Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Escape Velocity

Written as a "biography" excerise for a writing class I took several years ago. Not great, but my brother enjoyed it.

Escape Velocity

In astronomy and space exploration, the velocity that is sufficient for a body to escape from a gravitational centre of attraction without undergoing any further acceleration. Escape velocity decreases with altitude and is equal to the square root of 2 (or about 1.414) times the velocity necessary to maintain a circular orbit at the same altitude. At the surface of the Earth, if atmospheric resistance could be disregarded, escape velocity would be about 11.2 km (6.96 miles) per second. The velocity of escape from the less massive Moon is about 2.4 km per second at its surface. A planet (or satellite) cannot long retain an atmosphere if the planet's escape velocity is low enough to be near the average velocity of the gas molecules making up the atmosphere. Encyclopædia Britannica

In 1973, the year my brother was conceived, many people in Buffalo, New York watched the Senate Watergate Hearings on TV. Far away, the last American troops pulled out of Vietnam. Secretariat won the Triple Crown. The year my brother was conceived was the same year that Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion nationwide.

In 1974, the year my brother was born, Buffalo was dying, beginning the transmutation into the hollow Rust Belt hulk it is now. Bethlehem Steel closed plants. The General Motors Engine factory cut jobs. Businesses moved to the Sun Belt. The same year my brother was born, roughly 36,000 people in Buffalo were unemployed.

Everybody tries to leave Buffalo. People swear “ This is it!” as they hunker down for one last winter as cold and icy as Dante’s seventh level of Hell, only to find that by spring they have developed a layer of rust that corrodes their will and binds them in a ferrous-oxide clinch to the half-dead city. There’s a resistance to leaving, even if the place is killing you mentally, spiritually, financially. You need big-ass booster rockets of determination and no small amount of luck to leave.

My family has a huge, bristling arsenal of embarrassing stories about each other and is so trigger-happy, they will launch them whenever there’s a window of opportunity. Except one--one tale is completely off-limits. It is so taboo that it has only been spoken of once.

The tale is that my brother, William Roy Trautman (Bill), was an accident. He was conceived, as far as Mom can recall, one May evening on the bathroom floor. I was planned; my kid brother was a surprise. I still believe that fate compensated him for his “accidental” arrival. In the Cosmic Diner of Life, my brother got an extra helping of serenity and an extra helping of charisma. He also got the karmic equivalent of a bottomless cup of coffee – an absolutely unending shitload of good luck.

Bill’s first “lucky accident” was actually precipitated by me when he was a toddler. Trying to teach him to walk, I gave him a helpful push, which landed him in our huge, 1970’s console TV. There was glass and blood and Mom was screaming. Had Bill fallen a little differently, he would have lost an eye.

The worst that came of the accident was five stitches in Bill’s forehead, right between his eyes. Mom says Bill was so calm that even the doctor remarked on it. Bill still has the scar, although it’s gotten fainter over the last twenty-five years. He has never held the incident against me.

Amazingly, Bill went through the rest of his childhood unscathed. It wasn’t until vehicles became involved that his uncanny luck poured forth. In 1989, barely an hour after getting his driver’s license, Bill lost control of the family Nissan. He had attempted to take a curve at 80 miles an hour on winter-slick Buffalo roads. The car went skidding, spinning around and around with a perverse grace, a steel skater on an asphalt rink. A telephone pole suddenly shot into view. Just as suddenly, the car inexplicably slowed and straightened out. Had this not occurred, the collision would have broken the telephone pole and brought it crashing down on Bill’s head, really getting rid of the scar from those long-ago stitches. Bill was undamaged, but the Nissan was not. Right down the middle of the passenger’s side was a neat crease, like a fancy folded sheet-metal napkin. Nobody saw the accident, so Bill drove away. When he got home, Bill lied to Mom about the incident saying he had skidded in a parking lot and whacked some trashcans. Cosmic luck and teary-eyed looks let him get away with it. On top of that, Mom told Dad SHE had dented the car, so Dad wouldn’t be mad at Bill.

