Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Rough Riders of Kandiyohi County

As the days of high heat and humidity continue here in MN, I find myself again grateful for a job that allows me to remain in air conditioned comfort. Gazing out the window and what deceivingly appears to be a lovely sunny day, I am again drawn to thinking of my days in the sun in the time before I was eligible for gainful employment.

Prepare yourself, this entry bears the possibility of being epic. OK, maybe that’s reaching a little high, but it will certainly give you a privileged view into my adolescence that will likely shed some light onto my psychological character of today.

Please come back in time with me to the summer of 1995. Times were simple, yet big changes were in the works. I was on the cusp of young-adulthood; my 16th birthday was looming on the horizon with all the freedom it promised. Freedom to go wherever I wanted (within a 10 mile radius of Willmar), freedom to have a job (and make money) and freedom to arrive at my destinations in style.

When one is only on the cusp of freedom, the reality remains that it really hasn’t arrived yet. Therefore, one must accept their limitations and make the best of what has been given. In this case, what I was given was a red Schwinn mountain bike and an 8:00 p.m. curfew. Lucky for me, I had the added bonus of living two houses away from one of my best friends, “Liza*”. I could probably spend an entire entry telling stories of the two of us, but maybe later. This entry will be limited to our biking adventures during the summer of 1995.

Before the story begins, I should perhaps offer a bit by way of a preface. By this point in time, we (Liza and I) had completed our freshman year of high school. Willmar built a brand new Senior High in the summer of 1994, and we were the first freshman class to enter its shiny new hallways. As if this was not overwhelming enough, we were again gifted with an abundance of extremely attractive upperclassmen males.

If you have any memory of what it was like to be 14 or 15 years old and the hormones that are involved, you can perhaps imagine our reaction. We honestly felt that we had no need for posters of movie stars or hunky teen sensations to plaster all over our lockers and walls. We had bona fide straight up swoon-worthy men in the same building as us five days a week, at least during the school year.

Now, imagine the sense of withdrawal one would feel if suddenly it is summer break and you cannot get your hottie-fix. That is where we found ourselves in June 1995. Always resourceful, we soon concocted our solution: bike-stalking. OK, so that’s not what we called it, but that is really what it was.

In a small town, pre-Google, it was still possible to locate the domiciles of any and all members of the community. So, we assembled our informal list of our favorite high school hotties and found there houses using our handy phone books. Using these locations, we mapped a bike route to take us past as many of these houses as possible.

I should now stop and make some clarifications. First, our intentions for this plan were purely innocent. We had no desire to actually stop in and visit any of these boys. In fact, I’m not even sure we wanted to see and/or make real contact with them in any way. I believe that our initial hope was that perhaps we could catch a glimpse of them mowing the lawn or walking out the door. We certainly did not want to be noticed. Unless, of course, they noticed us and then asked us out. I take that back, I am completely positive that if they had asked us out we would have been so scared we may have spontaneously combusted on the spot.

Basically, we established a route and we followed it throughout the summer. We didn’t go every single day as we did occasionally have events or constructive activities to attend. However, our trips were frequent enough to the point that I really couldn’t say exactly how many there were. At some point, it became more of a habit, and for the number of miles we put in, it was probably excellent exercise. Sometimes we would stop off for refreshments, but not that often as we did not yet have jobs and income to purchase treats.

Other than the landmarks that determined our route, there was not much special to see in Willmar. It’s not a large town, but it took several hours to circumnavigate the city limits. Our treks usually started in the early afternoon and concluded by dinnertime. This was before the time of cell phones, so we could not call our parents to get us if we were too tired or hot. Amazingly, we never had any accidents or flat tires, so this was not an issue.

In many ways, this was an ideal way to spend the summer, and it was. Until the day it was nearly destroyed by the long arm of the law.

The city of Willmar can boast of many things. It has four water towers, a community college, a Jennie-O Turkey plant, two Dairy Queens and a giant gold statue of Chief Kandiyohi. It also has one other thing going for it: bike cops. In order to combat the rampant bicycle violations that threaten the very fabric of society, the City of Willmar (via the police department) employs high school and college age citizens to patrol the mean streets of town. They are not given guns, tasers or even mace, but don’t be deceived, they do have some authority (please note that I am saying “authority” a la Eric Cartman). Through some loophole in the justice system, they are allowed to issue “bike tickets.”

Now that I am a licensed driver, I have a greater understanding of how police issue tickets, but at that time, I was not well informed. Real cops can give you tickets for a lot of things: speeding, parking, running a stoplight or running over a pedestrian. OK, so maybe you wouldn’t get a ticket for hitting a pedestrian, but maybe if you ALMOST hit them. Bike cops are a bit more limited. Essentially, they are governed by basic bike safety “laws” and rules.

