Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - The Year in Pictures

Tess Yuhas, 7, takes a break between her heats of a junior swim meet at Willow Run High School in June. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Even though most of what I put on this site deals with the written word, I do make my living by communicating through visuals, so I thought it only fair that I end the year with a collection of my favorite images from the past calendar year.

2010 was my 26th year as a professional photojournalist, and each and every year I'm amazed at how much variety my job continues to provide for me. I'm lucky that way. Whether it's true or not, I feel most folks would probably trade jobs with me in a minute if they could. I may not make a lot of money, but money couldn't buy some of the things I get to experience, the people I get to meet, or the front row access I have to history as it's being made.

My job lets me freely interact with all walks of life. I'm openly invited into people's lives and events. I can walk inside police lines at fires and accidents and I never have to wait in line as long as I have a camera in hand and a credential around my neck.

The purpose of my job is not only to share those experiences with the public, but also record them for the sake of history. I am first, and foremost, a visual documentarian of the world in which we now live - at least as far as it pertains to the city of Ann Arbor and it's surrounding areas.

The following is a slideshow of 50 or so images from 2010 - a year that included everything from the President of the United States, to kindergartners saying goodbye to their school on its last day of operation, and, of course, everything in between.

Hope you enjoy it.

(note: To see the photos full screen, hit the play arrow, then click on the diagonal arrows that appear in the bottom right corner of the slideshow window. If you want to see captions, click on the show info tab at the top right of the screen.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Carded - A decade's worth of decadence via the family Christmas card

The Horwedel family Thank You card for 2010. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Everybody has their thing at Christmas.

Some folks bake … some folks decorate the tree … some folks light up their house until it looks like a landing strip!

Me? … I do our family Christmas card.

I’m not really sure how, or why I started doing our card, I just know that at some point it became my thing, and before you knew it, it become a tradition while also earning me somewhat of a reputation. A reputation, I might add, that’s getting harder and harder to live up to.

At first I was like everyone else. I went card shopping at the store looking for a nice design, or something somewhat original. But that was before I had kids. Once you start a family, things change drastically in the Christmas card world.

For instance, I’m not sure, but I think it’s pretty much mandatory that once you actually have kids, you must start plastering their picture on the annual family Christmas card – usually a pose involving some sort of fancy family vacation taken somewhere exotic during the course of that calendar year. For added bonus points, a lengthy letter describing that awesome adventure, or how awesomely perfect your family was during the year, accompanies the card.

This is all fine and good, and perfectly acceptable behavior for Utopian Christian folk. But that hardly describes me, or my family, and I sure wouldn’t want to bore anyone with details of long weekends spent at baseball tournaments, or a family vacation to, say… Lake Erie?

Naw, the family adventure letter wouldn’t work for me. But family pictures? - Now that I could do.

My first foray into putting my three kids on a Christmas card was innocent enough - easy too. After all, they were little tikes at the time - all under the age of four when I first decided to grace our cards with their likeness.

That was the year 2000, and to this day it’s still one of my favorite cards. The kids were so cute, so innocent, and yet, you could almost sense it coming. Maybe it was Ella sticking a light up her nose, or maybe it was Eamon’s diaper loaded to the brim. Whatever it was, I should have known - yup, these kids were going to make great models for years to come and this Christmas card thing was gonna be a lot of fun!

Now I’ve got it down to a science. Each year the list of card receivers grows – this year it was well over 200. For one week I turn into a Christmas card machine - everything from brainstorming the idea (I usually have next year’s idea a year ahead of time) to executing the shot, printing and cutting the cards, and, believe it or not, buying the stamps!

Yes, it’s true, I put a lot of thought into the stamps - I have to make sure I buy a fair amount of seasonal stamps that don’t say Christmas on them anywhere for all our Jewish friends and non-believers.

For the past decade my cards have evolved from innocent, to anything but. But the one constant has been my three kids on the cover of the card. It’s been fun to watch them grow up with each card, getting more sarcastic with each passing year. So, here, in chronological order, except for the year 2003 (have no idea what happened to that one) are a decade’s worth of family Christmas cards – Horwedel style!


Aren't they cute? I plopped all three down on a bed sheet by our back door and wrapped them in chili pepper lights. During the shoot Ella began sticking the lights up her nose and Eamon let loose with a thunderous dump (why do you think he's smiling?) They seemed to enjoy it and a tradition was born.


Shot the picture at the Briarwood Mall. Have no idea what the hell Ella is looking at. The picture is still innocent, but starting to use a little play on words in the text.


I was still recovering from a near-fatal liver abscess, but I managed to get up enough strength to shoot a picture of the kids wrapped in Christmas wreaths from our front porch. The play on words continues!


The very last of my innocent cards - the kids in front of our tree.


Ah, the kids are starting to hit their stride. Ella came up with the idea of "Horror"wedels - pretty clever I thought. To pull it off, I had the kids hang off the edge of the bed upside down so their hair would hang down, then I flipped the image so it looked to be standing up. The vampire poses and facial expressions are something I wish I could take credit for, but it was all them.


Starting to hit full stride with this one. Took the idea from the opening scene in "A Christmas Story" where Ralphie, his brother Randy, and Ralphie's friends have their faces smashed against the Higbee's department store window checking out the goods. To pull this one off, I photographed everyone (except the cat, Eamon shot that one) with their faces pressed against the plate glass window of our front door. To give the illusion of being in a round ornament, I made sure we all bent our fingers back a little, then I photoshopped us all into a photo I took of colored ornaments.


More photoshop magic. I took a picture of the Santa at the Briarwood Mall (real beard and all) and then I had the kids pose in certain ways I knew would work to make them "Santa's little helpers." I particularly enjoy Ella's face as she works the snarls out of Santa's beard.


The idea hit me one day ... what's every kid's worst nightmare and every parent's threat?

Coal in the stocking! Well, someone has to mine that coal, right? Thus, Santa's dirty little secret - the coal mining elves of the North Pole.

