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This story contains no sex. None at all. That said, I hope you enjoy it.
It was the first full day of summer vacation. School had ended at noon the day before. I was just finishing my Cheerios when Jimmy knocked on the back door. My mom let him in and he sat down across from me at the table. He looked very excited.
“Dave, the pool is open.”
“I know, Jimmy. Want to go swimming?”
“We got a new lifeguard this year.” I nodded as I crunched. That wasn’t big news. Jimmy continued, “He’s a hippie.”
I looked at him with raised eyebrows. “This is the seventies, Jimmy,” I countered after I swallowed.
“There’s more,” my friend continued excitedly. “He drives a van.”
I finished the last spoonful of cereal and got up from the table. “Let’s go see this.”
“Dave.” I turned to look at my mom. She pointed at the table. “Dishes.”
“OK, Mom.” I put my bowl and spoon in the dishwasher before we rode off on our bikes. Along the wide paved street that fronted our houses, and about halfway down the hill, was a neighborhood pool. It wasn’t a public pool. It was owned by the neighborhood homeowners’ association. All the families who used it paid for its upkeep as part of their association dues. The pool didn’t open until school let out for summer, unlike the public pools which opened on Memorial Day. When the pool did open, Mrs. Pemberton (who was the president of the homeowners’ association) hired someone to operate it. That person would arrive in the morning, unlock the rusty padlock on the chain around the fence, clean the pool and add chemicals. He also served as lifeguard while the pool was open and made sure that only members used the pool. At first, we had to sign in on a notebook. After a few days, the lifeguard usually recognized us and the notebook sat unused on a table near the gate.
As we coasted down the hill, I could see that the gate was open, and that an old van was parked in front. From a distance, a large peace sign could be seen painted on the side. When we got closer, I saw that letters were painted around the sign. They spelled “Cartwheel”.
We were already wearing our bathing suits and carrying towels. That was the standard uniform for the first days of summer when the pool opened. We’d meet our friends here and spend every morning of the first few days in the water. We parked our bikes next to the gate and stared at the van – a real hippie van. We walked through the gate and saw him. He was just finishing the morning cleaning routine. He looked tall enough to be a grown-up, but he had long curly hair. He wore cut off blue jean shorts, bleached into a tie-dyed pattern. He looked like a hippie, all right. Until that moment, I had only seen hippies on TV.
“You boys belong to the pool club?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I’m Dave Albright. This is Jimmy Lerner.”
He put down the long handled brush and walked over to the notebook. He found our names and held out a pen. “Cool, man. I’m Cartwheel.”
I smiled and took the pen, writing my name on the sign-in page in the clumsy writing of a ten year old before handing the pen to Jimmy. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Cartwheel.”
Cartwheel laughed. “No, definitely not Mr. Cartwheel. Just Cartwheel. That’s what my friends call me.”
Hesitantly, I said, “OK, Cartwheel.” It still felt uncomfortable calling him that.
“The pool is ready. You’re my first two customers of the season. Jump in and try it out.” He turned his back to us and climbed up the ladder to his elevated seat.
I looked to Jimmy. He just shrugged. Then he yelled, “Cannonball!” and jumped into the water. I took a deep breath to steel myself, and followed. The water never gets warm this far north. By the middle of summer, the pool may not be as painful, but it is still cold. It’s a nice respite from the warm muggy summers. Early in the season, it’s downright cold. That’s probably why the adults didn’t start using the pool until July. We didn’t care.
We were kids and it was a pool. It was our pool.
I hit the water and the shock of the cold was like knives sticking into my skin. It was very cold. I came to the surface and exclaimed, “Whew!”
“Cold?” It was Cartwheel speaking.
I tried to answer, but my teeth were starting to chatter. Cartwheel laughed. “Swim around some. You’ll warm up.” That’s what my mother always said, too.
We swam a few laps and were just getting out when more people arrived - some of the girls in the neighborhood. Jimmy and I were drying off with our towels so we could warm up in the sun. Jimmy nudged me with a smile on his face. Two of the girls were older, teenagers. He always liked to watch when they got out of the pool because the cold made their nipples stand out. We were too young to have figured out what girls were good for yet, but Jimmy still liked to watch. I made a face at him, but turned to look at the girls anyway.
The girls were looking not at us but at Cartwheel. They were talking in whispers and giggling. Obediently, they signed the book without being asked. The two older ones walked over to say hi to him. He looked like he was enjoying talking with them, but he was also businesslike. He wasn’t here just to have fun, after all. This was a job for him.
We turned back to the gate at the sound of our names. It was the rest of our gang. I hated when they called me Davey, and they knew it. That’s why they did it. It was a game we played.
Tim asked, in a low whisper, “Who’s the Flower Child?” as he pointed discreetly to Cartwheel.
