Chapter 15

The Inevitable Bike Accident

Time, like an ever-flowing stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream,
Dies at the break of day.

Isaac Watts
1674 – 1748

If you are going to ride a bike you eventually are going to fall from the damn thing, run off a road, get knocked off a footpath, stick your toes into the spokes, run into a cloud of vampire mosquitoes, get hit by a car or simply run into something very solid.  The result will vary from badly skun knees, to a broken thumb, a broken elbow, a broken ankle, a broken nose or ‘something else’.

If a cyclist starts thinking about the possible scrapes and bites and breaks on a long trip…then…I speculate…there would be no long bike trips.  So far we had been fortunate in most of Australia, the USA, Europe, Turkey and Japan.  Scrapes and one broken thumb were the worst happenings.

The nastiest incident, and undoubtedly the most memorable, had been my carelessly driving off a side road into a shallow tidal pond in Queensland, right next to a sign which stated:

Estuarine Salt Water Crocodiles in this Area,
Do Not Go Off Track!!!

The exclamation marks are mine!  Falling into a croc hole helped me to discover that it is not only a Divinity that can ‘walk on water’.  Even Indian Chief Hiawatha needed a White Canoe on his water trip to heaven.  Bicycles, indeed, do not float.  I just leapt straight out of the pond.  I can still hear Joan’s shrieking, seemingly hysterical, laughter and shouts of “Go! Go! Go!”  She insists she was shouting “No! No! No!”  Hmmmm.  To this day I am not sure if she was barracking for me or the black-water hidden croc.  I prefer to think it was the former.  I leapt from bog to bank with one great athletic bound.  It was a feat similar to the time we were in a Tasmanian grave yard studying the literature of tomb stones.  I was about to step from a grave stone and on to a curled tiger snake a hundred and twenty feet long!  With my curdled snake cry and balanced precariously on my left leg, I leapt over the snake and the neighbouring grave stone.  Come to think of it, Joan had the same sort of cry then.  Later I hooked the bike with a long pole, pulling the offending vehicle from the infested swamp and spent the rest of the day cleaning and oiling the venerable bike.  Two eyes, looking like knots on a log, watched the entire proceedings.  It took a few days to laugh at that one.  Not Joan. 

We had now travelled almost 2,000 kilometres and were still in Queensland.  The state of Queensland is amazingly big in size and small in population.  It is larger than the UK, Ireland, France, Germany and the Benelux countries together and has fewer than five million people; about one half the size of Sweden.  There are more crocs than people it seems. 

I had just celebrated my sixtieth birthday with two flat tires and a sprained thumb from an altercation with a low hanging branch.  “Oh gawd”, I thought in my most American agony, “Let this bike trip pass from me!”  I digress but only in an attempt to explain what “Joyful Adventures” can be held for the person who sees him/herself as touching the hem of divinity and able to do the impossible, like biking with crocodiles.  Contrary to accepted wisdom, the fact is that the older you get the less sense you seem to have.  Of such immortal incidents of great ignorance are: endless bike trips, mountain climbing, diving to 150 feet and the tales emerging from them.  For us that came to mean: crocs, dogs, more dogs, hateful cops, helpful police, gales, more dogs, more crocs, typhoons…

Ah…Yes, typhoons.  A few years previously, we were on the island of Okinawa, the southern-most prefecture of Japan, a few hundred kilometres from Taiwan and also in the middle of ‘Typhoon Alley’.  The storm we encountered was much bigger than the twisters we had twice experienced on our bikes on the Willard Munger Trail in Minnesota. 

Okinawa had been the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War in 1945 and there were still caves with signs which warned to not enter because of unexploded ordinance.  Okinawa was a place where there were lurking ghosts in the dense jungle undergrowth and especially at the mouths of caves which still stared from the jungle vines and overgrowth.  Being at such a battle site in which tens of thousands of Japanese and Americans died was always an emotional and saddening experience.  The battlefields were omnipresent.  All buildings on the two thousand plus kilometre island had been destroyed by the storm of bombs and shells from American planes and ships.  Thousands of artillery shells from the US marines and army added to the carnage.  The citizenry lived in the jungles and the jungles were destroyed as well.  Frequently the Americans could not tell the difference between the rag-tag civilians and the rag-tag soldiers.  Without going into the annihilation, the results are obvious.  Interestingly, the sound of war had not really disappeared, for the boom and roar of American jets practicing for the next battle with the Soviet Union were all parts of living on a former battle ground still contested by yet, another foreign power.  Everyone on Okinawa lived next to an airfield.

We had just finished a week long holiday of sea-kayaking, fishing and body surfing on a US military base.  As university lecturers we were the guests of Uncle Sam.  We were teaching at a university campus and, as we were teaching only twelve hours per week that term, there were many hours of leisure and, the teacher’s dream: NO preparations as we had already taught the courses a number of times.  Joan was an expert in Poetry, English and American Literature and I taught Speech Communications, Sociology and US History.  Our slack time was spent in sloth and play after the lectures were finished.  Our fellow teaching colleagues were, like us, known as inveterate travellers and party people.  Life has never been quite so good as the idyll we experienced on Okinawa.

