When I was a strapping 11 year old bumpkin, I was riding my Huffy 3 speed bike one lazy afternoon alongside a row of parked cars, enjoying life as only a foolish young boy can, in other words wholly thoughtless and oblivious to reality. At one point, for reasons still unknown to me lo these many decades hence, I decided to try a little trick riding, just to see what might happen. Pedaling along, I switched hands, right hand over left on the handlebars, to test whether or not I could maintain control of the bicycle in such backward, criss-crossed fashion.
Dear reader, I could not. The very next thing I remember I was crawling from under a parked ’57 Chevy, my somewhat disheveled Huffy 3 speed wedged beneath the car, and with a stinging road rash tormenting my right knee. Plus, and this took a bit of time to discover, I was dripping blood. A throb in my cheek grew in intensity, becoming more urgent by the second. I probed my cheek, tracing the source of the blood—there was a substantial amount of it—soon landing with an attending yelp on a deep gash just under my left eye.
I stood, knees wobbling, slightly disoriented, more than a little confused as to why I was in fact bleeding profusely, my cheek now on fire with pain, with my bicycle oddly ensconced under a ’57 Chevy. What in the name of all that is sane and sober, or least explicable, had happened to me?
Then I saw the shards of plastic. Scattered about my feet were several pieces of red plastic, the reason for their placement there a mystery to me, until the fog in my addled brain cleared a bit, and I looked at the back of that vehicle. The Chevy’s left rear turn signal housing had been shattered, its red plastic pieces and parts now in a random pile where I stood. I began piecing together (not the plastic parts, that was an impossibility,) but the previous minute or so of my trick-riding life, and the event that had resulted in all that busted plastic. Evidently, in my adolescent insouciance, when I’d criss-crossed my mitts on the handlebars I’d immediately lost control, and vaulted off the bicycle, smashing face first into the car’s rear light display, breaking the turn signal housing, with said plastic pieces in turn carving up my face.
Knee and cheek throbbing, blood blinding me, I managed to free the bike from its entrapment, rejiggered the somewhat wonkerjawed handlebars, checked to see if my attempted heroics had been witnessed, (they had not been, as far as I could see), and rode home straightaway. My mother took one look, ordered me into the car, and grabbed the keys. One hour, and ten stitches later I was resting at home, not much the worse for wear.
My collision with that plastic taillight assembly happened six decades ago. The stitch mark is long healed, its once obvious scar no longer in evidence. But I still cannot explain the why and wherefore of my chuckleheaded attempt that day to drive my Huffy by using opposing hands on its guiding mechanism. What ever was I thinking? Such youthful misadventures explain, I suppose, why 11 year olds heal faster than their elders, and perhaps also why women live longer than men, though that reasoning would have escaped me at age 11.
I thought about this incident in my childhood just this evening, as I stood under a hot shower contemplating the events of the last two days in the U.S. It seemed a fair allegory, lending itself to America’s reckless and disheartening, albeit bumpy and chaotic ride during our recent past. It will take us a fair amount of time to fully understand and process exactly what happened to us as a people over the course of the past four years: Why our national norms and traditions seem just now to be littering the street like so much shattered plastic; why nearly half a million of our fellows lie lifeless as if unsaddled by a viral pandemic; why our collective conveyance of unity and civil dialogue lie twisted and wonkerjawed: and why we need, in the midst of all of the crisscrossed messaging and innuendo to stitch together our national confidence and idealism.
As I watched our new president recite his inaugural, I sensed a new and better mood creeping in, a refreshing wave of honest if harsh reality entering our national consciousness. Once blinded and wobbly by what has happened to us—even now we’re not entirely certain what it was—I sense that despite the busted pieces and parts, despite the bloody evidence and aching throb of disappointment, despite the confusion and bewilderment just now we can see our way home. And something else: We know there are stitches in our future, perhaps a lot of them.
We’ve picked ourselves up. We’ve traced the source of our injury, we’ve yelped a bit if we’re honest, and though the pulsing pain may grow worse for a time, we know it will soon abate. We understand now, if we understand nothing else, that criss-crossing our once confident hands atop the rudders of guidance, our traditional tillers of honesty, decency, truth, and reverence for science and reality, those steering methods are thwarted at our peril.
We know something else as well. That unlike that addled, feckless youth who relied on untested and radical maneuvers, that the staid and solid system we’ve built works just fine, even after attempts to foil it. It steers us straight, and safe, and sure. It leaves us unharmed, and unbroken. It honors the dignity and property of others. Unlike that callow youth’s experience that day, we know that our collective criss-crossing was observed by many millions of others, that the resulting, one might even say inevitable collision was indeed witnessed by many astonished and disheartened allies, but also by emboldened and encouraged adversaries as well.
As I rested quietly that embarrassing afternoon of blood and stitches, my mother’s ice pack soothing the pain in my cheek, watching escapist kid fare on black and white TV, I tried to piece together the event that had put me there. Was it embarrassing? Yes, it was. Was it confusing? Indeed. Was I certain to never ever do such a thing ever again? Boy howdy. I was grateful I’d escaped it with as little injury as I had.
As oblivious as I was at 11 I understood how it had affected people around me. My mother had no need of a trip to an ER that afternoon, and as well no need or desire to pay for my medical attentions. My siblings, already tending toward jealousy, had little need or inclination to see me pampered, if only for an evening. My father was forced, by mother’s attentions to me, to prepare his own dinner, poor man. And the fellow whose Chevy I’d disfigured with my recklessness had no time or desire to replace his broken taillight. (Yes, I did dutifully inform him in the coming days that it was I who had done the damage.)
Back to the allegory: I believe we must now stand again, wobbly though we may be, broken and bleeding as we are, and stitch ourselves together once more. We must report our misdeeds and carelessness with openness and courage. We must fess up to the imposition we’ve caused, and make necessary amends. And we must, in the poetical cadence of a truly precious young woman named Amanda Gorman ‘…lay down our arms…so we can reach out our arms…to one another.* No more criss-crossing; no more trick-riding with our sacred values; no more tempting fate with the fragile and vital experiment we’ve been launched upon and entrusted with for 245 years.
I believe, dear friends, that this is the only position of any value for arms attempting to guide us.
Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.
* The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman