No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.
–– Turkish proverb
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It’s Valentine’s Day, often a frigid holiday on the Western plains. Some of us throw ourselves into heart-warming celebrations in an attempt to counteract the chill outside. Or maybe the revelry is intended to combat stress, as solemn newspaper articles usually report. Single people are “stressed” because they aren’t married, and married people are worried because they aren’t single.
This year, the unnaturally warm weather has brought out a few residents who usually stay hidden a little longer: a couple of flies bumble across the ceiling. Sparrows chirp in the trellis on the front porch. Some of the kids from the high school across the street walk resolutely over to this side to smoke their cigarettes, wearing only tee-shirts and holding themselves very rigid so they won’t shiver.
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And, around midnight on this warm Valentine’s night, I hear the Crotch Rocket Boys coming. Until this moment, I have failed to give thanks for the icy weather that has kept them away from our neighborhood. I make up for my inattention with a quiet thanks, and brace myself.
There they go, sixty miles an hour on this residential street where the speed limit is thirty-five.
I live right in the middle of a ten-block stretch of street between stop lights. If they go fast enough, they can probably make it through two green lights, one at either end of the run. Then it’s eight more blocks to a third light, followed by a stretch of pavement beside the airport where the legal speed limit is forty miles an hour. At that point, only two more lights stand between them and Interstate 25, where they can ride– legally– at seventy-five, and even blue-haired ladies drive eighty.
Sometimes, I curse the makers of these buzz-saw Japanese motorcycles, these mosquitoes on steroids. Sometimes I hope Crotch Rockets rip through their neighborhoods twenty-four hours a day– but they probably love the noise. They probably say, “Sounds like money.”
Perhaps the Rocketeers see themselves as road warriors, brave and independent, beholden to no one, part of no community, no group. They use defiant noise to proclaim themselves outlaws, outside the rules most of us follow. They are blowing a giant raspberry for the police who often park on the side streets in this area to catch speeders.
I’ll bet the Crotch Rocket Boys live near one another, or even room together, in one of the new apartment complexes built cheap and fast to appeal to young folks working away from home for the first time. Certainly the four of them form a community; I’m tempted to use the more judgmental terms. Mob. Pack. Gang.
I can see that they are young, probably in their twenties, all Caucasian. They are probably in the same income bracket. That is, they can afford– on credit says my censorious mind– to run more than one vehicle. I never see them riding past at a sedate speed, or riding during the morning rush to work. The Rockets are toys. The Boys can afford Toys. They are probably single. During the week I’ll bet they drive those new yuppy pickups with a two-foot cargo space, four doors, and a row of fancy lights on top. They probably threw away the tailgates because they never haul anything. Except maybe a dog, trying to hold on. My prejudices are showing.
In daylight, they laugh when they spot old fogy homeowners working in our yards on quiet Saturday afternoons. They see themselves as so different from us, free, riding in the sun, with the wind blowing through the hair on their heads and legs– because they sure aren’t wearing protective pants or helmets. Another reason I think they are unmarried.
Of course, I am generalizing wildly; I have no idea what they think, only that they, like their bikes, are identical. Well, the colors are different, yellow, red, black, orange. In their spare time, they may all volunteer to teach reading to disadvantaged children, or help elderly people across the street.
But even if they are all studying for the ministry, does that give them license to disturb the tranquility of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or our sleep at midnight? Does a little good behavior justify disruption of community in other ways?
“Threat posture” in animals, I recall, involves making loud noises, trying to look larger to frighten away predators. Many animals adopt a threat posture when they are most terrified: roar, pound their chests, flare their nostrils and neck hair, stand taller and inhale. So I tell myself to feel pity for these crotch rocket menaces. They think they are having fun, but I hear rage in their sound, just as I do all day long when the students of the alternative high school across the street arrive or leave the parking lot. Every time, they wind up the engines of their cheap little cars to make them scream, making the tinny parts clash against one another, glancing covertly up at the windows of the school as they bend over the engines. They roar onto the street, wasting gasoline, wearing out tires, throwing away money as surely as if they were tossing bills on the street. Noise, like fear, has always been part of aggression; the berserkers shrieked as they galloped naked into battle, defending their families and their private parts. Modern armies sometimes broadcast hideous music to beat their enemies into submission or torture prisoners.
They are all afraid, I tell myself: of bosses, perhaps, or impotence or boredom or nuclear war, hair loss, cancer, the heartbreak of psoriasis. I can sympathize with them, at least in theory. With what I believe to be sudden insight, I realize that maybe the folks who drive big SUVs are only afraid of running out of gasoline: “I’ll get mine first!”
I’m not suggesting that the police should chase and arrest them. In any town, the law has more important work than arresting guys on tin gas-guzzling noise-makers. If they hit anything–- a squirrel, even a bottle cap–- the lesson will be serious, possibly permanent. I just hope they don’t hit a child. I hope they have insurance so I don’t pay for their medical bills. But I’m not going to bet on it.
