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  • Karl Thunemann

Pedaling Toward Recovery

Talk about being taken aback—or just simply back!

Following the release of Keyboard No. 12, I received the following comment, which I present here as received:

Karl:  I did not know you until 8th grade in South San Francisco, or see you much after that year when you moved on to Carlmont.  But by that time, you had been tracked into the class for our intermediate school's most-intelligent students, and didn't show any signs of repeated or other abuse.  Socially, the most attractive girl in our class, brains and pretty, was attracted to you (rather than me, drat).  Healing actuality by that point? 

I was in eighth grade 63 years ago and did not remember the writer’s name. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name more than three or four classmates. But the man’s comment had the aura of authenticity, so I have to take him seriously. I wondered how he had happened across my blog.

He was responding to a pair of epistles featured in KB 12 that dwelled on a dream about a character called Q. My principal reader related Q to all the questions I have about sorrows in my past. I agreed.

I don’t remember much about that grade, but I was relieved to be placed with students deemed “most-intelligent,” having spent most of seventh grade in a psychosomatic funk because I had been placed in the second-ranked class.

I was not as good-looking as this boy. I wore glasses. My bike was bigger and clunkier. Plus, I used my right arm to hurl papers onto customers’ porches, trusting my impaired left arm would learn to stabilize the bike

What do I remember about the eighth? I disliked being a teacher’s pet because it made me feel even odder than I was. I mistrusted the teacher’s sense of humor. My first-term grade in handwriting was an F. (This actually had a salutary influence: When I met my future wife a few years later, she commented on my classic, elegant longhand, which has since become rather ragged.)

I wrote to my fellow student, sometimes thinking of him as a boy rather than the old man he is now. And that attractive girl? As I wrote my correspondent, if she was attracted to me, I was completely oblivious.

But the note had a chiding tone, too, as if I am presenting myself as a suffering child when I seemed to be doing well.

As I pondered over the next few days, I began considering where my attention really focused in that year. It was outside of school! Because of my cerebral palsy I did not attempt to ride a bicycle until I was in the seventh grade. But after numerous falls and crashes into neighbors’ flowerbeds, I learned to ride and bought a used bike with big knobby tires. In the eighth grade I began riding the bike to school, a two-mile trek across town. And then—in the heart of winter—I acquired a job as a newsboy, delivering the San Francisco Chronicle to a small route not far from my home.

What do I remember about the eighth grade? I disliked being a teacher’s pet because it made me feel even odder than I was. I mistrusted the teacher’s sense of humor. My first-term grade in handwriting was an F.

It was exhilarating, once I got over my first-Monday anxiety at the man lurking at the end of the first block on my route. “He” meant no harm: This figure turned out to be a traffic sign. My life changed completely. I was up every morning at 4:30 to fold my papers and head off to work. People were relying on me to deliver!  For the first time, I sensed that I might be a contributing member of society. Plus, I got paid, and could spend money on gifts to my kid brother and others. And it molded me for a life as a morning person.

Of course it didn’t always go so smoothly. On my first Sunday, with the thick papers packed into bags on my handlebars, I lost control while heading down a winding street between undeveloped fields. The bags swung wildly and soon I was bumping across one of those fields until I crashed about 30 yards from the road. I wasn’t hurt, but I was frantic. I didn’t know what to do. There were no payphones nearby. Should I walk home and ask my parents for help?

I started crying and was sobbing pretty good by the time help arrived in the person of the district route manager of the Examiner, the Chronicle’s hated competitor. Putting pity and compassion ahead of rivalry, he bundled my bike, my papers, and me into his van, and drove me home. He explained the situation to my father, who drove me around my route, the papers piled in the backseat.

And that’s what we did every Sunday for the next 19 months. We didn’t talk much. My dad drove and I delivered papers. And when we were done my dad would drive up to Junipero Serra Boulevard, a broad throughway that was always empty Sunday mornings, and “open ‘er up” for a four- or five-mile sprint at speeds that seemed incredible. My dad said it was good for the engine. It was fun.

So there WAS healing going on. Though it was never publicized in school, it must have had an effect on me during the school day. I was doing something that mattered.

I am not saying that being a newsboy is equivalent to meditating. But it does require discipline and attention, not just showing up.  

And there was plenty of healing yet to be done. If you have been reading this blog, you will have a sense of it. I have been diagnosed twice with post-traumatic stress syndrome and discovered at least four experiences in my early life that might account for it. One, though it happened to me vas a very young child, did not come to my attention until I was nearly 60.

I am grateful to my old classmate for calling attention to healing that escaped me at the time. I expect healing to be a lifelong process. Writing the blog is an essential part of it. And I hope that when I am lying on my deathbed I will rise up and cry out Ooh, as if I have just learned something that eluded me all these years.  May someone who can guess its nature be sitting nearby.


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