Harry and Robert
Throughout my life I have crossed paths with many people. Some breeze by like a glance at an intersection before a light turns green. There is no real connection, no reason to follow up, no wanting to know more about this person. I will never see them, never ever hear their voice and never know anything about them...ever. And that is truly ok.
But, then there are times when I wish I could see certain people again and again. Wish I could spend more time with them...a regret that haunts me often now, that the opportunity is gone forever.
While living in Savannah and turning 30 in 1992, Sarah my wife, told me that I could take the plunge and buy a bicycle for exercise and physical fitness. That was a great birthday gift! Little did she know of the maniac that would be set loose once my two new wheels hit the ground in our neighborhood. It felt so good to have the wind blowing through my hair and to see a direct relation of my speed to the effort I put forth. I loved making ground, moving fast and knowing that I had accomplished distance with my two legs and this wonderful invention called a bicycle. I loved all the gadgets: speedometers, shoes, jerseys, saddles and components.
Soon, I joined the Coastal Bicycle Touring Club, became a ride leader and eventually president. Next, I started commuting the 3 miles to work each day. After that, the mountain bike was too slow and I needed a racing bike, so I bought a carbon fiber stallion and joined the Savannah Wheelmen racing club. I had the benefit of belonging to two cycling worlds in Savannah - the racing group and the touring group. Rarely, did either have members that crossed the line between clubs, but I did, and I loved it. I challenged my heart, lungs and legs beyond anything I had ever known with the Wheelmen. Then, on weekends rode 50-80 miles at a touring pace with my dear friends from the Coastal Bicycle Touring Club. There are so many that left a mark on me...Jane and Buddy Kahn, Ed Jewell and many others.
We had the best of times together and I will always remember the laughs and miles we explored together...always.
By 1994, I was feeling pretty sure of myself. I felt strong and fast, yet I had not ridden in one of the most noteworthy of rides in Georgia - The Bicycle Ride Across Georgia or BRAG. Two friends from the bike club, Harry Hutson and Robert Humbert invited me to attend the 1994 trip from Bainbridge to St. Simons, Georgia and I happily agreed.
We met one morning on the south side of Savannah just after sunrise. Harry had his old white van and the three of us drove to St. Simons to catch a bus across the state. As Harry drove south on I-95 I realized I was in good hands. I felt like I had known these two men my entire life. We laughed, shared stories and were anticipating miles of exploration through towns like Cairo, Thomasville, Fitzgerald, Tifton and others.
I felt like a kid on the night before Christmas.
The trip meant a chance to see the rural towns of this beautiful state at a speed that allowed for contemplation, thought and perspective. It allowed you to meet the people in these towns, to stop along the roadways and pick fresh scuppernongs or swim in a nearby creek.
There was something very exciting about traveling down a country road and having no idea where you were headed. To me, traveling into these unfamiliar, rural, southern towns was like flipping through a history book. The architecture and ornate details of the hundred-plus year old homes wove into the slow moving pace we traveled, so much so, we could have been riding a horse or buggy in a different time. One man riding beside me started quoting T.S. Elliot. Another started singing folk songs which all riding in earshot joined in during the chorus. Even though Harry, Robert and I traveled at different speeds, we always met up at rest stops to tell of our adventures and share a banana or fig bar. On some days a deepening blue on the horizon meant we needed to pick up the pace before an afternoon storm took over. Being on a bike in the open with lightening flying around you is not a fun experience, so we made it our mission to finish before it hit. Once making it safely to our destination, we laughed over dinner in the shelter of a community center while the rain hammered on the roof overhead and the thunder vibrated through the cement floor underneath our tables. There would be a talent show tonight and everyone got involved. Good music would be heard and even though most of us were sore from pedaling most of the day, we all found energy to dance to the Swinging Medallions or other local group.
Harry was always the comedic relief. He was a skinny man with big half-moon eyes and a very bald head. He had a big smile and a deep, slow-spoken voice with a thick southern accent. I loved to hear him talk...in fact, it was very comforting. I remember one time after a day of riding Harry said to Robert and I: "Boys, I want you to take a look at these legs! Earlier today three young women came up to me and said they were the most handsome legs they had ever seen!" You can imagine how much Robert and I laughed.
Harry was a man of faith and when he wasn't riding he also was preaching and conducting services at the local Baptist church in Hardeeville, South Carolina. I always felt like we were in good hands when he was riding with us because of his strong connection to God.
As we rode the final miles over the causeway and into St. Simons, I felt relief that we had accomplished the ride. It was kind of a right of passage for me as a cyclist. The route we had traveled gave me an appreciation for the backroads of Georgia that I still foster today. In fact, I find my most contentment when I am on a country road or visiting a farm far from the city. The ride had also introduced me to two lifelong friends who I will remember for the rest of my life.
Harry and Robert made up a team. Both men had suffered from heart attacks previously, so both had taken up cycling as a way to keep fit while enjoying the scenery. And because of their retirement status, both explored and mapped the low country of South Carolina. We rode many of those rides together on hot summer days, exploring quiet coastal roads and breathing in therapeutic salt marsh air.
Like Harry, Robert had a bad heart. But, even though it was weakened physically, he was one of the most generous people I knew. I remember him giving me tires and biking gear on a regular basis. Robert was the one who always picked up the tab when we went out to eat before or after a ride and before I moved to Augusta, Robert gave me a wonderful gift. Both men had logged in hundreds of miles exploring the South Carolina low country. They had made concise notes and created wonderful, safe and beautiful biking routes all outlined on a number of old country road maps. Not long before I moved away to Augusta, Robert gave me the maps. Those maps with the routes highlighted in different colors and with notes along the side. Routes that I know were wonderful escapes for both men trying to beat heart disease while enjoying life. Giving me these maps was like giving an archeologist the key to a temple full of gems and artifacts. I still have them today and will always keep them safe, even if I do not ride like I used to.
As time went on, I saw less and less of my friends from Savannah. Work and distance made it more difficult to keep in touch. We saw Harry and his wife Mildred when they came to my Dad's funeral at the Beaufort National Cemetery in 2000. Somehow, wires had gotten crossed and the Marine who was to perform the service for my Dad never showed. As I stood there wringing my hands and trying to figure out what to do next, I remembered Harry was a preacher and asked him to conduct the service. It was a huge favor and Harry did a wonderful job even through he had never met my father. I saw he and Mildred again at my Mother's funeral at the same location where my Dad was buried. It would be the last time I'd hear that laugh or see that smile of Harry.
Both men are gone now. I like to think their heaven is riding some of the most beautiful routes in paradise. Of never getting a sore butt from an unforgiving saddle, no traffic and always having a tailwind to push them easily along. Of great conversation and good friends and of course, plenty of laughs. I hope when I see them again they'll have a lot more routes we can ride and this time...plenty of time in which to do so.