I went nuts on props for this one. My wife did a great job making up the naughty list, I found some head lamps to use as miner's hats at T.J. Maxx, the shirts I made with a stencil and a red Sharpie, but best of all, the coal is actually real! (thanks to my brother who scored me a box from the Sandusky, Ohio coal docks). The photo was taken in the doorway of my parent's cellar, which doubled nicely as a mine shaft. Oh yeah, the cigarettes are fake - bought them at Middle Earth in Ann Arbor.


Once again the idea hit me one day when my son woke up with the worst bed-head in the history of bad hair days. I told him he looked like someone off a wanted poster in the post office and the next thing anyone knew, I was taking mug shots and my wife was designing the poster. For a little extra touch, I smashed a candy cane and an ornament (one of the same ones from the 2006 card). We reused the coal from the previous year as well.


My spoof on "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was a result of my kid's inability to focus on anything longer than 10 seconds without their damn phones taking over their lives. The irony of this shot is the fact that both my daughters were being punished for using their phones too much, but to get the shot I actually wanted them to text, so I had to give them their phones back while I shot the picture. Of course, they ended up dragging out the shoot as long as possible so they could continue texting - those expressions are real. My son came up with the idea of adding the gibberish text to his picture to go along with his goofy face.

I have no idea what next year's card will bring, nor do I know how long my kids will continue to be active participants. But I think I can safely count on at least five more years of creative fun with them - hopefully more, and who knows, maybe someday one of them will take over completely and the Christmas card thing will officially be theirs!

Nothing could make me more proud.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's Cooking?

Here today, dinner tomorrow. Turkeys on death row at Dawn Farm in Ypsilanti. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Thanksgiving always held a special place in my heart, but not so much anymore.

For years it easily was my favorite holiday – even better than Christmas. Memories of that special day still make me smile when I think back on them, even though not all were exactly “shining” moments. The three or four Thanksgivings spent suffering on the couch with the stomach flu come to mind. Oddly, watching the Thanksgiving Day parades on television between bouts of vomiting seemed rather joyous. At the very least, I suppose those Thanksgivings were memorable!

Better memories were the days when I wasn’t puking and actually enjoying the day with my family. I remember quite vividly our family trading off hosting Thanksgiving Day duties with my aunt and uncle down the street. I really didn’t care where it was held; I just loved hanging out with my cousins, feeling cozy all day.

At some point during those years, another tradition sprang forth – the tradition of playing football every Thanksgiving Day. To me, this was on par with, or maybe even better than the turkey.

Every year, anywhere from 8 to 20 kids, and sometimes grown-ups, would play a game of touch football in my cousin’s yard. This went on throughout my childhood, and then, when I went to college, the tradition took on epic proportions. The years I was away at college, the game got so big it had to be moved uptown to an actual football field.

I’ll always remember with great fondness the four-hour drive home from college. The anticipation of seeing my family and playing football with my friends would grow with each mile. The last stretch of the drive was the best, nearly an hour of country roads winding up and down hills, through dormant corn fields chopped down to foot-high nubs, with skies as gray as stone swallowing up the landscape. “Perfectly gloomy” I always called it - and it was perfect.

The years of driving home from college didn’t last all that long, but the tradition of coming home for Thanksgiving and playing football went on for nearly 15 more years until eventually we all got too old, or moved away and started celebrating Thanksgiving with other in-laws.

Soon I found myself immersed in my wife’s family traditions that didn’t include football in any fashion – watching or playing. The years that followed saw my family growing bigger, first one kid, then another, and then a third. Some years I’d take my family back to Ohio to see my folks at Thanksgiving, but usually we stayed put. And then, as if Thanksgiving meant nothing to me anymore, I began volunteering to work on that day. The extra pay was always nice, but the empty feeling over a holiday I once cherished was not.

This is my first Thanksgiving without my mom. She died in March. I don’t even remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving, but I find myself missing it more this year.

It’s harder still because my family has no tradition in place. My kids could care less about the Thanksgiving Day parades on TV. There is no annual football game with their cousins. I don’t even know if they like turkey. I long for that drive home on country roads through foot-high corn, under slate gray skies. I miss the turkey, the gravy, the mashed potatoes and the homemade pies.

Life is different now. It’s supposedly simpler, but really it’s a helluva lot more complex. So what if you can drive up to a machine to get money, pull up to a window to get food, or push a button on a remote to change a channel. With all of these timesaving measures you’d think there would be plenty of time to make dinner every night. But there just isn’t.

With kids going this way and that, playing this sport and that, most of our meals come via Subway, or Wendy’s or anything else that isn’t home. At one point I knew how to make several different dishes, in fact, I was a pretty good cook. But cooking isn’t like riding a bike, it’s more like a foreign language, the less you use it, the more you forget. Cooking was my mom’s tradition. It is not mine.

Now it’s Thanksgiving eve and I’ve come to the realization that there are several dishes I can no longer make because I’ve forgotten how, and I can’t call my mother to get the recipe. I get the strange feeling I’m not alone – I’m guessing there are legions of folks my age who are just like me.

My mother was an excellent cook. She learned the craft from her mother, and when her mother died when my mom was just 13, it suddenly became my mother’s job to cook for her family. When she had kids of her own, my mother continued being the family cook while my dad did his part as the breadwinner.

Every night when my dad got home from work, we all sat down as a family and ate a full course dinner. There were six of us, but for as long as I can remember; we somehow managed to squeeze around our little kitchen table every single night.

It was the way it was supposed to be, the way it had been for generations, but it also was the end of that generation. My mother never bothered teaching me to cook. Why would she? How was she to know that future generations would require two salaries to survive?

The question is: What happens to the next generation?  Will we slowly lose the ability to cook for ourselves?  Will my grandkids eat anything that’s not prepackaged or processed? The family dinner already seems to be a thing of the past. I can’t remember the last time my family all sat down at the same table to eat dinner, so it’s not that far-fetched to think of a country that actually forgets how to cook.

It’s a sad thought, especially on the eve of what once was my favorite holiday.

Tomorrow I’m working again, and then later in the day I’ll be going to my mother in laws for dinner. I’m sure it will be nice, it usually is, but in between bites of turkey, I’ll be thinking fondly of Thanksgivings past when I was puking into a bucket by the side of the couch between parade floats, or driving home through endless fields of dead corn under a blanket of November’s finest gray.

