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Friday, February 1, 2013

Tales of a transitory psychopath 1

Thirty years ago I bought a shiny new motorbike. The reasons why are possibly of some interest, but for now I want to stick to the main plot for this ride.

   It wasn't a very powerful one but it had no problem maintaining a speed 100 kph (60 mph) on the open road over any distance, and cost next to nothing to run. I used it mainly to get around town, and in particular, to go to the university and back.

   I was a competent and careful rider, but the big problem with a bike is meeting up with something unexpected – a great pothole that wasn't there last week, an oil slick or loose gravel on a corner, or the idiocy of some car drivers and pedestrians. For unknown reasons, a motorbike just doesn't seem to register as an object on the road, even if it's coming straight at them.

   I left the university late one evening, sun low in the western sky. The Arts Building is on a hill, and the road down the hill curved into an arc that took me eastwards across a strip of road separating town and gown. In those days the speed limit on that stretch was 90 kph (55 mph, American friends).

   There was a car ahead of me going toward the town, just as I was. When I was about 50 metres behind it, it briefly slowed to a crawl, coming to a gentle stop by the roadside, so I started to overtake it. The driver seemed to glance behind him in my direction, and then wheeled sharply across the road.

   Right into my path.

   No, this isn't an insurance assessor's report even though it looks like it. That came later and I won't bore you with it. At all.

   I knew there was no way of avoiding an accident. 90 kph isn't raceway stuff, but with a car suddenly slewed across your path, there's not much you can do but slam into it.

   Now here's what I was leading up to. At this moment, my brain went into completely dispassionate, calculating mode. It takes far longer to describe the reasoning than the second or so I had to think about it, but this was the logic:

   No avoiding impact. Where to hit?

   It was not quite Hobson's Choice, but close. I was heading for the driver's side front wheel. I had at most a metre of width to play with.

   If I chose to hit the car in front of the wheel, I could more easily be run over by that wheel. If I chose to slam into the side of the car, I could be run over by the back wheel.

   There was only one spot to aim at, and that was the gap just behind the front wheel. I felt no fear. It was a clinical decision. 

   The driver had missed seeing me because he was looking back into the setting sun when he checked, before wheeling across the unbroken line in his 180 degree (illegal) turn. He tramped on the brake and I hit my target squarely.

   Everything stopped suddenly. Fortunately there were no other vehicles around. The motorcycle jammed firmly between wheel and mudguard.

   I simply stepped off the bike, my front wheel wedged where I'd aimed it. It stayed upright, just like a bicycle in a rack.

   My purpose in telling you this story isn't about a lucky escape. It's not that exciting, after all. But it did exemplify one quality that I didn't know I had until that moment of stepping off the motorcycle, and that's what I want to go on to talk about.

   It's not really about me; it's about this fascinating quality that many people used to dealing with emergencies have.

   To put it to you straight, if you do have it, you're something of a psychopath. It can be useful, or it can be deadly.


psycho 1 | psycho 2


  1. I understand exactly Denis - although I will have to wait for Part 2 to discover whether or not this makes me a dangerous psychopath.

    Such a situation arose for me several times, in the Africa of my youth. At moments of crisis, time slows down, emotions flatten out, there is a feeling of calm. And in this stillness you are utterly focused but somehow personally uninvolved.

    Afterwards you may shake, feel weak at the knees, and your teeth may chatter, but at the moment of crisis you are a detached observer. This could be happening to somebody else.

    Strangely enough, one of the most memorable of these occasions was when something similar to your experience happened to me in Blackbutt (Queensland).

    Picture a broad main street - one of those I imagine was originally designed for timber-getting ox wagons. Down the middle was a substantial median strip, with large trees at intervals of about 30 metres. The road on both sides of this tree-lined strip was of two-lane width but unmarked

    It was early morning, with that rich, beautiful sunlight you get at that time of day, slanting low through the buildings. There was little traffic. I felt at peace with the world, humming some soothing classical piece of music (I can't now remember what) and cruising through town at about 60 kph. Completely relaxed.

    Ahead of me on the left hand side of the road was a little yellow car, going very slowly and, I thought, looking for somewhere to park.

