I met this dude on the bike a few days ago and he already knew who I was, which was super flattering, and he started asking me how it was I had had such an extraordinarily successful career as a bike racer. “Is it just all genetics?” he asked.
“Far from it, sonny,” I told him. “I was fortunate to receive physical training from a very early age that later equipped me for my career as a cyclist, and to engage in activities that developed the athleticism and competitive fortitude of a successful cyclist, skills that were molded in the hot crucible of the variety of sports I participated in as a kid growing up in Texas.”
You see, when I was a boy we didn’t have video games, cable, or daytime television programming, so we’d often get to school early, and stay after the bell rang to play with our friends. It was there on the playground that we learned the meaning of “friendship,” i.e. a temporary relationship in which the more powerful one exploits the weaker one while the weaker one seeks an even weaker one who he can exploit.
Back in those days, this constant downward cascade of exploitation and abuse found its outlet among young boys in a number of heartwarming and fun playground games, games typically founded on the most bestial sort of violence imaginable. The apogee of playground fun times was always “Kill the Man with the Ball.” In other, less politically correct jurisdictions, it was often referred to as “Smear the Queer.”
Cycling training: learning to get ahead of the field and stay there at all costs
It’s hard to explain to my kids why it was that I would wake up early to go and play Kill the Man with the Ball. First off, they don’t really get the “wake up early” part.
“But how do you play the game?” they ask.
“Well, someone has a ball, see? Like a kickball. And they hurl it as far away as they can, and everyone chases it.”
“That sounds stupid.”
“Oh, it’s just getting started. The first one who gets to the ball picks it up and then runs with it.”
“Okay, so you’re playing rugby without any rules. Big deal.”
“And then the pack overtakes whoever has the ball and beats the shit out of him.”
“Yes. The pile of ten or fifteen boys fall on top of the ball carrier and kick, punch, slap, gouge, twist his balls and smear his face into the dirt, hopefully until he cries.”
“Yes, but they have to stop as soon as he lets go of the ball.”
“Well what idiot wouldn’t do that? I mean, can’t you just drop the ball before they catch you?”
“Of course. But one ever does.”
“Why not? That’s suicide!”
“Exactly. The point is to hold onto the ball as long as possible, sustaining as many punches, kicks, gouges, and head smashes as you can.”
“Then the ball finally squirts loose and someone else picks it up and runs off with it. Usually the ball carriers are little skinny kids who run fast and are the easiest to beat up, so when the herd catches them it’s always out of breath and angry at having to chase so hard and makes the pounding especially vicious and satisfying.”
“So the game is just a whale-fest on the weakest kids?”
“So why do they play? What a stupid game.”
“They play because it’s fun. There’s nothing in the world as terrifying as picking up that ball and being chased by fifteen of your best friends, knowing that you’re only a few steps from the worst pummeling of your life. Which is inevitable.”
“Friends? Those people aren’t your friends. They hate you!”
“Exactly. And for those few moments that you have the ball and are ahead of the mob, you experience omnipotence. You control everything in the universe. All the good in the world, and all the evil, is at your heels. You are perfectly free. Of course you’re also panting from terror, with your eyes rolled back in your head and your tongue lolling out like a fox about to be overtaken by the hounds. But that’s part of the fun.”
“So how does the game end? When all the skinny kids are dead?”
“Kind of. Finally, after the fleetest and weakest have had the living snot beaten out of them, the ball gets picked up by Igor.”
“Yes. Igor. He’s the kid who’s flunked a couple of grades, has a mustache and hair on his balls, is about fifty pounds bigger than everyone else and just under six feet tall.”
“So all the weak kids band together and beat up the big guy?”
“Hmmm. No. Not really. Igor picks up the ball and then stops running as he turns to face the running mob. The mob then really slows down.”
“Sure. Because they know what’s coming.”
“Igor’s going to saunter towards them and beat the shit out of the entire third grade class. He will bash each kid and knock them all senseless. Then, once they’re all bloodied and bruised, Igor rolls the ball off a few feet.”
“And it starts all over again?”
“No. The kids migrate over to the slab and start a game of foursquare. They don’t play Kill the Man again until recess.”
Cycling training: speedy reaction times that teach you to anticipate and respond to unexpected attacks from the field
It wasn’t all about terrific violence and ferocious beatings just on the playground, though. From spring to early summer we played baseball, an organized sport where “organized” means “all the strong people on one side” and “sport” means “beat the shit out of the weak ones.”
I was on the Angels. Coach Widowski was a chain smoking, beer swilling Walter Matthau without the profanity. My role on the team was to sit patiently for seven or eight innings until the game was either out of reach or decisively won. Then, and only then, would assistant Coach Crosby pull his son Blaine out of right field and allow me to go stand around for a while amidst the dandelions, so far from the action that only a miracle would involve me in a play.
One season, either in third or fourth grade, a karate craze went through the elementary school. All of the kids who were already the best basketball, football, and baseball players signed up for karate lessons so that they could augment their already formidable ass-whipping skills with moves like David Carradine’s in “Kung Fu.”
