Turning southwest from the front door of our house would lead to a street that wound around Luther Lake and eventually to Ridglea Hills Elementary School. Knowing that, the innermost part of my being was instinctively repulsed at the thought of learning something whenever we turned in that direction. If you turned to the northeast, however, the golf course awaited, and Camp Bowie Blvd., the heliport at Western Hills Hotel, Howard Johnson’s and any number of good things. Because of the steepness of the hill, and my penchant to go down it on something I had hammered together with wheels and boards…….. that direction was also associated with death (my own).
Most of the activity involved in acts of potential self destruction occurs early on. It is the waiting, planning, and decision to act that really encompass the difficulties.
No matter what amount of time is actually taken in completing these activities, it always seems like eternity.
Looking down the hill and faced with the finality of the next decision, my mind vacillates between “go” and “no” much as a game of “she loves me / she loves me not” plays out in its endless repetition.
If I get an answer I don’t want, I can always pick another flower, or grab another moment in which to set things right. Vacillation on a hot day only gets you so far, however.
Facing a difficult journey and with the world in sharper focus, I became aware that each breath taken contains the potential to be the last one, or maybe one of the last ones. That awareness of my ultimate demise elevates the dialogue I have with myself……sort of.
I have been in many situations where my final words and thoughts (had I actually died) were simply: ”I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!”
Aside from my disappointment in not dying, I always thought that such last thoughts or dying words (had I actually spoken) lack a certain gravitas.
I now realize it’s going to be quite tricky timing my demise in such a way that I can say something profound at the end.
But when one is face down on some rough boards (with wheels attached) that are aimed at the bottom of a very steep hill….a hill which has reportedly been slathered in blood and death…… and the hot summer sun does nothing but get hotter, the thoughts of last words soon become mute.
The initial push off starts slowly; terror waits until the last possible moment to show its face.
Nothing more happens….for a while. The internal voices are silenced. Or rather there is a momentary silence. Whatever recognizable words one still has become garbled by the jerky movement, the rapidly increasing speed….and fear. Then following this brief artificial pause there is a gathering crescendo of internal noise similar to an orchestra on meth.
This is noise that no longer resembles words or even syllables; words have lost their meaning. Meaning has even lost its meaning. Fear, though, remains.
The sound builds until I cannot determine whether it is internal or external. However, a questionably audible scream is clearly present in the hot afternoon air and remains a part of the journey until the end.
Abandoned to destiny and not knowing whether that destiny is triumph or pain, there is nothing to do but hang on and pray. And prayer too is forgotten, unlearned quicker than it was learned… perhaps because all available energy is used up in simply staying on board.
Shutting my eyes does nothing to help either. If a death occurs and I don’t see it does it still happen? What if it is my own?
They say instinct is supposed to take over at moments like these, but I find that instinct, for self-preservation or whatever, was the first to flee. Probably when it saw me building this thing and contemplating taking it down this side of the hill, it said a silent “goodbye”.
In fact the core of the entire experience may be that the thin veneer of civilization is cut loose and discarded, and I am in contact with the raw essentials: fear, fear, and more fear.
Faster and faster I go, heading for the steepest part of the hill…… just in front of the Ellwell house. The house and its lingering white stone evil, twists the road in front of it into a fiendish catapult, launching me, the rough boards the nails, and the chattering wheels headlong, faster into my certain doom. Underneath me, gravel and hot tar streak by. My eyes widen, A bit of nausea makes itself known. And my mouth becomes dry enough that spit tastes like chalk.
The guidance system of the craft still functions as I hurtle ever downwards, but functions only in the sense that I can control and determine a tiny bit of the general direction I am traveling in.
If I was an arrow aimed at a target I might get somewhere in its vicinity, but the red dot in the middle is definitely out of the question.
Usually the hub of the steering mechanism on any of these crafts was a lone nail driven through a cross member and bent, holding it to the chassis. The bent nail, given time, would enlarge the hole and work its way out of its pivotal position. If on a hill such as this, such a thing happened, catastrophe would rapidly follow. A loose nail should show up in a routine safety check, but I don’t remember safety being in any way part of my routine.
