Sunday, May 15, 2016

To pedal back from the edge of death

The story starts with a handshake, or rather with a handshake avoided.

A landowner in the area had come to the conservation commission to discuss very preliminary plans to donate an 80-acre parcel to the town for conservation and recreation. I knew him as a customer at the bike shop. In the preliminary formalities of the meeting, I managed to evade shaking his hand. I have absolutely nothing against him. I just don't like to shake hands. It's not the hygienic aspect that bothers me most, although working in an under-staffed small business has made me more wary than I already was about anything that might lead me to take a sick day. I'm also always afraid someone might be giving me a secret handshake. I don't know what would be worse: giving no response and being revealed as an outsider, or accidentally giving a correct response and being mistaken for someone in the know. Way too much stress. I'll just nod from several feet away, and smile to add warmth. You keep your hands to yourself.

The commission and the landowner discussed general issues related to the land transfer. He invited any and all to take a site walk and check out the attractions of wooded wetland and steep ravine. And off he went, leaving us to the rest of our meeting.

The next thing we heard about him was that he had been crushed between a falling tree and a piece of heavy equipment while working on another piece of his land. His right hand had been sliced off, his left hand mangled, and his back was broken. He was in Maine Medical Center. No one knew if he was even going to make it.

Beyond the magnitude of his injuries, here was a man who had been vigorously active for all of his 70-plus years. He had used his hands and his mind together on things as intricate as bicycle mechanics and as brawny as logging. Independent-minded and eccentric, he was a model of self-sufficient ingenuity. The loss of full self-sufficiency might be enough to turn a survivable degree of injury into a sliding board into the grave.

I thought of the hand I had not clasped, lying on the ground, lost to us both. While it did not stimulate a sudden enthusiasm for hand-shaking, it added another layer of understanding to the sense of his loss.

Months passed, as months will do. Suddenly, this week, he called the bike shop to ask if we could work on his Greenspeed Magnum recumbent tadpole trike.

Hell yes, of course.

Getting pounded to the edge of death makes a person thoughtful. In the past year I have known a couple or three people who went through things like a heart attack or this guy's accident. On the other side of it, they emanate a weird serenity. No one would ask to have such a thing happen, but it seems to bring a reward deeper than just survival.

As the man talked about how he discovered the trike and found that he could pedal it, he said, and showed, that his emotions run a lot closer to the surface than they did before the accident. I knew he had enjoyed riding his bicycle, but I did not know how deeply it affected him. Why should it surprise me? Pedaling penetrates deeply into certain people's inner being. The man said that when he discovered he would be able to pedal anything after his accident, "tears just poured out." The catch in his voice showed that the feeling is still there.

This machine matters more than something that gathers dust in a garage and gets ridden a few times a summer. This is a test. This is a weapon against despair, when so much has been lost. The guy flew planes, operated chainsaws, drove a variety of things with wheels, and worked with his hands. Now one of those hands went out with the medical waste months ago, and the remaining one is not exactly deft.

I was glad I had some familiarity with trikes. My brother had bought one to ride while he was rehabbing an injured elbow. He'd bought a Trice, but had studied the other brands in his typically thorough way. They all seem to go together pretty similarly. Simple machines weed out complexity.

The biggest problem was figuring out how to get this thing to a good working height. Trike mechanics and fanciers have devised work stands that range from a few simple blocks to elegant pieces of machining. I attacked the problem from above rather than below, devising a multi-point sling to attach to my e-bike hoist.

Flying Trike

I can be a cold, clinical bastard when I want to be. I can stand on a high, windswept cliff and look down on the futility of all human striving, including my own. I'm pretty consistently immune to inspiration, and I would argue in favor of that point of view to anyone who would listen but what's the point? But somewhere in me is a desire to help my fellow futile strivers with a little bit here and a little bit there, just to try to make their time here a little more pleasant. If you want a purpose in life, that one is far superior to the exchange of dastardly deeds and deadly heroics we tend to glorify.


Steve A said...

There is a lot to be said for trikes. As you've pointed out...

greatpumpkin said...

Brother the Trice owner here. I wanted a trike because they're fun; my excuse was breaking my elbow in 2009. The first one I rode was a Catrike Speed; the second was a custom Greenspeed that is still the nicest trike I ever rode, but it had been made for someone with much longer legs than mine and would have needed a major modification to fit me, so I didn't buy it. I bought the Trice after much research and test riding. It cost more than most of the cars I have owned. Whenever I questioned my sanity in spending that much money, I went for a ride and remembered why. I rode it one-armed for the first few months. It accomplished its mission of getting me back on the road sooner, and of riding under conditions I wouldn't normally ride a bike (such as in an October rainy day on a trail covered in wet leaves, or in snow, or on ice). But I hadn't ridden it in the past couple of years. I have had it up for sale off and on for more than a year, since I'm not using it. Recently my work situation changed enough for me to consider riding to the office occasionally, and I thought that, as I haven't ridden much at all in about two years. I might like to use the trike for this. Then, unexpectedly, I have a Greenspeed in my garage. It belonged to the late brother in law referenced in Cafiend's earlier post, who bought it because he liked my Trice. I brought it back with me to sell it to help my sister. Soon I decided I would buy it myself---either I or my wife could ride it. On Saturday I finally got it out of the car where it has been for two rainy weeks, inflated the tires and adjusted it to fit me, and went for a spin. Whee! It is MUCH peppier than the Trice--partly because it weighs less (the Trice is fairly pimped out) and because the 16" wheels give better acceleration from a standing start. This was pointed out to me by Mr Greenspeed himself, whom I got to meet a few years ago when he was visiting the USA. He is an elderly Australian, still actively riding, who designed the Greenspeed after a career of motorcycle-with-sidecar racing, because he wanted to go really fast on something human-powered. And all through his discussion of how he designs trikes, a recurring phrase was, "we tried that, but it wasn't fast enough." And after that I rather wished I had bought one of his products--I like the personal touch, like my Morgan. So for now the Greenspeed stays with me. It's personal twice over.

greatpumpkin said...

And kudos to the man for not giving up... When I fell (while riding) and broke my elbow, before I was up off the ground, I was calculating how soon I could be riding again. Mine was a minor injury compared to his. I am inspired by his example.

Justine Valinotti said...

I have respect for the man for not giving up and to you, cafiend, for doing what you can to help him.