At the beginning of baseball season that year I walked up to the group of kids who were going to be on the Angels again this year. My buddies and friends, each and every one. “Hi, guys,” I said.
One of them, a kid named David, unleashed a series of kicks, punches, and blows upon my chest and head, collapsing me in the dirt before I even knew what had happened. As I lay there on the ground staring up, they all kept talking as if nothing had happened, which, I suppose, hadn’t. To them.
The rest of the season I became an expert in kung fu kick and punch avoidance. With no formal training whatsoever I developed reaction times, speed, and reflexive defensive moves that you would have thought were born out of years of martial arts training, or perhaps a sixth sense. I also twitched a lot when I slept.
Cycling training: risking life and limb with crazy suicide moves to frighten and intimidate the pack, or “Calling Dr. Love”
By junior high school I had developed all the core qualities of a bike racer, but there was something missing…a willingness to take the worst risks imaginable, to throw down with little chance of success, and to meet the hardest part of the race with a fierce abandon, stacking pain and danger atop the already towering mountain of agony and risk.
Enter Robh Ruppel.
Through our 7th Grade English class with Miss Recently Divorced Sarah Crippen of the Platinum Coiffe and the Heaving Boobs to Die For, Robh and I became friends. He was on the swim team, and I was on the smoking dope while waiting for the bus team. One day in 1978 that I still remember as clearly as if it were yesterday, he said “Come over to my house. You gotta hear a couple of my records.”
His bedroom was a world of Spider Man comics, artwork, and colorful weirdness that amazed me. I’d left comics behind in elementary school due to dad’s frequent admonitions that “Comics are crap,” and “Comics rot your brain,” and “TV rots your brain,” and “Read books,” admonitions which finally overpowered the sugar-like addiction that Marvel and DC once had on my childish mind.
Robh had no such prejudices, and seemed perfectly content with a brain that was rotted through and through with puerile comics of every kind. In fact, at age fourteen he seemed to have never read anything but comics.
“These guys,” he said, handing me a record, “Fucking rock.” It was a Kiss album. At first I didn’t even realize it was a record, having grown up with my parents’ living room collection of the Beatles, Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Janis, and (yes…yes…) Buffy Saint-Marie. Records had people on them. These people were cartoon characters.
“Listen to this shit,” he said, putting on “Rock and Roll All Night,” and following it up with “Calling Dr. Love,” and finishing with “Love Gun.”
“Wow,” I said, thinking that it mostly sounded like three chords all played at the wrong time between shrieks, but not having the heart to say anything. None of it held a candle to “Red Cross Blues” or “You Can’t Lose Me, Cholly.”
“Yeah, these guys totally rock. But you know what’s even cooler? They breathe fire. Check this shit out.” He pulled out a magazine that had numerous concert shots of Gene Simmons blasting fire out of his mouth. “Doesn’t get any cooler than that. Come on. Let’s go do it.”
Crazy rock music was something that I could take or leave. But breathing fire? That meant inflammables, and maybe explosives, too. Where did I sign?
It turned out that Robh’s lawnmower gas can was empty, so we pedaled over to my house on Braeburn. As we rode, he explained it all to me. “See, I practice during swim team. You fill your mouth with water and you practice blowing a perfectly fine stream of liquid, almost vaporized like something spraying from a little perfume squirter thing.”
“Yeah. You don’t want to try it with gasoline right away, first you gotta practice with water until you get the spray part just right. ‘Cuz if you fuck up, the gasoline ignites inside your mouth and blows your fucking face off or just burns up your head and brains from the inside out.”
At my house we checked to make sure no one was home, got the gas can and went into the back yard with my cigarette lighter. Cool as cool he filled his mouth with gasoline, held the lighter as far from his mouth as he could, and shot out the spray into the flickering flame.
What followed was as awesome as anything I’ve ever seen in my life, including my first porn flick at the Academy Theater down by Rice University when I was 17, which, frankly, was pretty awesome. A fireball erupted a foot or so from his lips and turned into a shooting flame of incendiary light and heat. I watched the fire trail dangling out in front of his lips, trying but never quite managing to trace its way back to his face, which would have been instantly burned off of his skull.
He switched off the lighter and the flame went out. “Cool, huh?” he grinned.
I spent the rest of the summer practicing at the swimming pool in the morning, and blowing gasoline flames from my mouth in the afternoon. Although my face never caught fire, I went through so many cans of gasoline that I started to get these gnarly blisters on the inside of my cheeks, along my tongue, and even down my throat, as I’d occasionally swallow a sip or two over the course of a session.
The blisters made eating really painful, and they reacted like electric jolts with orange juice or picante sauce or salt but the brief agony was worth it for the fun and thrill of, quite literally, breathing fire.
So there you have it: staying at the head of the field, anticipating attacks, and breathing fire. Don’t fucking even think about racing your bike without it.