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A tip of the helmet to my helmet

John S. Allen

June 13, 1985 is a fine, bright spring evening in Reading, Massachusetts - at last, the trees are in full leaf. Last night's thunderstorm has left the air cool and clear. I am treating myself to a short after-dinner workout, riding to the Post Office to drop off a letter. I am pedaling slightly downhill, on a tree-lined street, a couple of feet from the curb, about 20 miles per hour. And now suddenly I am watching the pavement fly up at my face.


I awaken and raise myself up on one elbow. Good, I can still do that. I can wiggle my toes, too. But now I see the big red drips of blood pitter-pattering down on my sleeve and the pavement. From my face.

Across the street, a car stops. The driver rolls down his window. He looks blurry to me, my glasses are gone. I'm sure I don't look very good either, lying in the street and bleeding. The driver asks "are you all right?" I reply, "thank you, I'm going to be all right, but please call an ambulance." He drives off. Another motorist parks his car to block traffic. I don't feel much like moving. Two minutes later I hear the sirens. They come close and then stop.

Hands feel up and down my body for damage. A voice asks my name, address and age. I answer. Then I hear freewheel pawls clicking. My bike's front wheel edges into my field of view. It is being held up off the ground. If I strain my eyes to look upward, I can see blurry hands gripping blurry handlebars.

The mirrorlike shine on a pair of gum-sole black Oxfords is in sharp focus, too close for comfort across 10 inches of asphalt. Those shoes can't possibly be real leather. From somewhere up above, out of my sight, a voice asks "is this your bike?" I say "yes," and the voice asks "was there a car?"

I strain to examine the bike. Even without my glasses, I can see a stick of wood, wedged between the spokes of the front wheel and the bent front fork. "No, Officer" I say. "That stick got caught in my wheel." The voice from above tells me that I can pick up my bike at the police station. "Thank you, Officer," I say.

The bicycle one day after the accident.
The police evidence tag hangs from a brake cable.
Notice the stick of wood still jammed in the front wheel.

Damaged bicycle (43 KB JPEG)

John S. Allen photo

On the way to the hospital, the ambulance driver talks into his two-way radio. "We have an alert, conscious 39 year old white male, fell off his bicycle, facial lacerations." "Alert, conscious" -- moving words, but somehow I have no tears, only practical thoughts. I should ask for a plastic surgeon when I get to the hospital. "White" -- I'll just let him drive the ambulance.

I lie in the emergency ward cubicle and wait for the plastic surgeon. After half an hour, I am feeling a bit more energetic, so I straighten my glasses frames. My choice of metal frames has paid off. I put my glasses on, ask a nurse's permission and walk out of the cubicle to the phone. My landlord's line is repeatedly busy. My friend Crispin Miller will come to the hospital to pick me up.

I call Elisse, the woman I have been dating. She lives 100 miles away on Cape Cod. I tell her "I will be all right, but I probably won't look very good for a few weeks." She does not hesitate for a second. "I am going to come up there tonight to be with you...I could have told you that [your landlord] wouldn't check after you." I live in the house with the landlord. Elisse doesn't have much faith in him. Score one for her.

I look into the mirror over the basin in the men's room and see a bright red nose, and just underneath it, a jagged, horizontal cut like a second mouth. The nurses and everyone else here had to look at that while I was on the phone, but they didn't say anything.

Crispin arrives at the same time as the plastic surgeon, Dr. Kohli, a Sikh from India wearing a blue turban. Amazing coincidence, Dr. Kohli studied under Dr. Eugene Gaston of Framingham. Dr. Gaston wrote the medical column for Bicycling magazine and started wearing a hockey helmet for bicycling back in the 1960's.

Dr. Kohli shaves my mustache. It's the first time in years I've been without one. Dr. Kohli lends his camera to Crispin to take pictures of my face being stitched up. When the doctor has finished, he smiles with professional pride. "There will be no scars, except maybe a little bit over here." I can hear it again now, in his lilting Indian accent.

The helmet one day after the accident.
Notice how thin the styrofoam liner has been crushed at the front.

Damaged bicycle helmet (9 KB JPEG)

John S. Allen photo

We examine my helmet and agree that if I hadn't been wearing it, Dr. Kohli could have stayed home this evening. Three hours after my crash, Crispin and I walk out of the emergency room into the cool evening, under the buzzing, yellow overhead parking lot lights. I am carrying the helmet under my arm.


That night, Elisse lay next to me in the dark. I was propped up on one elbow again. She rolled over and banged her knee into my sore nose. "Oww," I said. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, with feeling. Istruggled for words for a few seconds, and then "I can tell that you really kneed me," I said.

I'd seen much worse, and I'd been through worse once when I was sick. Yet I still wondered, that night, how we can see anything at all, since we grow from the void and go back to it, and how that might not be an answerable question; and besides, one way or the other, there was a lot more I wanted to see and do. The next morning, Elisse told me that my red clown nose was scary to look at because it made her think about losing me.

The author one day after the accident.
Elisse was scared by what she saw through the viewfinder.
Still, I had a lot to smile about.

Banged-up but smiling bicyclist and his helmet (21 KB PEG)

Elisse Ghitelman photo

She drove me to the police station and we picked up the bike. We drove to the accident scene and found a tree branch on the ground. Its broken end perfectly matched the end of the stick that was still caught in the bike's front wheel. Case solved, investigation closed: high winds in the thunderstorm, branch hanging over the curb in the shadow of the tree it fell from, gray asphalt, gray maple bark. We drove on to the Post Office and mailed my letter.

For a couple of weeks, my head ached. When I drove a car, 25 miles per hour felt like 40. On a bicycle, 15 felt like 25. Slowly, the symptoms cleared. I've heard that they can be much worse. Ever since my crash, I have laughed more easily, cried more easily and shown affection more easily. I don't think those are symptoms of brain damage.

Sometimes it takes a real knock on the head to clarify a person's thinking. Elisse and I married a little more than a year after my crash. We have a son, Jacob, who stoked tandem with me when he was younger. As I write this, Elisse is sitting in the next room, and a red-and-white-striped Bell Biker helmet, serial no. 75616, with a big scrape at the front and a smashed liner, hangs in its place of honor above my desk.

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Contents 1993, 1997 John S. Allen

Last revised 13 March 2018