Those were the days. And for that, I’m truly thankful.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Salt Flats and the Salt Flats II – A story of brothers, bikes, and the art of setting land speed records with a little help from Sears and Roebuck

Photos by Lon Horwedel

Part 1 – Goodbye Childhood, Hello Ugly Bike

Every boy has a right of passage growing up, usually around the age of 13. Most are normal, like the first sign of pubic hair, or suddenly noticing it might not be a bad idea to start using deodorant, but mine was much different - although no less awkward. My right of passage arrived in the driveway one day in the form of a cardboard box – two actually - and in each box came the disassembled pieces-parts of what looked to be a pair of bicycles.

For nearly a year my mother had intimated that maybe it was time I got rid of my old bike and got a new one. I guess this was that day, but I had no idea why the hell I needed two.

I was neither ready for, nor wanting a new bicycle, let alone two, but my mother beamed with joy as the boxes were unloaded from the back of a Sears and Roebuck truck in the driveway next to the garage by my two eager brothers.

It was no secret that the Horwedel boys (me and my younger brothers Lance and Duke) were bicycle junkies. It also was no secret that my bike may have been the coolest in all of Berlin Heights - maybe even all of Ohio - and I wasn’t all that eager to part with it.

My bike was truly unique, and every kid in the neighborhood was envious of its coolness. First of all, it was purple, which, at the time, was my favorite color, and it had the most awesome banana seat complete with a racing stripe and a big #5 in the middle of a metallic plastic seat cover that sparkled in the sun. The bike’s back forks came up into a nice little arch six inches above the banana seat – a sissy bar they called it - making it ideal for sitting back and popping wheelies. The front forks were long and curved – not quite a chopper, but cool nonetheless. The bike’s frame was chromoly steel, regal in color, but built for speed. The handlebars were a work of art too – long and slopey, drooping way down to the front fork before rising back up again like a miniature roller coaster.

I named it the Purple Pulverizer, and it may have been the only bike like it ever made. I certainly never saw another one like it. I rode that bike for three solid years nearly every day from the time school let out in June, until it started up again in September. Sure, it was a little bit beat up. The tassels that once hung like wild grass from the end of each handle grip had been reduced to mere stubs following years of grinding sidewalk wipeouts. Yellow foam rubber popped out of the many cracks and rips in the metallic plastic seat cover. The arch of my sissy bar had been bent into more of a square. The handlebars were starting to rust, and the back tire was completely void of tread thanks to the thousand or so skid marks I’d put down on our front sidewalk. Despite all these flaws, none of them seemed serious enough to just “get rid of it” for whatever replacement waited inside one of those boxes.

Since we didn’t have video games when we were kids, bicycles were our entertainment … our freedom … our way of achieving machismo in a 10-year-old world. And my bike was really super cool! But we didn’t need video games to negatively influence us into doing something really stupid because we had something even better. We had Evel Knievel.

Evel Knievel was our hero … our God, and we worshipped Evel nearly every day trying to kill ourselves by jumping our bikes over anything we could find. This usually consisted of old tires, other bikes, Big Wheels, and occasionally an unwilling neighbor kid or two. But we weren’t stupid. We knew exactly what we were doing. We were strong advocates of jumping safety, so we always made it a point to don my plastic replica Cleveland Browns football helmet before every jump – the one stamped “Not For Actual Play” on the back.

If we didn’t take a beating, our bikes sure did, but somehow, my Purple Pulverizer made it through three years of daredevil jumps relatively intact. Now my extremely insensitive mother was about to take that from me - just throw it all away for the contents of these two boxes. How could she?

“You’re 13-years-old Lon!” She said, noticing I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of getting a new bike … or two, “ You can’t keep riding your old bike. You’re getting too big for it, in fact, you’ve been too big for it for a while now - WAY TOO BIG!!”

“Aw, c’mon Mom,” I pleaded, “Just one more year – PLEEEAASSEE!!!”

“Jesus Christ Lon,” My dad chimed in, “Your Goddamned knees hit your chin when you ride that piece of shit!” (My dad never was one to mince words). “It’s going to the dump – TODAY!”

That was it. It was final. Whenever my old man spoke, there was no room for negotiation.

I watched in shock as he walked into the garage and came back out with my bike. I stood there helpless, as the Pulverizer’s threadbare back tire seemed to wave goodbye as he rolled past me. Before I could say or do anything more, he picked up my precious bike and tossed it into the back of our Gran Torino station wagon. Seconds later he was peeling out of the driveway on his way to the dump.

I didn’t cry, but I sure wanted to, even more so once I saw what actually spilled out of the cardboard boxes.

My replacement bike, or bikes, came in roughly six pieces that needed to be assembled: the frame, handlebars, both pedals, two fenders, and a kickstand. The problem wasn’t so much the assembly, or the fact that I’d just had my best friend of three years ripped from my grasp and thrown in the trash – the problem was the replacement choice.

If there was an uglier bike on the planet, I never saw it. It was big and black and clunky, with a small triangular seat, hand brakes and a goofy-ass looking red reflector on the back of its all-black fender. To make matters worse, it had a wussy, little three-speed shifter just below the handle grip – a three-speed! It was an old lady’s bike … a grocery getter! The only thing missing was a basket on the front handlebars!

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I was wrong. There was an uglier bike on the planet – the one that spilled out of the second cardboard box. An exact replica of the first bike, only the goofy-ass reflector on this beauty was bolted to a two-tone fender - the last 8-inches being white instead of black.

“Thanks Mom,” I said somewhat sarcastically, “but wouldn’t one bike have been enough?”

“Oh, I thought you might want to ride with me, your dad, or your sister.” She answered excitedly.

At this point, the odds of me even sitting on such an ugly bike were relatively slim, but the chances of me riding alongside my mom, dad, or sister on an equally revolting hunk of crap were pretty much nil.

Even though I was a boy, and a 13-year-old boy at that, I still had standards. There was no way I could ride that bike. How would I do a wheelie? How would I jump it over the neighborhood kids? How could I leave skid marks using a bike with such wimpy tires and hand brakes?

