Well, I got away from this, didn’t I? Sorry about that. Life has been crazy lately, but in a good way. Let me see if I can get back into the habit.
I think I was seriously starting to think that maybe, Hey, I already told you all of my really good Wyoming stories. Not true. I just had to think about it a bit more I guess, as memories are brought to the surface by some seemingly random thought or instance.
Take for instance one of my favorite television shows, MTV’s “Ridiculousness.” It’s kind of like a cross between “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and the Darwin Awards. That is to say, it’s a show that exhibits viral videos from the Internet of people hurting themselves doing ridiculously stupid things, hence the show’s name. My girlfriend and I were watching an episode the other day and she goes, “What are these people thinking? Who would be this stupid? I’m glad you never did anything like that!”
Late March, 1979
Ten years old. The previous Christmas I had received my third bicycle (the other two both got ran over by freight trains – don’t ask). I must have been a good boy that year too (Santa obviously didn’t know about the Great Mudball Fight of 1978, but I digress, and anyway I no longer believed in Santa Claus by then) because it was a really nice bike. It was a Montgomery Ward Open Road BMX Bicycle with 20” wheels – yes, Montgomery Ward, I really am that old. Sigh. This thing was rad though. Red and black paint. Mag Wheels. Pads everywhere. It just looked so cool. This was at the beginning of the BMX bicycle craze that would last well into the 1980s. Wyoming winters don’t typically break until around early March, when everything becomes a river of mud from the snowmelt and the mornings can still drop below freezing.
And it’s about as soon as you can really get out there on a BMX bicycle and mix it up. Man, I am telling you – I rode that darned thing everywhere. It was the only bicycle I ever owned that I wore the tread off the tires. We lived six miles from town out in the country. I rode that thing to town and back home countless times on U.S. Highway 20. No helmet. And I’m somehow still alive…….
I explored all of the farm roads I could find all over town. I rode it into the badlands a few times. To friends’ houses. I mean, to some extent, I grew up on this thing, before I finally conceded that I was too big for it and at the age of 15 received a mountain bike with 26” wheels for my birthday.
It was on my BMX bike that I finally realized what I wanted to be when I grew up – a stuntman! Like any budding stuntman, I started small. 180 degree skids (which are no big trick on gravel, but I thought it was cool.) Wheelies were next. Side saddle. Sitting backward on the handlebars while going down the dirt road to our house. Jumping clear of a moving bicycle and then running and hopping back on it before it crashed. Hey, I was getting good!
Okay. Enough small stuff. Time for some jumps. I learned how to build a ramp from a book on stunts and stuntmen I got from the Weekly Reader at school. And look, I am the biggest anti-censorship person out there, but is it really necessary to supply a 5th Grader with detailed instructions on building a ramp designed for intentionally risking life and limb for no reason other than to look cool? I’m just sayin’. Anyway.
I started with small inclines that were little more than a bump to the beefed up BMX bike. So the inclines got steeper, the ramps got longer, and the speed got higher. And what with a dilapidated barn and woodpile that were literally going to pieces behind the house, crap that occasionally fell off of passing freight trains, and the cornucopia of junk to be found at The Blockplant, building materials for the ramps just wasn’t an issue. You can imagine a 5th Grader riding a BMX bicycle down to the Blockplant – my brother and I built our own little shortcut bridge across the creek from the woodpile out back – and riding surreptitiously back to the house with arms full of wooden planks. We had an old Radio Flyer wagon from years before, and this we used for hauling bricks from the Blockplant back across our bridge and back to the house.
Before long we had some fairly serious ramps going on – 3 foot high ramps facing each other, a few feet apart, for ramp to ramp jumps. I learned very early on that you have to pull up hard on the handlebars just as the front wheel leaves the ramp. Pull up too soon and you end up doing a wheelie off of the ramp and crashing in between the ramps ass-first. Pull up too late and it’s time for a ramp sandwich. And a helmet? What’s that? Boys don’t need a helmet to ride a bicycle on country lanes. Don’t be ridiculous.
The injuries sustained in our career as stuntmen so far were almost miraculously minor – scrapes, lacerations, bruises, the occasional black eye or sprained ankle, that was about it. To combat the problem of sometimes not making the jump, we decided what was needed was more incentive – failure simply didn’t hurt enough. So we started putting stuff between the ramps. We started with stuff we cared about, like our most prized toys and plastic models. Hmmm. Still not enough incentive. At least we freed up a lot of shelf space in our room where our favorite toys had been. No, what was missing here was genuine fear – we had to be really afraid to miss the jumps. So we started putting shovels-full of fire ants and cacti (there was no shortage of these in our field) between the ramps. Finally we just started building campfires between the ramps. This worked – no more crashes, and heightened fear! The formula works!
God, what I would have given for a video camera back then.
