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My Big Hollywood Stunt Driving Break

Arnie Ward is a retired engineer, diver and motorcycler.

In high school, I was a bit of a loner and had little social involvement with the goings ons of high school life — even though I did well academically. The only club or group I can remember being a member of was the chess club in 10th grade, but that disbanded the next year for lack of general interest of others.

So given that context, my class planned this great dramatic event and worked on it for months. The English department, the drama department of course, and any others who could nose their way into this great effort, did. The full production of "Bye Bye Birdie," a recently released Hollywood event, was the big news and excitement. The year was 1967. Of course, I had no part in it.

My high school was FDR High in Hyde Park, New York. It had excellent academic and cultural standards given its relatively rural location. IBM was a big player in the area at that time and raised the standards of living for all, but I digress.

Being a loner, as soon as I could drive, I gravitated to motorcycles. They were relatively cheap to operate and gave a young male some status as maybe fearless and reckless, neither of which was I really. But still I liked the different persona and enjoyed riding one.

So back to my high school life, the play was taking on a life of its own and no expense or task was too much to make the event spectacular — at least that's what the buzz around school seemed. About two months before the actual event, three other fellow students that rode motorcycles like myself to school were all asked, "Would you like to drive your motorcycle in our play, Bye Bye Birdie?"

Now another biker, bolder than myself, immediately responded with a "yes" and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief. (At least I did, I didn't want to be branded a coward for refusing to do a special part for this envious event.) But having only rode a motorcycle for a year, I did not feel I was a good candidate for Evil Knievel.

Then a dark cloud appeared and a bolt of lightning happened. Two weeks before the event, the selected rider backed out for an unknown reason and I, of all people, was approached with the opportunity to do the stunt.

I balked because I never saw what the event required and the earlier selected rider had been practicing in the auditorium for a month on the steep ramp up to the stage floor. I never had even seen it! But they assured me I would get plenty of opportunity to practice, which I did in fact do.

I spent one afternoon after school testing my motorcycle against the ramp and judging a good speed to approach the ramp. The auditorium floor gently sloped down and the ramp was rather short and at an abrupt 45 degree angle up to the stage floor.

The aisle was wide and the ramp being 5 feet wide, was easy enough to aim toward. But too slow and I would stall out and fall off the ramp. (The school band would be tightly packed on both sides of the ramp and that would be a total disaster). On the other hand, if I hit the ramp too fast I would go totally airborne and crash into the back of the stage, it was only about 25 or so feet deep.

So according to what I calculated, only the front wheel could go off the ground on exiting the ramp (and then only briefly) for me to safely land on the stage at the spot I was expected to land at. I had to be able to hit both brakes moderately hard to stop quick enough to fit into the scene going on the stage at the moment. And above all else, I didn't want to fly up onto the stage and hit one of the actors! That would surely spell the end of my stunt driving career!

So I did it over and over, and figured about 18 mph at the bottom of the ramp would be good. Glide down the aisle hit 18 mph and hold that speed until I went up the ramp. I did it over a few times and it was a piece of cake! Enough of the practice, I was ready.

The only other caveat that I insisted on was that I had to warm my motorcycle up outside to ensure that it didn't stumble when I was making the critical climb up the ramp. No problem! I would warm my motorcycle up outside and stand at the ready, a minute or so before the scene required it, I would be notified and roll my motorcycle stealthily up to the auditorium doors to be opened simultaneously to me starting the motorcycle and tearing down the aisle and up the ramp to make my grand entrance as the stunt double for Byrdie!

How cool, I knew I would be able to find a chick who would like me after doing this stunt.


So the big evening arrived. I waited outside with my motorcycle complete with my black leather jacket, helmet and gloves. A little nervous, but confident it will call go down ok. After all, I practiced many times and had it down to a science — almost. What could go wrong?

So I am waiting outside with great expectations. Every five minutes starting it up allowing it to idle for a few minutes and shutting it down.

Finally the stage hands arrive and open the doors for me! I silently roll the motorcycle up to the auditorium doors. At the moment they open the auditorium doors, I kick the motorcycle to start and roar down the aisle to the stage. That was the plan.

But then a nightmare of untold proportions occurs. They open the doors and there are people in folding chairs on both sides of the previously wide aisle for me to go down. WTF?

I stop the stage hand and ask what's that? I didn't practice for that! He told me, no problem, the last 10 feet of the aisle there were no seats! But I didn't practice for that! Nobody told me they would do that! What should I do? Balk and not do it, then I would surely be branded a worse coward then the guy who quit two weeks before the event.

I said, ok I will do it. I don't know why. It was indeed, very reckless to do under those conditions. The space I had to pass through where the folding chairs with people sitting on both sides of the aisle was less than the space for splitting a lane on a highway. And I had to worry about somebody in one of those folding chairs accidentally falling or jumping in front of me. So I could only go about 5 mph past the chairs and then open the throttle of the motorcycle wide open to gain my speed to make it up the ramp without stalling out and falling off.

The plan I had worked out so skillfully of an exact speed of 18 mph when I hit the ramp was all useless now. I carefully passed the audience sitting on folding chairs on both sides of me and then cracked the throttle wide open when I approached the ramp, forget about the speedometer.

I went airborne totally when I left the ramp over the stage, both wheels high and dry. When my wheels landed on the stage I locked both brakes skidding to a stop sideways to prevent hitting the back wall. My back wheel was locked so hard with my rear brake that it left a huge, deep black mark on the beautiful hardwood stage floor. It might still be there today!

The whole event, I suppose, looked spectacular from afar, and the audience roared but I was in totally adrenal induced fear. I waved to the crowd as I was supposed to and went behind the curtain to regain my wits and was met by the director behind the stage. He congratulated me on the great job, while the play progressed.

I took my helmet off and started cursing him and whoever decided to fill the aisle up with folding chairs and people! I was upset, to say the least! It wasn't what I planned for. He walked away stunned and I went home not even bothering to watch the rest of the play.

Many years later a good friend of mine who was in the school band and sitting near the ramp told me he couldn't believe how loud the motorcycle was when it passed his head. I explained what had happened, nobody ever knew of the dilemma that I faced that night. At open throttle it roared like thunder!

Now the experience mellowed right after it. I was invited and attended the big party for all the cast involved in the play. I hob knobbed with the clique of people in my high school who were always aloof to me. I was even recognized as an important part to the whole play's effect. A little bit later, I met my first girlfriend.

And many years later I attended my 30th high school reunion which was attended by one of our teachers who was retired. She made a speech and then asked to all, who was the brave boy who did the stunt with the motorcycle way back when the play Bye Bye Birdie was performed?

~ Arnie Ward









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