Friday, January 28, 2011

From Plumbing to Presidents; Lexington to St. Wendel

SANKT WENDEL, Germany, Jan. 27, 2011- Greetings from the Autobahn. I’m traveling at 200 kph inside an Alfa Romeo wagon. I’m traveling from Frankfurt to Sankt Wendel.

Although it is 7 a.m. the sun will not appear for another hour. Few realize how for north most of Europe is on the planet. When the melting ice caps push the Gulf Stream to the south, these guys will be hit with some incredible winters.

But for now there is no snow here. And the temperatures are relatively mild, given what I left in Boston 8 hours earlier.

I apologize for not filing a blog for some time. This is for two reasons: absolutely chaotic life; and really not a whole lot to write about….other than chaotic life.
I don’t wish to bore people with irrelevant pontifications on matters. But this weekend will get some readers as I’m traveling to Germany to serve as the UCI’s official announcer for the World Cyclo-cross Championships.

I must tell you of the complexities of actually getting here. Although I had a lot of the juggling act shared by many folks in my current station in life this past month has proven particularly difficult.

I will let you know it ends up with torches at dawn.

I have the overarching stresses of debt, homeownership, and working my own consulting business which I suppose could be called successful as in a time of 10 percent unemployment I’m pinned down with paying work. But there are also the challenges of marriage and parenthood. We have three kids and each presents a wonderful set of hurdles to our lives each day, especially my 14-year-old daughter Emmy as of late. I’ve learned why folks tattoo LOVE on one hand and HATE on the other. I do adore her.

I suppose the hard times started in November when a woman turned left in front of me on my bike, leaving with a destroyed left thumb. Surgeons had to put all the tendons, ligaments and bone back together. This left me in a cast and sling for six weeks. There is considerable pain in the thumb and I’ve had to endure the inability to open jars, button pants, tie shoes, and control exactly which part of my body and clothing is in the path of my urinary stream…..Especially in portable toilets in winter with a lot of clothing.

Add to this that our first floor heat has not worked this winter. With a wood stove, we can survive just fine….we thought. Just after the New Year holiday all shit went down. For starters we love our kids so much we simply blew way too much money on their holiday experience. Then the exhaust fell off the car. This makes us the loudest family in Lexington and shall be so until a few pay checks hit. Two days later my laptop died, along with much of the data stored inside. A week later our dryer crapped out.

Overall of this we have my sister Kim. After displaying fatigue over the holidays, she discovered severe bruising on her body in early January. She is a survivor of breast cancer, lung cancer, and myeloma. So such issues raise big time concerns. So on January 14 she made the sad trek to Dana Farber Cancer Institute for a painful bone marrow biopsy, with my wife, Deb, holding her hand.

She has yet to leave that hospital.

They admitted her with a diagnosis of plasma cell leukemia. And her condition nosedived. After four days at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, with each of us taking turns being by her side, they rushed her into ICU and decided to intubate her. This means unconscious with a breathing tube. This also means one might not come back; something this family has witnessed. Panting and delirious, she waited until as many of her siblings could arrive. She got three of us: Patty, my wife, Debbie, and then after pounding through traffic, myself. Her sister, Beth, became mired in traffic on I-93 and could not get there in time. They bid goodbye on a cell phone, sheets of tears ran down Kim’s face.

And then she went under.

I fully expected her to die. Her condition had become nearly hopeless. And I questioned traveling to Germany. My wonderful family, starting with my wife, insisted that I go, realizing the importance of the trip.

Throughout this we experienced a deepening, darkening winter in New England. We’ve already received double the average snowfall. And as I readied for this trip we experienced cold weather not felt in New England in six years. In dealing with my sister, I neglected to let the faucet drip as the temperatures plummeted to 11 below.

On Monday morning the baseboard water pipe exploded beneath the stool of my son, Madison, interrupting his enjoyment of Lucky Stars. So we shut off the downstairs heat water….OK, we can live with that. Besides the weather promised a thaw.
Indeed. We received an amazing thaw in two ways the next day.

In the late afternoon of Tuesday my phone started to jingle with text messages. My sister seemed to thaw back to life….Every ten minutes I received a text from my sister, Patty, who was at Kim’s bedside.

”….Eyes are open….”.

“….They lowered the sedation….”

“….She’s breathing on her own….”

“….Numbers look good…”

And then the phone started to jingle with texts from my wife.


“….They’re going to extubate her….”


“The tube is out, she’s sitting up.”


“They’re pulling the other tubes out.”


“Kim says ‘HI.’”

The OFF button on the phone seemed a good option.

