Ass Over Tea Kettle

family story
My wife tried to win that contest for years. Cyclists of all skill levels sent in photos of their most epic crashes, or the bloody aftermath. It was a kind of grim celebration of the dangerous side of bike racing. The winner got a tee-shirt that said “Ass-Over Tea Kettle”, but the real prize was bragging rights. You had the most outrageous crash of the season. You walked away from “The Big One.”

The title of the contest is descriptive of one of the most dangerous crashes in cycling, to flip your bike at high speed – with you on it, end over end. While this was not required to win the contest, a full flip was enough to get you in the door. Usually some additional embellishment followed: “I walked away but had to bury the Bianchi” or better yet: “I managed not to spill my beer.”

Though Terry had been in many accidents, our married life had led to a long stretch of health. Normally this would be cause for celebration, but she wanted that damned tee-shirt. I was glad not to have to nurse her back from a “road rash” – the removal of skin that frequently accompanies bike accidents as a body scrapes along asphalt at high speed. Terry had tried to recall stories, we even contemplated making one up. Somehow the time for the epic tale had not yet come, then came the new house and a son.

Once you get used to the “what the hell just happened” feeling, living with an athlete can be fun. My wife is a former sprinter, both in track and cycling. Though she never turned professional its not uncommon for her to point to the t.v. and say “I raced against her” or “thats the track I set my last record on.” Of course there are other telltale signs of her athletic ability. As I approach a dangerous intersection on my bike looking both left and right, she’s already zipped through traffic without even a second thought. Then there’s the move she pulls while we’re walking together, most often at the grocery store. Sensing I’m about to accelerate towards the parsley she’ll inch ahead of me, stepping across my path and forcing me to the cabbage instead. Its a classic move cyclists use just before the final burst of speed to take them over the finish line. She never realizes she’s doing it, a natural born competitor.

While I’m still weighing the benefits of leaping off a cliff she’s looking up and wondering where I am. This puts us firmly on the road to many adventures – not the least of which is our marriage. Its easier for me to talk about the upside of her reflexes in a non-athletic context. Some of the things she does physically freak me out. Take for example her habit of riding with my son in his wagon.

The sight of a fully grown woman crammed into the back of a red wagon with a 16 month old toddler careening down a dirt road laughing hysterically is probably enough to give most parents an anxiety attack. After a few weeks I got tired of asking her not to do it. Being a boy I have more of a sense of the accidents that likely await our son. It was unusual for our family to go a full year without at least one trip to the emergency room. I figure he’ll get himself into enough trouble without our help.

In her defense I should say the wagon is outfitted with the All Terrain Wagon (ATW) kit – not your run of the mill small wheeled sidewalk-sally-mobile. Living in the country we made sure to ask for the one with the big inflated wheels and the wood safety rails (thanks Aunt Ann!). Its a real beauty, I put it together myself. It only took a few weeks of pulling our son around for my wife to figure out it was more fun to ride in the wagon with him.

We live in rural area, home to ranchers and farm workers whose families have harvested America’s produce for generations. Mostly Latino, only some speak fluent English. Our neighbors at the bottom of the hill leading up to our house are the hard working bachelors of the neighborhood. They’re probably more used to traditional Latino housewives, Mothers not athletes. They’ve seen the new additions to the neighborhood out on walks almost daily and have finally warmed up to us. Terry is very friendly and outgoing, always says hello and encourages our son stop and exchange a smile and a wave. Perhaps more forward than a woman should be in their view, but they seem to make allowances for gringos like us.

Disclaimer:What follows was delivered to me in pieces via phone and later at home. I’ve tried to reconstruct it as best I can, not having a police report to go on.

It was a sunny day when three of our neighbors were gathered in front of their house. They spotted mother and son up the road, stuffed into the red wagon making their way down the road in fits and starts. They were riding on the hard packed dirt next to the paved road, this gave them the natural brakes of pot holes and sand traps. Though the three men likely raised their eyebrows at the scene of hysterical laughter it was just a new entry on a growing list of unladylike behavior.

Then something caused them to veer off the dirt and onto the empty main road. Speeding by the gawking bystanders she managed to veer up a side road, decreasing speed and preventing a spill. Up the steeper road they stopped and reversed directions, now heading back down a paved road to an empty intersection she was sure they could safely stop in. They were going faster than she was comfortable with but the bottom of the hill was so close.

That was when they hit the rock. Mother, son and Radio Flyer performed a classic Ass Over Tea Kettle flip, depositing all three about the road, our son face down. Presumably none of the bystanders had a chance to offer help as Terry was up with our son in her arms before his first scream erupted out of his mouth. After he stopped crying she determined none of their injuries were hospital worthy at least at first blush.

Perhaps if Terry were more ladylike our neighbors would have offered to help her back to the house. Maybe they sensed how physically capable she is. Our son had a bright bloody red nose, enough to make Rudolf blink. Terry knew from experience the road rash would be numb for a short time, long enough for her to clean the dirt from his face and hands without causing pain. She rushed up to the house, son in arms and wagon in tow. His relaxed, small body didn’t seem to have any muscular or bone injuries. She had a sore neck and some amazing bruises to show off. The wagon was fine, proving they still make great Radio Flyers.

The call I got was regretful and a little panicked. They were both OK, but it was obviously an epic spill. I couldn’t be home for hours, all I knew was that my son had a road rash for a nose. I’m sure I said to her “I hope you’ve learned your lesson” at some point in the days that followed, I now regret that. I began to think that I would never see the two of them in that wagon again, heading down the road barely in control. Secretly I wished we could all fit into that wagon together.

I saw myself sitting in front with Terry at the helm. What an incredible ride that must have been. When I look into my sons bright eyes I know a big part of his happiness comes from having a mother who when given the chance will hop in the back of his wagon and send them screaming with laughter down a hill at Ass Over Tea Kettle speeds. Its a package deal. Joy comes with road rashes and bruises. The marriage comes with being cut off in the grocery isle and left on the other side of intersections. Now I only wish I’d been there to take a picture of my wife and son mid-flight. Maybe I’ll just send this one in:


  • gsmaus
    May 23, 2009 - 4:14 am · Reply

    That’s the spirit Tim! Damn good picture and I’m sure it must be scary for you. Beautiful essay. You capture the contradictions of life so well. I’ve been told to try and keep the teeth in working order and the rest is on the table with kids!

  • Anonymous
    May 23, 2009 - 3:22 pm · Reply

    Yowza!! Mine was my brother Marc who is 6 years older than I launching me from the top of “lizard road” a wide path that really had no name, in an old tin wagon someone made by hand,(no atv wheels) if the screaming was loud enough he did not come down the hill to meet our Grandma. No scream ,time to ride again!

  • Marti
    May 29, 2009 - 12:13 am · Reply

    Hi Tim! Wonderful Account of the Radio Flyer Ass over tea kettle spill. I love your beautiful descriptions and the way you capture the feelings in your writing. I think Terry deserves the damn t-shirt and Tadg too. I hope you have them on order!

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