“Isn’t it cool?” Jimmy asked. “He’s the new lifeguard.”
“Is the water warm?” Billy asked.
“What do you think, man?” I said. Everyone laughed. It was the standing joke.
We spent the morning at the pool, alternating between swimming and warming up in the sun. The girls were on the other side of the pool, mostly trying to surreptitiously watch Cartwheel. When we got on our bikes to head home for lunch, Tim suggested meeting at the swing after lunch.
I rode up to Jimmy’s house after a lunch of sandwiches at home. He was ready for me, now wearing a t-shirt with his bathing suit. We headed towards the next hill, away from the pool. We met up with Tim and Billy on the way. Just before the top of the hill, we turned right onto a dirt road cut through tall grass. As we turned off, I looked to the side and could see the pool off in the distance, with Cartwheel keeping watch from his platform.
We rode along the rutted road, leaving the homes behind us. A meadow was to the right, trees to the left. Birds were singing happily in the trees. Before long, we passed the burned out remains of a very old building. With the Bicentennial coming up in a few years, every old building suddenly had a story attached to it about the Revolutionary War. In our minds, the building had been an Inn, where George Washington had once slept during the war. The story went that there was an agreement. Soldiers from both sides had stayed there. It was like neutral territory where they didn’t fight. In reality, the building was probably just an old barn. At ten years old, make believe was larger than life. When the Apollo astronauts had been collecting rocks on the moon that spring, we got library books and spent weekends trying to identify the shales and shists in our backyards. Tim’s father worked for the government, doing something vaguely connected with NASA and he got us some really cool photographs of the astronauts. We even tried to concoct spacesuits to add realism to our play.
After the “Inn”, the road turned to the left and entered the woods. There were two spots where the ground was lower that stayed muddy. Billy had fallen off his bike there once and had to ride home covered in mud. His mother washed him off in the yard with the hose. We rode slowly through that part. Next, the trees thinned out and we rode down a hill as the sound of a gurgling brook slowly became louder than the crunch of small twigs and other debris under our bicycle tires.
The stream ran through a valley between two hills. The hill on the other side was cleared of trees at one spot. Unknown kids long ago had climbed a really tall tree and hung a rope from a branch. If you grabbed on to the end of the rope and ran up the hill, when you reached as far as you could go and still hold on to the end of the rope, you could hang on the rope and swing. The swing would carry you across the stream, across the valley, almost to the trees on the other side, and back. You had to let go of the rope when you swung back to where you started. When the rope was slack, it hung about ten feet above the stream. We used a long tree branch to grab the rope and pull it to the hillside where we could grab onto it.
Jimmy got there first and dropped his bike alongside the stream. He liked the swing more than the rest of us. He always had to be first and last on the swing. I was right behind him, crossing the stream by stepping on the rocks and looked for the tree branch. We kept a really long one there at the edge of the clearing. I found it and went back to the stream to grab the loop at the end of the rope. Jimmy watched and smiled. The first ride of the day was going to be his again. I brought the rope to him and he started up the hill. The rest of us sat and watched.
Jimmy climbed the hill as high as he could with the loop at the end of the rope in his hand. He always pushed the limits. When he could go no further, he faced downhill, jumped, and put one foot through the loop. Instantly, the rope carried him down the hill and over our heads. Jimmy’s cry of “Wahoo!” echoed through the woods as he flew. Because he had started so far up the hill, he could get three swings before he had to put his feet down and stop on the hill. The rest of us could only get one or two swings. You had to stop while you were still swinging far enough to be able to touch the hillside with your feet. I had scary thoughts of what it would be like to hold onto the rope until it stopped swinging. You would end up suspended over the stream, too high to be able to jump down. As long as someone was there to pull you back to the side with the tree branch, you could safely get off. If not, you were stuck up there. The water in the stream was only knee deep. Dropping from the rope that high up was sure to cause serious injury.
My turn was next. When I saw Jimmy’s feet hit the ground with a puff of dust, I ran up to meet him. “Fly, Dave,” he told me, still grinning. I took the rope and went up the hill. I didn’t go as far as Jimmy because I wasn’t as tall and I was afraid of losing my balance with the rope pulling back on me. When I was ready, I looked down the slope to where my friends waited. I took a deep breath, jumped, and held onto the rope for dear life.
It was like I was flying. I soared over the heads of my friends, seeing them following me with their eyes as I passed. I flew over the stream, crossing it in an instant. Far over me, I heard the rope and the branch creak as my arc reached its limit near the trees we had ridden through, then I swung back. I picked up speed as I again passed my companions, before preparing for my landing on the hill. I put down my feet and dragged them as I still held onto the rope. Dust flew as the rubber soles of my shoes skidded along the ground, over rocks and dirt. I had landed.