    Just as I was overtaking it, the car - without any signal - slewed abruptly across in front of me. Effortlessly I pulled my car hard to the right, crossed the median strip between trees, drove 50 metres, back through trees on the median strip and on to my own side of the road. I drove on without missing a beat in the music I was humming.

    In the rear-view mirror I could see the little yellow car standing still, right across the road. Lots of luck there for both of us. For the little yellow car - my reaction. For me, an absence of oncoming traffic on the other side of the median strip.

    I would like to think this incident, and others similar to it, reflect favourably on me. 'Cool under pressure' ... like James Bond.

    But the fact is that I simply wasn't there; I was watching someone else do it. For all the world I could have been playing a video game.

    Don't know that I can draw any moral from this rambling story but, yes, I know how you felt.



  2. Thanks for your story, too, Bob.
    Mine is not about a near-death with a car accident, but a near-death of a baby in my arms.

    In 1977, my 2nd (of 4) sons was 10 weeks old when he contracted a chest infection. The doctor told me he had to be in hospital but that I couldn't stay with him. He was fully breastfed and I refused to be separated from him.

    So, against Dr's orders, I took him home.
    All through the night he laboured hard just to breathe.
    I sat, huddled over a vapouriser, under a blanket, for hour after hour, alternately percussing and breastfeeding my infant son whom I had been warned would die if I took him home. My then husband, and 2 year old son slept. I stayed awake all night and into the morning. I wasn't afraid. I didn't panic. I just did what I had to do. Hour after hour.

    At about midday, my baby's breathing became steady; his chest became calm. He stopped feeding and slept. It was only then that the full impact of the choice I'd made hit me - a life and death choice. I then curled up on the floor and sobbed and sobbed, exhausted, relieved, and crawled back into my own body.
    That was my 24 hour car crash.

    1. You and Tracey should compare notes on saving baby sons' lives, Ros. I really do think that sometimes mother does know best against the weight of 'objective' medical opinion. In her case she was told to take him home and wait around for him to die as nothing could be done for him. She wasn't prepared to do that. Sometimes you have to take chances. No doubt there are many other parents who have similar stories.

  3. Denis, that's why we mothers hate it when our sons take to motor bike riding, even though we know they are otherwise quite sensible! I said that quie vehemently to the person in the next seat at some performance when my eldest son handed me his gear (helmet etc.) as he was conducting and it turned out I was speaking to the editor of a well known motor cycling magazine and he told me he owned six. Very red faced. Anne P

    1. After that episode and two other narrow escapes I figured hitting something with my body at 90-100 kph wasn't going to be a good idea. I sold it.

      But it's the closest to flying on wheels that you get. It's the flying off that may not be so much fun. And that's just the selfish bit.

  4. I'm buggered if I can work out what your story has to do with being a psychopath, Denis! A bikerpath maybe! Have been trying to work out on exactly which road this occurred, with the hill and westering sun and all. Wish I'd known you when you were a bikie, you look so cute in your leathers! When I was about sixteen I had a Vespa but my boyfriend of the time had a big chopper. He and his two closest friends used to "do the ton" on the Nairobi-Nakuru road, in those days one of the few bits of straight bitumen roads in the colony. We girls used to cling on to the back, squealing with delight. Dressed, I might add, in the full skirts of the time and stiletto heels, no helmets to spoil our beehive hairdos! One time we were doing this (unknown of course to parents and school) and had just slowed down to 90 (that's MILES, not wussy kilometres!) and we hit a large kite (bird). The bike spun off the road and Barry and I both flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I have no memory of this - just of sitting up by the side of the road and realising we'd had an accident. Neither of us had more than a few bruises! The bird, however, was dead! The young can lead charmed lives! But there is a sad sequel to this story. Just a few weeks later one of the other boys, Tony, (who helped me back on my feet after the accident) had an accident of his own. He was idling his bike round a traffic island at the end of a dead end street while waiting for his girlfriend to come out of her house. Doing probably 20 mph. The bike stalled (we think, nobody ever knew for sure) and he came off. Hit his head on some concrete and damaged his brain and spent the rest of his life in an institution for the profoundly mentally and physically handicapped!

    1. I reckon you might be one of those with amygdala that switch on and off at will, Julie! Or is will really involved?


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