The 5th Step
The Fifth Step (# 3)
The 4th Step
Carney looked at Professor Scott Thomas, a tortured expatriot now living in Southern California, and said, “Scotty, come on now, they ain’t no other way.” Carney was exasperated. Chris Pic pulled Professor Thomas’s lips apart again for the umpteenth time with both hands, and Carney repositioned the end of the chisel against Scotty’s front tooth. He raised the mallet over his head, poised to strike.
“WAIT!” Thomas yelled once again. “What about if I wear fake teeth, you know, the kind that looks like a tooth is missing. Won’t that work?”
“Now Scott,” Tank Crumley protested, “ever-body knows that ain’t the same thing. You can’t be accepted into the Georgia branch of the Gaelic clan as a lifelong member unless yo front tooth really is missing.” Tank was holding one arm behind Thomas’s back and he gave it a slight upwards twist, sending Thomas up onto his toes. Tank clinched all his teeth, except the one in front that wasn’t there.
“Yea,” Kim Potter excitedly agreed, smiling broadly and exposing the empty square slot in her mouth, “you gotta smash that sucker out!”
“Plus,” Farmer G Greg Schisla added “you know you cain’t whistle Dixie properly without that perfect air hole—it’s a natural wind tunnel. It’s the way the Good Lord intended Dixie to be whistled.”
I said, “This is only the 4th step, Scott. You have one more step to go to complete the initiation process. Maybe you should quit now.” I wanted him to fail. I wanted to see somebody take his sack of California crystals and shove em right up his schneckter-doodle.
Carney placed the chisel on Thomas’s front tooth and again raised the mallet high overhead. Tank Crumley held one arm behind Thomas’s back and the young, toothless Parker Smith held the other.
“WAIT!” Thomas screamed again. “What about a dentist? I could be put to sleep and the dentist could make sure that all the proper—“
“—Sorry Scotty Boy, but you and I both know that ain’t the way we do it. Plus,“ Carney said, pointing at Phil Gilman, “he’s smarter than any ole dang dentist.” Gilman smiled, exposing the empty square hole where his right front tooth should have been. “Dr. Phil is an extremely erudite professional gigolo, as professional gigolos go,” Carney added. “And anyway, you’ve already completed the first three steps. This is the fourth step. You’re halfway home.”
“All right, dudes,” Thomas conceded. He desperately wanted a lifelong membership. He dropped his head and his body went limp. Russ Foster put a rope around Thomas’s forehead and snapped his head back so Carney would be able to knock out his tooth with a devastating downward blow. Shirey, Bill Boonen, Rob Alexander, and Joe Collins helped hold the Professor’s body up. Michael Williams put his head between his legs and held on to his thighs. I was there as a journalist reporting on this ancient Celtic ritual, the 5-step initiation process required to gain permanent membership into the Georgia branch of the Gaelic clan. Few from the outside have ever witnessed these mythical rites of passage. I ain’t exactly from the outside though.
I don’t like the sight of blood, so when I thought the hammer was about to drop, I stepped around the corner and back out in front of the Waffle House. I closed my eyes and breathed in the succulent aroma of a Waffle House rib eye steak and hash browns, scattered, smothered, and covered. Melodic music wafted out from within: Sweet Home Alabama. I drifted away to paradise.
A few seconds later my reverie was shattered by the sound of metal clacking and bone breaking. The clang-crunch was followed closely by a blood-curdling, “Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” that pierced the night. A rush of memories swept through my mind like fast-flowing floodwaters. I ran my tongue along the contours of my own tooth hole. It was on this same spot 27 years ago that Carney knocked out my front tooth. Only way back when, Carney used a sledgehammer. (A lawsuit put a stop to that—Carney missed and crushed the poor’s fellow’s face. It was Natty Dunn. Nowadays when I see Nat I can hardly even tell, sort of, as long as I don’t look at him square in the eyes, and as long as I give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Presently, a loud cheer went up and I stepped back around back. Carney was holding the tooth high in the air with iron tongues. It was a carrot-sized chopper. Scotty Boy was doubled-over with his hand over his mouth. Blood was pouring through his fingers like a faucet on full blast.