I didn’t ride my bike so I could “ride” my bike. I rode my bike so I could do everything humanly possible not to “ride” my bike. If my bike was on two wheels for more than a minute, I was doing something wrong. Bikes were meant for jumping, skidding, wheelies, crashing - not for “riding.” Every kid in my neighborhood both knew, and abided by that one simple rule. They looked up to me. They expected nothing less from me than relentless attacks on the neighborhood sidewalk atop the Purple Pulverizer. How was I going to explain this one?

I tried my best to feign excitement, but it was no use. I didn’t want these bikes; not one bit.

My 10-year-old brother Lance, who specialized in everything and anything that involved construction, and then, of course, destruction, decided to assemble the bikes anyway. He was much too small to ride either of the bikes, but he loved putting them together in his own special way. I, on the other hand, ignored them completely.

After Lance finished putting the bikes together, they sat in the corner of the garage for much of the rest of the summer collecting dust. Even my older sister Dina refused to ride them because technically, as wussy-like as they were, they still were considered “boys” bikes, and there was no way she’d be caught dead riding a “boys” bike.

My dad too, passed on the chance to take the most hideous thing on two wheels out for a spin. Exercise wasn’t really his thing anyway, although I’m sure that’s what my mother had in mind when she bought the extra bike. Besides, my old man already had his own bike – it was called a Harley Davidson 750. I think even my mother realized, after seeing the finished product, that maybe this would be a good time to take a lot of walks, because she never so much as mentioned the bikes again for the rest of the summer.

Just when it looked as if my parents had pretty much wasted their money on the most ill advised purchase of the century, an amazing thing happened - actually, a couple of amazing things. Fate shone down upon the Horwedel family that July when my brother Lance, upon turning 11, had a major growth spurt. That, in itself, wasn’t all that amazing, but coupled with the new copy of the Guiness Book of World Records he received for his birthday, it started a chain of events that soon would not only blow the dust off those hideous bikes in the garage, but earn each one a nickname and a significant place in Horwedel family lore that lives on to this day.

Part II – Birth of the Flats

Nestled neatly in the middle of the Guiness Book of World Records, past all the tallest, shortest, fatest, and every-other-freaky-person-in-the-world part of the book, was what my brother and I considered our Holy Bible – the land speed records section. I’m not sure what our fascination was with land speed records, but outside of blowing stuff up, it’s pretty much what we lived for in the summers.

When we raced Hot Wheels, we didn’t just race them, we tried to set records. When we rode our bikes, we’d time ourselves to see who was fastest. When we jumped them off plywood ramps, we’d measure the length of our jumps to see who was the neighborhood Evel Knievel – sadly, a crown I never won. Everything we did was calculated. To an outsider, it may have looked like a bunch of kids just playing on a summer day, but we had a purpose, and that purpose was to push ourselves, and our bikes, beyond mortal kid limits.

If the Guiness Book of World Records was our Bible, then Utah was our Holy Land, because Utah was the home of Bonneville, and Bonneville was the home of the legendary Salt Flats – a prehistoric lakebed made entirely of salt that was flat as a pancake and went on for an eternity. It was the one and only spot on the entire planet Earth, both long enough, and flat enough, where any vehicle made by man could test its ability to achieve unbelievable speeds without actually being airborne.

That summer, a rocket-powered car (which really was nothing more than an actual rocket on wheels) called the “Blue Flame” set the world land speed record of 630 m.p.h. at the Salt Flats. In Berlin Heights, Ohio, I set the record when I hit 27 m.p.h. riding downhill from the corner gas station on my Purple Pulverizer. (We always started our runs by the corner gas station’s air hose where we not only could pump up our tires for free, but also well past their maximum p.s.i. because every kid knew you could go way faster on overinflated tires).

I thought nothing more about speed, or Bonneville, Utah, after my dad had taken the Purple Pulverizer to the dump, but my brother’s growth spurt changed all that. Now it was he who had outgrown his bike, and he was searching for some new wheels.

I don’t know if it was because he had put them together himself, but the Sears and Roebuck 3-speeds never seemed to bother Lance one bit. Personally, I couldn’t believe he’d be caught dead riding one, but he actually seemed to like them, despite their hideousness and the fact he busted his nuts on the top tube of the bike frame every time he got on or off of one. I couldn’t figure out his affinity for the bikes until one day he let me in on a little secret.

"Lon, you’re not going to believe this, but these bikes are really fast!” He said.

“Get out.”

“No, I’m serious, they’re really, really fast - I think you might be able to set a new land speed record on one of these!”

“No way.”

“Just try one, I’m telling you, ride it one time and you’ll see.”

I couldn’t believe he was trying to con me into riding the most butt-ugly bicycle in the world, but he was my younger brother, and if I respected anything about him, it was his insatiable lust for land speed records, so I headed out to the garage to grab one of the bikes and give it a try.

“Where are they?” I asked, once I got in the garage.

“Right there.” He answered.

“Right where?”

“Right there!”

Lance pointed to what looked sort of, but not exactly, like the bikes he’d assembled earlier that summer.

“Whoa, what the hell did you do to them?” I asked.

“I fixed ‘em up a bit.” He said. “Made ‘em a little lighter – a little faster!”

“Damn … does Mom know you did this?”

“She could care less.” He said. “I don’t think she even knows we still have them.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes as I began to inspect them closer. They were the same bikes all right, but these were nowhere near as ugly as I remembered.

Gone were the goofy-ass reflectors.

“We don’t ride at night anyhow.” Lance said, when I pointed out their absence.

The kickstands were gone too.

“They were hitting the pedals!” He justified.

He’d also removed the tire spoke reflectors, as well as the reflector off the seat post.

“Useless extra weight.” He beamed.

I ran my fingers along the bike frame, noticing, perhaps for the first time, that black wasn’t the worst color in the world for a bicycle, especially when it’s all black thanks to the new paint job my brother applied to both bikes.

“I thought the wheel rims looked better in black than chrome.” He said smiling.

He was right.

He even painted the three-speed shifters a nice coat of black. The only thing he left white was the bottom 8-inches of the back fender on the one bike.

“Why didn’t you paint that black too?” I asked him, pointing at the fender.

“I wanted to rip ‘em off,” he answered, “but they’re on there really good, so I left one white so we could tell them apart.”

