One late fall afternoon about 20 years ago – I remember it vividly – I was in the middle of my daily three-mile run when I looped up Riverside Drive on my way back to the YMCA. I had noticed a green Ford Torino had gone past twice, the second time slower than the first, when suddenly the car appeared again and screeched to a stop, a big guy jumped out and screamed in my face as he pointed his finger, “I hope you and those (expletives) go straight to (Hades!)”
I stood there stunned, not saying a word and already too winded to run the other way, so I watched him roar away. Admittedly shaken, my mind raced as I tried to make sense of what had just happened. Finally I noticed my sweaty T-shirt – “Ole Miss Football” – and realized I had just predicted in that day’s newspaper Mississippi would beat Tennessee that same weekend.
It was silly, a stupid act by a total stranger, and the reason I bring it up is because it scared the willies out of me, much like what I believe happened to Anders Swanson on Jan. 11 when he was allegedly assaulted while riding his bicycle alone on Raccoon Mountain. According to various news accounts, two joyriding kids first harassed him with a hand-held horn and then – this after changing automobiles -- horribly assaulted him with some type of caustic, peppery spray in his eyes and face, sending Anders to the hospital in an ambulance while in a painful and cruel state of distress.
We know the Chattanooga Police Department responded immediately, the wide-eyed culprits admitting to what they believed to be little more than a schoolboy prank, but when jurisdiction was challenged, those involved sensed much deeper trouble and allegedly altered accounts of what happened. That’s when the worst part of our entire region’s ugly black eye occurred, with the ever-sensitive outdoors crowd leveling unfair and unfounded accusations at bewildered Marion County authorities who were, in fact, good and fine people who were simply continuing in their efforts to find out what really happened.
The callous bicycle response, quick and blindly vicious while the incident was progressing through the correct channels, can’t be taken back, no more than one can un-ring a bell, so as Marion County officials reveal the two juveniles have indeed been charged and will answer at a hearing on March 13, there are some ways we can all be better the next time something really stupid happens involving our very best people, be they cyclists or our police.
First, it has been revealed the two miscreants are children, a still developing form of the human species known to be immature, sometimes dumb and more times irrational. One boy is 16 who hasn’t yet had his driver’s license a year, and the other is just 14. Neither, according to believable sources, is what would be classified as an underage criminal and the assumption is each child will pay dearly – officially and unofficially -- by the time the incident is settled and done.
There is no need for a posse, retaliation, revenge or malice. The courts and parents will handle it accordingly and in good fashion. While the news media should not and will not reveal the names of misguided minors, the identities of both children will be noted by the microscopic public as well as their extended families and lo unto either if they dare step out of society’s boundaries anytime soon. That, my friend, is the Marion County way and it is keenly effective.
The victim, Anders Swanson, is a widely-admired and respected teacher who in years of pedaling has never endured such a sordid incident or been subject to such a ridiculous tragedy. As the rowing coach at Girls Preparatory School and a known encourager of the young for decades, Anders will hopefully be encouraged to ride Raccoon Mountain frequently and will be assured by the police and public alike that he nor any other cyclist, runner, hiker or walker will ever be involved in something as unfortunate again.
Chattanooga’s most sparkling crystal ball is its outdoors. The roads, the trails, the lakes and whitewater streams, however, are only accessories to our good citizens and, while visitors, out-of-town competitors and envious cities marvel, it is our friendly and helpful people who make our area the greatest outdoor mecca in all the United States. That has not changed. Not at all.
It is regrettable that two children have acted badly, to the point they have now been charged and must appear in court, but their single action should in no way tarnish what the collective outdoors community across our region has worked hard to achieve and secure and freely offer to one come all. Hysteria has no place in outdoor pursuits.
Finally, I am no judge, particularly of others when I know myself only too well, but … just this … what if a Marion County judge would soon sentence two boys, ages 16 and 14, to 50 trips apiece of up, around, and down Raccoon Mountain on a bicycle by June 1? And what if arrangements could be made for Anders Swanson and other area cyclists to teach the two the glorious nuances of the 10-speed bike, both climbing and downhill turns, in an educational way that would make the sentences bearable.
Are you kidding me? I’ll furnish the helmets and – hear this -- I can boldly predict by the 20th day of such a classroom such uncommon friendships would be formed that each would last for a lifetime. That the way it has always been with boys and bikes, ever since time began.
I believe there is still a way to win in all of this.