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sometimes life is a downhill battle

Mike Paulus

The hill on 14th Street always made me nervous – which is odd. It’s not very tall. And also, it’s not very steep. It’s just a gradual slope through a residential Eau Claire neighborhood. And at the time in question, its blacktop surface was velvety and smooth.

The cars made me nervous. When I was much younger, 14th Street felt like a busy motorway. In reality, it wasn’t busy at all, but relative to the sleepy street my house was on, 14th was some kind of major thoroughfare on the west side of town.

I was always careful when crossing that street, and I ran when the coast was clear. I was genuinely afraid of getting smacked by an oncoming car, even though the chances were pretty slim. It doesn’t hurt to be careful, right?

Well, that’s not always the case.

My own cheap skateboard was a Variflex “Chaos,” which I called a “Chay-os” – apparently I’d never seen the word chaos in print before.

At some point in my childhood, my friends and I decided we were badass skateboarders. Now let me be clear about this – we were not badass skateboarders. We all got cheap skateboards from Shopko and bought Thrasher magazine from Cassidy’s grocery store because skateboarding was cool on TV at the time. My own cheap skateboard was a Variflex “Chaos,” which I called a “Chay-os” – apparently I’d never seen the word chaos in print before.  Another kid in the neighborhood had a Variflex "Striker" which was awesome because it had a fanged snake on the bottom, coiled and ready to attack the half-pipe with venomous rage.  

Sorry to deflate any images you might have in your head about how awesome I was on my Chay-os, but I never learned any of the fancier tricks. I was happy if I could just stay balanced on the thing as I swooped around my driveway.

But one day, my friends and I decided to take on the 14th Street hill. Together. We yearned for that 14th Street speed, man. We needed it.

So our little gang walked to the top of the hill and waited for a gap in the traffic. Eventually, it was time. We pushed off. In just a few seconds I was going fast. And by “fast” I mean I could have kept pace with a slow jogger. But I could feel my momentum picking up, gaining more and more speed. I was feeling nervous. But I was having fun. Until it happened.

I looked down to the end of the block. A car was coming our way. Now, it had no chance of hitting us; it was a full half-block away, and it was in the other lane. And then it actually turned off, posing absolutely no danger whatsoever. But it was enough to freak me out. I panicked, leapt off my skateboard, and started taking huge, awkward strides, bounding across the blacktop towards the curb.

And then I fell. I just tripped. And I fell right into the gutter, my right shoulder crashing directly into the curb. I don’t remember the impact, but I remember rolling into the grass afterward and sitting there in pain. And then, the most amazing thing happened.

A car drove up and parked at the curb across the street. It’s hard to remember, what with all the pain and tears and furious arm clutching, but I think it was a red car. But who cares – the color is not important. The important part is the part where an off-duty nurse stepped out of the car and ran over to help. Seriously, what are the odds?

This wonderful woman flipped the bottom of my T-shirt up into a makeshift sling and then drove me two blocks home. A short while later, my mom took me to the emergency room. I remember sitting in a wheelchair and waiting for an elevator. I started to pass out and a nurse kept sticking smelling salts under my nose, and I kept getting pissed at her for waking me up.

I don’t remember what happened after that, but I had to wear this sling-type thing around my shoulders for the next few months and now, decades later, my collar bone aches when it’s really humid outside. As if humidity doesn’t suck enough.

So, the hill on 14th Street still makes me nervous, even though there’s really no reason to fear it. It’s just one of those places to which I’ve attached a certain set emotions. Fear, exhilaration, worry. It’s just a dumb hill. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.