As an award-winning blogger, I know the rules of blogging. And two of them are: “Don’t talk about politics or religion.” I have broken this rule once before, by making what I considered to be the most innocuous political post of all time. It still started what passes for an argument around here.
Up until now, I have not talked about religion.
And today, I will continue that grand tradition. Which is to say, this is not a religious story, but I will mention religion, because there’s no getting around it if I’m going to tell the story I want to.
How I Ruined Two Suits In One Second
From 1985 – 1987, I was a Mormon missionary, living in Finland. For those of you wondering how I wound up in Finland, no, I did not choose it. Mormon missionaries have no say at all in where they go. However, back in those days prospective missionaries were given a language aptitude test. Those who did well often wound up going to China, or to Navajo reservations. Or to Finland.
The problem with this test, of course, was that it was actually a lot better at discerning whether someone has an aptitude for taking tests than for learning and speaking languages.
Wow, I’m off-track already. I can tell this is going to be a hard story to keep reined in.
Anyway, about a year or so into my time in Finland, I found myself in a little town called Kemi. Kemi’s main claim to fame was its delightful-smelling paper mill. (And, when Chernobyl melted down, it’s proximity to Russia. “Don’t go out in the rain,” townspeople were told…and I’m already off-track again.)
My missionary partner — “companion” in Mormon jargon — and I lived a few miles outside of town in a farmhouse upstairs apartment with only cold-running water, though we did have access to the sauna in the basement. And the rent was cheap, so we figured we had it pretty good.
After I had been in Kemi a few months, I was assigned a new companion: Derek White. Derek was a great guy to be around, and made the long days riding around on bikes going from house to house or apartment complex to apartment complex downright fun.
A natural ham, Derek knew several tricks on bikes. He could sit facing backward on the handlebars and backpedal, riding down the street that way. He could ride a wheelie. And, it goes without saying, he could ride no-handed for any distance, and in any situation.
At first, I was wary, and would keep my distance as we rode. I was certain that with all these hijinx, eventually Derek would crash. But he did not.
And so we began to ride side-by-side, so I could listen to him tell stories, gesturing as he talked and rode, un-self-conciously, no-handed.
The thing about anything done well is, it doesn’t look difficult. It looks easy, natural. Now I realize this as I watch my friends fluidly clean mountain bike moves that I know I should never attempt.
But back then, I just thought, “Well, I could do that.”
And so, one time as I was telling a story of my own, I did. I pushed off the handlebars, moving into an upright position. And there, for one glorious moment, we were. Two teenage Americans, each wearing cheap business suits, riding no-handed down a bike path in Kemi, Finland.
Really, what could be more natural?
And then, of course, I veered into Derek. And before I could get my hands down to correct myself, the “veer” became more of a “plow.”
The next few moments are confusing, and quite possibly subject to interpretation. But I’m pretty sure that he reacted to my plowing into him by leaning into me (his theory). Or maybe our handlebars just locked (my theory). Regardless, we didn’t just crash. We crashed into each other.
I am quite certain that I was the first to hit the ground, because I distinctly remember how the ground-up layering went: my bike, then me, then Derek’s bike, and then Derek.
Sort of a Mormon-missionary-and-bike club sandwich, if you will, With a generous side-order of blood.
I learned at that moment that — at least up to a certain point — embarrassment is a stronger and more acute sensation than pain.
It probably really only took forty-five seconds for us to disentangle ourselves from our bikes, but during that time, a pair of old women trudged by, one using her wheeled sled as a walker / grocery cart.
“Mormons,” she said, shaking her head both wisely and disapprovingly. Then she pushed her sled around us and kept going, not giving us another look.
At which point Derek observed that my front wheel was tacoed (though neither of us knew the term at the time) and the tire was blown, and then he started laughing. Derek has the infectious kind of laughter, and before long we were both sitting down on the ground, considering ourselves:
Two American teenagers in cheap, torn, bloody business suits, sitting in and laughing like fools beside their mangled bikes in Kemi, Finland.
Really, what could be more natural?
PS: I do not remember for certain, but I believe we did not win many converts that day.