Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Bike Helmets: Musings on Mandatory v. Voluntary Laws, Good Judgement, etc.

As the jackhammer slams away at the concrete on the sidewalk across the street - the first step in a process which I set in motion with my email to the city about my concern that a cyclist would drop his front wheel into the gap in between concrete slabs and take a header, I feel compelled to share this personal experience, which goes a long way toward explaining my consciousness of potential bike-related head injuries. 

On the first Sunday of January 1972, a crystal clear, cold day at Ft. Bliss, TX, I decided to forgo watching the NFC and AFC Championship games in favor of taking a good, long motorcycle ride in the desert. My "Career Course" (more formally, the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Advanced Course) classes resumed the next day, and I would have very limited opportunities to ride until leaving for Korea in a month and a half or so - our class would be very busy until graduating in two or three weeks, and then our family would be very busy clearing out of quarters, moving, visiting family, etc., until I left.

So I pulled on a couple of pair of bluejeans and otherwise bundled up, then struck out for the Hueco Tanks area, east of El Paso. And what a glorious time I had - mostly running the nearby pipeline right-of-way through the desert, which included lots of jumps! On the way back home, my bike started to lag just as I got back into the outskirts of El Paso, and I immediately thought, "Oh, crap! I've broken an oil line and run it dry!" So, I decided to wheel into the Border Patrol parking lot to check it out, as I had just passed a service station. When I turned the front wheel to the right, it jerked and locked against the right fork stop, and I went sailing over the handlebars at maybe 25 mph! When I landed on my head, that polycarbonate helmet sounded like a mortar round had hit it! Nope, it wasn't the oil. I had picked up a mesquite thorn in the desert, and my front tire had just gone flat!

So, I picked myself up, bushed myself off, assessed the damage - torn and scuffed jeans, scraped shins from the handlebars and mirror, severely scuffed jacket, scuffed gloves, bent foot-rest, broken mirror, shredded handlebar grip - picked up the bike, and walked it back to the service station to fix the flat. Thanks, helmet!! I've often reflected on how that helmet protected my wife, Nancy, from having to make the tough decision about whether to keep me on life-support or not. 

But - as Paul Harvey used to say, "Here's the Rest of the Story".

At the time, Texas had a mandatory helmet law, while my other riding venue, New Mexico, did not. So, one would think that my mature judgement and intelligence kept me in my helmet, regardless of which state I was in. After all, that is the argument put forth by the libertarian-minded folks who argue against mandatory helmet laws, right? To document my said qualities, allow me, without false humility, to enumerate a few examples. 

At the time, I was an almost 29-year-old Army Air Defense Artillery Captain, soon to be an Honor Graduate of the aforementioned Career Course, and soon thereafter to have my finger on the Big Red Button as Commander of a Nike-Hercules Battery in Korea. Just the previous June, I had graduated cum laude in physics from UT-El Paso, as part of the "Pilot Program" group of a new two-year Officer Degree Completion Program, which meant that DOD had picked me out of all the non-degreed (i.e. OCS-sourced) Captains with 2 or more years of college in all of the Army, to be in that first group. Heady.

After getting home from Vietnam, my first Air Defense Officer position was as an Instructor in Air Defense Tactics at the School at Fort Bliss. My students included ROTC and West Point Graduates in the Basic Course, other Captains and Majors in the Advance Course, and officers of all ranks, up to the occasional General or Admiral from other branches of the US DOD and foreign militaries in various familiarization and War College level courses. Heady.

Prior to that, while I was in Vietnam, the Air Defense Artillery and the Field Artillery branches split, and I became Air Defense Artillery. I then finished my tour in Vietnam, continuing to serve as a combat Field Artillery Officer - 6 months as a Forward Observer with Charlie Battery, 2/9 Artillery, humping the Kontums supporting Bravo Company, 2/35 Infantry, a grunt infantry outfit, 2 months as the Fire Direction Officer (AXO) and 2 months in charge of the guns (XO) of Alpha 2/9, a sister 105 mm Howitzer Battery, and then, after being promoted from 1st Lt to Captain, as Assistant Operations Officer (AS3) at the 2/9 Battalion, DS to the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Division. I earned bunch of little ribbons, including a Bronze Star, for my efforts. (OK, so the Bronze Star (no V-device, thank you very much) was kind of the Officer's "Participation Medal" for anyone who was actually in combat in Vietnam.)

As an FO, With a total of about two weeks in the field in what was my first Field Artillery assignment other than OCS, I brought the first high-explosive round of one fire mission within about 30 meters of our closest friendly element - with the full blessing of the Company Commander, CPT John Pipia, and to the relief of my supported troops, as we were pinned down by an enemy heavy machine gun. (This was in violation of the Rules of Engagement, which demanded 400 meters minimum distance for the first HE. But, while being incredibly lucky with the initial smoke spotting round falling about four hundred meters nearer than expected, my decision to immediately enter "Fire for Effect" was technically and tactically sound. Although without John's intervention, the little ring-knocker that was my BC, might have Court-Martialled my cowboy butt. John told him, "Why don't you just accept that my troops consider your battery our savior now, rather than the total bunch of screw-ups they thought you were after you had fired out on us twice in the two weeks before that mission?) About two weeks later, I faced down a veteran Field Artillery Major over his desire to fire a prep with a platoon of 8" howitzers, which had no smoke round available, into the middle of about a square kilometer area on the far side of a mountain from those guns, that we had twelve companies surrounding, hopefully. Actually, they had all fought through jungle, from different directions, over a period of about a week, and no one was really sure where they were - only two of the companies had linked up. (This was the area the machine gun had been deployed on the main approach to.) At this time, my supported company was on the fire-base, LZ Ryder, as "Palace Guard", and I was sitting in for the Liaison Officer to the Infantry Battalion, who had been medevaced with intestinal parasites. This had evolved into a brigade-sized operation, all under the control of our 2/35 Infantry Battalion, since it was in our Area of Operations. We were under the Operational Control of one of the 23rd (Americal) Divisions' Brigades - 196th, I think, I don't remember for sure - and the Major was the Operations Officer for that Brigade's Direct Support Artillery Battalion. After listening to my end of our discussion, the 2/35 Battalion Commander, "Wild Bill" Livsey, took the phone and pronounced, "Major, you're a damned fool!"" In that case as well, my reasoning and my judgement were sound and appreciated by the supported infantry, if not by my artillery fathers. I could go on, but for the sake of, ahem, brevity, I'll leave it at that.

So, I had proven chops in both intelligence and judgement, right? Ahh, well . . . Whenever I headed north on the I-10 toward Las Cruces, I would stop at the state line, take my helmet off, and strap it to the back seat. My goodness, how I loved to feel the wind in my face and the varied smells and tastes of the bugs, as you passed different kinds of crops up through the Rio Grande Valley! (The grasshoppers, on the other hand, really stung, but, oh, well.) Then heading back home - back on with that pesky helmet at the Texas line. That sissy helmet law, you know.

PS: Within a year or two, Texas "saw the light", as they are wont to do, and repealed that sissy law. So now, I thank God, not only for being in Texas when this header occurred, but for it being before I left for Korea, rather than later on.

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