By: Al Campbell (Previously published in the Rapid City Journal)
Springtime is a perfect time for a young boy and his bicycle. After the
snow is gone and things have dried up a bit, the ground has the best
texture for turning corners, descending hills and leaving long skid marks
in the dirt. The air is cool enough to allow for long rides without the
overheating that accompanies summer cycling. As a bonus, if you time
it right, you can spin soft dirt on your riding buddies and escape unharmed.
The spring of 1965 in Montana was much like this one. Winter had been
long, cold and full of snow. The groundhog was so frightened by sun reflecting
off the snow on Groundhog's Day that he predicted ten more weeks of winter,
and his prediction was accurate. The occasional warm days were just evil tricks
by Mother Nature to convince us that spring was on the way, then she would
slam us with more cold and snow. We wondered if we would ever see green
Eventually, Mother Nature tired of her trickery and allowed the warm days our
mothers had been praying for, to arrive. A couple blades of green grass was
all it took to get Darnit Stammer, Hic Belcher and me ready for fresh air and
outside fun. Bicycles were pulled out of storage and washed, chains were
oiled, tires were inflated, and long skid marks started appearing on sidewalks
and driveways all over our neighborhood.
Going fast on a bicycle is a term relative to the amount of physical effort
expended by the rider, with one exception. If you can find a long, steep hill,
and if you're brave enough to ride down the slope, your speed will be relative
to the rate of descent and distance traveled rather than the pumping of your
legs. We knew that and made good use of the hills in our neighborhood, but
something was lacking. We needed a big hill; a hill of such massive proportions
and steep grade that the descent of said hill would place our names firmly in
the record books of local bicycle bravery.
Darnit was the one who suggested what we were all thinking. "Let's try
Suicide Hill." His left eyebrow raised just enough to tell us this was a challenge.
"No way, Darnit!" I said trying to scrape up the most convincing look I could find.
"If we manage to survive the ride, which isn't likely, our mothers will kill us when
they hear about it; so either way we die." Hic confirmed my objection by raising
both eyebrows and nodding his head. Two eyebrows trump one eyebrow any day.
"You guys are chicken." Darnit said. He leaned forward and grinned when he
said it to place emphasis on the fact that he had just played a wild card that trumps
eyebrows every time.
"We ain't gonna do it." Hic said, invoking the rule of 'two objections trumps a
chicken.' I added my cards by nodding my head, raising both eyebrows and
leaning forward. We had called his bluff and raised him one chip.
"I dare ya. I double dare ya. No, I triple dare ya!" Darnit smiled with an evil
grin. He knew he had us beat. Those were the three highest wild cards in the
deck. There were no more options left to play. If we didn't ride the hill after
a triple dare, we would be lower than chicken. We would be the ultimate timid
people, the lowest form of male youth possible; even lower than fraidy-cats; we
would be scaredy-cats. The pressure was too great; we collapsed under the
weight of the challenge.
Suicide Hill was the local motorcycle climb. It was so steep that even pro bikers
rarely made it to the top. Rumor had it that the cross on top of the hill was
dedicated a foolish guy who tried to descend the hill in a Jeep and rolled it
bumper-to-bumper, end-for-end all the way to the bottom of the hill. Our
parents wouldn't lie to us just to scare us, would they?
From the top looking down, the hill was worse than I had imagined. About
half way down there was a small area that leveled off a little before diving
nearly vertical to the dirt parking area at the bottom of the hill. That meant
much of the second half of our descent would be in the air. If we could balance
our bikes right, we might be fortunate enough to have the rear tires hit the dirt
first and allow a smooth landing. If that didn't happen, we were doomed. I
said a prayer; a mix of pleading for my life and introducing myself to a God
I was sure I would be meeting personally in a moment. We shoved off on
the count of three.
The wind pulled on my shirt, pants and hair trying to rip me off the bike. My
cheeks, lips and eyebrows were stretching back to my ears and my eyes wouldn't
focus. For some reason my stomach, heart and lungs weren't keeping up with me.
Butterflies had filled the middle part of my body and I couldn't breath. My hands
and legs felt numb, and I was shaking like a jet breaking through the sound barrier.
I was hoping God would accept three fools when we arrived at His pearly gates
any second now.
I couldn't see my companions, but I didn't care. I promised God I would be
faithful to mind my parents and go to church if He would just let me live. My
bike lost contact with the ground near the middle of the hill. I repeated my
prayer and added that I would treat my brothers better; afraid I hadn't
promised enough the first time. Ok, I would even eat all my dinner if I
lived long enough to enjoy another one.
My back tire touched first, then the front tire settled into the dirt. I made it!
Somehow I had survived Suicide Hill, but were my partners as fortunate?
When I skidded to a stop, I turned to look for my foolish companions, but I
couldn't see them. My eyes traced the trail to the top of the hill where they
were standing, looking down to see if I had survived.
I gained weight that summer. My courageous buddies seemed to enjoy
spending part of their allowance on me rather than risk anyone learning how
big their chicken hearts really were. It was a pleasant summer. ~ Al
Campbell (aka Host AC)
Lighter Side Archive