“Hey, it’s Kurt,” I said to Lauri Jordana over the phone recently. “I want to talk about something that happened to us in 1986.”
Lauri knew exactly what I was talking about; it had that much impact on both of us. As we discussed the incident over the phone, it occurred to me that we had never really talked about it back then. “I think we were young enough,” she commented, “where it was something that impacted us quickly and then got shrugged off after that.” In fact, the accident didn’t keep me from buying a motorcycle a couple months later (I still ride).
But it turns out that our cavalier youth masked the truth.
We were both haunted by the accident anyway – often, and long after. In a way, nearly 25 years later, the time seemed right to finally tell the story we both couldn’t forget. Strength came in numbers; our recollections were almost identical, but Lauri’s had stronger details in spots where time had blotted mine out. I’m very thankful for her willingness to share her thoughts as well.
This represents the first time the story has been written down.
On a warm summer night that July, Lauri and I went to see a movie at the Guild 45th. I have an inkling that it was concert footage for either David Bowie or Talking Heads. Recent foot surgery had Lauri walking slowly, and our path to the theater was tainted by the congestion of Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood that didn’t allow us to park anywhere nearby. Afterward, we drove west on N 45th Street towards Aurora Avenue N – the quickest route to Shoreline on the north side of the city. Between Stone and Woodland Place, the arterial jogs northwest on Midvale Place and then goes under Aurora on 46th. Midvale in that spot is one lane each way with a parking strip on the northbound side. It was dusk, and traffic was light.
As we drove on Midvale Place, a motorcyclist passed us on the right. The bike: a shiny near-new Kawasaki Ninja, either a 1984 or 1985 model. The wardrobe: jeans, athletic shoes, and a t-shirt. Helmets were not required in Washington at the time, and his brown hair flowed in the wind. He accelerated.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Lauri. “I don’t think he knows that the lane…”
BAM! – He hit the curb with the front wheel before I could say the word “ends.”
The rider and the bike flipped several times together, more than four. It was him-and-the-bike, him-and-the-bike, him-and-the-bike, for what seemed an eternity. The motorcycle tumbled to a stop, pushed up against a tree. The rider ended up on his back. Lauri was hysterical. “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod,” she said over and over as I pulled into the parking strip. What she expressed on the outside is exactly what I felt on the inside. She was clearly shaking, as I was too, because neither of us had experienced anything like this before. “Stay in the car,” I insisted. I got out to see if the rider was okay.
As I looked into his eyes, he looked straight through me instead.
I stood there powerless, not knowing what to do for him or how to help. By then pedestrians and residents started to gather. One guy ran over quickly. “What happened? I told him how the bike hit the curb and flipped. “Hey Buddy!” he said in a loud voice near the rider. “You okay?” No answer. The rider continued to stare straight up. “Come on man stay with us, we’re getting help,” the guy yelled. He also directed someone to get a blanket from one of the houses nearby.
By then a well-composed Lauri joined me on the sidewalk. The community of perfect strangers trying to help this man through an accident was astounding, and inspiring. Everyone played a part. Literally within two minutes the other witnesses had done everything possible for the rider. But he was starting to hyperventilate, and we could hear the sirens of first responders headed to the scene. At that point Lauri and I went back to the car, feeling like there was nothing we could do that hadn’t already been done.
Pulling away from the scene I started to cry.
Despite being a sunny summer day, it had started crummy and continued with some other crumminess in the afternoon. Witnessing a devastating accident that evening put me over the edge. I cried selfishly. I cried for the rider. I cried because I didn’t know how to help him. I cried about what seemed like the worst day ever. Eventually pulling myself together, we drove home to Shoreline and called it an early night.
For several days after, Lauri checked the newspapers to see any sort of report on the accident, but never saw a word. The rider’s fate remained a mystery. As the years went on, that accident always sat within access of my everyday thoughts. Every time I saw a sport cyclist riding crazy on the freeway, I would think of The Night of The Ninja. The whole incident played out in my head. Again. Lauri and I both told the story to people from time to time, and that seems to have kept many of the details alive over the years.
But recently – perhaps because I have been writing stories about my life growing up in Shoreline and Seattle – I found the accident haunting me more than ever. One day without telling her why, I drove the stunning Mrs. Clark to Midvale Place and stopped the minivan along the northbound parking strip. In plain terms, I described what happened that night so long ago.
Her response was the quick and familiar: “ohmygod ohmygod.”
My voice broke just telling the story to her, partly because I was parked once again at the scene of the accident – a first since it had occurred – with details flowing back at me in snippets. The blunt metal sound of a wheel hitting a curb. The flailing of a tumbling rider as he flipped over and over – somehow one with the motorcycle. And the awkward silence before help arrived, as the rider lay face up on the sidewalk. I can now understand why veterans break down and cry at the Vietnam Memorial; being faced with a glimpse of that intense past is enough to bring out the emotion in anyone, all over again.
Reliving the scene and writing about the accident has not been easy, because the vision goes through my head again and again – even while I stare at the story on my computer screen. In the time it has taken to write it down – over the course of several days – I have started crying at least five times, awash in emotion which blindsides me in the same way that Ninja’s wheel blindsided the curb. Make that six times now.
And I still don’t know if the rider lived or died.
“It’s true that we don’t know,” Lauri said other day. “But let’s face it…the outcome didn’t look good.” Even though I didn’t know the man or his fate, I feel a permanent connection to that stretch of road. I also feel some need for closure, even if it is not entirely possible to end the scene in my mind. Writing the story definitely helped. Remembering that wonderful bunch of strangers coming to the aid of someone in trouble was a great testimony to what mankind is capable of. And I remember that part with much warmth. But really what I felt was the need to make the story as public as possible, in the hopes that someone might read it and remember that night. Admittedly it was a longshot to do so, because The Night of The Ninja was nearly 25 years ago. Nevertheless I decided to place some kind of sign at the site to express my thoughts, prayers, and hope for a good outcome – even if that sign would be temporary.
So in the cold January dusk light this evening, I drove to Midvale Place and taped up a small sign on a pole near the curb where the accident occurred:
In July 1986 I witnessed a motorcycle accident at this intersection. The rider passed me on the right, and flipped when his front wheel hit the curb head on.
The accident has haunted me ever since.
This simple sign is in the memory of that tragic day, and all motorcyclists injured or killed each year. I pray that the rider recovered. If he didn’t, I pray that he is now riding with God.
Originally published on Intersect on Jan 30, 2011