Four years later, a very powerful Toyota Supra replaced the Nissan. It was a cool car, cooler now that Dad had just finished painting it. The red, sex-shiny paint was still “soft” when my brother roared out of the garage and down the gravel driveway in a ZZZRRRRRRRRing reverse wind. The car (and Bill) slid off the driveway and brushed against a flanking tree. This scraped off the fresh paint job and a nanosecond later, completely removed the entire right side of the car. Dad had been watching my brother pull away, admiring his work. Dad was a man prone to explosive fits of rage and the wanton destruction of his first-class paint job should have made him go ballistic. Instead, he just ambled over to survey the situation and seeing that Bill was uninjured, simply shrugged and motioned for the car to be put back in the garage. Four days later, after all the repair work was done, my brother slowly backed down the driveway and into a ditch, removing the entire rear fender. Dad put the fender back on and never mentioned it again.

Just when it seemed Bill’s luck had run out, it would replenish itself. In summmer 1993, Bill was motorcycling through scenic Niagara Falls, Canada. It was dusk and a little chilly, so he decided to pull over and put on his jacket. As he was doing so, he hit a gravel wash and the bike lost traction.

Both parties, Bill and Bike, fell down but did not completely part ways. The bike provided Bill with companionship by skidding right alongside him; moments later the bike deserted Bill and slid clankingly into a ditch. Parts of the bike that had rubbed along the road were ground down to nothing. Parts of Bill had also rubbed along the road--for 300 feet, going more than 30 miles an hour.

Most of us have accidentally rubbed our fingers while grating cheese. Well, take that grater and rub it really, really, hard and really, really fast over most of your body. Alternatively, picture a young man, roughly 5’6 and 140 pounds. Now picture him made out of ground beef. There were no witnesses but that also meant no one around to offer help. However, aside from being one giant-sized walking rugburn, Bill was not injured. Oozing and woozy, he staggered to a payphone a mile down the road and called his girlfriend to please come get him. He waited by the side of that road for almost an hour, quietly scabbing over.

Bill was taken right to the doctor, who having gotten one look at him, immediately dispatched Bill to Burn Treatment where Bill had the gravel scrubbed out of him. This was done twice a week for several weeks. The usual procedure involved a sadistic nurse and, Bill swears, a wire brush. Bill’s injury should have resulted in severe scarring, but he healed perfectly, skin soft and smooth.

Sometime later, there was a call from the Canadian Police. They had found a motorcycle abandoned in a ditch and traced its owner—one William Roy Trautman. Bill explained what had happened. The police explained that Bill had left the scene of the accident and they were citing him for it. There was a court hearing but the charges were dismissed as the judge ruled that Bill had been in shock and therefore unaware of his actions. Only Bill and I know that he was also drunk the night of the accident.

At least where vehicles were concerned, Bill seemed to be moving at high enough speeds to shoot him right off the face of the earth, let alone out of his hometown. But on further reflection, vehicles had been effective only in getting him in accidents, instead of getting him out of Buffalo. Now, college seemed to be the answer.

Bill went away to school in fall of 1993. He flunked out two semesters later. He simply preferred being with his friends to being in classes. He returned home in spring of 1994.

From 1996 to 1998, Bill blasted off. He joined a band talented enough to get regular gigs touring around the United States and make a decent living at it. Our family, ever dubious that this was a “real” job, reluctantly deemed Bill successful, even if he was a musician. I thought it was ...well, glamorous compared to my nine-to-five.

One night, I got a call. Bill was in some awful bar behind several feet of barbed wire and four inches of bulletproof Plexiglas. He was calling in case he didn’t make it out of the gig alive. Bill wanted to make sure that someone would know where to go to claim the body…if the body was ever found. As luck would have it, Bill lived. He even made some friends in a part of a city where people would kill you for just accidentally making eye contact.

In awful situations, Bill maintained a Zen-like composure--something no one else seemed capable of doing. While touring, the band’s truck broke down in Valdosta, Georgia. The rest of the band freaked out. Bill looked at it as a vacation from the road.

