The summer after college I was commuting by bike from Annapolis to Kent Island every weekday, to the North Sails loft. The route was pretty nice in 1979, across the old flat drawbridge over the Severn River and out the winding roads through St. Margaret’s to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Except for the morning a yellowjacket flew up my shorts as I rode close along a honeysuckle-covered hedge, nothing bad happened. I even met some interesting people as I hitch-hiked across the Bay Bridge with my bike. The commuting regulars got to recognize me.
Some motorists can be arrogant cowards. They’ll honk, yell, swerve or throw things and speed away, unwilling to hear any rebuttal from the motorless moron they consider to be simply a target for their contempt. That kind of spinelessness always infuriated me. Sooner or later, one is bound to come by.
One evening, my younger brother, age 13, made what was for him a long road ride, six or seven miles out to the Bay Bridge to meet me so he could ride home with me. He was doing well when we reached the beginning of the long, straight, flat causeway of the Severn River bridge. I put him in front, riding close along the low curb, and rode behind him, about 12 inches into the lane, to encourage motorists to go a little wider around him.
About a quarter of the way across the bridge, we heard a long, commanding horn blast.
“Get the fuck off the road,” yelled the driver.
“Cram it up your ass,” I responded with rapier wit, waving my middle finger at him to emphasize my intellectual superiority.
The lad downshifted and brought his little Datsun full of teenage cronies up beside me. Every one of them who could bring his puckered face to a window proceeded to spit on me.
Years before, I had attended an expensive prep school in Severna Park. The bullies there liked to spit on people. I was short, pudgy and nearsighted at the time, so I received a number of phlegm showers before I finally split someone’s lip and put a stop to it, far too late. But at the time I was reluctant to unleash the beast of violence.
In the intervening years I had grown more than a foot taller and studied combat sports. Still considering myself basically nonviolent, I also knew that you don’t give a bully any encouragement. And getting clammed on flips me right out.
The car, of course, sped away. Rage burst inside me. I sprinted around my brother to chase the receding car. I alternated between full-out sprinting and sitting up to make the most provocative crude gestures I could, hoping to piss them off enough to stop and have it out. I was berserk.
They were getting away. I crested the rise on the Naptown side of the bridge to see them beating the yellow at the next light at Gate Eight of the Naval Academy. They headed for the left turn lane at King George Street, the next intersection, where the red light waited to stop them.
“For what I am about to do, forgive me,” I murmured as I sprinted through the red light at Gate Eight. I did not ask forgiveness for my desire to rain napalm on the cowardly teens in the car. I simply apologized to the gods of Effective Cycling for giving cyclists a bad name by blowing through this red light. But I felt it served the greater good of educating some young punks who were about to get the surprise of their short lives.
One, two, three, big stomps on a big gear, full out for the finish line, I came up beside their car just as they got the green, pulled the pump off the frame and shattered it across the trunk lid, thrust my middle finger into the astonished driver’s face on the fly-by and yelled, “Come and get it, you assholes!”
I intended then to elude them in the maze of small streets in West Annapolis. I wanted to leave them feeling as frustrated and abused as I had felt.
Then I remembered my brother. Twerps of low character, such as my attackers in the dented Datsun, would think nothing of pummeling and curb-stomping an idealistic 13-year-old. Besides, there had been no time to explain anything as I launched my pursuit back on the bridge. I was going to have to stop and draw fire. It could be me, pummeled and curb-stomped, especially since my anger had largely evaporated with the satisfaction of smashing their car after they thought they’d gotten clean away. I will cherish forever the sight of them hitting their heads on the inside of the car as they jumped out of their seats at the sound of impact. And then their goggling eyes as I whipped past them, triumphant. But this could be a costly victory.
I pulled off at the wide bit of gravel shoulder just before the chipped concrete bridge over the overgrown tracks of the B&A Railroad. I laid my bike well away from the road and turned to face whatever would come next.
The car pulled up, occupants yelling. I yelled back, but I’d lost my edge. I didn’t care about anything except getting my brother safely home. I did not feel any guilt at ratcheting up the danger level by retaliating to these creeps. I would have done it again in a minute. But now I felt the ledger was balanced. I wanted to get out of it without inflicting any more damage or receiving any more than I had to.
The teens yelled, but would not approach or make eye contact until they had extracted their largest man, a football player, by the looks of him. He had a few inches of height and several pounds of upper body muscle on me.
“What do you mean, hitting our car with that tire pump?” he yelled. “I’ll stick that pump up your ass!”
“Yeah, I bet that’s not all you’d like to stick up my ass,” I said, trying to imply that he enjoyed show tunes and umbrella drinks more than he-man hand-to-hand fighting.