The 1st Step
The third event of WBL 2009 turned out to be one of those Accidental Epics that Carney occasionally tosses into the cracked flower pot that is the WBL as the pack knocked out an unplanned 86-mile affair in 4 hours on the dime. It was a heroic feat by a group of lusty pedal-warriors, especially considering the fact that the pack was pelted with rain during the last 12 miles on this overcast day that was constantly coated with thick, gray clouds. Carney is adept in the Art of Deception and a faithful follower of the Sinister Satisfaction Society. He is a direct descendant of the House of Schadenfreude. He used both character traits on 20 December and hoodwinked the pack into riding longer, faster, and harder than originally planned. Carney never wants the Zealots to become too comfortable in life, and if he feels the pack begin to relax, or to soft pedal down a hill, or ever refuse to clamp down on a bullet, then that’s a bugle call to arms. That’s like chunking a spear in the ground on his side of the line. Well, war was waged this day. The delectable deception, and the reason that Carney is such a master of misdirection, is that everyone thought they were having fun.
A witches’ brew of poisoned entrails, cold stone toads, fillet of fenny snake, eye of newt, and toe of frog boiled in the cauldron of the sky the entire week leading into third event of the 09 season. During the week, clouds skidded across the sky so fast they looked like they were fleeing from a fire breathing dragon and three old, ugly crones. Occasionally during the week, the boiling bubbles burst, the clouds momentarily parted, and the skies turned crystal blue. The ambient air, a warm thick stew, rose to a sweltering 70 degrees as hot air continually rumbled in from the west. It is sometimes unsettling to ride in December in shorts and sweat when the trees are bone-bare of leaves. Throughout the week, while thinking forward to Saturday, I found myself periodically rubbing my hands together and chanting, “Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and caldron bubble.” Looking at the skies, I sensed that something wicked this way comes, and it should arrive on Saturday.
Saturday morning, with the stew still simmering in the sky, Carney pulled off his sorcerer’s subterfuge. He had everyone looking at his right hand while he was pinching their wallets, and their wives, with his left. He told Crowe to take advantage of the fact that rain was moving across the northern skies. The group originally planned to carve out a 75 mile wedge of turf to the north of Athens, and the path was well marked. But with rain rolling through the upper corridor, Carney radioed Crowe and told him to “take ‘em south, and be as vague about it is as possible.”
Crowe, following orders like a loyal hunchback, did just that. “We’ll go south so we won’t get wet,” he announced to the large contingent of pedal-boppers. “It might a skipple-jop longer.”
“What’s a skipple-jop?” Tina Mayola-Pic said, baring her own high-gummed Gaelic aperture.
“Excellent,” Crowe answered.
“How long is it?” a few worried souls with crinkled brows asked.
“Yes,” Crowe replied, “that’s right. You will not find skipple-jop in the dictionary, but you must admit, it’s a perfect fit.” They finally nailed him down to “four-and-a-half-hours.” They’d do no better than that.
Several Zealots signed in for the third time this year and moved into a tie for the Golden Fleece. Though the top of the leader board is still a log jam, some of those signing in and staying tied for the lead were Ryan Bertram, Billy Boy Bray, Mike Beagle (Buechel), Steve 6-Gun Sevener, Tim Cornett, Hunter Garrison, Nancy Jones, and Dustin Mealor. A throng of newbies also descended on East Washington Street including Michael Williams and Benjamin Jones, Rob Herrel and Shane Byler, and Callie Burt and Wes King. And when he signed in, Russell Forrister became the 1,000 Zealot to sign-in and take part in this hallowed and strange Southern ritual in the past six years.
As we were about to depart, Sir Scott Thomas rolled up and signed in. He was wearing his Team Green John Deere jersey. My jaw came unhinged. He’d performed the 1st step—signing in while wearing Team Green. Damn, I thought he’d been fired.
The 2nd Step
The pack traveled south on the third week, a last minute change of plan forced them down that way. The large convoy of over 100 rambunctious pedal-bangers cruised comfortably through Watkinsville, then dropped down south like a plum line via the Colham Ferry Road, a 20 mile chute from the heart of Oconee County into the guts and gizzards of Greene County, along the way crossing one of the long, sinuous tentacles the stretch outwards from the main body of Lake Oconee. Proceeding in a southerly way on Colham Ferry is a rip-roaring Mardi Gras on wheels, a long and gradual fall off a wall. All the big-ringers were having a boffo ball.
