We’ve all heard it before: “It’s okay to make a mistake, so long as you don’t make the same mistake twice.” Simple as it is, there’s much wisdom in that statement. As a corollary, I’ve always tried to live by the mantra that mistakes are okay so long as they don’t negatively impact others. But in one case, where all the planets aligned in the worst possible way, I did indeed make the same mistake twice, and it did indeed negatively impact others. Actually, one other in particular.
The First Mistake
One sunny North Dakota morning, I led some of my comrades from Minot Air Force on the three-hour drive to the North Dakota Badlands and the IMBA Epic Maah Daah Hey trail. These brothers in arms were relatively new brothers in biking and I figured the Maah Daah Hey was as close as the mostly table top-flat state of North Dakota could come to keeping them jazzed about the sport.
The drive went well, the weather was spectacular, and the company excellent; everything was perfect. As we began our pedal across the prairie, everyone was in a grand mood and loving life. But not all of North Dakota is flat, and they don’t call this part of the state “the badlands” for nothing.
Erosion has carved huge valleys out of this otherwise featureless prairie. In some places, the Maah Daah Hey drops precipitously from the prairie top to the valley bottom. The first such plummet had my new bike buddies more than a little skittish, but they survived and soldiered on. They liked the climb back up the other side even less. So despite having put in a fraction of the miles I hoped, I agreed it was a good time to turn around and head for the car.
On the return down that long descent, I was leading the pack and positively flying… until l allowed my front wheel to get sucked into a deep erosion rut, with my ensuing panic causing me to grab a handful of front brake, and then it was a high speed over the bars flying fiesta. I quickly came to rest on my back, staring up into the bright blue summer sky. But that sky was partially obscured… by my bike, which had somehow vaulted high into the air and was now dropping like an anvil straight toward my head. I instinctively raised my arm to shield my face and the large chainring raked painfully across my forearm.
Judging from the length and depth of the laceration, I knew this was a going to be a stitch job. I tied a bandanna over the wound tight enough to slow the bleeding, and we began the six-mile journey back to the car, which would be followed by a three-hour drive back to base where I could go the E.R. in the base clinic and get sutured.
On weekends, the clinic is run on minimal staffing with a doc on call. While my injury was minor, it still required a doc to have a look, so one had to be called in from town. Upon his arrival, I could tell he was in a rather foul mood. He looked me over, administered a local anesthetic (not at all gently, I might add), and told the med tech on duty to stitch me up.
While getting stitched, I could hear him outside the treatment room talking to someone, referring to me by a number of euphemisms, “knucklehead” being the nicest of them and the rest being unprintable here. I subsequently learned that this doc was an Ohio State alumnus who was in the middle of watching his beloved Buckeyes in a close game when the call came in to head to base and stitch me up. After the med tech stitched me, the doc came in to check her work. After giving his seal of approval, he directed me to come in one week from Monday to have the stitches pulled. Phew… thank goodness that’s over with!
The Second Mistake
During the intervening week, I met yet another mountain biker, this time a more experienced, serious one. He was, like me, rather disappointed with his posting to the middle of North Dakota. I explained to him that there was indeed good riding to be had, if one is willing to drive a few hours. He was stoked. His stoke got me re-stoked. The next thing I knew, we had made plans to hit the Maah Daah Hey on the coming Saturday (two days before my stitches were to come out).
On the trail, I rode fairly gently, taking care not to put undue stress on the arm, and did pretty well. It had been a full week, and the more I rode, the more confident I became that enough healing had taken place to ensure the arm could handle the stress, so I began riding harder and faster. I was also extra motivated, as my new biking buddy was more experienced than the previous week’s crew, and a full decade younger than me and quite fit. I was determined to not only keep up, but to lead.
About eight miles out, while descending one of those rapid drops to the valley floor… it happened again! This time I know not how, I just somehow ended up somersaulting with the bike close behind. Fortunately, the bike didn’t vault high into the sky like last time, but it did come after me in menacing fashion, this time laying a gash across my right thigh. Just getting the bleeding slowed down was very difficult. Two entire shirts were torn into strips and rags to provide adequate material to both absorb the blood, and tie into a very tight, almost tourniquet-like compress to slow the bleeding.
It was clear this ride was over, and the eight miles back to the car were going to be most unpleasant. But what really concerned me was going into the clinic for new stitches even before the last ones had been pulled out. The Air Force doesn’t take kindly to its property being damaged and I was, at the time, Air Force property. I began to dread the three-hour, shirtless ride back to base. But wait… this is the E.R.; they wouldn’t have my full medical records. All I had to do was keep the right forearm shielded and nobody would notice I still had fresh stitches! Piece of cake.
The nurse took my vitals and some notes and told me it would be a little while before a doc could be called in (which, of course, I already knew, having gone through the routine just one week previous). As I sat on the table in the exam room, a good hour after my arrival, I heard a loud, and obviously very angered voice approaching in the hall. No… it couldn’t be! Why on earth would they put the same doc on call two Saturdays in a row? I also knew that this wasn’t just any Saturday in Buckeye-Land. This was the day of the Ohio State-Michigan game! Not only that, this year, a number one ranking and a trip to the national championship game were on the line. Last week was bad, but this week?
I recalled the old cliche “chicks dig scars,” and started toward the door to see if I could just sneak out and live with the minor deformity and the possibility of infection. Just then, the door burst open and the moment of his recognition was one which will be indelibly burned into my memory until I draw my last breath.
That thing you see in cartoons actually happens in real life: I saw the bright red at the base of his collar travel up his neck, across his face and through his forehead. It was as if every vessel in his cranium had become engorged and migrated to the surface. I awaited the onslaught, but he was quite literally beyond words. He was truly beside himself with incomprehension. This was good, as I would avoid the lecture, and hopefully he wouldn’t think to report me to my superiors.
What was bad was that there was no med tech available to do the stitching, so he was stuck doing it himself. Again, he was anything but gentle. I’m pretty sure he took great care to see that the local anesthetic was ineffective, and he poked, pulled, and prodded in the most excruciating way possible as he laid in the sutures. By the time he was done, I was dizzy with pain and scarcely coherent. If I wasn’t in shock at the time of the accident, I was by the time the doc finished with me!
After he stormed out, with no instructions whatsoever, I wiped the accumulated cold sweat from my brow, took a few long, slow, deep breaths, and gingerly lifted myself from the exam table to the floor. As I stood, the door flew open one last time, and that still enraged face arced around the corner, eyes glaring directly into mine, and he did give me some instruction after all:
“Next Saturday, you STAY HOME, sit ON YOUR ASS and WATCH FOOTBALL, like a NORMAL American!!!”