10th May 1982. A Monday like many others and completely unremarkable, except it wasn’t. For me anyway… I’d worked a double shift the day before, it being Mothers Day and all and we’d fed over 200 for lunch at the club and another 100 or so for dinner. I was tired, and it should’ve been my day off, but my mate Chris needed me to cover his Monday lunch shift. I can’t actually remember why, but it was important to him at the time, and he’d done it for me plenty of times , so it seemed ordinary. None of what was to follow was his fault, though I know he shouldered some guilt over it. Relax mate, you’re off the hook.
The cool of winter had come early in 1982 and even at 11:30, it was a chilly morning. As I thumbed the starter on the bike, it barked to life with a satisfying snarl from the black chrome exhausts, and not a little steam rising against the still-cool morning air. While it warmed-up, I spent time donning helmet gloves and jacket, and I distinctly remember remarking to myself that I needed a new jacket. The old-school bomber jacket simply didn’t cut the mustard on a cool morning; and rode too far up my back when hunched over on the bike. Oh well…. It was only a 20-minute ride, I’d just put up with cold kidneys…
The 1981/82 Suzuki Katana was a styling departure that in many ways, gave birth to a whole new aesthetic for motorcycles. Derived from the ultra-reliable, but pretty ‘beige’ Suzuki GSX series, it was a plain old girl in a pretty new dress. German Designer Hans Muth put a ruler over the old beast and thought “..I can do better..” The result was polarising. You either loved them or hated them, but you couldn’t miss ‘em. I’d bought mine the previous October and honestly thought I was King Shit of Turd Mountain. Untouchable! It was the first bike I’d owned with clip-on handlebars and high, rear-set pegs that forced you into a racer’s crouch and encouraged you to imagine yourself as Barry Sheene. It went like the clappers and looked pretty cool doing it too. At 750cc, it was my first ‘proper’, ‘big’ bike after a string of much smaller rubbish that I’d ridden the wheels off. It was also my first brand new bike and I’d gone into debt to buy it. Of course, Sean had to get the 1100…. As always, ours was an unending motorcycling arms race.
Motorcycling is an unforgiving mistress. People blandly say one needs to live “in-the-moment” and to ”be present”. It occurs to me with the wisdom got of being one who made it to be an ‘old’ motorcyclist (but almost didn’t) that one is never more in-the-moment than when motorcycling. Every cell of your attention needs to be focussed on the job at hand. You’re simultaneously balancing opposing forces of braking, acceleration and tyre-adhesion while trying to stop the bike from falling over; you need to be hyper-vigilant of other road-users who basically want to kill you; the road surface which wants to trick you, and your own ego that wants to over-commit you. Zen is found where these forces intersect and all is right with the world.
On Monday 10th May 1982, I was in no way whatsoever “in-the-moment”.. Snaking my way through the traffic that Monday morning on my way back to work, I was aware that today would be a busy day. Sunday had been a big day and takings had to be banked, kitchen re-stocked, the bars replenished; orders placed on suppliers, public areas checked and on and on and on… At just 20, I was busily pursuing a career path that would soon-enough lead to hotels, but for now, was buried in restaurant management. The to-do list was rolling around in my head. Unstoppable.
Turning right into Archer street from Boundary Rd, Chatswood’s morning traffic snarls were easing as it rolled on toward midday. I’d checked my watch and noted I was a little behind schedule for a midday start… I was 3rd in line to make the right-turn and soon enough the green arrow came up and I slipped the clutch a little and got moving.. Ahead of me, the cars accelerated up Archer Street and I followed. Across William street, up past Waratah street.. this was a route I did almost every day and it’d be fair to say I was probably on autopilot.
Now, the intersection with Ashley street looked a lot different back in 1982. For one thing, it had no traffic lights. Just STOP signs on Ashley Street bestowing right-of-way to traffic headed North-South on Archer Street.
Eyes focussed on the traffic ahead, a confidence borne of being just 20 and not yet cynical enough to distrust every other road user, I never saw it coming until it was too late. The old HK Kingswood station wagon with an aged driver at the wheel never even looked like stopping at the STOP sign.. he just came careering through the intersection as if it wasn’t there. I, on the other hand, was.
The Katana was a pretty good base bike for its time. It boasted a 747cc motor with around 82 HP on tap. 3 disc brakes brutishly grabbed slotted rotors and a comically-inept anti-dive system was supposed to reduce front-end dive under heavy braking. Unfortunately, at 240kg dry, the thing weighed as much as a baby hippo and was shod with what we laughingly called Nippon-Slipon tyres… The longed-for Silver-dot Pirelli Phantoms were booked in, but awaiting this weeks pay-packet…However, learning to ride in the 1970’s and 1980 was a kind of hit & miss affair. You either learned to ride around a bike’s shortcomings or died (or got injured) trying. Tank slappers are virtually unknown to riders these days.. Tyres that actually grip the road under all sorts of conditions are a given. Brakes that won’t lock-up when applied with youthful exuberance are commonplace. These were not the rider-aids of my youth… we had over-powered, rubber-framed behemoths with tooth-pick sized suspension, and wooden brakes.
I remember the moments immediately before impact as if it were yesterday. The metallic bottle-green of the Kingswood; the flash of something shiny on its roof rack, the bike seemingly unslowing though I was squeezing the brakes as hard as I could. At that moment, I remember with clarity, the slowing of time, the thickening of time & space as my mind raced and made notes of everything that was happening. Things that wouldn’t surface again for years… Mostly I remember a sense of inevitability. I remember the blue sky with a few dotted clouds. I remember a sense of weightlessness for what seemed a stupidly long time and I remember a pain in my side that I could only describe as somebody setting off an incendiary inside me. The pain was beyond anything I could have ever conceived of.
