I’ve been having recurrent (and happy) motorbike dreams lately, a few days short of a significant birthday. I had no idea what septuagenarian meant. Also, as my spell-checker immediately informed me, I did not know how to spell the word either. A septuagenarian is a person between the ages of 70 and 79.
There’s a lot of this about, with the quintessential baby boomers (those born in the immediate post-war years (1946-1950), throwing big parties and telling people not to bring presents. Some have a late flirtation with their youth, buying a motorbike they couldn’t afford then or taking bucket list cruises to exotic climes.
We graduated from ‘sixty is the new fifty’ to feebly claiming that seventy is the new sixty. A few say I could pass for that, but they don’t see me in the morning, in the harsh light of the ensuite mirror.
Septuagenarianism causes one to reflect on mortality. Indeed, it makes one think of times when a premature exit was on the cards. In my case, this was a bad motorbike accident in 1969. If you fall off a motorbike at speed or hit something, you are always going to come off second-best.
A study by the Federal Department of Transport found that motorcyclists are 41 times more likely to sustain a serious injury than car occupants. Moreover, the study found that 10% of motorbike accident victims were not wearing crash helmets at the time.
Not that the statistics put people off riding motorbikes or indeed competing in motor racing, be it on dirt tracks or professional circuits. The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries estimates there are one million registered motorcycles in Australia, and twice that number of off-road bikes.
My accident (it traumatises me still to recount) resulted in smashing both kneecaps, breaking my jaw and a lip laceration requiring 37 stitches. The latter was the least of my problems. I had both kneecaps removed and lay in a hospital bed with both legs in plaster for months. I became close to the pigeons roosting on the roof outside my narrow window. And I took up studying racing form to pass the time.
It is a good thing the brain does not retain the memory of pain. Let’s just say when the IRA decided on kneecapping as a form of punishment, they were inflicting great pain and future disability on their victims.
In those days, hospitals routinely doled out synthetic forms of morphine ‘PRN’ (Latin for as required – pro re nata). After several months, they weaned me off Omnipon (synthetic morphine) as my body was starting to crave the drug. Thus began a difficult period.
We can skip over the bad parts, which are chronicled in a highly romanticised song, Motorbike Dreams.
After getting out of hospital, I went to a (physical) rehab unit where daily therapy aimed to get my legs back to normal. As those who have had a patellectomy would know, full flexion is rare. I kneel with difficulty, cannot squat and take extra care to avoid having awkward tumbles. Apart from not having much of a head for heights, I avoid climbing ladders beyond the third step and have never been on the roof of our house.
Rehab and the sci-fi hallucination
Rehab was a hoot, after four months of being cooped up in a public hospital. It was only when I first got on crutches and struggled up the halls of the orthopaedic ward I stopped feeling sorry for myself. There in rooms by themselves or shared with others, was a coterie of ex-bikies, all of them in various degrees of pain and disability far worse than mine.
In rehab, I learned to play pool, always being defeated by a Vietnam vet whose left arm was frozen horizontally at chest height. It made the ideal place to rest a pool cue but was otherwise quite inconvenient.
This impish Polynesian chap, whose name now escapes me, decided one night we should all disobey the curfew and slip down the road to the pub. The rehab unit was located in a dodgy south Auckland suburb. But as Tipu (let’s call him that) said, “Otara’s not as bad as it’s painted, Bro.”
We had a great night out, temporarily forgetting the daily struggle to regain our version of normal fitness. I dimly recall a fabulously rowdy public bar rendition of Ten Guitars (New Zealand’s unofficial anthem).
In July, the surgeon who operated on my right leg decided to try manual manipulation, in a last-ditch effort to improve on 97 degrees. An ambulance came; I was taken back to hospital, given an injection of pethidine and then anaesthetised. I woke up in recovery 20 minutes later, with the surgeon shaking his head. The ambulance took me back to the rehab unit (I’d had a shot of pethidine, remember). The rehab crew were gathered in the rec room watched a flickering black and white RCA TV set. In my altered state it seemed like a bad sci-fi movie.
“That’s one small step for a man,” said Neil Armstrong, as he stepped on to the surface of the moon, “One giant leap for mankind.”
‘Tipu, mate, is this for real?”
He grinned at my dilated pupils and patted me on the shoulder.
“It’s all fake mate, shot on a Hollywood film set.”
Maybe that’s when the rumour began?
By the way, if you didn’t know, there are (still) persistent myths about the Apollo 11 moon landing being faked. In 2008, the TV series Mythbusters came up with one of the more entertaining attempts to debunk the un-debunkable.
Later in ’69 I was discharged from rehab, having made four wooden collection bowls on a foot-operated lathe. It was a sad day, as we had all formed a bond forged by physical adversity.
I went back into the world, to a series of unsuitable jobs where my physical limitations became painfully obvious. The hardest one was steam-cleaning refrigerated railway wagons at 4am. It wasn’t a difficult job once you had clambered up into the wagon, but getting there was pretty problematic.
Just try going for a week without squatting when performing daily tasks and you will have some idea how I adapted to ‘bottom-drawer’ world. No complaints here, though. I got off lightly, as people who have had their kneecaps removed typically develop arthritis and other ailments as time wears on. As a physio once told me, “You’re a lucky lightweight”.
In my 40s, playing soccer with the kids at a birthday picnic, I did the quick about-turn and felt something go ‘pop’. Weeks of pain and hobbling later I ended up in the rooms of an orthopaedic surgeon. He examined the X-rays and asked me to perform a few basic knee movements.
“Is this coming good on its own, do you think?”
“Yeah, I think.”
“Well, forty year old knees with the surgeries you’d had, if it’s coming good, I’m not touching it.”
I give my knees a good talking to, most days, and keep them going with daily walking, weekly yoga and by avoiding the scourge of the over-60s (having a fall).
“Good and faithful servants,” I mentally tell my knees every morning, “Carry me through another day.”
I don’t ride motorbikes anymore, but I’ll never forget the free-wheeling euphoria of a downhill run. And I still have motorbike dreams.