UP TO THE EDGE AND OVER – The life of my best friend # 70 Mark Williams
I doubt there are very many people my age that don’t remember the lines from “Brian’s Song” that begin the movie which was said to be a quote from Ernest Hemingway, “that every true story ends in death. Well, this is a true story.” Well this quote wasn’t exactly accurate because this is actually what Ernest Hemingway wrote in Chapter 11 of his 1932 novel, ‘Death in the Afternoon,’ “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” Well that is a very true statement as everyone dies, and is not quite as dramatic as the sentence that was based on it in the movie “Brian’s Song”. I always knew that my friendship with Mark Williams would end in his dying before me, if it was to be of natural causes, which is what happened; his body gave out after 36 years of being paralyzed from the waist down. But this was in addition to the 25 years he lived before the accident that claimed the use of his legs, this brave man who lived life on his own terms to its bitter end at 61 years of age, despite, or perhaps because of, doctors telling him that people who sustained the type of injuries he had only had a likelihood of living five years. Well, instead of depressing him and giving up, it really pissed him off that they told him that and he proceeded to live another 36 years just so he prove to them they were freaking wrong! And he certainly did that and then some.
I gave a lot of thought on what to call this piece because the person I am writing about, who is always in my thoughts, was my best friend for thirty one years until he died on January 21, 2012. We became very good friends, through good times and bad ones, through thick and thin, from almost the first day we met and that never changed through to the day he died. Maybe by accident or some kind of grand design I am not privy to, the 21st of January is a date on which several things in my life have occurred on. My father was born on this day in 1925 and he died thirty five years later on January 20th, just one day short of his 35th birthday in a plane crash. My sister’s youngest son was born on his grandfather’s birthday, January 21, in the year 1989. And last but not least my best friend Mark died on this day last year, just seven days after his 61st birthday. Just coincidence I suppose but I have wondered if it is a “cosmic” coincidence although that is not what I am writing about.
I first met Mark at my sister’s house in 1980, five years after the wreck that put him in a wheelchair. He was a real party animal and was the life of the party with his enthusiasm and generosity. He always brought a party to life and insisted on paying for everything, I think this was partly because of how large he had learned to live when he was a professional racer and making a lot of money for those days. He also liked to control what was going on so by paying for dinner, drinks, and whatever else he did tend to influence the events that were happening. He and I hit it off immediately and our relationship continued to grow through the years. I have always been into cars and racing so we immediately started talking about hot muscle cars and motors, and I would soon learn that motors were about the most important thing in Mark’s life, all kinds of motors. He even worked on competition chain saw motors, if something had a motor and could work better then Mark was interested in it. We became good friends, his sister lived on the same street as my boyfriend at the time I met Mark so I ended up running into him fairly often. I started put with being invited to go sailing with him and friends of my sister’s on his very fast, and very fun, sailboat. We lived in a city that had a reservoir with some of the best sailing conditions in the whole state and it was only 20 minutes from our houses so we were able to go often. They had races on the lake all summer long and I was privileged to participate in many of them. When we weren’t racing we would take fried chicken and beer and spend all day sailing and swimming, it was a pretty cool way to spend the weekends. Mark worked on motorcycles at the Harley Davidson Dealership that he and his family bought soon after he started his career. His father had also been a professional motorcycle racer as a young man, racing for Harley Davidson so it was a logical progression for the whole family to get involved with motorcycles and racing. Eastside Harley Davidson became fairly famous because of Mark and because of the dedication to the motorcycle that his dad, mom and sister as well as many relatives had and that worked at the business and promoted it. Every time you went in the shop you could count on being remembered by everyone there and they would help you with anything you wanted no matter how small. One Halloween I wanted to go to a costume party as a biker and I only had some Harley shirts Mark had given me and cowboy boots so I went to the shop and Mark’s mother loaned me a leather coat and leather pants worth almost a thousand dollars and told me to have fun. I wasn’t expecting that, I was only hoping to find a fairly inexpensive pair of leather chaps and was going to try and borrow a too big leather coat from one of my biker friends. That was the kind of generosity they, and Mark, always gave to everyone. This was probably one of the reasons their Harley shop was so famous in the Northwest, besides being a good place to have your motorcycle worked on. They sold Harley’s to the local police department and serviced all their bikes as well, one thing that Mark occasionally used to his advantage when he got caught speeding. I do remember his connections didn’t get him out of a ticket when he came over to my house one day and was going way too fast in a residential area and the cop gave him a ticket and he was really upset. I told him the cop was in the right and besides he should consider how many tickets he had gotten out of by being recognized as the guy who worked on the cop’s motorcycle. He did admit he had been pretty lucky.
Mark Allen Williams died at 61 years of age after having lived a very full life, his life had been full before the accident that paralyzed him from the waist down at 25, and probably was even fuller after that eventually.