I might be more sympathetic if I didn’t know that they are aware of the community they are disturbing, and enjoy making it less pleasant. They laugh and point when they fly by. They don’t see the future, any more than they see themselves in my slightly overweight partner, sweating as he mows the lawn. Or in my startled neighbor two houses down, shaking his fist at them as he balances on a ladder cutting a dead tree limb. I wish them long memories.
Sometimes I indulge myself in a few moments’ fantasy. I recall the stories my father told about the local sheriff when I was growing up. We didn’t have enough population for a town policeman, so the sheriff patrolled everywhere. He was a calm, stern man with a twinkle in his eye. When I shook his hand, I was perhaps ten years old, but I still remember looking at those eyes, that smile, and understanding that if I broke the law while he was sheriff, he would find me, and I would be sorry.
What if these fun-loving lads had ridden their mobile chain saws three times the speed limit through the streets of our little town? He would never have given them the satisfaction of a chase with sirens. He’d have identified them, and then gone to see their parents, knowing that in some circumstances parental punishment was a lot more effective, and cheaper for our county. If that didn’t work, he’d have found another way, but he would have stopped them, I’m sure.
Have we changed so much as a society that no one can enforce community preferences without also enforcing community laws? Do we have to either pursue and punish these idiots, or wait until they or some innocent bystander is injured by their behavior?
I think The Boys are flaunting their disrespect for community. I suspect they ride more sedately near their homes, where someone might identify them. They behave themselves as they pass through downtown because the police station is only a couple of blocks off our street, and if they started speeding and making that racket just a little sooner, some feisty young police officer who loves speed as much as they do could be in hot pursuit by the time they screamed past here. They may have no consideration for our quiet neighborhood, but they understand self-interest.
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Sometimes when I am working in the garden, I hear the boys coming and stand, hose in hand, watching them. When they see several people working in our yards, they sometimes slow down a little, and rev their motors, and laugh. They look back over their shoulders to yell at each other over the roar, and watch us out of the corners of their eyes. Their speed is hazardous enough in these quiet streets with children and old people on foot, bicyclists, and wheel chairs. Squirrels and rabbits dart over from the schoolyard where they live to eat my flowers. Loose cats and dogs chase each other across the lawns.
Sometimes, still speeding, the Crotches do wheelies, pop their clutches, make the bikes lurch and lay hot rubber. Wearing shorts and tank tops, the riders speed up the street with the bikes spinning only on their back wheels, screaming with excitement.
ZZZZZZ ZZZZZ WHINE ZZZZZZZZZZZ WHIIIIIINE ZZZZ ZZ Z ZZZZZ ZZZZ ZZZZZ
With the hose in my hand, I reflect on what might happen if they hit a patch of wet pavement, or a few drops of oil, or even a very small cat. My partner, who was very careful when he rode his 800-pound Harley Road King, was hit broadside by a driver who didn’t bother to stop as instructed by the red sign. The driver was only going thirty five, as was my partner, who was wearing a helmet, t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. The wreck damaged every part of Jerry’s body, though his head was injured least. Seventeen broken ribs, a broken collar bone, cracked ankle– well, you get the picture. His shoulders, back, arms, and legs suffered what bravo riders call “road rash,” resulting from being scraped against asphalt. Very colorful; very painful. Four days in intensive care, ten days in the hospital, months of recovery, surgery, more recovery. Some damages will be with him for the rest of his life. I breathe deeply, proving to myself that I can stand this, too.
ZZZZZZZzzzzzz SCREECH zzzzzzz zzzzzzz zzzz zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzz
Lying rigid in the dark, I grit my teeth, listening carefully as the buzz dies away, knowing I’ll hear the sound begin to swell again in fifteen minutes, again in a half hour, an hour. As the wind moves the cottonwood leaves on the old tree hanging over my bedroom, I imagine the rustling to be the quiet rage of the people trying to sleep in hot upstairs rooms on this street. The asphalt is still scorching with the heat of summer and the rage of hurrying drivers. The riders are attacking the soft, quiet night and all who sleep in her peace. They believe themselves to be declaring with mechanical howls their hatred of calm and quiet and cool breezes and sleep, but we hear their terror as well.
If I imitate their fury, I’ll damage mostly myself-– ulcers, high blood pressure. So I pull the night around me, draw it in, breathe out calm and contentment.
In my kinder moments, I visualize a likely and charitable future for the boys. Thirty or forty years in the future, they will be lying in bed, sleeping soundly, their fears wrapped around their shoulders.
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They will be awakened by the sound of crotch rockets, rousing them as they realize that their teenage children are not home yet. Their jaw muscles will clench as the sound builds:
And then I hope, as they mumble about needing their sleep, they will remember.
Perhaps they will blush in the darkness.
Hope, you will recall, is the thing with feathers. Nice quiet feathers.
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This essay was written when I lived in Cheyenne, WY.
I intended it to be published in No Place Like Home, University of Nevada Press, 2009, but removed it to shorten the book.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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