For instance, in case you were not aware, bike riders are required to obey all traffic signs and signals, just like cars. This includes, but is not limited to: stop signs, traffic lights, railroad crossings, yield signs and road closed signs. In addition to this, bikers are supposed to signal their intention through the use of hand signs. This pertains mostly to stopping and right/left turns. Also, bike riders should wear helmets.

Theoretically, I can understand why these things are important. It is important to let the people in the big vehicles know what you are doing so that they don’t run you over. Easy, right?

Anyway, back to 1995. Liza and I biked around almost all summer long on our regular route without incident. Until we encountered the bike cop on a vendetta. OK, so maybe vendetta is a strong word. We encountered a bike cop who had recently been instructed by her supervisor to start handing out more tickets and less warnings. She was also a super stealth biker. Apparently, she followed us for several minutes without our knowledge and was about to give up and allow that we were good bikers, when our major violation occurred. We ran a stop sign.

Let me explain. There is an intersection in Willmar on a small residential street that has a two-way stop sign. It is actually near my friend Jill’s old house, and if anyone is familiar with the city of Willmar, I could certainly tell you where it is in exact detail. I actually revisit the spot in my car whenever I happen to be back in town. Even now, I am still unclear as to why there are stop signs at all at this intersection. There are certainly many uncontrolled intersections in Willmar, and this one could certainly qualify for that status.

On this particular day, Liza and I were biking along without a care in the world when we unknowingly breezed through this spot. I believe we did actually pause and look both ways, because believe me, we were not total idiots. However, there was no doubt that a complete stop did not occur.

Here is a fun fact: bike cops ride bikes, not cars, and they do not have sirens. They must therefore rely on their speed and the authority of their voice to induce offenders to stop for them. Our “officer” was a recently graduated senior female that we were very loosely acquainted with. (Translation: we knew who she was but she did not know us.) After informing us of our offense, she proceeded to apologetically tell us of her bosses “more ticket” mandate, and that this meant that we were indeed going to receive a ticket.

Here is some more fun information for you: regular bike tickets do not have monetary penalties. (Although I would imagine repeat offenders may have to face some fees.) No, there are two options for punishment. If you are under a certain age (let’s say 12), you must attend the Bike Safety Rodeo. If you are over a certain age (again 12), you must attend Bike Safety School. We were 15 years old at the time, so you do the math.

My friend Liza is an extremely smart person. In fact, she may be one of the smartest people I know, even today. In addition to being generally intelligent, she also possesses the covetable ability to think quickly in tight situations. Case in point: while our apprehending officer was doing something with her walky-talky, Liza took me aside and instructed me to give a false name for the ticket. After all, we were not carrying ID as biking doesn’t require a license, and she didn’t really know who we were. Actually, if I recall correctly (and I know I do), Liza wanted to give the names of two of our friends. I expressed my doubts of this plan mainly because I was certain it wouldn’t work, but also because if it did work, our friends would likely not find it funny.

In the end, truth and stupidity won the day and we gave our real information. For this honesty we were rewarded with Bike Safety School to be completed by a certain date to be held at the police station. We briefly toyed with the idea of simply not attending because we weren’t all that sure that they had any real recourse against us. However, in the end, our fear of the law and desire to clear our records to get into college made us go.

I wish I could say that the experience was enriching or at least entertaining. Sadly, I cannot. We were ushered into a basement room along with several punk-ish 12 and 13 year-olds who were in for “reckless driving” and forced to watch a homemade safety video featuring two of Willmar’s finest (bike cops). After the video, we took a quiz. Then we were free to go, having paid our debt to society.

In retrospect, I have to wonder if our bike arrest was karmic retribution for our stalker-ish motives. On the other hand, I can hardly believe that any of the boys we idolized at the time had any idea that we were biking through their neighborhoods on a regular basis. As the older sister of two formerly teenage brothers, I think I can safely say that they were likely completely oblivious. If they weren’t out working summer jobs, they were likely sleeping until some unreasonable hour of the afternoon, or they were perhaps playing video games. None of these activities would have brought them to look out at the streets in front of their houses to see us.

Of course, now that I have told the story on the internet, the secret is out.

* “Liza” is an alias. As I know that stories from the past cause different levels of embarrassment for different people, I felt I should respect her privacy. However, for those of you who knew me back then, you’re probably all perfectly aware of her identity. None of this should be news to you, so I think we’re OK.

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