Then, all was still. Time stopped. I could hear nothing but my own breathing inside the helmet, accompanied by the beating of my heart
I was conscious, but breathing was suddenly more difficult than it was supposed to be. I was now lying on the ground; and there were voices coming toward me from afar, yelling, but distant, like through a bad ‘phone connection. Somehow I was lying on my left side, but looking straight ahead and off in the distance, I could still see the blue sky from inside my helmet. This was a little disorientating, and for a moment I imagined my neck was broken. Presently a face appeared in my immediate field of vision and it was a middle-aged man yelling at me to stay still. He wanted to know if I could breathe OK? As I struggled for breath; I guessed I might be winded. The pain in my right side was yelling for attention. A spreading warmth in my right lower back area was at once pleasing, but decidedly weird… In that moment, I didn’t lose consciousness and was aware of what was going on. I knew I’d been hit. I thought it was probably bad, but had no idea yet how bad. Thank you endorphins. You rock.
“How’s my bike?” I asked…
‘Fuck your bike mate… its buggered’ I remember hearing that and feeling like I’d punched my best mate in the face.
I’d heard that one should test their extremities after a big hit. I didn’t know why; so I did it anyway. I wriggled my toes. That worked. I clenched my left fist and then my right. Both ok. So far so good.. Maybe I’m not that bad after all. Let’s try and sit up now and get my helmet off…
OH. MY. GOD. THE PAIN… What had until that point been a single incendiary going off, was now more of a war zone. You know those swords and sandals movies where you see huge platoons of archers launching waves of flaming arrows into the sky at their enemies? It was as if every single one of them suddenly lodged in my right lower back.
I spun my head to the right, (so… neck not broken then..). The image that confronted me will remain with me forever because it was so weird yet completely detached; as if it was happening to somebody else. My grey work trousers were torn and scuffed at the right hip and knee. A puddle of blood the size you’d see in a grizzly movie axe-murder was forming on the ground around me. Reaching around to where the pain was, my hand returned all menacing reddish-black; all warm and sticky. I looked at it and remember with gritty horroe, the cogs of my brain clicking into place to realise with incredulity.. FUCK! THAT’S MY BLOOD!
What was completely bizarre however was the 3/8” copper pipe sticking out from below my bomber jacket ….The other end buried deep in my back to the right of my kidney. Suddenly breathing became impossible, and just before I passed out, I noticed my watch was missing. I wonder where that went…?
A VOICE: “What’s your name mate? Where do you live? How old are you?….” Over and over and over, and over again.… The paramedic kept asking me these stupid stupid questions…
ME: ‘its all on my license… wallet… back pocket… help yourself…’
VOICE: “no mate, you have to tell me”. So I did and just seconds later he asked again. I recall thinking “what’s wrong with this idiot? I just told him…”
VOICE: “who should we contact to tell them you’ve had an accident mate?”
ME: “Better ring work and tell ‘em I’m gonna be late….”
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time but these questions were designed to keep me at some level of consciousness while the ambulance hurtled from Chatswood to Royal North Shore Casualty department. I remember now only vaguely, the howling of the siren; the shaking of the ambulance as it dodged cars and traffic lights trying to get its badly impaired passenger to Casualty before he bled out.
Unknown to me, my pride-and-joy lay bleeding out on the side of the road also. The impact had snapped the backbone of the bike under it’s tank and folded the forks back into the engine header pipes. The LH alternator cover fractured and the bike bled its engine oil out all over Archer Street. It was later scraped up and transported to a wrecking yard awaiting assessment and I never saw it again except for the insurance pics.
My injuries were pretty bad. I should be dead, and but for a series of lucky coincidences, I would be. I put a lot of people through a pretty shitty period, especially my parents. I’m sorry you guys. I really wish it didn’t happen too. Though my recovery from that accident took many years, the ensuing court case completed in a relatively short period – only 5 years. It’s outcome is no longer important but what was unsettling was to hear the accident investigator’s unravelling of events.
1. The car failed to STOP at a stop sign and proceeded into the intersection at about 60kmh
2. I had right-of-way but under the circumstances, no way to evade the car. (Police would later allege that I was travelling at 120kph but that was subsequently dismissed..)
3. The bike impacted the car just in front of its left front wheel and buried it’s front wheel in the car’s front left guard. The car’s forward momentum pulled the bike to the left, swinging the bike around and trapping my leg between car and bike, crushing many nerves in the process, but unbelievably, breaking no bones.
4. That impact forced my torso to snap hard right and fall across the car’s bonnet, breaking my back at L2, and L3 in the process.
5. The continuing momentum of the car pushed me into it’s windscreen and I would’ve gone over its roof, had I not then become impaled on the 3/8” copper pipe that was being carried on the car’s roof rack. Such was the momentum of the hit that the pipe snapped and remained embedded in me as I fell to the ground on the driver’s side of the car.
6. My stainless steel watch bracelet broke around my wrist and the watch was later discovered in the garden of a house nearly 50m along the road.
7. The quantum of my injuries presented in Court
- Broken back, (but miraculously not a broken spine)
- Collapsed right lung
- Collapsed right kidney
- Urethra torn from bladder
- Ruptured Spleen (later removed)
- Ruptured Liver (later incised)
- Ruptured Gall bladder (later removed)
- Extensive nerve damage – right leg
- And lots and lots of haematomas from top to bottom.
It was the blood loss that nearly killed me. All those vascular organs damaged at once meant massive blood loss and I actually drained RNS blood supply for my blood type. They mainlined my Dad and my Aunt to me for their perfect match of clotting properties. Thanks Phil and Jan. you rock too.