Mark was born in a small town in Oregon and was a bit of wild child on a motorcycle from the very beginning. Possibly part of this had to do with the fact that his father had been a motorcycle racer for Harley Davidson when he was young so the father passed on his love of the need for speed to his son. At a very young age Mark was riding motorcycles and riding them very fast. As a young teenager he would ride his bike on the road, and other places, that he was not yet legal to ride and then outrun the police when they came to get him. The biggest problem for Mark was that it didn’t take the police that long to figure out who the young rebel rider was and instead of chasing him they would just go to his house and wait for him to come home. He continued his rebel streak and began entering motorcycle races and lying about his age. He only got away with that for a while because he was too good to be unknown as well as the fact that it was a fairly small town.
Mark was born on January 14, 1951 and by the age of 15 he was a professional flat track motorcycle racer and a year later he was earning around $24,000 a year. He was nationally ranked at the age of 19 and he became a “national number” in 1970. He made a lot of money and he lived life large and in the fast lane. He bought a house with an in ground swimming pool and got married. He continued to live in that house for the rest of his life. He continued on making a name for himself in the world of AMA racing and he attained the official position of number one in the nation in April of 1975, at the age of 25, and appeared on the cover of AMA magazine.
Mark racing in San Jose: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NC6trfdDIyc
This is also the track he ended his racing career at as well.
In September of 1975 he was running a practice lap for the one-mile National Dirt Track Championships in San Jose, California, when he hit a wet spot on the track while traveling at a speed of around 125 miles per hour on the recently watered dirt track. He started to slide and all he remembered was trying to get away from the motorcycle. He didn’t get away from the motorcycle and he ended up smashing into a wall. The wreck broke his back in several places and he all he remembered after he started to wreck was being in the ambulance and someone telling the driver that they better hurry if he was going to make it to the hospital alive. After spending a month in a San Jose hospital and another month in a Portland, Oregon rehabilitation center he was out of the hospital to try and learn how to live being paralyzed from the waist down. He pushed his wife away and since he had money he set out to try and find a “cure”. He went to the Philippines tried “faith healers”, the ones that are supposed to be able to put their bare hands inside your body, he was desperate to not be paralyzed but all of his searching for a cure was to come to his having to deal with the fact that he was never ever going to walk again. He then started what would be his string of interests for the next 31 years, buying and riding anything that could go fast. The first thing he bought was a racing sailboat, which is something he was doing when I first met him and when he invited me to go on that boat with our mutual friends I fell in love with sailing and Mark and I started a beautiful friendship that lasted until he died. He also took up riding snowmobiles and even though he couldn’t through use his legs to throw his snowmobile around to guide around the corners at a hundred miles an hour he had impressive upper body strength and his natural racing ability from motorcycles allowed him to leave able bodied people behind him in his wake. I went riding behind him one time and it scared me to ride blind around the corners of the trails through the woods at the speed of 90 miles per hour which is what he called taking it easy because I was sitting on the snowmobile behind him. I passed on doing that again, once was enough, but Mark continued to ride snowmobiles for twenty years. He also took up Kart racing, riding four wheelers through the woods and at the beach, if it had a motor and Mark could ride it he did and he continued living a full and busy life for the 31 years after he was paralyzed. He also fell in love with jet boats and he became an avid fisherman, he liked taking his big jet boat out in the ocean and going salmon fishing and also like taking a drift boat out on the river to fish for trout and steelhead. These fishing trips always involved several of his friends or his family. Anything Mark liked to do he liked to bring his friends and family into liking to do the activity as well, and he did a pretty good job of it. Everything he became interested in he always carried it to the extreme, living eating and breathing whatever it was until something else caught his interest. He had a ridiculously large collection of expensive toys and I do believe that they had a lot to do with his longevity; he had too many things to try out to give up on living as long as he could keep on doing them. Living that long after becoming paralyzed was something doctors constantly told him wouldn’t happen and that he should only expect to live 5 to 10 years after having that life changing wreck. The fact that those doctors kept telling him that “really pissed him off” and if it is possible I think that he lived to be 61 years old was to prove them wrong because he thought that their telling him he was going to die was a really crappy thing for a doctor to do, and I agree with him!
I have a million memories our life and the times we spent together. I think his life and indomitable spirit to continue to live life in the “fast” lane even after he crashed and burned should be an inspiration to everyone to not give up just because you are told you should. Mark told me stories about his life before the accident as a teenager who loved to ride his motorcycle way too fast in the little town he was born in and onto many stories of life being a young professional athlete that spent a lot of time on the road. He also told me that he didn’t think I would have liked the cocky asshole he was before he had the wreck that changed his life forever, he did think that it made him a better person to have faced real adversity for the first time in his life and since I didn’t know him before the wreck I can’t say what changes it made in him. Before that he had pretty much been a spoiled kid who did everything he wanted to do. I have to say that he still was a fairly spoiled person most of the time I knew him as he did spend money like there was no tomorrow, most people who become paralyzed or actually most people period don’t have all the money to spend on all of the fancy toys he did. I do believe that life after the wreck had to have been a humbling experience for him since he had been kind of a jock before that, though he did continue to live a bit like a rock star even after he was paralyzed.
