THE ROCKET MAN

“Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone…”
(Elton John - ROCKET MAN)


31 May 2010
Baker Shift (7X3)
Approximately 0625 hours
I-83 Southbound

I am flying to work. It is just after six in the morning. My three-day-old new car is hugging the empty highway as the sun cracks across the horizon just outside my driver’s side window, and I am pushing the engine toward ninety. The music is grinding through the ten-speaker stereo system, and I have a bottle of Deer Park water in my hand. My usual trip down 83 from Pennsylvania into Maryland is marred by traffic - jams of cars, trucks, SUVs (of which I, until recently, drove as well) and motorcycles – but not today. Today is Memorial Day, and there are very few of us on the road this morning.

I am nearing southbound exit 15 when I first take notice of him. A lone rider hunched over on his crotch rocket. Riding in the fast lane, tight on the far shoulder line, only about three hundred yards in front of me. The only reason he catches my eye is the lane change. As the rocket man nears a slow moving sedan, he slips his left arm toward heaven, bending up at the elbow, spreading his hand and forming a ninety-degree angle with the extended arm. The universal signal for a right turn. The rocket man then shifts his weight right and the bike responds in kind, sliding over into the right lane and zooming past the vehicle that was directly in front of his path. And as he passes the slower vehicle – with me hot on his tail but not too close – the rocket man drops his left arm toward the steamy blacktop and signals his intent to change lanes back into the left lane. I am impressed by the maneuver. Not because I have never witnessed a biker change lanes, but because I have rarely – if ever – witnessed one signal before doing so. As I said, my usual commute (be it to or from work) is an exercise in patience. Dozens of maniacs speeding and weaving their way north and southbound, each competing with one another for that prime piece of real estate that will propel them to their destination seconds earlier than everyone else. Heavy truckers who believe that by simply turning on their signals as they are entering your lane you will give way. Of course you will. Or else they will simply push you off the road and onto the shoulder. Moms fixing their make-up in the rearview, completely ignoring the mini-van full of screaming children for which they are responsible. Professionals – you can always tell these guys by their crisp white shirts and tightly knotted ties – sipping their Starbucks coffee and tapping the steering wheels of their BMWs as they listen to their Neil Diamond CDs. And the rocket men. Always twenty-somethings in slick jackets and back-packs stuffed with God knows what, hunched over their crotch rockets. Now look, I have nothing against this type of transportation. In fact, I myself would like to have one. Call it a mid-life crisis, but those things are sweet. Again, it’s not the bike…it’s the drivers. Simply put, most of these guys are assholes. Careening at well over one hundred miles per hour until they are nearly on top of you, screaming past you when you least expect it, zipping in between vehicles as they create their own travel lanes, never signaling their intent to change lanes, and always, always racing each other for the best time.

But not today. Today I take notice of the signal prior to the lane change, and something inside me flips on. Perhaps it is the camouflage pants he is wearing – remember it is Memorial Day – or perhaps it is the way in which he seems to be respecting the space of the very few other drivers on the road this day. Whatever it is, I begin to watch this fellow as he speeds ever forward. At some point, the rocket man gets stuck behind a huge tractor trailer in the right lane and a slow moving sedan in the left. And again he signals. This time he slides into the left lane directly in front of me. But he does not force his way in, and I sense that if there had not been enough room to maneuver in, he would have simply allowed me to pass before moving over. Not your typical rocket man, as I have already stated. Out of respect, I make an effort to give this rocket man a wide berth from behind so that he does not feel crowded, and we share this paring of him in front and me behind for a time. Soon the rocket man’s left arm goes up again and he slides right in order to pass another slow moving vehicle. I follow and we quickly drop into a rhythm - the rocket man changing lanes in front of me, and me dutifully following. I begin to feel a syncopation to our movements. It is as if we are one. We pass into Maryland all the while slipping right, then left, back right and so on. Somewhere around Mt. Carmel Road, I notice some small piece of metal hanging down from the left side of the bike. This item is attached to a thin wire and looks to be of some importance to the overall operation of the bike. Whatever it is, it is dragging on the ground. I am immediately concerned for my new found mate, but as we are both topping out at nearly ninety miles per hour, there is no way for me to get his attention from behind. Just then I see the rocket man looking down toward his left foot. His head darts up to spy the road, then down to check out the dangling item. Back up, then down. Two more times. I can sense his concern as he begins to slow his progress. And here is the most interesting part: The rocket man signals his intent to change lanes again. Even in this tense moment of possible danger, the rocket man is polite enough to ask permission before moving into the right lane. So over he slides and slows, and I come up on his left side. We are rounding the corner past exit 27 and I tap my horn once to get his attention. The rocket man looks over and I gesture to the ground with my right hand. The rocket man smiles through his helmet and shakes his head vigorously up and down, signaling his understanding that something is amiss. Worried, I give him the “thumbs up” with my right hand, silently asking if he will be alright. I am fully prepared to pull off the highway to assist if I can – something I would not normally be willing to do given my usual ill mood during my trek - but the rocket man returns the gesture and smiles. Whatever the issue is – or was – the rocket man is aware of it and not all that worried. I press the gas then and slip past the rocket man, taking the lead. In my rearview I spy the arm go down for the left lane change, and over he slides. It is now my turn to take the lead. I feel so good about life at this exact moment that words cannot express it fully. There is something about the kindness in the rocket man’s smile, something in his demeanor. It is his politeness. That is all there is to it. As I have stated, most of these guys are assholes. But not this rocket man. He is allowing for so much space behind me that any number of vehicles could slip between us. But none do. The rocket man seems content to allow me to lead the march south, so I oblige him. I press the pedal harder – testing him – and he responds in kind. We are not racing each other, just having fun with it. The open road beckons us, so we oblige the gods and let it rip. At any given moment, I know the rocket man could dust me and be gone, but he stays tucked in behind me and roars ahead nonetheless. There are only a few vehicles that we encounter as we charge down 83 towards I-695, but I slip into the right lane a few times just to see that arm go up again. And each time, the rocket man gives off his signal. By the time we reach 695, I am smiling. I like to think that the rocket man is as well. As we round the sharp turn where 83 merges with 695, I see that the rocket man is changing lanes and slipping left onto 695. I am sad to see him going, but I must choose a different path than he. I continue in the right lane on 83, moving fast toward Baltimore, and the rocket man slips into the center lane of 695 and off toward Reisterstown…signaling his lane changes all the way. But before the rocket man disappears forever from my life, I slide the driver’s side window down – feeling the blast of wind and heat - and give a full wave to my new friend. And from the center lane on 695, the rocket man shoots his left arm high in the air and waves back. And with that…he is gone from view.

I will never know who the rocket man was…but he made my day. And I know that somewhere in Maryland, the rocket man is giving his signals each and every time he changes lanes. Be safe brother. I know you will.