the bike.
At this point I remember thinking that Harold had two choices. Number one, he could go straight across Route 50 and hope for the best. If he made it across without getting steamrolled by an 18-wheeler he could cut between the post office and Homer Ward’s gas station, eventually crashing into the corn field beyond those two buildings and probable safety. Option number two was to ditch the bike in the church parking lot and take his chances. I mean, it was a gravel parking lot, but still.
As Harold flew by me and a maniacally grinning Max, neither of us knew what option Harold would choose. As fate and Harold’s brain would have it, neither option was chosen. Harold had other ideas.
Harold decided he could make the turn.
As he leaned the speeding bike into the turn, for a brief second I actually believed he was going to make it. The 10-speed was leaning hard towards the ground, tires squealing as they bit into the asphalt. Harold had a grim determination on his face and dang it, I thought he was going to make that turn.
To this day I believe he would have made it … if it wasn’t for the car.
Yep, at the moment Harold was attempting the near-impossible turn, he veered j-u-s-t a tad into the right-hand lane of Highway 50, the Coast-to-Coast Highway, from Ocean City, Maryland to Sacramento, California. As fate would have it at that very moment a 1958 Chevy Impala driven by an elderly couple from Cincinnati was innocently passing through our lazy town. Now, I wouldn’t say the old folks hit Harold. I would say, however, that he hit them.
The passenger side window was down, and I can’t imagine what went through the old lady’s mind when Harold came crashing into her world. I mean, one minute she’s enjoying a nice drive on a lazy summer day with the love of her life, the next a crazed no-necked beast on a 10-speed is slamming into the family sedan.
It wasn’t a T-bone, more of a sideswipe, and I saw it all clearly.
Harold hit the car, and stuff just flew everywhere, including Harold. I truly believed in my heart he was dead. Harold bounced off, the bike veered off to the right, and the car went on before pulling off a bit up the road.
Max and I sped up to the carnage, expecting the worst. Here’s what I saw:
Harold was alive but stunned, sitting and leaning against a fence. He was otherwise unhurt, but his left pant leg was missing in action. Oh yeah, and he’d peed his pants.
Max’s bike was missing a front tire (it was later found a couple hundred yards up the street in some bushes), its left pedal and the left handlebar. The left handlebar was later found inside the old couple’s car.
I also noticed Harold was holding something in his hand. It was the Impala’s sideview mirror.
As I stood there inspecting the wreckage, the elderly couple cautiously made their way back to the expected bloodshed. They were totally confused, oblivious as to what had happened. Hell had come calling on a beautiful summer day. The conversation, as I remember it, was as follows:
Old Woman: “Son, are you OK? We didn’t see you! Where did you come from? We are so sorry.”
They totally thought it was their fault.
Harold: “Umgh ah ite I hink.”
Max: “Oh my God! He can’t talk! What have you people done?”
Oh good Lord.
At that point I actually became the voice of reason and explained to the couple that Harold couldn’t, in fact, talk before the accident and they weren’t in any way responsible for his lack of eloquence. Also, the stuff on his pants was pee, not blood. I think.
After a few minutes of assurances that Harold wouldn’t sue, the old folks went nervously on their way, but not before giving Harold $20, a princely sum for a Bourneville kid in the late ’60s.
After we collected the bike parts and carted everything back to Max’s house, I rode back home accompanied by a shaken, one pant-legged Harold. Before we parted ways I asked him what he was going to do with the 20 bucks. His reply? He’d given it to Max in exchange for destroying his bike.
So Max, whose diabolical plan was responsible for the catastrophe, not only got a huge kick out of the whole affair but walked away with 20 big ones, a handsome $8 profit.
Just another day in the 1960s in beautiful downtown Bourneville, Ohio.
Dave Shoemaker is a retired teacher, athletic director and basketball coach with most of his professional years spent at Paint Valley. He also served as the national basketball coach for the island country of Montserrat in the British West Indies. He lives in southern Ohio with his best friends and companions, his dogs Sweet Lilly and Hank. He can be reached at https://shoeuntied.wordpress.com/.