The Bell’s in Hell

by bj max

In a Quonset hut somewhere in England during World War II, a B-17 Group Commander looks out over the fresh young faces of his bomber crews, thinks about the day’s mission and wonders how many of these men, boys really, will return. It’s a particularly dangerous target guarded heavily by German fighters with hundreds of anti-aircraft guns positioned all around an energy source the Third Reich can not afford to loose and one the Allies can not afford to let exist. The Commander walks to the edge of the stage as the Intelligence officer dramatically snaps back the map curtain exposing the target. An audible gasp fills the room as their objective is revealed.

The Commander looks over his captive audience, puts his hands on his hips then speaks. “Men, today’s mission is a particularly dangerous mission and heavy causalities can be expected. I want every one of you to take a good look at the guy sittin’ next to you because he won’t be coming back.” And to a man, the crewmen slowly turned in unison and looked with pity at the fellow sitting next to him and thought, “Sorry Joe, but better you than me.”

When I first read this, I couldn’t help but compare that scene to a similar one at a rally I attended a few years ago. An MSF instructor was conducting a seminar and when he took the floor he stood and stared at us silently for what seemed like a full minute but was probably only a few seconds. With a scowl he scanned his audience then finally stunned us with this verbal kick in the teeth.
“In the next ten years somebody you know will die in the saddle.”

You could have heard a pin drop and like those bomber crews mentioned above all of us slowly turned and looked at the guy next to us and thought, “Sorry old buddy. It’s been nice knowing you.”
What is it that makes skydivers, motorcyclists and others involved in risky hobbies and jobs think they are invincible? “It won’t happen to me” is an attitude that we all seem to harbor. What if we could see into the future and know that we would some day expire in a motorcycle crash. Would we continue riding? Probably not but thankfully we don’t know. So why, if we don’t know, do we sometimes ride like we do know?
Sugar Booger and I once set down a list of rules to ride by, rules that we vowed never to violate. Rules like no alcohol before or during a ride. The sobering fact that nearly half of all fatal motorcycle accidents involve alcohol made keeping this rule easy. Another rule, one that we now violate regularly I’m sorry to say, was never to ride on Saturday night. You know, because of Saturday night fever, teenage drivers, drunks and what not. For a while we stuck to it but now, after many years of riding, we have adopted, even if subconsciously, an attitude of invincibility. In other words, something bad might happen to you on Saturday night but not to us because we are blessed. God is our co-pilot.

The following incident happened a few years ago. A motorcycling employee had parked his bike a bit to close to an unloading dock. The boss stuck his head in the break room door and told the rider/driver that he had the dock blocked and would he please move his motorcycle. The motorcyclist said sure, walked outside, jumped on the bike, backed it up and as he dog-walked it out of the way his foot slipped, he tipped over, his head hit the curb and killed him instantly.

I’ve done things like this a thousand times and never gave a thought to pulling on my helmet and even now, knowing about this poor soul’s bad luck I still don’t bother half the time. How long does it take to don your helmet anyway? Well I can tell you. It takes five seconds. I timed it. So why don’t I take the time to put it on when moving the bike around? Well, because I’m immune to tragedies like the above and the angels in heaven watch over me, rendering me accident-proof. At least that’s the way it seems.

A few weeks ago we were riding this picturesque little back road having a great time. We topped a hill revealing blind curve to our left. As I laid the bike into the turn, from out of the blue, a deer appeared on our left, running along right beside us. Sugar Booger could have reached out and touched her. The deer’s quiet and peaceful world had been rudely interrupted and she was suddenly confused and frantic and might do anything at any minute. But thankfully she reversed course, jumped the barbed wire fence behind her and disappeared.

All this happened in an eye blink. If that doe had decided to jump in front of us no amount of skill would have prevented a crash. My point here is how quick it could all end. We know we aren’t invincible but what we know and what we think are sometimes at odds with each other else how could we get back on a bike after a close call? A lot of the crewmen that lived through the war said they just knew in their hearts that they would survive. Said they couldn’t have crawled into those bombers if they thought they wouldn’t make it back alive. But they also report that their buddies who didn’t survive the war were just as sure that they would make it back too.

I’m afraid to fly period and I can’t even imagine flying in combat. Yep, it’s true. When friends learn this they laugh and ask, “How can you ride a motorcycle all over creation and be afraid to fly?” Yeah, I know. Flying is the safest mode of travel by a wide margin. I understand that. But I’m a control freak. On commercial flights, as far as I know, there could be some under-trained loony tunes nut at the controls but when I’m riding my motorcycle I’m on a first name basis with the nut in command and I know his limits and I know he would never exceed those limits. At least not on purpose. When Sugar Booger and I travel in the car I always drive. Every foot of the way. I have to be in control. It gives me a feeling of security and like those WW-II crewman, “It” can’t happen to me but it just might happen to Sugar Booger and I just can’t take that chance.

Don’t get me wrong. I do take chances. We all do. Just getting on a motorcycle is chancy. Sometimes when I ride the bike on an errand around town I don’t fully gear up, just the mandatory helmet. My Dickies work pants wouldn’t be much protection if I went down. But then, I can get away with it because I’m different. I am protected by destiny, the goddess of luck Fortuna or maybe its divine intervention. I don’t know. But for whatever reason I have been singled out and I can ride on a crowded street in shorts and flip-flops zooming recklessly in and out of traffic if I want. I can pull all kinds of stupid stunts but, unlike you, I can get away with it. Why? Because I’m special. To paraphrase an old Royal Air Force lyric, “The bells in Hell ring for you my friend…But not for me.”


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