The first day of “vacation” was relaxing, even though the band ended up staying at what Bill swears was the “Bates Motel.” The second day was okay, too. But by the fourth day it had turned into “exile” and everyone had developed a thousand-yard stare and was looking through the dry, kudzu-choked pit that had once been the motel pool. On the fifth day, Bill discovered a flabby basketball amongst the music equipment. Ever resourceful, Bill stole a wastebasket, nailed it onto the railing of the motel’s second floor, and shot hoops. On evening of the sixth day, Bill set out to find a bar. One was said to be “down the road a-ways.” As he walked along, Bill saw a pack of huge dogs. He noticed that most of the dogs looked like a cross between a heart-stoppingly ugly Rottweiller and the Hound of the Baskervilles. The dogs noticed Bill. The pack growled and bristled, but hung back. Something told Bill not to run but to just keep walking. Suddenly, salvation loomed just ahead in the form of a lumpy shape in the dusk -- the bar! Bill bolted in, just as the dogs went crazy.

Bill slammed the door behind him, leaving the dogs on the porch, frothing and snapping. It was a “country bar” –a bar in someone’s house, set up in what had been the living and dining rooms. Undaunted, Bill approached the barkeep. “Wow! I just got followed by a pack of really mean-lookin’ dogs! I’ll have whatever’s on tap.” The barkeep pulled a draft for him. “Fellah up the road a bit owns them dawgs. They won’t bother yew, til yew run. Then they’ll give chase and prolly chew yew awl up.” My brother slugged back the beer. “I guess I’ll remember that walking home, then.” “Oh, yeah,” said the barkeep, “Doan walk tew close tew the road’s edge, there’s ‘gators in them ditches.” On day seven, the truck was finally repaired and my brother got out the hell out of Valdosta, Georgia. That was pretty much the beginning of the end of Bill’s professional music career. Mechanical breakdowns were one thing, mad dogs and alligators were another.

Shortly after Valdosta, Bill moved with some friends to Rochester, NY and started looking for a “real” job. Unemployment in Rochester is minimally lower than in Buffalo; Bill was in for a long search. Or so it was thought. After being in Rochester all of a few days, Bill walked into a small hardware store and found that they needed help. My brother had worked in a hardware store before, so he had plenty of experience. This store also did small appliance repair. My brother has a brain for all things mechanical and proved an exceptional repairman. He was also an exceptional salesman. Old ladies bringing in ancient, wheezing vacuums to be repaired were absolutely charmed by Bill, who sold them tons of stuff they didn’t need, yet refused to let the old ladies buy anything he thought was junk.

In July of 1998, my brother returned to Buffalo for a weekend visit. Bill met up with some buddies, borrowed Dad’s boat and went water skiing. There was a mishap, if that’s what you want to call having your leg come straight up and touch your ear. Medically, it’s called a fracture of the femoral head. It hurt Bill to move, so he didn’t. Two hours later, being in the cold waters of the Niagara River got old; Bill gritted his teeth and pulled himself back into the boat.

At the hospital X-rays showed that, due to the “mishap,” the end of Bill’s tibia was no longer properly held in place--it had popped out of the hip socket and was being hoisted upward by the pull of various muscles. The X-ray technician, somewhat unnecessarily, pointed out that Bill’s left leg was now two inches shorter than his right. But Bill had happened to arrive when the best orthopedic surgeon in the area –the same doctor who treated the Buffalo Bills’ injuries—was on call. This doctor would fix the break by careful endoscopic placement of three two-inch titanium screws. This doctor also mentioned that if the break had been a quarter of an inch longer, it would have required major surgery. Bill was released the same day he had been admitted.

Within three days, Bill was hobbling around on crutches. There were other inconveniences, such as not being able to drive or hold a job. As a result of all this, Bill had to move back into our parents’ house. The only thing that really bothered him was that his injury prevented him from playing golf. Bill wasn’t particularly keen on his physical therapy treatments, either. However, weeks ahead of schedule, he went from crutches to a cane. He did like the cane, since it made him feel quite the dapper gentleman. Bill was back in Buffalo again, but it wasn’t a problem. He would be staying until his luck ran out.

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