As I looked even closer, I also noticed he’d blacked out the Sears and Roebuck label on the front frame of each bike, and replaced it with the initials S.F. and S.F. II.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, pointing at the initials.

“Oh, that stands for “Salt Flats.” He said. “And the one with the white fender is Salt Flats II.”

I had to hand it to the kid. He’d truly transformed what once had been nothing more than two disastrous chunks of rubber and metal into something that was uniquely his.

I looked at him and smiled - then I quietly uttered the word he so desperately wanted to hear – “Nice!!!”

He smiled back as I ruffled his hair.

“All right then, let’s take one of these babies for a test spin.” I said. “Which one do you want me to ride?”

“I think “Salt Flats II” might be a bit faster.” He suggested. “I’d take that one if I were you.”

“Get me the Browns helmet.” I said, climbing aboard the S.F. II. “Let’s see what this baby can do!”

Part III – A New World Record

There was no need to worry about accurately measuring my speed, I’d already correctly assumed that my brother had taken one of the several bicycle speedometers we had floating around the garage, and attached it perfectly to the center of the handlebars.

“You got this speedometer calibrated to the right tire size?” I asked him.

“You know it!” He answered.

“How about the tire pressure?”

“If they were any fuller they’d explode!” He beamed, handing me the helmet.

“Well okay then, there’s only one thing left to do – let’s see if we can’t set us a new land speed record!”

I rolled the bike out of the garage and headed down the driveway toward the sidewalk as Lance trotted along beside me. The ground below my tires felt like an ice rink. My brother wasn’t joking; he really had pumped them up to the limit – almost to the point where the bike was nearly impossible to handle. Secretly I was a little worried I might crash and burn on my maiden voyage, but I sure didn’t want him to know that.

Once on the sidewalk, I began to slowly pedal up the hill toward the gas station. Lance stayed in front of our house at the finish line where my youngest brother Duke soon joined him. His job was simple– go get Mom if I crashed and burned.

I figured I had about three football fields worth of sidewalk to get acquainted with the bike before I flirted with potential death, so as I continued making my way up the hill toward the gas station, I fooled around with the shifter and the pedals.

This wasn’t like any other bike I’d ever ridden. There was no banana seat on this baby, which I was reminded of every time my ass slid off the small, triangular saddle. But the bigger problem was the lack of coaster brakes. Every time I reflexively tried to slow down by pushing back on the pedals, they just spun in circles- no friction whatsoever. This, I concluded, could be a major problem near the finish line since my brother also had jettisoned the hand brakes as a weight-reduction measure.

With no way to stop, or even slow down, I began to wonder if maybe I should abort the mission, but once I got to the gas station, I knew it was too late. How would it look if I chickened out now? What kind of an example would I be setting for my two brothers, not to mention the legion of neighborhood kids who looked up to me, if I bailed on my land-speed record attempt for something as trivial as a lack of brakes?

Nope, by the time I turned the bike around and pointed the front wheel toward our house at the bottom of the hill, it was a done deal.

The slope of the hill made it hard to keep the bike in one place as the overinflated tires itched to roll down the sidewalk. With my left foot on the ground, I leaned back into the hill and tried to steady the S.F. II. With my right foot, I spun the pedals around until the top pedal was at 10 o’clock, the perfect power position for any good land-speed record take off. The start, all us kids knew, was tantamount to any good run, and I could tell by the way the bike felt underneath me - like a bucking bronco waiting to burst out of a rodeo gate - that this was gonna be a good one!

I tugged down hard on the facemask of my replica Cleveland Browns helmet until it hurt my forehead like any good helmet should - then I snapped the chinstrap into place. I tried to get a lock on my brothers at the bottom of the hill, but their figures were all warped from the heat waves coming off the sizzling pavement. A bead of sweat ran down my forehead, between my eyes, then off my nose before splashing onto the sidewalk by my left foot.

It was hot … really hot, but I was ready.

I closed my eyes real tight, took a deep breath, and then stood up on the right pedal. The S.F. II instantly responded. My first full pedal stroke covered at least 10-yards and already I was spinning with no resistance. The bike’s tires seemed to be sliding instead of rolling as I prayed for traction. Quickly, I thumb shifted the bike into second gear and pedaled even harder. My eyes began to water as the bike effortlessly accelerated down the hill. Three seconds into my run and already I was halfway home. I shifted into third gear and the bike finally fought back with some resistance. Now it was time to use some muscle.

I leaned forward, getting as low and aerodynamic as I could until my chin almost touched the handlebars, and then I really stomped down on the pedals. The S.F. II exploded beneath me as I held on for dear life. Through my watering eyes I could see the speedometer not only had blown past the 20 mph mark, but left 30 mph in the dust as well. I still had 100 yards to the finish and the S.F. II was moving at 35 mph – a new record, but I wasn’t done. The last 100 yards of the sidewalk flattened out by our house, meaning any additional speed would solely be up to me.

I crouched down even lower and pedaled as hard as I could. Once again the bike responded. Like a rocket, we tore up the last stretch in a blur. The orange speedometer dial crested past the 40 mph mark before running out of room. I’d not only broken the old record, I’d actually done what all us kids thought was impossible – I’d pegged out the speedometer.

As near as I could figure, I was going somewhere in the neighborhood of 42 mph when I flew by my screaming brothers, with little, or no chance, of stopping. If I’d been on the street, I surely would have been ticketed for speeding. The problem of stopping had never really left my brain, but my quest for speed had subdued it long enough for me to attempt my record setting run. But now, as my brother’s happy screams faded behind me, the fear of breaking every bone in my body was all I could think about as the S.F. II continued accelerating down the sidewalk.

I had roughly 300 more yards of downhill terror to try and figure out how to stop, or at least slow down enough to jump off the bike without serous injury, before I reached the end of the street and plunged off the 150-foot shale cliff overlooking Old Woman’s Creek. I must admit, the thought of leaping off the cliff and into Old Woman’s Creek brought a wry smile to my face, knowing full well the crown of “neighborhood Evel Knievel” would be mine for the rest of my life. The only problem was; the rest of my life might only be 15-20 more seconds if I didn’t find out a way to stop.