Like that, we each took turns, passing the rope off each time. We spent hours that afternoon, flying through the trees. We took off our shoes and waded in the cold water of the stream. Sometimes, we stacked rocks and tried to build dams. We hiked about a hundred yards downstream where a pool formed behind a waterfall and swam. We were ten years old. We wore no watches. We noted the passage of time by the light of the sun. We had no responsibilities and we were indestructible. Life was simple and innocent back then.
When the sun started to go down and it slowly started becoming darker under the trees, we got back on our bikes. Jimmy made his last swing over our heads as we started down the road, his cry like that of a bird high in the sky. He landed and caught up to us before we exited the woods and soon enough we were back on our street.
I coasted down the street towards home. Just as I started pedaling to climb the next hill, I looked ahead to see Cartwheel still on duty at the pool. He would be closing the pool soon, the end of his first day as our lifeguard. One by one, we peeled off from the group as we reached our homes. Billy was the last rider. He lived just on the other side of the pool.
When I got home, my mom asked if I had met the new lifeguard.
“Yeah. He’s real cool, man.”
My mother laughed. “What does that mean?”
“He’s a hippie. You know, flower power and all that.”
“He’s nice. His name is Cartwheel.”
“Cartwheel, huh? I’m sure he has a regular name, too.”
“That is his name, I think.”
“I’m sure when Mrs. Pemberton hired him, he had to tell her his real name,” my mom countered. Grownups always have to deal with details like that.
The next day was more of the same. We had the entire summer ahead of us. We spent mornings swimming at the pool, always under the watchful eye of Cartwheel, and afternoons in the woods. Sometimes, we talked about Cartwheel, wondering what he was really like. It was Billy who gave a name to Cartwheel’s van – The Makeout Machine. This was a few years before Ford came out with their Good Times Machine. I guess Cartwheel was a trendsetter. We imagined all the women he must pick up to kiss and “stuff” in there. The windows were tinted so dark that we couldn’t see anything inside, so we dreamed up what the interior must be like. In our minds, we saw a bed, a lava lamp (though we never thought where it would get power), a TV, a refrigerator, and a stash of drugs. Hippies always had drugs. We knew that. There was some dispute over whether Cartwheel had one special girl, or he went through women like we went through underwear (Tim suggested that description).
Over time, we came to know Cartwheel better. He talked to us sometimes. Jimmy finally worked up the courage to ask him what being a hippie was like. That made him laugh. He told us about love and peace and politics, foreign concepts for us. He would greet us by name, which only aggravated the girls who were, for the most part, too shy around him to do much more than look at him from across the pool and giggle to each other.
Sometimes, Cartwheel would ask us about ourselves. Things like how we did in school (good enough to get by, except for Tim who was the class genius), what we wanted to be when we grew up (bold goals like astronaut, baseball player, things like that), and if we liked girls (No way!). He assured us that our attitudes about girls would change in a few years but we didn’t believe him.
One afternoon, about two or three weeks into summer, we were back at the swing in the woods. Jimmy was going up the hill for yet another ride. We were sitting or lying on the ground, talking about our favorite subject, the mysterious Cartwheel and his magical Makeout Machine. I remember looking up the hill at Jimmy. It seemed that he was a lot higher than usual. It looked like he was standing on his toes, trying to get a little more height on his swing. I laughed. I had turned back to the rest of my friends when Jimmy’s “Wahoo!” came from far over our heads. We looked up to see him sail past. At the end of his swing, there was a kind of popping sound from far above us. Jimmy and the rope seemed to drop just a little and the movement affected the arc of his swing.
I got a good look at Jimmy as he swung back towards us. He wasn’t grinning or yelling this time. He looked terrified. I scrambled to my feet. Just before he swung over the edge of the stream, there was another pop, louder this time. Jimmy screamed. It wasn’t, “Wahoo!”. It was more like, “Ahhhh!” Then he fell, with the rope trailing along behind him. I looked up and, to my great horror, the end of the rope was no longer attached to the branch. It had broken.
The whole incident probably took only a couple of seconds, but I remember it in slow motion, as if it really lasted for minutes or hours. I yelled, “Jimmy!” and pointed. Tim and Billy were on their feet now as well. We were all helpless. All we could do was watch and scream as Jimmy and the rope got closer and closer to the ground.
Jimmy hit just on our side of the stream, among the rocks. The rope fell like a snake around him. I thought I heard a crunch when Jimmy hit. He made a loud sound like, “Oof!”. We were paralyzed by fear. We weren’t sure if we had just seen our friend die right before our eyes.
We didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. The wind in the leaves and the sound of the water over the rocks even seemed to cease. I think we all held our breath. Then, just when we couldn’t stand the suspense any longer, Jimmy groaned.
That single sound freed us from our bonds. As one, we moved. He was still alive. We raced for Jimmy, falling to our knees around him. As Billy touched him, I admonished, “Don’t move him.” The others looked at me. More calmly, I explained, “We might hurt him more. You know, internally.” There were nods. We had been taught some first aid in PE class and in Cub Scouts.