One of my favorite stunts was to ride my bike as fast as I could into a brick wall and jump off the back at the last second. Let me tell you something – you really don’t want to time that one wrong. Ow. Needless to say, I became something of an expert at fixing the bike up too – the bike was designed to withstand some abuse, but my stunt career resulted in bent handle bars, broken seat posts, torn hand grips, torn seats, broken chains, mangled chain guards, and the like on a fairly regular basis. I have always wondered whether it was coincidence that around the time I started down my career path as a two-wheeled stuntman, Coast to Coast Hardware in town also expanded its selection of replacement bicycle parts. Hard to say.
Eventually it came time to Go Big or Go Home. Wait. I already was home. Well, you get the idea. I fashioned a cape out of some old drapes, got some duct tape and magic markers, and I was practically Evil Knievel. My brother (who at some point decided to retire from all of this), along with my sister, became the grandstand, a handheld transistor radio provided the music, and…………..
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!! YOU HAVE COME HERE TONIGHT TO SEE THE IMPOSSIBLE!!! TONIGHT BRENT, “THE WYOMING KID” WILL DEFY DEATH TO JUMP THE IRRIGATION DITCH ON HIS TRUSTED BMX STEED AND LAND IN BLACKENED CHARRED EARTH FILLED WITH STUMPS!!!!!” Applause!!! Applause!!!
Okay, so they weren’t actually stumps, they were the remnants of a controlled weed burn my Dad had done – weeds there left unchecked can grow taller than fences – I have seen weeds get four to five feet high in places. After a burn like that, leaving the ground black, there are all of these burnt, hardened little stumps sticking out of the ground, each stump perhaps just an inch around. It was in these that I proposed to land for dramatic effect, trusting my off road tires to take the punishment. The irrigation ditch itself was about two feet across with raised embankments on either side. I would build the ramp next to our dirt road, at an angle to the ditch, allowing me to use the dirt road to get up sufficient speed.
It was the perfect plan. The perfect stunt. I had it all thought out. This would be awesome.
You know, the embankments of creeks and unimproved irrigation ditches are often quite soft due to their proximity to water. I did not consider this fact in my plans.
Donning my brother’s old ski goggles, I rode that bike as fast as I think I ever had. My grandstand crowd of two was cheering me on. My cape ruffled in the wind like I was Superman. I left the road and aimed the bike at that ramp with a no going back attitude, reaching the Point of No Return just a few feet before the ramp.
SUUUUUUUUU – MACKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
As I hit the ramp full force, the bottom of the ramp sank deeply into the ground and flipped the ramp vertically right into my handlebars and face like a booby trap in a Mad Max movie. The entire ramp assembly disintegrated into the creek with my bike, and I ended up in an over the handlebars freefall, spread-eagle, face down, into the soot and weed stumps. The goggles probably prevented a serious eye injury. It was actually a pretty spectacular crash. I guess.
I got up with my face and arms black from the soot, and a bloody nose. My crotch hurt a little. My brother fell out of his lawn chair doubled over laughing. Even my sister couldn’t keep a straight face.
For a few weeks after that, my front side was covered in little red dots from my impact with the weed stumps.
I also once on a sudden whim tried to jump the creek behind my house, but at the last second I realized the fall was much steeper than I had realized – about twenty feet in an arc. I jumped off the back of the bike as I had practiced as the bike landed in the creek below. That one probably would have meant broken bones.
I think that last jump was the jump that finally ended my stunt career, as I realized this stuff was just too dangerous. My poor BMX had seen much better days by this point – over five years after I had gotten it – and I felt like I was ready to turn in my cape.
Except for a couple of isolated motorized instances much later – once when I was accidentally thrown from a snowmobile and once when I crashed a friend’s dirt bike (more on motorcycles in my next post) doing some dangerous beginner stunts in the badlands, I never really got back into bike stunts after that.
You’d think that later on, mostly grown up by then, I would have known better with that friend’s dirt bike, too.
Because one winter day after I had given up the stunts but was still riding the BMX, I got bored and rode the bike in the snow and ice down to the Blockplant. I tried to go slow, and to be careful on the slick snow and ice-covered concrete. A bird flew out of the Butler Building suddenly, and caused me to lose my balance and traction on the icy concrete. My bike went skittering across the concrete and I landed on my tailbone hard enough to paralyze me for 15 minutes before feeling began to return to my back. When I could move, I had to walk the bike back to the house through the snow.
A year and a half later, undoubtedly from that incident, I had gone through countless doctor’s appointments and tests, physical therapy, a spinal tap, spinal surgery, and a month in a Billings, Montana hospital learning to walk again. I missed almost a whole year of school.
I had tempted fate time and again because I was young and I thought I could. Irony and Fate, as they very often do, caught up with me.
Incidentally, the amazing neurosurgeon in Billings fixed me up great. I have never had a recurrence of any major back trouble (other than the occasional strained muscle) and thanks to that Billings doctor I forever have a titanium disk in my spinal cord.
Ridiculousness? Me? Don’t be silly. Of course I would never try a stunt like that.