Thirteen seems to be a good age to try on new identities. You can see how well they fit, see how comfortable they are, and see if they’re durable. You can try being an athlete, a sports fan, a hooligan, an artist, a musician, a cool dude, a womanizer, a poet, druggie, a rebel, a bad guy, or even ‘university material.’
You can even try combining more than one identity at a time. I had plenty of friends who were druggie sports fans and rebel musicians, but the combo of bad guy and womanizer proved to be the one that was lethal.
Brighton had its own chapter of the Hell’s Angles, known as the Mad Dogs. They’d roar around the town center on city buses––but to give them their due, they did ride on the upper deck.
I first encountered them at the bowling alley. My friend, Ollie seemed to know them. I tried to give them a wide berth, but one of them became particularly fascinated by the toothbrush I carried in the top pocket of my denim jacket. I carried a toothbrush around because if there was a chance I could avoid going home I’d take it. Even though I was a bit of a rebel I liked to have clean teeth.
On the other hand I told the Mad Dog that it was in case I got lucky, and he liked that answer.
He seemed pretty bona fide. He had about two thirds of a full complement of teeth, and he arm wrestled both me and Ollie at the same time––and won of course.
I knew Ollie wanted to become a Mad Dog, and in order to toughen himself up he engaged in risky behavior.
One evening I went over to see him. He said, “Let’s go to the beach.”
I said, “All right.” I prepared to walk down the very steep hill to the boardwalk, but he produced a bicycle.
“Let’s ride there two-up,” he said. “We’ll get there quicker.”
“All right,” I said, with slightly less enthusiasm.
He pointed the bike down the steep hill, I climbed onto the saddle behind him, and he powered the bike forwards. Once we were moving we gathered speed quickly. Ollie turned to me and said, “By the way there are no brakes.”
I looked at the handlebars. There really were no brakes. The hill was steep enough that we could probably reach 25 miles an hour. There were four cross streets. One was the the town’s main bus route, another was the main coast road, and it was 6PM on a summer Saturday evening.
I swung myself hard to one side, the bike swerved, and we both slammed onto the pavement. Somehow neither of us was hurt. Ollie said, “Why’d you do that?”
I’d like to think I said something like, “I changed my mind about the beach.”
Maybe I did. I had a way with words, but what I was thinking was that even if by some miracle we’d survived crossing the busy cross-streets, there was a cast iron railing, and an 18 foot drop onto the concrete boardwalk.
I think that incident could have been my nearest approach to death when I was thirteen.
It didn’t occur to me till some time later that I’d probably saved Ollie’s life too.
The next time I saw his face was in a kind of reconstruction on the front page of the local paper. He’d had a falling out with the Mad Dogs over a girl. They’d wrapped him in heavy chains and thrown him in the harbor. He stayed there for a few days until a ship’s propellor churned up his decomposed body.
I realized that if somebody’s making their way towards the morgue, you can steer them in another direction, but they’ll probably turn back and resume their original path.