“What are we going to do?” Billy asked me. They were all looking at me.
“I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”
“Well, we have to do something for him.”
I thought, my mind suddenly a mush. We had to get him help. We needed a grownup, someone who would know what to do. I looked at Billy. “Go. Get on your bike and ride like the wind. Get his mother to come out here. If she’s not home, get anyone’s mother. Just get a grownup out here fast.”
Billy nodded and splashed through the stream to where we had left our bikes. As he picked up his bike, he looked back at us.
“Go! Fast! Jimmy needs help!”
He didn’t answer me. He just gave me a curt nod, looked down one last time to Jimmy’s crumpled form lying among the rocks, and took off. We could hear him pedaling as he raced through the trees. His sound faded, replaced with the water and the wind.
It was going to take a long time for him to get help. Even riding fast, it would take time to get someone and come back out here. I wished I had a watch at that moment. I could have some idea of when he might be back. Even at that young age, I knew that in times of crisis, minutes could seem like hours. I mentally followed Billy, seeing him emerging from the woods. I tried to follow along, pacing myself to what I thought was as fast as he could ride. I saw him passing the burned out building. He still had a long way to go.
Minutes did seem like hours. Tim didn’t speak. He just watched. He looked to me, to Jimmy, to the woods where Billy had disappeared, then back to me. I looked over Jimmy’s body. He was bleeding, but not a lot. Bright red was appearing on the grayish rocks. It was little streams of bright red that weren’t flowing, just staying there. I hoped that meant he wasn’t losing too much blood. It seemed to be more like what happened when I scraped my knee really bad. I wished I knew more of what to do. The best we could do for him was to wait.
Jimmy groaned a few more times. I saw him try to move but encouraged him to stay still. “I hurt,” he tried to say but it came out as more of a moan. His eyes were still closed.
I was trying to keep time in my head. It seemed like Billy had been gone for hours. In my head, I had seen him go to Jimmy’s house and ride back here in Jimmy’s mother’s car. When he failed to appear, I imagined that Jimmy’s mother wasn’t home and he had to get his own mother. I even imagined that the car couldn’t make it down the muddy road and they had to walk. Where was Billy?
I was starting to panic, to think that something bad had happened to Billy, too. I was about to send Tim to get help when I heard a different sound. It wasn’t water, or wind. It was mechanical, but very faint. A hum, but a straining sound. It was slowly getting louder. I felt my eyebrows raise as I realized it was the sound of some kind of vehicle. Maybe not a car but more of a truck.
“Jimmy. Someone is coming for you.”
I saw Jimmy take a breath and his eyelids fluttered. “Is it my mom?” he asked weakly.
“I’m not sure, but it’s someone. It won’t be long now.”
I could hear whatever it was getting really close now. Then I heard a new sound, a swishing combined with a rhythmic clanking. With a start, I realized it was a bicycle – Billy’s bicycle!
Billy’s bicycle suddenly came through the trees. Immediately behind him appeared the vehicle I had been hearing. I was surprised, but it made sense.
“Jimmy, you’re not riding with your mom.”
“An ambulance?” he asked.
“No, man. You’re going to ride in The Makeout Machine.”
Cartwheel’s van bounced along the dirt road and came to a stop. Cartwheel jumped out and ran through the stream to where Jimmy still lay on the ground. Cartwheel was wearing his usual t-shirt, blue jean cut-offs and sandals. He had obviously come directly from the swimming pool. He knelt down and touched Jimmy very gently.
“Don’t move him! I mean, he might be hurt, or …” Tim admonished him. Billy and I gave Tim the kind of look a teacher gives you when you interrupt her.
“He knows more first aid than us,” Billy told Tim.
Cartwheel never reacted to the exchange. All his attention was directed to Jimmy. He was touching Jimmy very delicately. Jimmy winced when Cartwheel touched his arm, then winced even louder when he touched his leg. The lower leg was a darker color than it had been before. Cartwheel turned to me, speaking in a hushed tone, too quietly for Jimmy to hear.
“We need to take him to a hospital. I don’t like the way his leg looks. Will you help me?”
Cartwheel was asking me to help him. What could I do? He was supposed to know what to do. He was here to save the day. Still surprised, I nodded.
“Help me turn him onto his back,” Cartwheel said. I reached out to my friend but I wasn’t able to do very much because I winced when Jimmy reacted to the pain with a scream. Cartwheel said to me, “I’m going to try to lift him as gently as I can.” Speaking a little louder, “Jimmy, this will probably hurt a lot. I’m going to try to make this as painless as possible.”
Jimmy just gave a small nod. Cartwheel carefully slid one arm under Jimmy’s neck. The other arm went under his legs, starting with the uninjured one. When he reached the injured leg, Jimmy cried out again.
