Hey, what an opportunity! I had a new bike – a large-frame Raleigh Super Course, and my Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty were living in Tustin, California (near Disneyland, boys and girls). A 45-mile ride would be just the thing for a Thanksgiving visit with them and cousins Tom, Susan, and Nancy. I hit the streets from Ruddock, my student house at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology).
I was more rational than when I imagined that I might catch up with The Girl (a hopeless chase in a prior episode). I prepared with oranges, a map, a wool overshirt, and a reasonably-paced schedule. It was a perfect plan for a perfect Southern California day, and it did go perfectly.
Visiting other Stones is always a good thing, especially Bill & Betty. Tom and I went to Newport Beach and ran in the wet sand, cool breeze, and freedom. He made me look like a snail. He was in cross-country in high school, and his calluses were as good as my sneakers. That visit was my introduction to Jerry Clower (Yazoo City, Mississippi !). Bill could not have warned me well enough for the agony of hilarity that I experienced. It was a perfect Thanksgiving with folks I love.
The day came to return to Ruddock. Same plan, of course. Bill and Betty were a little concerned about something, though. You know how adults can be. They pointed to the clouds, which had grown larger and come closer since breakfast. “No, I’ll be fine. If it rains too much, I’ll stop somewhere and wait.” This is southern California, at the end of November. The previous November, my first at Caltech, it had rained for 11 days continuously. We had been counting the days down from 40 (NOAH ! Yes, Lord ?). But a 19-year-old mind has not developed much of a capacity for Object Lessons, or for Experienced Advice.
They need not have worried. It was a great day. The wool overshirt was just right for the Third and last of southern California’s Three Seasons. It did rain a bit, about 20 miles out. No problem – I stopped and waited. My recollection of the duration of weather events waxed, and my patience progressively waned. I hopped back on my 10-speed with the determination to not let mere wetness deter me.
It can be uncomfortable to be wet and cold. Even without a winter that a Missouri boy could respect, the Third Season bore temperatures that even a caveman would prepare for. The discomfort, a paltry state of mind, had been accepted. It was the mechanical difficulties that were irritating. The shift levers of my brand-new, wonderful 10-speed were getting stiff. And then they got very stiff. When I stopped to adjust the shift-lever tensioners, the problem was instantly revealed. Nothing about the bike had changed, nothing needed adjustment, and nothing could be done by me to make the shifts easier. My arms were frozen.
Biological systems are chemical systems. They operate properly only as a system. Body temperature is nearly constant because that’s what it takes to keep the chemicals happy. My body temperature, especially the temperature of my arms, was so low that the muscles would not work.
Fortunately, my carefully-planned route had many stores, gas stations, and other places where I could stop. Unfortunately, stopping would not help. Several attempts to pause and get warm were fruitless. I could only shift gears by pushing with my palms, bypassing the inert fingers. I acknowledged reality. I gave up.
There was a gas station with a telephone booth. Remember telephone booths, boys and girls? It was a telephone, in a glass closet, outdoors. Anyone with a little loose change could use it. I had loose change, because I WAS PREPARED (you didn’t think I’d let you forget, did you ?).
That’s when I discovered how bad my condition was. How does a person lift a telephone off of the hook without using fingers? How do you hold it to your ear? It wasn’t easy. Shoving, cussing, and wincing eventually got the blower in position. Too bad – because it couldn’t stay there. The loose change was in the front left pocket of my blue jeans. Things were looking down, very down.
The fit of frustration was over. This was going to happen, whatever it took to make it happen. Whatever it took – except for asking some unknown guy hanging around the gas station to stick his hand in my pocket. I went to work. One hand, pushing the opposing inert appendage against the outside of the pocket, managed to wedge, smoosh, or scare a few nickels to the double-stitched hem of the pocket. Toes extended to their maximum provided the height to barely sneak each nickel onto the small steel shelf under the telephone. Another session of squeezing, pressing, and guiding brought a nickel to the round, nickel-sized coin receptacle at the top of the telephone. This, too presented a new challenge. The nickel was resting on the bottom of the opening, with the base of my thumb covering it. The base of my thumb could not press further into the opening to advance the nickel to the rear of the coin receptacle, where gravity would become my ally. AT&T made good equipment in those good ‘ole days. This telephone booth and telephone were rock solid. It would have made a good (albeit miniature) holography lab. Shaking the coin into the end zone was forbidden by AT&T’s omnipotent reliability. With patience, I discovered that the Lord had reserved a prominence on an appropriate bone end, which was only thinly protected by fat or tendon. The proximal end of the thumb’s metacarpal made the coin move the silly millimeter further that was required. More coins followed (or maybe just one – was a call just a dime back then?).
You know that dialing was another challenge. Same problem as before, with a different solution. My palm and base of the thumb could rotate the dial (oh, yeah – telephones did not have buttons; the telephone system was literally 100% compatible with an early Alexander Graham Bell telephone) only a fraction of a turn. Big numbers required over 3/4 of a turn. Small numbers, just a bit of a turn – but each turn of the dial had to stop at the exact spot for that numeral. The dial could not be allowed to fall backward as the numeral was approached. That would dial an incorrect number. Sheer determination made the two-palmed ratcheting of a spring-loaded dial reach specific locations seven times in succession.
I was rewarded with an answer by some random troll(note below) walking past the telephone at Ruddock (located in the hall; telephones were ubiquitous only for the owners of the Blacker Telephone Exchange). He convinced someone to drive 10 miles to rescue me, and more importantly, to rescue my beloved bike.
A hot shower restored the chemicals to their proper enzymatic state of biological bliss. The bike needed several sessions with cleaners, solvents, toothbrushes, lubricant and polish to smile again. It must have loved me, too, because it forgave me.
Note: Random Troll is Caltech jargon for an unspecified undergraduate student. You’re welcome.