Who Will Claim the Body?
by Thomas Day
Recently, I pissed off a collection of street riders by making the assertion that no matter how you crash, you own some part of the responsibility. Like a newly converted hooker, I’m often guilty of coming off too piously convinced that “accidents” are rarely accidental. One of the folks I pissed off replied, “You sound like one of the MSF instructors I’ve heard about that bought the farm despite their years of experience and expertise.”
That comment reminded me of watching an old guy with cancer answer a young nurse’s lifestyle questions. When she asked if he’d been a smoker, he replied, “For a couple of years, when I was in my twenties.” She quickly checked the box that attributed some component of his mortal illness to cancer sticks. He objected, but she ignored him. After the nurse left, he listed a string of things that were more likely causes for his cancer: such as 1940s farm chemicals, Korean War chemical weapons and radioactive materials, the industrial chemicals from his manufacturing jobs, his twenty-year-career as a mechanic and the associated time spent with asbestos brake components, and “all the crap they put in food these days.” A couple of years as an occasional smoker seems pretty mild compared to the stuff most of us have been exposed to during our lives.
George Shaw wrote, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” I’m unconvinced. I’m more impressed by people who actually understand the flaws and misleading characteristics of statistics. Even the sloppy common language use of statistical terms, such as “most” and “everyone,” are evidence of poor statistical sophistication. Most everyone appears to be “moved by statistics,” but most of us move in the wrong direction. Last year’s NHTSA stats demonstrated that a motorcycle injury or fatality occurs every 125,000 miles. In my case, if I do “buy the farm” on a motorcycle, I’m not sure that will say much about the fallacies in my late-life attempt at a safe motorcycling philosophy. For one, I’m riding toward 400,000 miles on a motorcycle, not counting 15 years of off-road riding before I bought my first street-legal bike. I’ve long since passed a million automotive miles, including a five year period of driving a commercial vehicle 100,000 miles/year. So far, the most dangerous place for my motorcycle has been in my garage, where at least two brake levers and one clutch lever have lost their lives. My wife has made the garage a statistical hazard for our cars. So, what exactly will my buying the farm on a motorcycle prove? Sooner or later, something is going to get me. It’s not like I’ve made myself a small target.
In my manufacturing career, I was regularly exposed to (read “swimming in”) trichloroethylene, carbon tetrachloride, all varieties of alcohol, acrylic lacquer thinner, methyl ethyl ketone, acetone, and practically every hydrocarbon ever compounded as a propellant, solvent, or paint. I have inhaled large quantities of asbestos, fiberglass, mineral wool, and all of the crap used to protect, cure, and laminate modern wood products. For the first 20 years of my working life, practically no one thought twice about wearing a simple cotton face mask as protection for any of these hazardous materials. In fact, I’ve only worked for one company in 40+ years that bothered to provide employees with Material Safety Data information. Every face mask or filter I’ve ever worn, I bought myself. You might think OSHA has been overprotective of employees, but I think they’ve been non-existent for all of my career. I lived next to a lead plant, a packing plant and, for most of my Midwestern life, was regularly surrounded by cattle feedlots. Motorcycling has been considerably safer than working and not much more dangerous than staying home.
All my life, I have suffered with asthma, allergies, and a tendency to turn any cold or flu into bronchitis or pneumonia. Since I turned 18, every chest x-ray is followed by a “how long have you been a smoker?” question from my doctors. I did smoke, for two weeks, when I was 19. After the initial high, it seemed pointless to spend money on a drug that barely returned my consciousness to normal, so I quit. I am a “child of the sixties” and, if I were inclined toward chemical addiction, I’d pick a much better chemical than nicotine. Until the late 80s, every work or recreational environment was a smoking environment. For forty years, my living room was the only “non-smoking” facility to which I could escape. I’ve inhaled every kind of second-hand smoke, from cigars and cigarettes to burning buildings and smog-spewing factories. Nothing portrayed in the Blues Brothers (I or II) was in any way more miserable than the places my bands played. I once picked a drummer solely for his ability to throw a broken drum stick like a knife with barely a click lost in the beat. Up until this past couple of years, I never imagined a bar smoke-free would exist in my lifetime.
Genetically, I’m in pretty poor statistical shape. My mother died of cancer when she was 34. I’m the oldest living male on my mother’s side of the family, for three generations; our poor longevity is all due to cardiac failure and strokes. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at every one of my birthdays since I turned thirty. I drink coffee and whiskey, sometimes together. I eat anything that grows, crawls, swims, floats, or walks on four feet. I’m the essential American; overweight, under-exercised, and over-stressed.
I’m a bit of a risk-taker. Since I was 15, I’ve ridden motorcycles on and off-road, on tracks, fast and, sometimes, carelessly. I’ve bungee-jumped, rock-climbed, hiked into a good bit of the American wilderness, scuba-dived to 175 feet and snorkeled with sharks. I’ve swam, kayaked, and canoed lakes and river rapids and both of our oceans. I’ve hitchhiked across a good part of the west, bicycled-commuted in Los Angeles, raced down mountain goat trails, hung out with bikers and musicians, got married at 19, raised teenagers and baby-sit my grandkids. Most of those “dangerous” activities I do solo; even the ones that usually require a buddy-system. I have an allergy to groups, even groups of two. It’s pretty likely that whatever thing that kills me will do so when I’m all alone. Some people believe that being alone is the biggest risk of all. Most days, I can’t get anywhere near enough solitude.
I am totally capable of spacing out in the midst of any activity or crisis. I incessantly daydream and that is something that safe motorcycling does not tolerate. I hear and see more songs and stories in my imagination than all of Hollywood has put into movies. Most likely, whatever activity I’m engaged in when that fatal moment occurs, the most accurate cause of death will be inattention.
You want to blame a motorcycling crash for my demise? You want points for a piece of my mortal action? Get in line. I’m like the Simpsons’ Mr. Burns; every one of my diseases, habits or activities is finely balanced against the rest and a puff of air from a butterfly’s wings could trigger a total meltdown of my survival systems. Big deal, I’m going riding.