On Labor Day weekend, 1978, my family and friends gathered at Mom's ranch in Kyle, Texas, for the opening of dove hunting season, to fish in our lake, and party with friends. I had returned from my honeymoon a few days before with three days before starting my fifth year of engineering school. My best friend, Steve Craig, and I looked forward to learning how to fly my new hang glider. We raced motocross against each other, so another challenging sport of gliding through silent air appealed to our adrenaline rush addiction. I had a slight problem in that my bargain basement hang glider came with no instructions, and I couldn’t turn to a YouTube video. We were fearless and would figure it out. We also did not know what we did not know.
A twenty-foot tall earthen dam created a lake on Mom’s property. I knew airplanes took off into the wind, but I knew nothing else about flying. A brisk breeze blew across the dam from the valley side, so I figured taking off from the dam and floating over the valley behind it would be the way to go.
"Do you know how to fly this contraption?" asked my wife, Sheri.
“Don’t worry, he can do anything,” Steve said with a grin.
“I hope so,” she replied with concern. Being a nurse, she had seen many dumb injuries come through her hospital.
“Not to worry,” I said. “I’ll try everything once.”
Steve and I pulled a pile of cloth and several 15-foot hollow aluminum tubes from the back of my truck. Using a picture of what a constructed glider looked like, we slid two-inch diameter tubes through sleeves and ended up with a triangular kite. Underneath the wing hung three bars that formed a triangle to lay down and strap my body to as I flew. Somebody told me that moving my horizontal body forward and backward and side to side controlled the direction and height of flight.
“It’s all together now,” I told Steve. “Let’s turn it into the wind. I’ll lift the bar and run off the dam to start flying.”
As we lifted and turned the glider, a gust of wind lifted one wing high. Though Steve and I tried to hold the hang glider down, the wind cartwheeled it like a kite over the dam toward the water. Cursing ensued. We scrambled down the bank and surveyed the damage somberly. One of the long aluminum bars had snapped like a matchstick.
“So much for flying today,” Steve said with a laugh.
“Thank goodness,” quipped Sheri. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”
"It's a good thing you weren't strapped in; you'd be dead."
"Yes, dear. Steve, help me take this apart and load it back into my truck. It's just as well the wind flipped it then instead of after I had taken off." At that moment, I adopted a firm policy of not doing anything that involved being higher than I wanted to fall. That rule stuck with me for the rest of my life.
We went back to the ranch house and unloaded the broken glider. Sheri went inside and told my mother how I almost killed myself.
Rather than go into the house at this time, I said, “Let’s ride your bike.”
Steve kept his Suzuki 360 motocross bike at our ranch. He and I met at the ranch often to ride through the fields and slide along gravel road curves. Steve cranked it up and roared down the hill to the lake. Back and forth he zoomed across the dam at full speed, flying off one end that dipped down ten feet. Sheri and I walked down the hill to the lake and watched him drive like a madman riding high-speed wheelies for hundreds of feet. She was speechless as she watched him ride for the first time.
“He’s crazy,” she said.
“No, he’s darned good.”
Steve drove up to us and stopped.
"Your turn," he told me.
As I put on the helmet, Sheri said, “Be careful, Gordon. You already had a close call today.”
“Don’t worry. You haven’t seen anything yet.”
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Steve cautioned.
“Watch this,” I said and took off on Steve's awesome bike.
With an engine three and a half times larger than the 100 cc motorcycles we raced in high school, I struggled to keep the beast under control. I popped a wheelie and crossed a field. At the dam, I raced through the gears and sailed off the end. Power sliding in circles, I did my best to ride crazier than Steve. I sped by Sheri at fifty miles an hour and roared through tall grass along the edge of the lake. That’s when I hit a railroad tie hidden in the grass. I didn't see the tie, but it certainly put an end to my fun.
One moment I sped in a blistering thrill, and an instant later I was flying upside down way too fast. I watched the upside-down airborne motorcycle behind me, engine screaming at top rpms. With my feet high above my helmet, I saw a horrible landing approaching. Fifty feet and seconds later, the ground reached up for me. I wouldn’t survive a headfirst landing. My gymnastics training saved me when muscle memory put my hands down to break the fall. I vaguely remember turning my head right to my chest and tucking my left shoulder down to land in a long series of high-speed rolls. Every time I rolled over, I saw the bike chasing me end over end with numerous footpegs, handlebars, and spinning knobby tires trying to tear me up. I pushed to the left each time I hit the ground as the screaming bike bounced closer and closer. When the flipping bike caught up with me, it flew by two feet to my right. It stopped after a few more rolls, its engine shrieking.
I ended up on my back, stunned. I moved around a bit, and all my parts seemed to be working. Good news. Though my right shoulder hurt, I climbed to my feet and staggered over to the bike to turn it off and sat down. Sheri ran up to me. “Are you all right?”
“I think so.”
“You’re wobbly. Just sit there for a minute.”
“My shoulder hurts.”
“Let me see,” she said.
I pulled my shirt down and Sheri gently felt the top of my shoulder.
“You’ve got a lump. Might be a broken collar bone.”
Steve walked up and said, “Gordon, I think you set a record for the longest dive roll ever.”
“Mmm. Sorry about your bike.”
“Don’t worry. Just a bent handlebar. I’ll fix it.”
“Let’s go to the house. Dr. Garcia is there with Dad.”
Steve and Sheri helped me walk up the hill. I quivered and stumbled into the house and found Dad.
“What’s wrong,” he asked.
Dr. Garcia walked up to me and said, “Where do you hurt?”
He examined it and said, “There’s a big bump. I think you broke your collarbone.”
“You need to go to the hospital.”
At the hospital, a doctor told me I had dislocated my clavicle, a much better problem than a break. The next day in surgery, the doctor screwed my collarbone to the shoulder bone using a large stainless steel bone screw.
Severe pain forced me to start classes a week late, though my private nurse helped me recover in short order. Six weeks later, after numbing my shoulder with a local anesthetic, the doctor used a stainless steel screwdriver to remove the screw. With each turn, all my bones felt a grinding of the turning screw, and my body arched high. It was a good thing two nurses held me down.
I rode Steve’s bike once more after recovering, just to erase any fear of riding. I refused to be afraid of anything, but my reckless confidence to ride hard had disappeared. My motorcycle riding days ended. I consider myself lucky to have made it through a crazy part of my life with a small injury and great memories.