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Ride the iron horse with respect for yourself, the machine and environment

Tech. Sgt Lester Nelson, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, shows the proper saftey equipment for motorcycle riding, bright vest, helmet, gloves, eye protection, long sleeved shirt and pants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dan DeCook)

Tech. Sgt Lester Nelson, 11th Civil Engineer Squadron, shows the proper saftey equipment for motorcycle riding, bright vest, helmet, gloves, eye protection, long sleeved shirt and pants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dan DeCook)

BOLLING AFB, D.C. -- I have enjoyed motorcycle riding ever since owning my first "Iron Horse," a Honda Nighthawk, back in 1983.

There's just something exhilarating about riding - the tough-guy image, the carefree feeling and the intoxicating rush of invincibility. But in all my years of riding, I have always kept focused on three life-saving elements - respect for self, the machine and the environment.

For example, I would never perform high-speed wheelies or recklessly zigzag through traffic, as I've seen others do, down the congested D.C. Beltway. That's just asking for a body bag. Think before you ride! Concentrate on the task at hand and prevent accidents from ever happening. There is little that separates and protects the rider from the environment during an accident. As reported in Airmen's Roll Call, two of our "Wingmen" Air Force-wide died in motorcycle accidents in May. That is two too many!

Perhaps my safety-conscious riding style galvanized on a beautiful summer day around 1970. The Sharp family was headed to dad's annual company picnic in a park on the mountains near our home in Oxnard, Calif. I remember anticipating the mouthwatering food and fun that awaited.

We stayed at the picnic for about four hours. As we headed home, we talked about the great day we had. Then, just a few miles outside the park entrance, we noticed something odd just beyond the left shoulder of the two-lane road. A riderless motorcycle lay on its side, exhaust smoke billowing out of the tailpipe and the back wheel spinning rapidly. Dad pulled over to investigate. It seemed like he was gone five or 10 minutes before I decided to go investigate, too.

Beyond the road's shoulder, the dirt surface sloped into a ditch. About 20 yards from the motorcycle, dad was kneeling beside a man who was lying on his back at the base of the ditch. The man was moaning lowly and turning his head slowly from side to side. Dad said he had already flagged down a motorist who went to get help. Meanwhile, dad stayed there with the man to help keep him calm and alert until medics arrived.

As the man turned his head to his left, a large section of flesh about 7 inches wide slid down and folded over, resting on the side of his head. The half-circle fold of flesh started near the top of the head and extended to just above the top of his cheekbone. The flesh remained connected to the skull by about four inches of skin.

We could clearly see a portion of the man's brain when the flesh folded over. The man must have still been in shock, as I don't recall a large amount of blood coming from the wound. Dad kept talking to the man and, when the flesh folded over, he returned it to its original place to help reduce the chance of infection.

An ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later. The medics began first aid, loaded the man onto a hospital gurney and transported him away. As we drove home, we talked about the accident, wondering what had happened and who the man was. Dad said he didn't know him well, but recognized him as an acquaintance from his company.

Some months later, we remembered that day at the picnic and asked dad if he knew what became of the man. Dad said he had survived and had recently talked to him about the accident. Dad learned the man had been drinking at the picnic. If I may borrow from baseball terminology, that was strike one. Although he was inexperienced, the man talked a friend into letting him ride the friend's motorcycle. Strike two. Finally, the man decided to ride around unfamiliar country roads without a helmet. Strike three, he's out.

The man said he intended to go only for a short ride outside the park but the high rate of speed at which he was traveling caused him to lose control of the bike, hit an obstacle and eject into the rock-lined ditch.

In retrospect, I suppose the man was lucky. He survived, but he paid a high price. The left side of his face is scarred from numerous stitches and staples he received, and his speech is slurred, probably for the rest of his life.

The lesson of the story? When you ride, remember to be respectful. First, respect yourself. Never drink alcohol and ride, and make sure to complete approved Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider courses and refresher training as needed. Rest when you get fatigued. Ride appropriately attired - blue jeans, long-sleeve shirts, boots, gloves, reflective vests and, if at all possible, body armor. Check with your state concerning the types of helmets deemed acceptable for riding. A full-face helmet provides extra protection. Bring along a rain suit in case weather conditions change. Do not take risks.

Second, respect the motorcycle. Make sure your motorcycle is in good working condition before each ride. Perform basic safety checks before and after each ride and have preventive and periodic maintenance work done regularly.

Finally, respect the environment. Frequently check your 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clocks so you're prepared to react if something unexpected happens. Err on the side of being overly cautious. A number of motorists overlook motorcycles because of the infrequency in which they're seen on the roads. Always assume the other drive doesn't see you.

Most importantly, live to ride another day.