Living healthy can be dangerous. I have a ticonium plate in my jaw and a severed nerve below a cheekbone to prove it. In mid-December, and about three miles into my nightly five-mile commute by bicycle, I went head-over-wheels in a crash that knocked me cold and eventually had me under the scalpels of two surgeons -- a cheek man and jaw man, both artists.
To back-pedal for a moment, I had been commuting on two wheels since 1973 -- the year of the first oil crisis, if you're keeping count. Long gas lines pushed me to my neighborhood bicycle shop, which had no lines.
Twelve million bicycles were sold that year. My Raleigh 3-speed, a $79 marvel, plus a few dimes for the handlebar bell, had to be the best-of-breed. It was as solid as a Clydesdale, with a frame sturdy enough to haul a train uphill. Covering 10 miles a day on it, 50 a week and 2,200 miles a year, it would become, after only a few years, a cardiovascular support system that lowered my pulse from the mid-60s to the mid-40s.
It was a freewheeling health kick, plus daily moments along woodland bikepaths to remember favorite lines from poems or to agree with William Saroyan's lyricism: "As I rode my bike, music began to happen to me."
I became, what else, a roadway autophobe. In the clog of traffic, when car owners, penned in like cattle, would torture themselves in massive tie-ups, I would remember some lines by Daniel Behrman in his minor classic, "The Man Who Loved Bicycles": "The bicycle is a vehicle for revolution. It can destroy the tyranny of the automobile as effectively as the printing press brought down despots of flesh and blood. The revolution will be spontaneous, the sum total of individual revolts like my own. It may have already begun."
About a year ago, after more than 30,000 miles as a healthy revolutionary and not a scratch to show for it, someone liked my Raleigh a little more than the law allowed and made off with it. I searched for another, but by now Raleigh 3-speeds had become as rare in Washington as red squirrels, although I did spot one two years ago. I should have gone the extra mile, or extra thousand miles, to find such a Raleigh, but after a few weeks of busing I succumbed and went modern with an all-terrain job that had 18 gears and an owner's manual as thick as "War and Peace." Worse, it was skittish, with the nerves of a thoroughbred at post-time. For 16 years, I rode safely on a three-speed workhorse. Now I was atop an 18-speed show horse.
The bike -- sleek and capable of scaling the Rockies, which is where I imagine the "all-terrain" comes in -- had every technological advance, save one: the give to take a pothole. It was all-terrain, almost. On a December evening after dusk on a bike path between a Catholic church and a Hebrew temple, where it might be expected that God would be keeping watch over revolutionary bicyclists, I hit a cavernous pothole. I jerked to avoid another but didn't swerve in the way that I might have with an old Raleigh.
Three Samaritans, who either saw me go down or came upon me after, called an ambulance. On the ride to the hospital, I wasn't in the mood for talking -- not that my fractured face gave me an option -- so I spent the time thinking. First, about my helmet, which I was wearing and which saved me from a cracked head. Why is it that helmets aren't made with face masks to protect jaws, noses, cheeks and eyes? Football players get them, why not the rest of us?
That evoked another thought. It's time to make helmets for bicyclists mandatory, as the law in some states -- though not enough -- requires for motorcyclists. Emergency room staffs, plus the otolaryngologists who do the restorative work after, are burdened enough taking care of the helmeted set without the 24-hour on-call trauma room chaos created by the unhelmeted. Hard-headed motorcyclists -- hard-headed until they crash and land on their unhelmeted skulls -- regularly appear before state legislatures demanding that helmet laws either be overturned or not passed. It's Big Brotherism, they rant.
They're right. After their crashes, they get big brotherly -- and sisterly -- love and care in the emergency room, recovery room, rehabilitation room -- and often the embalming room at the funeral home where the unhelmeted end up for the final squeal out.
As for me, I was told in the emergency room that a helmet probably saved my life. I'm looking now for one with a face mask. After that, a search -- relentless, if necessary -- for an old Raleigh. A '73 would do it.