“Yeah, maybe,” he responded, in a suddenly softened voice.
Uh oh. We moved on to the safe realm of fisticuffs.
Actually, I don’t think his fist was fully closed when he swept it across my face, yanking my glasses off and dislodging the cartilage at the end of my nose. I had to decide immediately whether to tighten up my stance and shatter his eye sockets with a quick one-two or try to slow things down a little.
I ducked under his next swing and grabbed him around the waist. I knew I could easily lift him, which I thought might sober him up a little.
Unfortunately, most of his height must have been in his legs. He tippy-toed the ground as I tried to drive him back against the car, and we ended up falling to the ground in a disorderly heap, with me on the bottom, prone.
He started saying some of the things bigger kids say to smaller kids when they’re grinding the little kids’ faces in the dirt, while I regretted my decision not to hammer him with well-focused blows while we were both still standing.
I was reaching back with my free hand to see if I could get a grip on any tender facial features when I saw two things. The first was national cycling star Thomas Prehn, who lived in town. We’d met once, and he’d already generously offered training tips and invitations to ride. I watched him wisely ride past without even glancing over at the vulgarians scuffling in the dirt. Then my view was blocked, first by some very businesslike black wall tires, then by some very shiny shoes at the end of olive drab pant legs with a black stripe.
The cavalry had arrived.
A great weight was lifted off me. I never did learn his name.
The teens all started babbling at once about the mean cyclist and his unprovoked attack. I may have been barely more than a teen myself, certainly young and stupid, but I was smart enough to know that the state trooper was going to want to listen to whoever was being quiet, not the ones who were raving.
The driver told his story first. They were just driving along and this guy on the bike was blocking traffic and they asked me to get out of the way and I flipped out and smashed his Dad’s brand-new car.
That’s when I noticed the dealer sticker in the rear quarter window, above the nice, fresh, Silca-shaped dent in the brandy-new paint work.
The officer asked for my story. I sounded a little too stuffy as I tried to understate my own rudeness while still owning up to flipping the bird and sprinting them down. I denied nothing, only tried to describe their transgression fully.
The officer silenced us both with a hand.
“You,” he said to the driver. “You can file a complaint about the damage to your car.
“You,” he said, pointing to me. “You can file assault charges on the basis of the initial attack and this subsequent incident.”
Even the idiot driver knew that my assault charge made his property damage complaint look pathetic. Assault. And battery, dude, don’t forget the battery. My nose was crooked, bleeding slightly, and my younger brother, who had arrived for the festivities, was holding the bent remains of my glasses.
I let the teenagers dangle for a long moment before I declared that I was prepared to forget it if they were.
Legally speaking, they were. They did shout dire threats as they drove away, but talk is cheap. You gotta catch me first.
I rode the few blocks home full of the giddiness that follows adrenaline. I burst in on my father and started to tell my story, looking for some praise and sympathy, for standing up to the forces of evil.
“Oh, you didn’t,” he said, aghast. “Do they know where you live? Are they going to trash our house? You should have just ignored them. Now who knows what they’ll do? Jesus!”
Not what I was looking for.
I called my best buddy Jim. We’d ridden many miles together. He’d had plenty of encounters. He’d had a set-to with an 18-wheeler on Route 441 in central Florida, for crying out loud. He’d understand.
“Jeez, man, you should have just let it go. That was so totally wrong,” said Jim.
I hung up the phone and retreated to my favorite haunt overlooking the river, where I could enjoy the soft dusk, the flickering fireflies, and the appetizing barbecuing of brain cells.
As disappointed as I was by the lack of sympathy, my father and Jim were right. Giving way to violence had not created the change I wanted to see in the world. I had only gotten to retaliate, and only partially effectively.
Make no mistake, that saber cut with the pump was as glorious as any fluid arc of steel that ever won me a bout in college. The timing, the force were perfect. Everything went my way in that pursuit. And if I’d been the true devotee of violence, I could have decked each punk as he exited the vehicle, incapacitated them with hammer blows and disappeared without giving them any chance. I had the advantage as they tried to struggle quickly out of their tin can. But I didn’t want it to go further. I’d said my piece with a loud bang across the trunk lid. I was as concerned with not hurting them further as I was with avoiding harm myself.
That is a weird damn feeling. It certainly goes against most of what we get fed in the media. Even our heroes are turning into psychotic killing machines, able to smile one minute and snuff a life the next. Great, glorious, conscienceless stuff.
I was not yet fully ready to put aside the sword. Maybe I’m not even now, though it rusts. But I also was not willing to be ruled by anger.
I pedaled home in the dusk.