“I’m sorry, Jimmy. I can’t help it. I have to get you to help.”
Jimmy said something that sounded like, “It’s OK.”
I winced every time Jimmy reacted. Cartwheel looked at me. “Dave, open the van door.” I ran ahead and opened the first door. Cartwheel had to explain to me how to unlatch the other door so he could gently put Jimmy down on the floor.
The inside of The Makeout Machine was not at all as we had imagined it. It was very different from the opium den or the bachelor pad we had built up in our minds. It had orange shag carpet on the floor and a bench seat. That was all there was.
Cartwheel was waiting for me to move out of the way so he could lay Jimmy down. I got out of the way and Cartwheel put Jimmy on the floor. Then he turned to me. He looked very serious, and maybe nervous. I’ve never seen him look anything but confident and friendly before. That day, he looked scared. That made me scared. He was Cartwheel. He was supposed to know what to do. If he was worried, what was going to happen to Jimmy?
“The road out of here is pretty bumpy. I need you to ride with Jimmy and hold on to him.”
“Is he going to be alright?” I asked my hero.
Then it happened. It looked like Cartwheel was blinking away tears. He looked me right in the eye, and then looked away, up at the sky. “I don’t know, David.” The words were just a whisper, purposely too quiet for Jimmy to hear. In that instant, my hero fell off his pedestal. He wiped his eyes. “I don’t like the way his leg looks. We need to get him to the hospital. Climb in.”
I did as I was asked. Without wonder now, I entered The Makeout Machine and crouched next to Jimmy, who was lying on the shag carpet. Seeing Cartwheel cry changed something in me. He wasn’t invincible after all. He was human. I was counting on him to be something more, something a lot more, and save the day. I was counting on him to be the hero and save Jimmy. What I was seeing was something less. I felt wounded inside.
Cartwheel closed the doors and hurried around to the other side. Getting behind the wheel, he started the engine. He looked back to the two of us.
“Jimmy, the road is pretty rough until we get to the street. I’m going to try to make it as easy as I can for you, but it’s going to be a little bumpy.” Looking me in the eye now, Cartwheel said, “David, try to hold him still. Do the best you can.” I felt so small, so useless at that moment. Worse, I felt like Cartwheel wasn’t going to be much better at helping Jimmy.
I felt the van move. Cartwheel turned it around and it jostled as we reentered the woods. Jimmy moaned loudly every time we hit a bump. I tried to reassure him. I had to be strong for Jimmy. I had to give him hope. Unable to draw strength from Cartwheel any longer, I thought of what it might have been like for the astronauts if one of them had gotten hurt on the moon. For them, help was days away. I tried to be strong for Jimmy like I imagined the astronauts would be for each other. I needed another hero to give me strength.
We bumped along the road. The tree branches made slapping and scraping sounds against the sides of the van. Cartwheel was going slow, too slow it seemed. I finally realized that he was going so slowly because the road was so rough. It never seemed this bad to us on our bicycles. I knew then why we never saw cars driving out to the swing. It seemed like hours and miles before we came out of the woods, still only halfway to the street. The road wasn’t any less bumpy, but more sunlight filtered into the tinted windows of the van.
I finally took my eyes off Jimmy for a few minutes and looked around. I didn’t know why we ever were so fascinated by The Makeout Machine. It was just an old van inside, not at all what we had built up in our minds. Reality was turning out to be far less impressive than my imagination had been.
“How’s he doing?” Cartwheel asked.
I looked back to my friend lying on the carpet. Jimmy opened his eyes a little. He was either grimacing or trying to give me a tight smile. I smiled back, but it took a lot of effort. Inside, I was scared.
“He’ll make it, Cartwheel.” It looked like Jimmy gave me a little nod with his head when I said that.
“Of course he will,” Cartwheel responded, but I didn’t hear a lot of confidence in his voice. I hated the way he sounded. I needed him to be the grownup, the hero. Jimmy needed him. The engine labored on as we bumped our way to the street. I saw a shape go by the heavily tinted window and realized I was seeing the burned out building. We were close to the street now. I told that to Jimmy.
After what seemed far too long, I felt one more bump and knew the van was back on a paved road. Cartwheel turned and accelerated. He seemed to know the way to the hospital without even thinking about it. I tried to brace myself now so I wouldn’t fall on Jimmy when we went around turns.
“We’ll be at the hospital in about fifteen minutes,” Cartwheel announced as he drove. It seemed that he was driving a lot faster than my parents ever had along this street. He was trying really hard after all. I felt bad for doubting him earlier.
There wasn’t much traffic. Now I realize it was just before rush hour. Back then, I never knew about such things, or cared. Life was so much simpler for me. I shifted my eyes from Jimmy to Cartwheel and back. I was watching Jimmy to see if he needed anything, though I don’t know what I could have done for him. I guess I was watching Cartwheel to encourage him to go even faster but he seemed to be doing all he could.
