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Enough to Turn Your Head

Claim:   A motorcyclist's coat worn backwards leads to his demise.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

It seems a motorcyclist was riding and wearing his jacket as he always did, backwards; this unorthodox method made the jacket more airtight and was more comfortable while riding. Of course someone had to always zip and unzip him. One day the cyclist had a minor accident and fell off his bike. A "Good Samaritan" saw this from his car, got out, saw the cyclist and determined his accident caused his head to be turned completely around. He felt action was necessary so he tried to twist the cyclist's head back to its proper position. This of course broke the motorcyclist's neck.
 

[Cerf, 1948]

Peggy Wood, the operetta star, watched the rain pouring down one night from the haven of a warm, friendly drawing room, and remembered this story she had heard years before in England.

A country doctor, cursing the luck that called him out on the worst night of the year, was splashing his way homeward on his motorcycle, on an old road full of bumps and holes. Suddenly he heard a cry for help. A luckless motorist had skidded off the road, and his car was up to the hubs in mud in a ditch.

"Obviously I cannot pull you out with this motorcycle," said the doctor, "but if you'll hitch on behind me, I'll ride you into town. It's only three or four miles, and we'll find someone there to drive you back and get your car on the road again."

Before the grateful motorist climbed aboard the cycle, he was advised by the doctor to reverse his rain-coat, back to front, to protect him a little better from the driving rain. Then they set out on the rocky road to town. The doctor said nothing until he saw the first lights of the main street flickering through the storm. "Here we are," he pointed out then. "We'll soon have help for you." When there was no reply, the doctor looked behind him. He was alone on the motorcycle.

"Good heavens," he thought, "the poor fellow must have fallen off!" He turned the cycle about and began retracing the ground. A mile back he came upon his erstwhile passenger, lying motionless on the road, surrounded by a small group of wet and bedraggled cottagers.

"Is he badly hurt?" cried the doctor.

"I'm afraid so," answered one of the cottagers. "We were in our house yonder when we heard his moans above the wind and the storm. When we found him he was in terrible shape, sir. His head had been twisted clear around! My son and I twisted it back just as fast as we could, but ever since, he hasn't moved or made a single sound!"
 

Origins:   As the second example indicates, this tale was circulating in England "years before" 1948, but the fear it expresses is still very much a contemporary one: What if you were grievously injured in an accident and were unable to communicate a vital piece of information to your rescuers? In this case that anxiety is expressed through a bit of macabre humor — the injured motorcyclist cannot inform the good samaritans who come to his aid that it's his jacket, not his head, that's turned around backwards — but the proliferation of bracelets bearing important medical information about the wearer (such as allergies to certain types of drugs) indicates that this fear is very much grounded in
reality.

In "single rider" versions of the tale, it's silly to believe our hero would choose to be helped in and out of his jacket every time he wanted to take his bike for a run. For that to be true, the rider would have to rely on someone always being around to see him off and on someone predisposed to help him always being wherever he's going. This is a far cry from the Easy Rider lifestyle of the open road and having the freedom to do what you want when you want.

There's no reason for the coat-reverse, either. Motorcycle jackets are constructed to be windproof, with additional leather flanging built in underneath the zipper's track. Wearing one backwards isn't going to protect the rider any better than wearing it with the zipper facing forward.

In "injured passenger" forms of the story, the coat being worn backwards again doesn't make sense, but this time not because of the garment's construction. No, it's the position of the passenger which gives lie to the tale.

Many bike passengers ride with their fronts pressed up against the one doing the driving. Even those who choose to sit back on the bike with their hands hooked under the seat or to a bar behind them still benefit from the windshielding effect of the driver's back. Neither type of passenger — the hugger or the stand-offish — is going to be much affected by rain or wind, at least in the chest area. (Backs, arms, legs, and heads will get rained on and chilled mightily, though.)

The only way this legend has a chance of coming true would be in a single rider version wherein the rider was content to rely on others to bundle him into and extract him from a non-motorcycle jacket. This apocryphal lad would still have to have the accident which renders him unconscious, and would still have to be happened upon by someone who would take it upon himself to twist the head back around the right way instead of hieing off to notify the police and summon competent medical help. Oh yes; and the samaritan would also have to fail to notice the victim's head and knees face the same direction, or would have to write off such an observation to a rare double-twisted injury in which the torso is rotated 180 degrees from the legs as well as 180 degrees from the head, meaning the whole thing had been cranked 360 degrees.

Barbara "backwards masquing" Mikkelson

Last updated:   13 April 2011

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Sources:

    Cerf, Bennett.   Shake Well Before Using.
    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948   (pp. 169-170).

    Wilson, Michael.   "Another Motorcyclist Story."
    FOAFTale News.   December 1996   (p. 23).