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Bicycle

2013-03-14
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Summer 1972
I was in summer school, taking organic chemistry, to make up for being out of school last fall. I was living on the fifth, top floor of the House and I carried my bike up and down the stairs. The organic chemistry class was held in a big lecture hall north of the House, across the overpass and past the old Hall. We always walked to class– it was too close for bicycling.
We had lab in the afternoon on most days. The lab was held in a big drafty hall with tall, wide open windows, and it got pretty warm on most afternoons. We didn’t have those new-fangled exhaust hoods over our experimental benches, and some of the reaction chemicals did stink.
After class on the day before the last day, I went out for a bike ride on Massachusetts Avenue, going north on the left side of the northbound lanes, next to the center line, fast. I was trying to go up the Ave a few blocks, not going anywhere, and I decided to turn around and go south at an intersection.
I never got to turn around. I crashed into a car (a Toyota Corolla) going south. I was hit by the car on the left front quarter and went up on the hood, then back onto the roof with my butt going through the windshield. For a tiny fraction of a second, I laid back on the hood of the car, striking the edge of the roof with my back at about the lumbar-thoracic junction.
Then the driver hit his brakes, and I was catapulted forward. I performed a full sumersault in the air as I was thrown forward from the car and landed on my feet on the street, facing south and only a few feet behind a bus also going south. For a moment, I thought I had almost hit the bus. I didn’t realize that I had somersaulted off a car that was still behind me.
I turned and stepped back to the car, which was motionless in the street with a smashed windshield and dented roof. I was not aware of any pain. Looking at my hands, I could see tears in my gloves, and there were red gouges on my knees and lower legs. I sat on the hood of the car.
A passing driver offered to take me to the hospital, and for a few minutes I sat in the front passenger seat of her car. The ambulance showed up within moments, and a fireman gingerly helped me into a chair-like stretcher, strapping me in sitting down. I began to be aware of something wrong in my back, and reaching backwards, I could feel pieces of glass on my shorts and shirt.
As the ambulance drove south on Massachusetts Avenue, I looked back out of the open door at the traffic, all the cars pulled to the side of the four lane road. It was a short ride to the infirmary, which was in the building complex just to the southeast of Harvard Square. They had a small emergency room and could put people to bed for a few nights upstairs. It was the students’ idea of divine intervention.
At the hospital, I lay quietly on a gurney while the resident sutured up two rounded gouges in my left shin. Then I turned over and he examined my back. There seemed to be a bruise forming over my lower back. They relieved me of my clothes and shook the glass out of them.
Next I was sent to Xray, where they checked my lower legs and I stood up for an Xray of my midback. There was something about the Xray of my back that the technician didn’t say, but she went back and talked to the doctor, then came in and repeated the Xray. I never found out what was wrong, if anything. I just know it was painful to stand up at that point.
Then they put me to bed with instructions to collect any urine that I might pass fully into this urinal, please. I think i was rather dehydrated because my kidneys were inactive for a long time. Finally, early in the morning, I got up and urinated as instructed, then rang the nurse.
I was released around 8:30 or so and made it to class a half an hour late. I sat next to my room-mate, who had visited me in hospital, and commiserated for a while. We took notes of the last lecture. At lunch-time, we walked over to the corner where the accident had happened, and retrieved my bicycle from the basement of the restaurant across the street from where I had landed.
The man who worked there said he had, by chance, actually observed the moment of the accident, and that I had flown from the hood of the car when it stopped and I had done a complete somersault before landing on my feet on the street. This was news to me, as I didn’t remember anything about the hit. Just being hit, then being in the street.
We walked back to the House, my room-mate carrying my wrecked bicycle. Back at the House, we had a little something to revive us and discussed the future. Then we went to lab.
I had a good-sized bench to myself, with all the equipment needed to do organic syntheses and extractions, and the day’s experiment involved a simple synthesis and the concentration and characterization of the synthetic result. I went through the instructions and followed them as well as I could, but I began to feel a little wobbly, and the pain in my legs was worse.
Mostly it was in the knees, where I had two big shallow gouges taken out right below my kneecaps, but also there were my shins, with several small holes and two larger ones closed with a couple of stitches. My elbows also had some small abrasions. All this was carefully covered with sterile bandages and gauze wrappings. My hands, fortunately, had been protected by the gloves I wore.