The back fender was rattling something horrible from speed wobble as I tried to maintain control of the bike. Now I had only 200-yards before my potential death plunge – to make matters worse, the last 100-yards of the street was the steepest part of the hill.

I sat up as straight as I could hoping to use my chest like a parachute to try and slow me down. It worked. The speedometer came unglued and began dropping, 40 … 38 … 34 … 30. The speed wobble began to disappear. I regained complete control of the S.F. II as the cliff approached.

Unlike most of the kids in my neighborhood who never wore shoes during the summer, I rarely, if ever, went barefoot, and boy was I glad for that as I slowly began to lower my left sneaker toward the sidewalk until it began skimming along the surface. I knew if I planted my sneaker into the sidewalk too quickly, or too hard, I could either rip my leg off or flip the bike, so I had to be careful.

I began slowing down even more, 25 … 22 … 20. Now I was less than a 100-yards from the end of the street, but 20 mph was still way too fast for me to bail - even with a replica Cleveland Browns helmet strapped firmly to my head!

I dug my sneaker in even harder, but gravitational pull on the steepest portion of the kicked in, and instead of slowing down, I actually began to speed up again. With only 50-yards of sidewalk left before I sealed my fate, I had no other option except to use both feet as brakes; something I’d been trying to avoid since I knew it meant I’d probably bust my nuts on the top bar of the bike frame in the process.

In one quick motion, I stepped off the right pedal and then braced myself for impact not knowing if my days of fertility would end before they ever began. As predicted, my crotch cracked down so hard on the top bar of the bike frame I thought I tasted blood. Busting my nuts, I figured, was simply step one in what most likely would be a long and painful death that also surely would include several abrasions, a broken bone or two, and a ton of internal bleeding.

What I didn’t realize was that by smashing my jewels on top of the frame, I'd actually started a major slowing down of the bike, because my right foot now joined with my left, scuffing into the sidewalk so effectively, the unmistakable smell of burning rubber from the soles of my sneakers began to fill the air. Soon, I began to realize that even though I may never have kids, I most likely would live, and at least have the chance of becoming an uncle!

By the time I reached the end of the street, despite destroying my manhood and a brand new pair of sneakers, I was able to bring the speed of S.F. II down to 12 mph – hopefully slow enough to bring her in for a crash landing on the Burnham’s front lawn (where more than one bike had performed emergency crash landings during our childhood).

The Burnhams lived in the last house on the street where Main Street came to an abrupt end at the edge of the cliff overlooking Old Woman’s Creek. The grass in the Burnham’s front lawn always was long and lush, making it not only the best, but also the last place to wipeout without actually dying. Until that day, I’d never put a bike down at such a high rate of speed without the use of brakes - or with my ass off the bike seat - but that was about to change.

Part IV – A New Way of Stopping

Once I hit the last 30 yards of sidewalk, I steered the S.F. II hard to the left, doing my very best to lean into the turn hoping I might slide the bike in the Burnham’s front yard like a baseball player stealing second base. The problem was, neither foot was on a pedal, making it virtually impossible to control any part of the wipeout with my lower body. Once I hit the edge of the grass to start my slide, my right foot lifted completely off the ground and my left foot hit a tree root. The next thing I knew, I was snap rolling across the Burnham’s front yard, ass-over-diddleberry, before smashing into the shrubbery by their front porch.

It was neither the prettiest, nor the most effective crash landing ever performed on their front lawn, but with the help of my Browns helmet, I came out of the incident with little more than a slight concussion and a couple of bloody elbows.

By the time I realized I was okay, my brothers had arrived to see if they needed to tell our mom she should start shopping for a black dress. They hadn’t seen the end of my ride, so they had no idea if I was an ink spot at the bottom of Old Woman’s Creek, or stuck in some bushes by the Burnham’s porch. They were relieved to see it was the later.

“Holy shit, Lon!” Lance exclaimed (we swore a lot as kids) as he ran over to see if I was all right. “How fast were you going?”

I wiped myself off and pulled the S.F. II out of the bushes - then I smiled and told him the speed.

“Forty-two miles per hour,” I said, “or maybe 45 … I don’t know, I pegged out the speedometer!”

“I’ll bet you were doing 50!” He said excitedly.

“Yeah … maybe I was doing 50!” I said. “Who knows, maybe even 60!”

“How was it? Was it cool?” He asked. “Were you scared?”

“Nah, I wasn’t scared.” I lied. “But maybe we should put the brakes back on the bike before Mom finds out … or, you know, in case maybe we might want to make it a little easier to slow down next time.”

My brother scratched his head in confusion. Up until then, we’d only ever done things to try and speed up, never once were the words “slow down” part of our vocabulary.

As my brother continued to look at me as if I were crazy for even thinking about something as sinister as slowing down, it suddenly dawned on me that I might have just grown up a little bit - a very small bit, but grown up nonetheless. I’d done something that actually made a little bit of sense. I’d tried to impart a very small shred of wisdom onto my little brothers: Brakes on a bicycle were a good thing, especially when you live on a hill and spend most of your summer trying to break land speed records.

For all I knew, I may have saved both my brother’s lives that day. Certainly, I was a little wiser for the wear. The S.F. II seemed to come out it pretty well too. The crash landing into the Burnham’s bushes had done little more than bend its handlebars and scrape some paint off her frame. Other than that, she was good to go. Still, I decided it might be a good idea if I walked the Salt Flats II back to the house.

As I walked the new champion speed record holder back to our house with my brothers in tow, I reflected back on the best 90 seconds of my life. It had been one hell of a ride – one that went down in the annals of Berlin Heights’ kid history and made the Salt Flats II a neighborhood legend. True, neither the Salt Flats, nor the Salt Flats II were, or would ever be the Purple Pulverizer, but never again was I ashamed to ride either one of those Sears and Roebuck 3-speed’s up and down our sidewalk.


Over the next few years, many more modifications were made to both the Salt Flats, and the Salt Flats II to try and break the record I set that fateful summer day. Among them were the removal of the fenders and chain guards, new handle grips and several new paint jobs, but we never once rode again without brakes.