Terrifyingly, things had gone pretty much as planned. Then out of the corner of my eye I could see movement.
There at the bottom of the hill where the cross street cruelly intersects my trajectory; there to the right of the forlorn stop sign a lone blue car was traveling. The driver was unconcerned with all that I was dealing with. It was headed straight for me.
Perhaps it was the appearance of the car that triggered it, but cogent thoughts rapidly engulfed my brain. Suddenly and purposefully they returned to my inner world.
I was instantly transformed from victim of my fate to master of it, or maybe into an aware but hapless observer…. I had a brain (young though it might be) and I could think and reason.
Given enough time I might even come up with the solution of how to avoid my impending death.
“ My feet!” I thought, ”my feet!” “I need to drag my feet and stop!”
It was then and there that I became a believer in shoes.
Because of my position on this dreadful thing I had built, my toes were the first to touch the speeding black pavement. One quick taste of pain and both feet shot up, recoiling instantly. Nothing I could say to my feet would entice them to touch that pavement again.
It was as if my feet had divorced me. Their dislike for me was so great at that moment; they were content to let me die in a bloody mess. Not that I could blame them. I was ready to sacrifice them so that I might live….and all of this because of a childish ideology involving shoes.
But now they might as well be the feet of another child. I could not control them at all.
Needless to say, time was running out.
I began to contemplate how much fun the other side of the hill once was. Sure, it was quite a bit slower but that’s not so bad. It HAD been fun once …”If I get out of this alive,” I said half out loud, ”I will go back to the other side of the hill and stay there.”
More and more happy contented memories from the other side of the hill flooded my consciousness, accompanied by regret.
” Why have I done this?” I thought.
But there was no time for an answer.
Something must be done before it is too late.
I was approaching the last house before the dreaded stop sign. At the last possible moment I pulled the steering mechanism violently. The vehicle did indeed move in the direction I anticipated. Other houses with children in them and those inhabited by nameless adults were rushing by. I forced the thing to the right in a jagged diagonal that cut across the entire street. In the ever-decreasing distance the blue car was still traveling towards me.
The last house at the bottom of the hill was made of red brick. Nothing remarkable stood out about it. It was just one of the many houses on the street that served as a backdrop for whatever drama was occurring in my life at the time. The house could have been inhabited by porcupines for all I knew…. but at that moment it was a Godsend. Traveling my now diagonal path I clipped the right curb slightly then careened across the driveway narrowly avoiding the Studebaker parked there.
The driveway was clean gray concrete, which must have been recently swept. This provided a much smoother surface than the irregular one in the street. Thus one final climax was added to the climax.
I could feel the final surge of speed as I reached the driveway and the craft seemed to glide or float as if on water.
But just beyond that was the brown burned newly mowed Texas grass of summer. It wasn’t quite as soft as I imagine long New England grass to be but given my alternatives it was heaven. I hit the grass at top speed and with full force.
“Grass! Grass! I’ve hit grass!” I thought, and I could easily have been a wildcatter hitting oil. The madly spinning wheels dug themselves into the dirt and my now cursed vehicle stopped. It was then that the craft and I parted ways. It had taken me that far and no further.
It stopped and I didn’t. I continued on for a good 6 to 8 feet.
During that part of the excursion I was able to taste the grass as well as feel it. Grass as you slide across it provides a warm prickling sensation akin to burning. Slide enough and your skin gets thin enough to bleed. When I stood up green covered a good percentage of my body. Based on the grass stains I must have rolled my body in a number of different directions. I had no direct memory of the landing. But hard though it may have been, it WAS a landing. And for that I am grateful.
I climbed that steep hill slowly, streaked in blood and grass, carrying my boards with wheels and bent nails. With a good story to tell I made the most of it. No doubt the blue car in my story got a little closer each time I repeated it. And without a lot of questioning I was able to lick my wounds for a while safely on the other side of the hill.
Pure terror and past bravery subside quickly, however. And the need to prove myself started pulling me in a northeastern direction as soon as I got to the top.
Maybe if I wore some shoes?