June 21, 2020

He Had a Cool Helmet


My sister Mary’s first serious boyfriend, Steve, was the son of the local county sheriff. As county sheriffs go, I gotta say, his dad was a decent and reasonable man, a friend of the family’s even before Mary and Steve started dating. I think Mary was fifteen at the time, and Steve sixteen.

            Steve was a tall, adenoidal teenager with curly black hair. He was low-key, funny, and smart. Everyone adored him. He treated Mary very well. My parents liked him because he seemed the wholesome, upstanding type, and I liked him because, even though I was only eight, he took me seriously and had a motorcycle. It was a Yamaha 250, not a super wowza motorcycle, but dammit it was a motorcycle. Even better than the motorcycle, he had a really cool helmet. It was bright red, with two criss-crossing blue bands arcing from the front of the helmet to the back, the bands lined with white stars. It reminded me of Evel Knievel’s helmet. Even though it was far too big to offer me any protection, he sometimes let me wear it when he gave me rides on his Yamaha. With the helmet rocking this way and that as we tooled around the suburban streets, I couldn’t see a damn thing and felt like a bobblehead, but didn’t care. It was a cool helmet.

            While I can’t speak for Mary and Steve themselves, I do know that even that early in the game both Steve’s parents and mine were thinking and hoping the two would be married someday.

            Well, one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 1974, Steve was on his bike heading toward Green Isle Park, about two miles from our house. As he zipped down the normally empty Street toward the park entrance, he slammed into the side of a pickup that pulled in front of him unexpectedly. The bike caved in the side of the truck and Steve was thrown an estimated twenty feet, losing his helmet in the process. He hit the pavement head first. He was rushed to Bellin Hospital up on Webster Ave. in critical condition with traumatic head injuries.

            As it happens, around noon that same day my parents and I were scheduled to go to that same park ourselves. I don’t remember now if it was a softball game or a church picnic or what the hell. A lot of events took place at Green Isle. I do recall there were coolers full of large glass bottles of generic soda from The Pop Shop, and a couple of grills were already fired up. All we knew at that point was that Steve had been in an accident, we had no idea how bad, but he was still alive. I was with my mom, again I forget what we were doing—setting up picnic tables, maybe. I was drinking a cherry soda out of one of those large glass bottles. My dad was doing something else on the other side of the parking lot. That’s where the baseball fields were, so he might’ve been coaching an early game, overseeing a practice, or just setting things up for a pickup game later.

            A car I sort of recognized came barreling into the parking lot, screeching to a stop at an angle not far from my mom and me. With the engine still running, the driver’s door flew open and our neighbor Mrs. Vincent jumped out. She was a small woman about my parents’ age who lived across the street from us. Her daughter and Mary had been best friends for years. Mrs. Vincent had short brown hair, a tan that never went away, large glasses and, I always thought, a perpetually anxious strain to her features. She wasn’t involved with whatever was happening at the park that day, but she always made it her business to know what everyone was up to. She’d driven down to the park because she knew it was where we could be found.

            As she began running toward us, her normally anxious features were strained further into genuine panic. Whatever her reason for being there, I knew it wasn’t good news, and I was afraid I knew what that bad news was.

            “Steve died!” she screamed from several yards away.

            My mom dropped everything and began running across the parking lot toward my dad. I dropped my soda and followed. My mom, you could say, ran like a girl, her heels kicking out to the side with each step. As I tried to catch up with her, the toe of my sneaker caught the top of one of those long, low cement barriers used to designate parking spots and keep people from driving their cars onto the grass. I went down hard onto the gritty asphalt, scraping the palms of both hands bloody and tearing my jeans. I didn’t think about any of that, just pushed myself back up and kept running. Ahead of me, I heard my mom call to my dad, “Steve died!”

            By the time I reached them they were already headed for the car, both looking like they were in shock. No one said a word as my dad screamed home down Libal Street, slamming on the brakes when we turned into the driveway of the single-story beige brick duplex where we were living at the time. Like Mrs. Vincent back at the park, the car was at a cockeyed angle, but no one cared. We ran inside where we found Mary sobbing on the couch in the living room.

            Mary, it turned out, had not heard anything definite yet, and refused to believe Steve was dead on nothing more than Mrs. Vincent’s say so. My parents, thinking about this a second, had to agree. Mrs. Vincent, though a generally nice person, tended toward the high-strung and gossipy, and was not always the most reliable source of information.