Mark’s death has created a very large gap in my life that will never be fully filled because we spent an average of four days a week together for a minimum of a couple of hours each and frequently we spent the whole day doing fun things like swimming in his pool, playing board games with friends all evening long, sailing on his sailboat which was appropriately named Low Rider, we would go for drives in the car and go to car shows, he bought a drift boat to go fishing in the rivers, he bought a jet boat to go fishing in the ocean and to go fast on the lake as well as his most beloved sport after the wreck which was the snowmobiling. We became very good friends, through good times and bad ones and through thick and thin, and that never changed.
Back to remembering my friend Mark and the very full and busy life he led. The reason I call this piece up to the edge and over is because that is how he lived his life. It is also how he taught me to ride an ATV at the sand dunes one afternoon, he rented them for an afternoon for the two of us to go the coast and ride on the dunes as a birthday present to me and also as a way to go do something he enjoyed doing also. This seemed like a good way to go to me and Mark did invite friends to go do things with him all of the time and he would buy just so he could buy himself a good time since he couldn’t do those things by himself once he was in a wheelchair, and he had more money than a lot of his friends did. It really was a win-win because Mark had money that he knew he would not live long enough to run out of and most people didn’t have enough money to indulge in the kinds of toys Mark loved to play on, fast boats, cars, snowmobiles and pretty much anything else with a motor. This present of a trip to the coast was definitely as much for him as it was for me but it did give him and I both an afternoon of fun. The trip over to the coast and back home was also an adventure because it involved him letting me take him to the coast in my “own” car with me driving to prove to him that I was a very good driver. Something that I knew he believed but something that because he always “had to drive” because it was easier, or so he said, to take his cart that I never got to show him before this time. This sounds kind of silly but the fact that I love cars and understand the way motors work in all kinds of things is part of the attraction that he had for me in the first place. So because he had a car that had hand controls so he could drive, he usually got to be the person in “control” of the driving experience wherever he went, no matter who was riding with him. He loved to drive so he always wanted to be the driver and he would always want to take his car so he could make sure and be the driver. I wanted to prove to him that I was a good drive, I believed that he thought I was but I wanted him to ride with me so he wasn’t just assuming I was good because of the driving knowledge he knew I had. This was obviously my issue, but I made him let me drive my car with him as a passenger because “after all” this was supposed to be a birthday present for me. Kind of like the time my stepfather paid for me to go fishing for “bottom fish” in the ocean because it was something that he really liked to do that he knew I also liked to do. The original gift of going recreational vehicle riding on the miles of beautiful sand dunes for the two of us was a very nice thing to do whether or not it created something fun for my friend Mark to do besides it being a fun adventure for me that I had never done before. The drive over there went as I hoped, even though Mark didn’t want to ‘not drive’ he did understand why I did and we had a good trip over and he said he enjoyed being a passenger. That was all I could ask for from him and I figured it would be possibly the only time I would ever get to drive. It turned out to be one of only a couple of trips we took together that he rode in my car, he did let me drive his a couple times on some longer trips, but not very many. I had never ridden a motorized item with hand controls ever before we went to the Oregon dunes to ride them that afternoon. We stopped at the little office and parking lot the company had right near the dunes and signed our “waiver” and showed them our drivers’ licenses and then we were off riding the two blocks from the rental office to the bottom of the miles of sand dunes we were about to ride on. When we got to the start of the dunes and I looked up at the approximately 20’ immediate climb from the parking lot I was very intimidated. Mark was first, of course, and he started roaring up and his ATV sputtered and he came back down and told me that we needed to go back to the office and have them bring another ATV out for him to ride. So we rode the two blocks back and I was starting to get the hang of operating the hand controls for the gas much better than when I started out. We were told they needed to go to where they kept the rest of the ATV’s and pick up another one and it would take about 30 to 40 minutes so since it was about 11:30 by now we were hungry so we went to a little restaurant and bar about 5 minutes away to get something to eat and have a cocktail. We had some great clam chowder and I had a Bloody Mary, Mark had a Crown Royal and 7-Up (the only drink he liked other than a strawberry daiquiri by his swimming pool in the summer) and then went back to ride the ATV’s again. After having ridden the little bit I had already done, and after having one drink of liquid courage, I was way more confident driving down the road to the mighty dunes and when Mark took his ATV up the dunes I followed him and much to my surprise it was much easier than I had feared earlier. After we got to the top of the dunes Mark very seriously explained safety tips to me, and the one that was the most important was the one that inspired the title of this story. He told me to ride up to the edge of the dunes, stop and look at what is down the other side and then proceed on. This was his approach to most “obstacles” he faced in his life. There are many fun stories about Mark I wish to share eventually but for now I am just now coming to terms with his presence I miss so much being gone from my life and want to share with others who didn’t know him some the indomitable spirit in which he faced going from a life of riding on a motorcycle as a professional racer riding at speeds over a hundred miles an hour to being a young man forced to live life on the 4 little tires on a wheelchair that didn’t go fast enough for his taste and doing so with an unbreakable thrill seeking attitude and virtually never feeling sorry for himself and to quote from Brian’s Song “How he did live!”. Here’s to you my dear friend, may you forever ride fast wherever you may now be roaming!