Two years after my record setting run, the conditions were perfect for another try at history. It was hot, the wind was at my back, and I was two years older and stronger. As usual, we walked the Salt Flats II up to the corner gas station to properly overinflate the tires for my record-breaking try. Unfortunately, the Salt Flats II would be dead before I ever got the chance to ride her again. In my zeal to get the tires as rock hard as possible, I pumped up the back tire to the point of no return causing it to violently explode on the spot.

Luckily, neither I, nor my brothers were hurt in the explosion, but it was so loud, Kernel’s Machine Shop across the street, actually stopped production as its employees ran out of the shop to see what had caused such a noise. The ferocity of the explosion fractured several spokes on the S.F. II’s back tire, cracked the wheel rim, and completely dislodged the seat post. It also made me and my brothers stone deaf for the better part of three hours.

After that, the Salt Flats II was used as nothing more than replacement parts for the original Salt Flats, but the explosion that destroyed her, also spurred on a whole new love for my brothers and me – the joy of blowing stuff up!

As for my bicycling career, I went on to race bicycles competitively in criteriums, triathlons and time trials from 1989-1996. The land speed record I set on the Salt Flats II in the summer of 78’ held up for 13 more years until I finally broke it in 1991, by hitting 62 mph on a carbon fiber racing bike going down a steep hill on State Rt. 56 in Zaleski, Ohio.

I’ve always loved to go fast on a bicycle, but nothing will ever compare to that first run on the legendary Salt Flats II.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Eight Fingers and Nine Toes - The joys of growing up in small-town Ohio

(Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is an excerpt from my memoirs about growing up in a small, Ohio town entitled "Eight Fingers and Nine Toes." Look for more stories from my memoirs in the coming weeks.

It’s not like anyone goes out and purposefully hacks off a finger or a toe. Still, for a town with a population of barely 800, Berlin Heights, Ohio, had more than it’s share of missing digits.

Maybe it was all the farm equipment in our little fruit orchard town. Or maybe it was the relatively high number of drunks playing with fireworks every Fourth of July. Whatever it was, one thing was for sure, the metric system never would catch on in our town full of good-natured folk who were better at counting by 7’s or 8’s, than by 10’s.

Oddly, I don’t recall any of the maimed, or partially dismembered citizens of Berlin Heights ever having bandages that would indicate they’d just lost a finger … or two … or three. As far as I was concerned, my Little League coach might as well have been born with only half an index finger on his right hand, because that’s the only way I knew him. For years I thought it was just a birth defect.  But one day, after I made a bad play, he pointed that stubby, little half-finger in my face and I noticed a smile-like scar running like the seam of a baseball from one side of his mangled finger tip to the other.

The owner of the hardware store was no different, except he was missing two full fingers on his left hand, but unlike my Little League coach, who never revealed how he’d lost half his finger, the hardware store owner was proud of the negative space where his fingers once roamed. His missing digits were a conversation starter for every customer who walked in the door.

“Can I help you?”

“Just lookin’ for some saw blades.”

“Say, you better be careful son – lookie here, see what happens if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing.”

The list of townsfolk with mangled or missing digits seemed endless. Most were the usual suspects, like the hardware store owner, the clumsy farmer down the street, and the mechanic at our local gas station. It almost would be weird if they were operating at full capacity. Bu then there was my neighbor Ricky.

At the age of 11, Ricky became the youngest member of the “I can’t count to 10” club when his mother unceremoniously sent the big toe of his left foot hurtling through space and into a bunch of bramble bushes via the blade of their riding lawn mower in the early summer of 1974.

Somewhat incredibly, outside of Ricky and his mother, no one else had witnessed the event. If he did scream, no one heard it. And like most of the rest of the town’s population of partial amputees, I don’t recall ever seeing Ricky wearing a cast, a wrap, or even so much as a Band Aid after the incident. He just showed up one day later that summer missing a toe.

How he had managed to get his foot under the mower in the first place was a mystery to most of us. His mother was beside herself with guilt at the partial maiming of her son, but we neighbor kids knew that someway, somehow, it had to be Ricky’s fault.

For most of us, the event was nothing more than an opportunity for our moms to espouse upon us a lesson on the evils of mower blades and bare feet, but for Ricky’s best friend Wilson, it was the chance of a lifetime. The day after hearing about the accident, Wilson set out on a scavenger hunt looking for Ricky’s missing toe in the thick weeds and pricker bushes lining the lawn where the best John Deere riding mower money could buy had niftily hidden it.

It took a while, but Wilson was persistent, and on day three of his search he found what he was looking for (most likely with the help of his nose since Ricky’s toe, at this point, was black and greasy and smelled like road kill thanks to three days of decomposing in the bushes). But Wilson was young and full of optimism. He was, no doubt, very proud of himself when he dropped the rotting toe into a sandwich bag and headed for the hospital where he was sure the doctors would be able to reattach it.

Unfortunately for Ricky, and for Wilson, no amount of medical science in the world could reverse the effects of tissue death resulting from the three days of decomposition, so the doctor’s pronounced the greasy-black toe officially dead and it was never to be seen again.

The same can’t be said for Ricky’s four-toed left foot. For most of the rest of my childhood, he made it a point, or at least it seemed like he did, to show up barefoot everywhere he went. That wasn’t all that unusual since shoes were merely an afterthought to most kids in my neighborhood once school let out. Of course, those kids still had all 10 toes!

The sight of Ricky’s oddly shaped left foot was, at times, both disturbing and thought provoking. The fact his wound never got infected was mind boggling to me, given the amount of dirt that seemed permanently attached to most of Ricky’s body, but even more so to his feet.

Couple that with despite missing, what we’d always been told was the most important toe on the human foot, Ricky’s balance never seemed to be compromised. In fact, he was a pretty darn fast runner - maybe even faster after he lost the toe! That really surprised most of us who thought he might never be able to walk, or even stand without crutches, following the accident.  At the very least, we all figured if he were able to move on his own again, surely it would be in circles.

But Ricky thrived on nine toes and zero shoes. He climbed trees, rode bikes, kicked footballs (although I think he was right-footed) and ran around like any normal kid would. The only thing, it seemed, he couldn’t do, was wash his feet. By the end of that summer, both his feet looked nearly as black as his decomposed toe had. They were so black and disgustingly dirty, I secretly wondered if maybe he should revisit the hospital to see if his old toe could be reattached at that point, since both seemed equally rotted.