As the large contingent of heavyweights barreled down the Colham Ferry Road at a most malevolent speed, several field hands helped pull this large, cumbersome, free-floating herd: Jon McMurphy, Big Frank Trevesio, Rob Yo Simpson, Nicky Arroyo, Matty Scheckman, and Danny Boy Larsen were just some of the plow boys with the bit in their mouths. And as is always true with all large groups, it takes a small bit of time to smooth out the rough edges before the nirvanic speed is achieved. Each ride is yet another epic quest for this elusive, vaporous prize.
The skies remained dry but dark, and the pack clipped along like a sailing vessel as they sliced their way southward through the sideways wind. Along the way, one of Carney’s minions explained to Andrew Smola, that as it relates to these very Ride Stories, “We take facts, opinions, rumor, circumstance, suggestion, happenstance, innuendo, and mix in a little tooth of wolf, lizard’s leg, and gall of goat, shake vigorously, and then run it all through our printing press, like spaghetti, and what comes out is Truth.” Smola seemed to understand. He whistled through his tooth hole and said, “I tell ya, that there is deep.” As Smola has spoken, so let it be.
The pack continued to cruise down the Colham Ferry Road, eventually reaching its end and tackling the thigh crushing Lake Oconee Knee Breaker. Several knees splintered like dry wood on the upwards slanting road—it seemed to drop straight down from the sky. After summiting the monster hummock, the pack cruised by the illustrious Greshamville Mall, and turned towards Greensboro and the store stop beyond. As the group flew by the G-ville Mall, Thomas Brown was overcome with the majesty of the superb postmodern architecture and mumbled, “It’s phalatial.” I didn’t know T. Brown was such an architectural elitist.
After the store stop the grupetto took off its kid gloves, and let her Johnny-Ripsky-doodle down the road. John Boy McMurphy went to the front and stomped down the runway like an angry rhino charging full bore. He chewed up riders at the front the way Michael Stone runs through women. After the store stop, the long, flat roads led to an all-out Blitzkreig Bop, southern style, a big-chain-ring-only soiree. The group scudded down the roadway at 25 miles per hour for huge swaths of time. While those at the front were working their Dixie-dew-drops off, those behind were sitting in the cat’s cradle. We live for these moments of bliss when we can float down the road at nearly 30 miles an hour, hunched over the handlebars, tongue wagging in the wind, and tamping down on the pedal with the greatest of ease. This, Ladies and Gentleman, is pedal-banging in its finest hour. This is the way God meant pedal-stomping to be.
The pack ripped into Woodville, roared through Crawford like a bullet train, and sped by Arnoldsville without a hitch or a glitch, other than the record number of flats (10) that occurred on the day. (Shout out to Sag Driver Extraordinaire, Kara Crowe: Salud!). The speed was smooth, the tempo steady, and the pack was one long serpentine line flowing as one. All sectors were now riding in sync. This lusty group of hammerheads had already cut 30 minutes off the total ride time. But as the group rolled past Arnoldsville, Kyle Shipp pointed straight ahead at the sky: “O bother, where aren’t thou?” Although the skies had been dark and dreary all day, dead ahead, directly where the road home ran, the sky blackened to a worrisome hue. And without any warning whatsoever, the bottom fell out of the sky. Chicken Little was right all along.
For the last 12 miles of the ride, the Zealots were pummeled by blowing sheets of rain. At times, the rain was so ferocious that it slanted sideways across our faces. But this group of hard-headed cycle mashers just kept plugging away at their pedals. The pace even ratcheted upwards by one turn of the screw. At times during the final stretch the rain dissipated, but at others it wept in sheets of rage. The Zealots were soaked to the core. But the air was still warm, and the wetness was not cold, and the pack remained in merry mirth: It was slowly dawning on the group that they’d pulled off an epic.