Finally, there was a bump as the van drove over the curb, then a short dash until the van stopped suddenly with a light screech of the tires. Cartwheel was still getting out of his seat when the door suddenly slid open. A few people were standing there, men and women, dressed in light green suits. Two of them were pushing a stretcher.
“Be careful with Jimmy,” I urged as they reached for him. “He’s hurt pretty bad.”
“Where is he hurt?” one of them people asked me.
“His arm and his leg, I think.”
Speaking loudly, one of the women addressed my friend. “Jimmy. Jimmy, can you hear me. You’re at the hospital. We’re going to move you. Tell us where it hurts.”
Cartwheel was there now and he motioned for me to come with him. I waited for them to move Jimmy to the gurney before getting out to follow Cartwheel. It tore me up inside to hear Jimmy scream when they moved him. We watched Jimmy being wheeled inside. One of the women turned back to face us.
“I’ll need some information from you.”
“Sure,” Cartwheel told her.
“What is the boy’s name?”
“Jimmy… Lerner?” Cartwheel looked to me for confirmation. I nodded.
I started to answer, “Mrs. Lerner,” then realized what she wanted. I thought for a few moments. “Amanda, I think.”
The woman was being very patient with me. “Do you know his phone number?”
I recited Jimmy’s number.
“I’ll need your names as well as a description of how the accident happened.”
I didn’t hear Cartwheel’s answer because there was a flurry of activity in the direction Jimmy had been taken. When I turned back to Cartwheel and the lady, she was repeating her question.
“David, how did the accident happen?”
I told her how Jimmy fell when the rope broke and how we didn’t move him except to put him in the van.
“That’s good. You took good care of your friend. The doctor is with him now. I’m going to go call his parents.”
After the lady left us alone, Cartwheel directed me to some chairs. We sat and waited. We didn’t talk much and it was hard to just wait. I was worried about Jimmy. I did watch Cartwheel from time to time. He seemed to be worried also. I was afraid of what was going to happen to my friend.
Time passed slowly, even more slowly than when I was waiting for Billy to return. I couldn’t get comfortable in the chair. Waiting there was almost a physical pain. Finally, I heard a man call, “Mr. Cartwright?”
I didn’t react, but I was surprised when Cartwheel said, “Over here, doctor.” I looked at Cartwheel with surprise but he didn’t notice. His eyes were on the doctor.
“How is he, Doctor Hindman?”
I wondered how he knew the doctor’s name, until I focused on the embroidered name above the pocket of his white lab coat – G. Hindman, M.D.
“His arm is broken, but we’re really worried about his leg. When he broke it, he damaged a blood vessel. There was some internal bleeding so we’re going to have to do surgery to repair it. We’ve spoken to his mother and she is on her way over here now. Can you tell me how long it’s been since he fell?”
Both men looked at me and I looked back to Cartwheel. “I sent Billy on his bike to Jimmy’s house right after he fell. I don’t know how long it took him to get back.”
Cartwheel thought for a few moments and then looked at his watch. “About forty-five minutes.”
The doctor nodded. He smiled a little, his next words designed to calm some of our fears. “The boy is going to be alright. You did the right thing getting him here so fast. He’s lucky to have friends like you two.” Then he put his hand on my arm. The doctor’s reassuring touch did make me feel better. “I’ve got to get back in there. We’ll keep you informed on his progress.” The doctor got up and walked back through the doors where he came from.
I looked at Cartwheel. He was still staring at the door the doctor had gone through. I thought at that point maybe there was more to Cartwheel than I had given him credit for lately. I was thinking about that when my thoughts were interrupted by a sound. It was a sound every person recognizes, no matter what they are doing. Someone was calling my name.
“David!” It was Jimmy’s mom. She was crying a little when I looked up and she was heading for me. The look on her face made me realize just how much a parent loves a child. It was like agony, grief and frustration, all wrapped up together.
“Mrs. Lerner. We just talked to the doctor. Jimmy is going to be OK,” I told her, trying to reassure her.
A nurse must have heard us because she came over. “Are you Jimmy Lerner’s mother?” she asked. Mrs. Lerner nodded. “Come with me. You can see him for a moment.” She took Mrs. Lerner through the door. She was gone for only a few minutes. When she returned, she looked, I don’t know, more composed, I guess. She sat down next to me. She was still upset, but she looked like she was doing much better.
Cartwheel spoke up next. “I guess now that you’re here, ma’am, I’d better be getting back to work.”
“Thank you, both of you, for what you did for Jimmy.” The gratitude in her face was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It made me realize how much we had done for Jimmy. I didn’t feel so useless any more. We had helped – really helped. Both of us.
