Never one to hesitate or willingly take the back seat, I guess I’ve always been an adventurer of sorts.
I think my grand Quest to discover the unknown started early on: I walked at eight months, and Mom tells me I never looked back. Growing up in 1940s Idaho, I was fascinated by the world around me and everything thing in it, especially things that crawled, hopped, slithered or walked, flew through the air or swam in the water. I spent many an hour capturing all sorts of “bugs” (insects) using a jar with a lid or a butterfly net. My uncle J.D. helped me make the latter out of a wire clothes hanger, some cheesecloth and a broomstick. Or I just used my fingers—we called that method “bare-handing.” Needless to say I have been bitten and stung too many times to count; luckily none turned out to be life-threatening nor did any such attacks deter me from my goal to catch and examine everything I could find.
During Spring, Summer and Fall, no ant (red or black), no bee (honey or bumble), no fly (house, horse, deer, or dragon), no wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket, no butterfly or moth, no spider, nor any other critters that lived under rocks or in the water or scooted across its surface were safe from me. And my Quest to hunt down, capture and ‘study’ was not limited to the realm of entomology: toads and frogs, lizards and snakes, mice, rats and bats were also up for grabs whenever the opportunity arose.
But to find them meant I had to leave my backyard. And leave it I did, traipsing in an ever-widening circle, which grew when I added a bicycle to my means of getting around. Soon I was able to roam from one end of town to the other. My territory in a short time encompassed every type of habitat the area offered. But the thing that changed my life the most was the pair of clamp-on roller-skates I received in my eighth year. Once I mastered them (about four hours and a couple of skinned-knees after receiving them), they became my favorite mode of transportation. And, unknown to me at the time, these rugged skates would lead me to one of my first real and most memorable adventures.
My home town, Lewiston, is built at the confluence of two rivers—the Snake and the Clearwater. The city is basically made up of two rather flat levels, Downtown (the lower) and the Normal Hill area (the upper) are connected by five fairly steep roadways. When I was a boy, there were well-kept paved sidewalks everywhere within city limits—perfect for walking but even more perfect for zooming from here to there on roller-skates. Thus equipped, it was only natural that walking became passé, and bike riding was relegated to long excursions.
My friend Paul Hines also had skates and the two of us spent more time on our skates than off . With skate keys hung around our necks like medals, we skated to school, we skated to church, we skated to the park and the swimming pool. We learned to do tricks, and we could jump the curbs with ease, giving us the feeling of an uninterrupted freedom of movement. No more trudging along like the tortoise, we had wheels! Four skate wheels per foot were our ticket to anywhere…
Almost. We still couldn’t go downtown, at least not easily. Not without taking off our much-loved skates and trudging down one of the five hills on foot, skates slung limply over our shoulders by the ankle-straps. It galled me, ate at me. Finally, I’d had enough and I told Paul, “We are going to beat the hill! We’re going to skate down it.”
Paul’s immediate question was, “Which hill?” My unhesitating reply, “Fifth Street!” He looked at me like I was crazy as a loon. But my mind was clear: it was the perfectly natural thing to do.
Now, Fifth Street hill runs from Second Avenue two and a half blocks (about 200 meters) down to Main Street, Lewiston’s busiest thoroughfare. That hill drops about 80 feet from top to bottom (a 3- or 4-per cent grade.). It’s the straightest route but probably steepest of Lewiston’s five hills. There’s a rough stone retaining wall of aggressive boulders flush to the sidewalk most of the way down the hill. The outer edge of the sidewalk drops off a high (8- to 12-inch) curb to the street.
The sidewalk bottoms out at Main Street. If you can’t make the turn off Fifth onto the sidewalk on Main, you’ll end up jumping the curb, flying right into the heart of Lewiston’s most dangerous traffic.
Paul and I studied the challenging slope, with its abrupt conclusion. Despite our new-found determination, we agreed we’d better practice a bit before we took the ride of our lives. So we found a pretty good hill over near the college where we could practice downhill techniques (with nobody watching). After a couple of skinned knees and an unseen bruise or two, we learned the best way to negotiate a hill on roller-skates is to crouch down—keep a low center of gravity. Then, if you have to fall, go backwards onto your butt. This also works well if you need to stop real fast—it hurts but not as much as barking your knees on the brutal concrete.
When the day of reckoning arrived, Paul and I met on the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street—just the two of us. We didn’t dare tell anyone what we were planning—our folks would have killed us if they found out. Not sure, but maybe Paul’s hand shook a bit as we clamped on our skates, buckled our ankle straps, stood sideways to the hill, counted to three, turned to face downhill, crouched over our skates like Olympic ski jumpers and took off.
Paul lasted maybe half a block before he flew off the curb with a clatter. I found out later he’d caught a wheel in a vicious sidewalk crack. Skinned his knee real good.
But me, I continued down the hill, gaining speed much faster than expected. The big rock wall shooting past seemed ever more ominous than ever. It was the Devil’s magnet, pulling me ever closer to the cluster of ragged boulders. All I could do was hug my knees and hope to steer to the middle of the sidewalk.
The fun aspect of this adventure had already left me somewhere between “One-two-three” and Paul’s mean tumble into the abyss. Fear and visualization of excruciating outcomes of this dim-witted stunt griped me like a vise. Afraid I’d unzip my butt along that relentless rock wall, I was simultaneously terrified of zooming off the curb like Paul. But I was going a heckuva lot faster.
Three quarters of the way down the Hill Of Doom, my wheels began to squeal. And started smoking! Then Main Street was coming up way too fast! Would I make the turn!? Or would I jump the curb into traffic!? Should I try falling backwards?
That’s when the fat lady, a shopping bag in each hand, stepped out of the Owl Drugstore on the corner.
I slammed into her somewhere around knee-high. We tumbled to the sidewalk. I remember I couldn’t breathe. I hurt all over. I wanted to cry—and tried, but nothing came out. Suddenly aware of what I’d done, I jumped up and ran uphill as hard as I could, escaping the scene. Then dragged to a stop, breathless again. My butt hurt.
I heard the lady holler, so I ran some more. But my chest hurt. I had to stop and breathe again. Finally some sobs came out, and I was able to gulp air, and run still farther uphill. I finally made the top. Paul was waiting, nursing his knee. My skates were dragging behind me—still strapped to my ankles.
Next day I stayed out of sight and hid my ruined skates in the garage. I had burnt the wheel bearings up and never skated on those wheels again. But my family didn’t seem to notice.
As far as I know, the lady was okay, her dignity a little bruised up and maybe a couple of other places. Eventually our scuffs and scratches healed, as the episode blew over. And Paul and I were off on more adventures. We took up bike riding again. Seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.