At breakfast, fellow lecturer Barbara asked us if we wanted a ride back to our apartment in Okinawa City, about 100 kilometres south.  “You certainly do not want to ride your bikes in this coming storm.  They have just closed down all air bases.”  Joan quickly (and ignorantly it would reveal) responded. “Oh no, the winds are going south, just like us…we will just ride the typhoon home…won’t we Buck?”  Never one to slow down a possible adventure: (Gulp!) “Certainly…!  Ah, just take a short time…piece of cake,” I responded to my most foolish and most interesting partner.

And so, as the storm clouds gathered as we battened down our camping gear onto our bike racks and the million and one half people of Okinawa were busy battening down houses and hatches, the Great Typhoon Bike Adventure was about to begin.  It was said that typhoons on Okinawa are different from other typhoons.  Never having been in a typhoon before we had to accept the nostrum that we were about to experience a ‘different wind pattern’.  We had discovered that American Midwest twisters were definitely unique.  In Minnesota the twister came…blew everything away and disappeared, sometimes within seconds.  If you were fortunate you and your bike would be unscathed.  Only once were we blown into a ditch.  Physics lecturer Marcel informed us about the coming storm, “These winds can come around a head and go both ways at the same time,”  Not knowing if that was good or bad we merely put it down as information to draw on if needed.  “The weather people at the base say this one will have winds up to 150 kilometres, but the worst will not arrive for another fourteen hours,” Marcel added.  It did not seem too terrifying as the name of this storm was “Joan”.  How could Joan hurt me?  Dumb question. 

Not understanding the ignorance of her statement, Joan responded to this information, “Oh, good, we will get home REAL fast!”  There is the saying that a woman scorned is a pretty dangerous person.  Over the years I had learned to not counter Joan when her head was set…even if it might result in having our collective heads blown off and out to sea.  I have developed a nostrum, oft repeated, “What Joanie wants Joanie gets.”

In Okinawa, and most of Japan, there are three fears: earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes or tropical cyclones as the locals prefer.  It is my feeling that if they are called ‘tropical,’ the warm waters they disengorge do not sound lethal like a Canadian Arctic winter storm.  They are.  Almost the entire coast of Okinawa, and much of the rest of the Japanese archipelago, is protected by giant concrete interlocking blocks which can tower to twenty-five feet along the rivers, beaches and towns.  The concrete blocks look very much like the jacks long ago primary school children used when playing Ball and the Jack.  We were about to see some of these jacks tossed in the air as if being played with by the children of the gods.  It is awesome to witness these multi-ton concrete jacks tossed straight up in the waves and hear the crunch as they crash down on themselves.  Father used to say that thunder was caused by the gods getting ready for a party by rolling beer barrels around heaven.  These were no rolling beer barrels.  Like so many adolescent things I have done in my life it was too late to turn around and too late to find shelter.  Yet, I have to say the whole drama was exciting and fun and if we lived I promised God halfway through the adventure, like Martin Luther, I would become a monk!  Joan could visit me once in a while.

There were almost no cars on the road.  Great!  We sailed south, picking up speed as our greedy wheels demanded more!  Over Red Bridge we zipped.  Past the old pottery sheds which were now starting to shed roof tiles.  We whizzed past some WWII caves which still stared out to sea, waiting for hostile ships.  I remembered the stories of cousin Art who had fought in the Battle of Okinawa and his description of the cyclone that almost won the battle for the Japanese.  Suddenly, Barbara and two hunkering lecturers careened past in their pink Nissan sports car.  I could read their lips and their faces were grey.  Their eyes were tiny.  They were fearful.  I could read Barbara’s lips. She was shouting, “Oh, my gawd…” the way Americans do when confronted with an impending disaster.  I assumed they were fearful for themselves.  Not us.  We were having a magnificent ride…our ignorance and racing hormones were protecting us.

Then we discovered the headland that Marcel had described.  In a brilliant dash of speed we approached the northern side of a point interestingly known as ‘Skull Head’.  My speedo read ‘65’ kms.  I had only gone that fast once and that was down a long mountain in the Huon Valley in Tasmania where I had almost collected a giant tree.  “Wow!” I shouted with ignorance and exhilaration.  “Piece of cake…” I bragged to myself as words were ripped from my lips and hurled on ahead with the debris of the storm.  ‘Seventy-one’ the speedo read.  Joan was only a few yards behind.  I could feel her terror and hear her screech of elation.  Joan’s screech at times like that were similar to her snake squeal.  We rocketed towards the end of Skull Head.  Suddenly we learned in an instant what air brakes are all about.  We hit a pocket where both winds, north and south, met and neutralized all molecules, atoms…everything…including us and our bikes.  We literally stood on our pedals.  Nothing happened!  I remember saying to myself, “Isn’t this interesting?”  I have heard that people at the point of death DO say strange things.  From my treasure of useless information came, “Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you…” It even seemed funny.  For a period of about five or ten seconds we were at one with the elements.  It was almost friendly.  Fortunately the wind that picked us up on the other side of the head was a bit more benevolent and we slowed to about forty…”Too slow, I muttered.”  The pause was only a matter of seconds. 