            We couldn’t call the hospital and ask for an update, because we weren’t immediate family, so they wouldn’t tell us anything. Portable phones were still two decades away, so we couldn’t call Steve’s parents directly, nor would we want to at a time like this. No, in those days long before the Internet and text messages we were left with only one reliable option.

            “If no one calls, we’ll wait for the news,” my dad said. “See what they say.” Small and sleepy as Green Bay was at the time, you could count on something like this being big news.

            We all sat down in the living room and, if we didn’t exactly relax, we decided to remain guardedly optimistic. It was late afternoon, and the living room was warm and humid. Nobody bothered to turn on the big box fan we had in the corner. There was no point in turning on the TV before the news came on, not even as a distraction. We just waited, both hoping and dreading that someone might call. The room was very quiet save for Mary’s sobbing.

            As we sat there, the scraped and bloody palms of my hands began to burn, and for the first time I paused long enough to notice the screaming pain in my right knee. More than the pain, I could feel something running down my leg into my sock. I knew, even at that age, that there were more important things going on, and this was not the time to complain about a couple of boo-boos. I was just relieved no one had noticed I’d torn my jeans. I sat there as quietly as the others while the blood soaked through my sock.

            At five that afternoon, my mom turned on the television in time for the news. After the snazzy theme music ended, the WBAY newscaster bluntly and somberly announced that early that afternoon, the sixteen-year-old son of the Brown County Sherriff had been declared dead following a motorcycle accident. Even before he finished reading the story, Mary leapt from the couch and ran howling to her room. My parents followed, hoping to calm her down in some way.

            A few hours later, maybe around seven or eight, when it was clear there was nothing any of us could do at that moment except wait until we heard anything more, I went into the bathroom and lowered my pants., I knew my knee was messed up bad, but had no idea how ugly it was. My leg was covered in dried blood from kneecap to ankle, some of it still sticky the closer you got to the actual wound. It had started to scab over some, but there were torn bits of loose flesh clinging around my kneecap that I knew I didn’t dare pull off. I also knew I didn’t dare scream, not at a time like that.

            I slid off my blood-encrusted white socks and dropped them on the floor next to me, then stopped. I had no idea what to do. Do I wash it out and Put some Bactine on it? Would I need stitches? I could barely bend my knee at all by that point, so had I broken it?

            I sat there a long time, staring at the knee and quietly panicking.

            I heard my dad passing in the hallway outside the bathroom and called to him. The door opened. He looked pale and still seemed to be in a bit of shock. Even when he saw my bloody leg and then knee torn open, his expression didn’t change much. He stepped into the small bathroom and closed the door behind him.

            “When did that happen?” he asked. His voice was a whisper, clearly not wanting to disturb my mom or Mary.

            “Back at the park,” I told him. “Right after Mrs. Vincent told us. I tripped.”

            “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

            “I didn’t want to bother anyone with this.”

            He nodded, letting me know it was the right thing to do. Although he’d never said so directly, it was nevertheless a lesson he’d made clear: If there’s something bigger and more immediate going on, don’t start whining about your own troubles. Don’t make it about you if it’s not. In a way, he almost seemed proud of me for keeping the blood and shrieking pain to myself.

            He soaked a washcloth in warm water and washed off the leg and the wound as best as he could. Then he took four normal-sized band-aids and stuck them all in parallel across my kneecap. It didn’t even come close to covering the wound, but it was good enough, and I knew that at that moment there would be no more treatment coming. Maybe in a few days, maybe after the funeral. That was okay. I understood. He left the bathroom, and I hobbled off to bed.

            Steve’s accident was the top story in the news the next day, and the front page of the Green Bay Press-Gazette was accompanied by what struck me as a morbid but unusually arty photograph. So much so that even then I wondered if the photographer had staged it himself. It was taken at the scene of the accident on Green Isle Street. Shot from a very low angle—the photographer must have been lying on his belly in the road—you saw the pickup with the caved in side in the background, and in the immediate foreground was Steve’s really cool helmet, the one that had done him no good at all, scratched and battered and laying on its side in the middle of the road

            I still have scars on that knee, but can’t say now if they’re from the day we learned Steve had died, or from the myriad other times I’ve torn that fucking knee open.


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