The thing that bothered me the most wasn’t bandaged. As the hours wore on after the crash, swelling began to occur in the thoraco-lumbar region of my spine. My back began to ache, especially that afternoon as I stood at the laboratory bench.
I spent a long afternoon in the organic chemistry lab, performing the last lab exercise of the summer. I knew I had to finish this exercise to get a decent grade, otherwise all my work this summer would be wasted. I finished the exercise and got a reasonable yield for the final product, not up to my usual standards, but good enough to get a passing grade for the day’s lab.
Then I went back to the House and rested. My girlfriend came to visit that evening, and we talked over a glass of wine. My room-mate had left early, as usual, zooming away in his Porsche to get back to his dad’s home in New Greenwich.
We talked about the crash, and how I had really been at fault, and if I had been watching where I was going, it wouldn’t have happened. I agreed with everything she said, because it was true. I had made a turn where I wasn’t supposed to, in the face of oncoming traffic that I had ignored. Why did I do that?
All I remembered was that I had gone for a bike ride to blow off steam, so I had cycled really fast north on Massachusetts Avenue from northwest of the House. I had gone fast for a couple of blocks, then got in to the left lane. At the corner just north of the park, I had made an attempted U-turn to go back south on Massachusetts Avenue, but there had been traffic coming south that I just didn’t take into account. I still couldn’t answer why.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Early in the morning, a backache woke me up. I got up and took a couple of aspirins my room-mate had left me. I lay back down again, and fell back asleep for a little while.
I did well overall in the organic chemistry summer session, so I didn’t have to take it again that fall. I started taking biochemistry classes instead.
I still had a backache, especially in the morning. I went to physical therapy, and they gave me a lot of relief, especially with the infrared heat machine. The backache receded to the point where two aspirin in the morning completely took care of it, and it never came back all day.
The driver of the car got a lawyer. He came to see me one day a month or so later. We had coffee in a shop on the southeast side of Harvard Square, past which I walked every day on my way to class now. We talked to him about the accident. I told him it was really my fault that it had happened, the driver couldn’t have seen me.
He seemed cheered by this prospect. Then we began to discuss my family. He was depressed to learn that my father was a teacher at a small mid-Western college and not a rich man of some sort. I told him we didn’t have any insurance although I suspect my father had a home insurance account that might cover such things as minor son crashing his bike into a car.
The lawyer told me that he didn’t think he’d be able to file suit if my father didn’t have a lot of money, and regretfully bid me farewell. I was surprised, but I really didn’t think it was a big deal at that moment.
Later, I happened to run in to the driver on foot; we were both walking, through the park on the west side of Massachusetts Avenue a couple of blocks from where the crash had occurred. I was walking north, and he was coming south, with his girlfriend, I assumed. We stopped for a few moments to talk, and I asked him if he had been hurt. He said that he had been going to a chiropractor because his back hurt.
I realized that there was more involved, at least in the driver’s mind, than the loss to his car, which he explained to me was declared totaled by the insurance company because of the roof damage. I began to feel proud of my ability to inflict damage on inanimate objects like cars.
That winter I still had a backache; I took two Bufferin in the morning and sometimes in the evening as well. I went to physical therapy and enjoyed the infrared heat machine, especially on cold days. Cambridge got pretty cold, and the snow piled up, dirty and black on the street. I walked everywhere, partly because I didn’t have a bicycle, although my room-mate’s friend offered to let me ride his.
He had built a bicycle from parts recovered or selected individually to fit his requirements. He especially liked my brakes, and since they had been one of the few items on my bike to survive the crash, he mounted them on his bicycle. Therefore, he felt he owed me a share of the rides on his new bicycle.
I did take advantage of the privilege a number of times, although it wouldn’t have been convenient to borrow it just to do an errand or ride to class because he lived in Boston rather than Cambridge and actually drove to class in his car. He drove an old Porsche 356 that I didn’t think was as cool as my room-mate’s 912.
Riding my room-mate’s friend’s bicycle was an unusual and scary sensation. There wasn’t any pain in my back or knees but I constantly had the feeling I was going to fall. My rides usually lasted an hour, no more. It was cold anyway.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Theodore Seitz permalink
    2013-03-15 05:29

    THis is so very detailed, I am amazed at your memory at such a traumatic time and so long
    ago. I cannot remember such details that long ago and I do have a good memory for details.
    Maybe that is why you write so very well. I guess you could weave this into a part of some
    story? Keep it up. Your Dad Ted

    Like

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