The high hills darkened and they now sheltered us somewhat from the blasts.  Now came the rain.  We rode into a bus stop which was fortunately built for idiots like us and from winds that were sending palm trees gracefully bowing to the ground and praying like a Shinto priest.  The Japanese know how to do things.  That was one strong bus shelter.  For centuries they had battled against the cyclones and there would have been a few dawdling Japanese people who found themselves out in the elements like us.  The shelter was so constructed that the winds slipped over and around us.  We were safe…for the moment.  Joan’s wet hug was the nicest I have ever been given.  What seemed to be a thousand inches of rain fell in moments but being a mountainous island the water rushed off quickly in feet deep torrents.  The sound of the rain was combined with the gods of the elements playing Ball and Jack a few hundred metres away on the now flooded river-beach.  The rains slowed as did the winds for a moment so we had to move forward.  We were tiny toys on this ancient battlefield.

Now came a new and exciting game.  There were no cars on the road.  We were alone except for rolling rubbish tins, giant arrow-like fronds from palm trees and a missile I hope to never see again: flying coconuts.  As they bounced along I dismissively wondered if that is what war may have looked like on Civil War battlefields with expended cannon balls bouncing menacingly along, decapitating, maiming and killing.  From my endless pool of totally useless information I weirdly thought of the Minnesota First Infantry Regiment fighting at Gettysburg against Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade in 1863.  The Minnesotans were outnumbered by five or six to one but they prevailed in the battle and we Minnesotans had been taught to be proud that the Minnesota First Regiment had saved the North from defeat.  Of course it was not true but that was our myth.  Like the battlefield on which we were now retreating there were as many heroes on one side as the other in the Okinawa battle of 1945.  I distinctly remember feeling kindred to both the Americans and the Japanese soldiers. The whole surreal picture seemed strangely reconcilable as we were driven through the battlefield by the winds.

And the Japanese are invariably polite.  We shot past a fish restaurant where we had stopped many times to practice our faulty language skills.  Our pathetic pronunciation and incorrect grammar were always politely corrected…it was only after we left that they probably exploded with laughter…”Did you hear what that bald oyster-eye said?” they must have filled the room with gales of laughter.  About twenty-five people watched through what must have been bullet proof glass as the hurricane continued to shoot us on our trajectory.  I guess they had never seen anyone commit hari kari on a bicycle before but, despite our madness, we felt strangely safe.

We survived.  As mother said so often, “God takes care of drunks and fools.”  Never had her words rebounded so well as when we finally blew up the long hill to our apartment on the top of a large hill from which we would soon hear the chants of the Buddhist priests in the valley below thanking the gods for one more delivery from troubles.

And here we were, finally in New South Wales after the endless and sometimes impassible roads of Queensland.  Of course, with a place as huge and a population so small as Queensland, one cannot, and should not, expect good roads.  New South is a different place altogether.  It is only twice the size of California and has almost eight million people compared to the forty million of California.  Between towns, like Canada, one can travel for a hundred kilometres before seeing a house.  Hence the roads were much better and you could ride on the occasional four lane highway quite easily.  We were coming down a long mountainous hill, probably too fast, not far from Byron’s Bay, where bike and car and man and ditch and tree had a powerful impact upon my life.  I remember the gooseneck snap…it was quite melodic, like a bell being struck…

I awoke at the Hospital in Lismore.  I knew I was dead as there was no pain and Joan was standing next to me, smiling.  Heaven would hold Joan.  I tried to move but my arm and shoulder were hanging from the ceiling in a huge bandage and I had what seemed to be dozens of tubes traversing over and under…and through me.  My nose itched.  I could not scratch.  I asked for water.  I could not speak.  I wanted to urinate.  I could not. 

I will not take my reader through the hospital regimen nor through the medical accounts of my injuries except to say that it was a lucky break, that goose neck.  In the tests the hospital ran after the accident they discovered I was in immediate need, undoubtedly, of at least a three shot bypass operation, or possibly four.  This would take place after my shoulder and other parts had healed well enough.  The doctor said I was fortunate because one of the best heart surgeons in Australia practiced in Hobart.  I remember thinking, “I hope he has been practicing a lot…I would rather outrun a lion dog in Far North Queensland…and outswim a crocodile in a black water pond.”

The bike trip was over and the next adventure was about a month away.