“You’re welcome,” Cartwheel said, holding her hand with both of his. Then he turned his gaze to me. “Want a ride home with me?”
A few hours before, a chance to ride in The Makeout Machine would have been something I’d never dream of turning down. After what had happened that afternoon, I had other priorities.
“No, thanks. I’d like to stay and see how Jimmy is doing. Can I, Mrs. Lerner?”
“Sure, David. We can call your mother later.”
“OK. Let me know how Jimmy is doing.” With that, Cartwheel got up to leave.
After he was gone, I broke the silence with a question. It wasn’t important at that point in time, but my curiosity was getting the best of me. I was only ten, after all.
“Mrs. Lerner?” It took her a moment or two to realize I was talking to her before she gave me her attention. She had been lost in thought, probably worried about Jimmy.
“The doctor called Cartwheel ‘Mr. Cartwright’.”
She smiled in that gentle way all mothers do. “’Cartwright’ is Milton’s last name,” she explained.
“Cartwheel’s name is Milton?” I was astonished that a hippie would have a real name, and such a square name like Milton. On that day, many things had turned out to be not as they appeared. “He has a real name?”
Mrs. Lerner actually laughed at that. “Well, when Mrs. Pemberton writes out his paycheck, I’m sure she doesn’t make it out to ‘Cartwheel’.”
I never thought about hippies having bank accounts before. I kept myself occupied for some time thinking about Cartwheel.
It was a long wait for the doctor to come back to talk to us. Mrs. Lerner had called my mother and she came over. I wanted to wait for the doctor before I’d leave, though, so the three of us waited together. Finally, Dr. Hindman came out to talk to us. He wanted to take Mrs. Lerner aside, but she saw the pained look on my face and insisted the doctor talk to all of us. That made me feel grownup.
The doctor explained that Jimmy had a broken arm and a broken leg. The internal bleeding was under control but Jimmy would need surgery. He reassured us that Jimmy would make a full recovery, mostly due to being brought to the hospital so quickly. When he said that, Dr. Hindman looked right at me and smiled. I felt really important. After that, my mother took me home and Mrs. Lerner moved to the surgery waiting room while Jimmy had his operation.
On the way home, I told my mother how Cartwheel had come to Jimmy’s rescue. By the time we got home, it was dark. Billy and Tim must have gotten our bikes back from the woods somehow. Mine was parked next to our back door. I had hoped to ride over to the pool to give Cartwheel an update on Jimmy but I knew he would have already gone home for the night.
Later that night, Mrs. Lerner called and told me that Jimmy was out of surgery and doing fine. She asked me to pass the news along to ‘Milton’ and I promised I would do that in the morning.
The next day, before I could get over to the pool, Billy and Tim showed up at my house to ask about Jimmy. I told them what I knew and they rode over to the pool with me so I could tell Cartwheel.
It felt different that day when I saw him. We looked at each other in a different way. It was like we were more on an equal footing. I had seen the human side in him. I had seen him afraid. I had seen the fear he felt when he was confronted with a situation he couldn’t fully control. I guess he had seen me helping him help Jimmy. The two of us had changed somehow. Even when we spoke, it was different from the way we had talked before.
When Mrs. Pemberton heard about how Cartwheel had thrown everybody out of the pool and closed it early so he could leave, she was going to fire him. Jimmy’s mom threatened to get Mrs. Pemberton voted out. In the end, everybody heard the story about how Cartwheel had saved Jimmy and he kept his job. I even became famous in the neighborhood. Cartwheel and David, the local celebrities. What an unlikely pair.
When Jimmy finally came home from the hospital, he had a plaster cast on his arm and a soft cast on his leg. He couldn’t get around very much so Billy, Tim and I spent most of the rest of the summer at his house. Cartwheel had even come to visit him one afternoon after he had closed the pool for the day. Cartwheel signed Jimmy’s arm cast, drawing a peace sign next to his name. When Jimmy finally got his casts off and could ride his bike again, it was the end of the summer. It was also Cartwheel’s last day at the pool. We all rode over to tell him goodbye.
When we got there. Mrs. Pemberton and Cartwheel were just going over the final details. She was handing him his last paycheck and he was returning the keys. The pool was officially closed for the summer. We kept our distance outside the fence and respectfully waited for them to finish their business. We could hear Mrs. Pemberton apologizing for wanting to fire him earlier.
They finished and walked out. I heard the click as Cartwheel locked the padlock for the last time. He turned to us, surprise showing in his face as he recognized Jimmy.
“How are you doing, man?” he asked Jimmy.
“Cool. Real cool now that I can ride my wheels again.”
“That’s great. It’s good to see you up and around.”
“Don’t mention it. I’m a lifeguard. I’m supposed to save people.” He grinned when he said that. “I’m just supposed to save people in the water. For my special friends, though, I make exceptions.”