By the end of August, with the return to school looming on the doorstep, none of us were bothered much by Ricky’s foot anymore. There were more important things to think about; jumping bikes, playing ball, catching crayfish down at the creek, and seeing how many things we could blow up with the 5-gallon drum of black gunpowder my dad brought home one day after work, just to name a few.

Even Ricky, who begrudgingly had to go shoe shopping with his mother before the start of school, acted as if his missing toe was a thing of the past. The summers that came and went following his accident brought us all new adventures that had little, or nothing to do with his filthy, mangled foot.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the topic would be revisited when Ricky’s father would lose all but his thumb and half his pinkie on his right hand while cutting down a maple tree in their side yard. After Ricky’s old man almost went Captain Hook, I started to wonder if losing digits might be hereditary. Again, despite living next door, I didn’t witness the tree-chopping accident either. Nor do I remember seeing any bandages on Ricky’s dad’s mangled hand after the incident.

Like Ricky had done a few years earlier with his missing toe, his dad just showed up one day sitting at our backyard picnic table, drinking beers with my dad. The loss of most of his right hand didn’t seem to phase him one bit as he somehow perfectly balanced his can of beer on what was left of his right hand – the bottom of the can perched nicely on his half-pinkie, the top of the can secured by his thumb.

Growing up next to Ricky and his dad taught me a lot about being resilient. But, perhaps, more importantly, it taught me always to wear shoes when mowing the lawn ... and call a professional tree cutter if I ever need one!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Catching Up

My son rears back to fire the ball to his mother while playing catch last week. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I don’t do a lot of things that a lot of people like to do to feel good.

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t ride a motorcycle. I don’t hunt, own a gun or drive a pickup truck. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t have an iPhone or an iPod. I don’t even text.

But there is one thing that I really, truly love to do; play catch with my son.

I loved playing catch with my son even before I had a son. I had visions of tossing the ball around with my kid when I was just a kid. It may even be the reason I had kids in the first place.

All those years of cleaning up his puke and poop, getting him in and out of annoying car seats, and watching really bad shows on Nickelodeon, seem worth it now, now that my son can deliver a fastball on target.

We’re a great partnership, he and I, he loves it just as much as I do. My dad wasn’t so crazy about playing catch with me when I was a kid. Not that I cared. I’d still pester him to no end when he’d get home from work.

“C'mon Dad, let’s play catch ... Dad, c’mon … c’mon Dad!”

To his credit, despite being dog-tired after another hot, endless day in what he called “The hole” (but what most folks referred to as the Ford plant) he’d usually take the extra glove from my outstretched hand and begrudgingly walk to one end of our seemingly endless backyard and start tossing the ball to me.

My dad was pretty good too. At least it seemed like it. He’d sting my hand on more than one occasion with the heat he was bringing. Maybe he was getting out his frustrations from work, or maybe he was just pissed that I was keeping him from a date with the couch, or a beer, or dinner. Whatever it was, it was the first time I ever heard a baseball sizzle as it traveled through the air. It was kind of scary, but I liked it.

I’m not even sure how old I was when I started, or how I even learned to play catch; foggier still is when my dad decided our days of playing catch were over, but I always knew when our after-work catch sessions were finished. They always ended when my dad would “accidentally” chuck the ball a good 20-feet over my head (usually about five minutes after we started). Like the na├»ve kid that I was, I’d happily dash back to retrieve the ball so we could continue our game. The only problem was, after I’d get to the ball and turn around to throw it back, my dad would be nowhere in sight.

It was a good trick, but over the years I’d counteract my old man's intentional overthrows by slowly creeping back with each successive toss in anticipation of the final heave, thereby making it more difficult for him to actually get one over my head. He, of course, was no dummy. Once he’d caught on to my "creep-back" method, he’d just throw it several feet off line and achieve the same result. 

And then one day, we just stopped playing catch altogether.

I think about those days all the time when my son throws a ball to me. I think about how sad I’d be if I couldn’t play catch with my son anymore. I think about how much I love the feel of a well broken-in ball glove on my hand, the sting on my index finger and the unmistakable smack the ball makes when I catch one perfectly in the pocket.

I think about the feel of the ball in my hand. How the seams come up and greet my fingers with the grace of a dance partner. How it snaps off my fingertips upon release and slices through space toward its target with just the slightest curve.

I love the many different ways there is to throw a ball – overhand, sidearm, three-quarters – even underhand, and no matter what the style, I love the fact I can throw a ball pretty much where I want without even thinking about it.

I love the evolution of playing catch - how it all started with a soft, squishy ball being tossed to my son when he was a toddler, and then a year later, buying his first glove and watching him trying to catch everything basket style. I loved seeing his face light up when the ball actually would stay in his glove if I aimed it just right. I loved seeing his leap in confidence as he began catching the ball the right way, even if I did make it easier on him by throwing it where he liked it nearly every time.

With each successive year, as his arm has gotten stronger and his ability to catch the ball seems almost major league in quality, I realize that now, even though he's only 10, his skills are about to surpass my own. He’s getting to the point where I may be holding him back by not being good enough anymore. The problem is we’re both getting older; only he’s getting the good kind of older - bigger and stronger, and I’m getting the bad kind of older - slower and weaker.

The other day he threw one so fast that I didn’t even see until it almost hit my face. His ball sizzles now when he throws it, just like my dad’s did, but I’m not going to stop playing catch unless he kills me with a heater to the skull. To make sure that’s not going to happen anytime soon, my wife suggested I start wearing a helmet when I play catch with him. But why stop there. I want to do what my dad didn’t, or couldn’t. I want to be there every time my son asks to throw the pill around, even if it means I have to go out and buy a chest protector, shin guards, mask, and a cup.

My son’s dream is to play Major League baseball. He’s good. He’s real good, and I’d say that even if he weren’t my kid. He might make it to the big leagues someday; he might not. To me it doesn’t really matter, as long as one day, when he’s all grown up and he comes back to visit his old man, he brings along a ball and a glove, and says,

“Hey Dad, wanna play catch?”