Pushing homeward the final few miles the sky dried and spirits soared. “What a helluva ride” was the phrase of the day, “86 mules and 4 hours of pedal-rotating.” This rowdy bunch of pedal-banging lunatics was roiled up and ready to go. Sparks were shooting through their bodies like they’d grabbed a live wire while standing in a pool of water. Gracious Bocephus, it’s fun to be alive. I even saw Professor Thomas climbing the last wall into downtown Athens—I’d forgotten about him. As he rocked up the wall, standing and stomping, he looked over and grinned like a happy camper. Damn, I thought, he’s taken the second step: He’d not only done an epic, he’d enjoyed the hale out of it.
Carney, in a magnanimous display of goodwill, awarded every rider an additional 2 points: 1 for the speed and 1 for the tempo. In other words, we all bagged 4.
The 3rd Step
“You’ve got to eat, especially after a after an epic ride like that, Scotty Boy.” Carney was talking to the Professor in the back of the truck in the parking lot of the Waffle House. “And you need something that sticks to the ribs.”
“But I’m a vegan.”
“What the hale is that? Don’t tell people that. They’ll think you’re a communist?”
“No, it’s just that I’m from Cali—“
“Fer gawd’s sake, don’t tell them that either. Look, Professor,” Carney knew he had his number, “let’s just call the whole thing off. You skedaddle on back to Cali and don’t worry about becoming a lifelong member of super special worldwide organization of Gaels that gets treated like rock stars all over the globe, especially in France. Who needs that kind of notoriety?”
Scotty bowed his head. “Ok, let’s go in.”
Two minutes later they were seated at a booth. WBLers had taken over the place. Carney sat by Sir Scott.
“I can’t do it,” Sir Scott said, “I’ll die.” He was looking at photographs of glistening food on the cover of the vinyl menu. Sir Scott leaned over to Carney and whispered, “There’s no telling what filthy fingers have touched this menu. It’s covered in fingerprints.”
“Now, now,” Carney said, patting him on the back, “you’ll love it—they all do.”
The waitress walked up. “Whatcha-havin sweet cheeks?”
Thomas put his elbows on the table and cupped his head in his hands before speaking: “I’ll have a cheese omelet, buttered toast—white bread, a large bowl of grits, and plate of greasy bacon.” He hesitated. “And a side of hash browns, scattered, smothered, and covered.” The Waffle House erupted in applause. I silently sulked in the corner.
And just as Carney had predicted, Sir Scott was licking his plate ten minutes later. He was holding it up with both hands in front of his face and licking up every drop of grease on the surface. When he put the plate down his lips were oily and flecks of yellow cheese were stuck in the corners of his mouth. He had a small dab of grits on the apex of his noggin where his nose had touched the plate.
I couldn’t believe it; he’d successfully completed the 3rd step. Sir Scott hadn’t just eaten at the Waffle House, he’d gorged himself. He even ate several others’ buttered bread. He polished off Kirk Smith’s waffle. He’d sailed right through this step like his stomach an iron trap.
Just as Scott was dabbing a last bit of Joe Waters’s buttered bread in the last drop of Adam Fancher’s coffee, Carney said, “Come on, Scotty. It’s time to go around back.” Sir Scott noticed that Carney had pulled out the chisel and mallet. Carney began to stretch out his arm. It was time to bust out his tooth.
The 5th Step
We all went to the bus station Sunday morning to wish Sir Scotty farewell. I was still hoping against hope that maybe he would fail in this, the 5th step. When I arrived, it was a mob scene already. Then I spotted him, this was it.
The Professor mounted a wooden platform, put two fingers over his lips, curled his tongue through his tooth hole, and trilled out a tune. It was one of the most moving and mellifluous renditions of Dixie that I’ve ever heard in my life. It brought down the house. It was the way the Good Lord intended it to be whistled. I knew then that he was in like Flynn.
As Sir Scott Thomas boarded the bus back to the Left Coast, Carney handed him his gift, a symbol of his entry into the elite. Everyone received something different. Sir Thomas opened the box and pulled out the present. It was a brand new pair of pink satin pajamas with bold blue stripes. I turned green with envy.
Sir Scott turned and waved one last time. Then he flashed a broad missing-tooth grin. He brought down the house again..
The Humble Chronicler (12-21-08)