A car pulled into the parking lot really fast and Jimmy’s mom got out. “I was afraid I’d miss you. I had to go to the bank,” she was saying as she got out. She walked up to Cartwheel, ignoring us kids. “My husband and I want to thank you for what you did for Jimmy. If not for you, he might -”
She started to cry as she said that and Cartwheel hugged her. It was so funny to see them hugging. His hair was longer than hers. “He’s OK now,” Cartwheel was telling her.
“I know, but when I see him riding his bike again, and how the doctor told me he might not have been able to do that ever again if he hadn’t gotten to the hospital in time -”
She started crying all over again and Cartwheel hugged her. When she stopped, she held up an envelope she had been carrying. It was kind of thick.
“Mr. Lerner and I want to give you this.”
Cartwheel held up his hand. “You don’t have to do that. It’s really not necessary.”
She continued, “It’s to help you this fall. We know what’s ahead for you. We want to help.” She looked him in the eye, not backing down. In the end, Cartwheel relented and accepted the envelope. He thanked her and they hugged again. After that, she left. It was just Cartwheel and the four of us.
“Did you boys come to see me off?” Cartwheel asked us.
Jimmy spoke up. “Yeah. So what are you going to do over the winter, man? Go out to California and find a commune somewhere?”
Cartwheel laughed at Jimmy’s question. “No way. School is starting for me in a few weeks.”
“School?” Jimmy and Billy said at the same time.
“Of course. I’m a college student at the University of Maryland.” Chuckling at our astonished expressions, he held out his hand to Jimmy. “Take care of yourself, man.”
“I will, Cartwheel. You too.”
Cartwheel nodded. Next he moved in front of Billy. “You ride that bike pretty fast.
Don’t ever forget that you had a part in saving Jimmy.”
“I won’t,” Billy answered.
“Be cool,” Tim said next. Cartwheel smiled. Tim held out his palms and Cartwheel gave him some skin.
Finally, Cartwheel came to stand in front of me. I knew what I wanted to say but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish. I cleared my throat and Cartwheel looked expectantly at me.
“Good luck, Mr. Cartwright. I’m going to miss you.”
“Mr. Cartwright? So formal, David.” Cartwheel gave me a funny look.
“I’ve come to respect you too much to call you ‘Cartwheel’ anymore,” I said, feeling the tears I had been holding back starting to trickle down my face.
Cartwheel gave a conspiratorial look to the left and the right before saying to me, “In that case, you can call me Milton.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Billy and Tim silently mouthing “Milton?” to each other, surprised expressions on their faces. I ignored them.
“Good luck, Milton. I’m going to miss -”
That is as far as I got. The tears were flowing full force. Cartwheel bent down and hugged me. I held on to him, feeling his long curly hair on my arms. I didn’t care that my friends were seeing me cry. I knew how much I was going to miss my hero and nothing else mattered just then.
When I let Cartwheel go and wiped the remaining tears from my face, I ventured a glance at my friends. They were silent, not daring to tease me. I think they understood somehow what I was feeling.
“Well, boys, I need to be going.” With that, Cartwheel got into The Makeout Machine and started up the engine. I was pretty sure that was the last time I’d hear that sound. We mounted our bikes and followed him up the hill, though he was slowly pulling away. It seemed like he was going slow so we could keep up. Just before he got to the top of the hill, he held out his left arm and gave us a final wave. The van hit a bump and, for an instant, I could see his face in the big mirror. He pulled his arm in and it looked like he was wiping a tear from his eye. Then the van crested the hill and was gone from our sight.
When we got to the top of the hill, we could see The Makeout Machine in the distance. It was turning left. From there, one more turn and it would be on Highway 140.
That fleeting glimpse was the last I ever saw of Cartwheel. The next summer, Mrs. Pemberton had hired another college student to run the pool. We had other lifeguards over the summers as we grew up, but none were ever as cool as Cartwheel. Or as heroic.
I came to realize that summer afternoon when Jimmy had his fall that Cartwheel was human after all. Later, I figured out that ordinary humans can be heroes. I never forgot that lesson I learned from Cartwheel.
I took a sip of my coffee as I looked again at the picture in the morning paper that had captured my attention. The long curly hair was gone, the blue jean cut-offs and t-shirt replaced with more appropriate attire, but I recognized the face. Even if I hadn’t, the caption below the picture left no doubt. The Trauma Department of Northwest Hospital welcomes Dr. Milton Cartwright. Dr. Cartwright, a graduate of the University of Maryland,…
Yes, ordinary humans can be heroes.
This story is an experiment, an attempt at a mainstream story. I’ve heard from many of my readers that they skip over the sex scenes in my stories because they are so absorbed in the plot. Now I’ll see if they really mean it.
This story is Copyright © 2005 by Strickland83. All rights reserved.
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