I hustled home and dug into the amateur plumbing competition. We had three ruptured pipes. In digging out all my supplies, I did an inventory, ran to Lowe’s before they closed at 10 p.m. I got most of the way through, with my wife re-connecting the dishwasher supply (she’s great at these moments, a beautiful woman who can also figure out shit like this.) We did not attempt the baseboard, but chose to attack the closet as shutting that off had cut off the bathroom water supply. After all the wall demolition, cutting, sanding, flux, etc. I discovered my torches simply sucked….(Don’t get a torch with an ignition button on the nozzle). I had a wild yellow flame that nearly ignited the entire house when I tried to work.

So at 7:30 a.m. I appeared at the Ace Hardware like Dustin Hoffman appeared at the church in The Graduate. I got a new torch, raced home with the blaring muffler, and with a sharp, blue tongue of flame, knocked out the repair, installing not one but two sleeves perfectly!

Sadly, I have rarely solid feelings of competence in any thing that I do save for announcing or promoting bike races. But fixing a pipe like that just filled with me manful pride.

Then, having yet to have a shower , I dashed to the bus to travel to the office, put in a full day, with a brief connection with my sister, and then…..

LUFTHANSA Flight 143 to Frankfurt…..

Ok, folks. Some people whine about flying…..After the two months I just survived, with two working thumbs, bags packed, a Civil War book, and a delicate aroma of soldering paste, I got on this plane. Movies, blankets, wine, dinner…..Quit yer complaining folks. I knew my family had indoor plumbing. I could sleep.

I awoke 29 miles outside of Frankfurt. We hit the deck. The airport shops were closed at that hour of 6 a.m. and I still had no adaptor for my electronics. I met Urs, my driver, who spoke no English. We tore off to Sankt Wendel, completing a Sesame Street education on German.

Upon arrival they dumped me into a Gesthaus that did not match up on my itinerary. But I showered, slept a few arrivals, and then tackled the town. Although cold, I managed with a wool trainier, cashmere blazer, hat and no gloves. I walked about 2 km to the accreditation office, met Simon Burney, a friend. I learned I was not in the correct hotel, walked 2 km back to the hotel, packed and transferred to the Angel Hotel, the host HQ for the event. There I got a snappy UCI scarf for the event and checked in to room 007…..Relax, no stunning blondes awaited me in the room.

I got online briefly to send a limited dispatch home. No phone this trip; just Skype. But the batteries were going fast on the laptop. So I went on safari for an adaptor.

The first shop wanted to cut my cord and re-wire the whole thing. He told me the nearest place get an adaptor was in Saarbrucken, which I think is in Austria.

“Nein, bitte.”

The kid at the T-Mobile Store spoke English and directed me to Alpha Tecc, a superstore.

“Yes it is beyond the train station…”

So with my snappy blazer and dress shoes I started walking.The whole place is like a scene from the The Bourne Identity, gray and cool skies with grim characters trudging to and from work. At the train station the first three folks could not, or would not, help the chirpy American who spoke no German. (You get a little sensitive about the whole World War II thing…) Finally a guy kindly directed me towards the store I needed. I started walking.

The town center gave way to housing. The speed of the cars increased along with the distance between intersections. After 10 minutes of walking I found another guy, and put my note in front of him with the Alpha Tecca name. He nodded affirmatively, and directed me to continue …..”swei kilometers.”

I had to digest what he said. Was that seven kilometers?

I froze….No wait, that’s two kilometers. So I started clicking away with the dress shoes. I got to the equivalent of a Best Buy, found what I needed, and started heading back.

When I travel I love walking. But this was pushing it.

After walking more than 10 km that day in my church shoes, I got back to the hotel, encountered Brook and Mia Watts, stuck in the lobby as other Americans filtered in. Bruce Fina, Joan Hanscom, Betsy and Gregg (of Louisville)filtered into the lobby.

All chatted and then the UCI Honchos came in. I found myself having beers with Pat McQuaid, Michael Plant, and Bill Peterson, along with Brook and Mia. We continued to dinner, with McQuaid defecting to another party.

Cyclists love to gripe about everything in cycling politics. Well, there I sat next to the UCI president, a member of the UCI board and the president of the USA Cycling board. We have some solid discussions on all sorts of subjects, including doping. We must develop these relationships should they serve us any purpose.

Schnitzel, beer, and then Skype back home.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.


  1. God Richard - what a post. Please, please, please backup your data from now on. I think your retirement depends on it. You have at least two books in your past to be written. Kate and I wish you and the family the best. Sorry about the thumb / crash, and oblivious drivers.

  2. interesting article .. in accordance with my studies .. thanks
    best regards

  3. Great post. A 'day in the life' sort. Happy to hear your sister is getting better, and your rightful manliness with the plumbing disaster.
    I hope you have a blast in St Wendel, you are certainly in good company!

  4. Good to hear you while watching the last 2 laps on the U23 race.

    Our thoughts are with you and your family.

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