Life on Wheels – a story of Bill Lang
By William Lazarus
Bill Lang’s first bike belonged to his brother, and was way too big. Joliet, 1952. Bill was four years old. His brother owned a 28 inch bike. When Bill climbed on, his feet could not reach the pedals at the bottom of the stroke. To get on, he’d find something to lean the bike against and climb up. As for stopping, “I just had to fall over.”
“I did it. If I wanted to ride, that was the only thing available.”
Bill, 65, has shown the same spunk throughout his cycling life. For 26 years, Bill rode more than 10,000 miles yearly, topping 14,000 miles some years, despite ongoing struggles first with prostate cancer and then worse.
After prostrate surgery, Bill’s doctors told him he could not ride a bike for a year. He switched to a recumbent.
In 2006, Bill learned he had multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that destroys bone marrow. A resulting tumor ate three inches of his spine. His doctors nixed back surgery as it was too likely to kill him.
Bill kept riding his recumbent.
By 2010, Bill figured his riding days were over. “I found out I was wrong.”
A friend in his winter home in Texas willed her three-wheeler to Bill in 2011. That year, he biked 150 miles, and 648 miles in 2012. But he couldn't transport the trike here to ride in the summer. On his return to Frankfort this May, friends in the Joliet Bike Club and Folks on Spokes presented Bill with another trike. So far this year, Bill is approaching 5,000 miles. He calls the trike his “wheelchair”.
Bill keeps daily as well as yearly logs of his distance and speed. Many days are impressive. For instance, Sept. 12, 1987: 145 miles, 19.2 mph average. Sept. 2, 1991: 100 miles, 20.5 mph average.
These days, Bill says, “I’ve got neuropathy up to my waist. Balance is difficult.” Still, “I can ride the trike. I can’t go as fast as I used to. I can’t keep up [with fellow riders]. But I put them to shame by my doing the miles.”
Asked if he would still be alive if he wasn’t such a rider, Bill responds without pause, “No, definitely not.”
Char, his wife of 46 years, agrees. She figures the exercise itself keeps the cancer at bay, and knows it’s good for his mood. “If you are depressed, you aren’t even going to try to fight it.”
Despite that perspective, Char doesn’t join Bill on rides. Bill says they’ve got a pact. He doesn’t ask her to ride, she doesn’t ask him to bowl.
“She’s a hillbilly,” Bill jokes. “Yep, and proud of it,” Char responds.
Bill and Char find strength being themselves. But there are still touchy points, difficult memories for Bill, whose myeloma stems from his exposure to Agent Orange in 1969-1970.
Bill was stationed about 80 miles north of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. He started as an infantryman, at the bottom of the pecking order, and eventually became radio operator to the battalion commander.
For a period he fought in Cambodia, intercepting weapons supplies for the Viet Cong. He was one of about 10,000 American soldiers in Cambodia, and was surprised to hear President Nixon initially deny the United States had any extensive troop involvement in that nation. A few days later, Nixon recanted.
Returning to the United States in the midst of anti-Vietnam fervor was not easy. “I was treated so poorly. Until recently I wouldn’t wear anything that indicated I was in Vietnam.” Like other returning soldiers, Bill felt disgraced. “I threw my medals away.”
Those medals included two bronze stars. Bill kept the paper, but not the metal.
It was standard stuff of war. “We got shot at. They ambushed us. We shot back.” Soldiers were killed, and those remaining were scared, and killed in turn. The Mai Lai massacre, he said, was far from one of a kind.
The business of death had its lighter moments. Bill remembers a commander ordering the dropping of a grenade into a hole. It turned out to be a messy mistake. “We blew up a good outhouse.”
But most of those holes had people in them, including noncombatants. “Why did I get these medals?” He wonders. “Why? Because I killed people. Basically everything you get is because you killed people.”
In 1996, Bill returned to Vietnam, bicycling with a group about 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Saigon. The ride, he recalled, was like biking back roads in Indiana, often smooth and nice, sometimes filled with potholes.
With one exception, Vietnamese were invariably friendly on that return trip. A colonel approached on a motorcycle and pushed one cyclist to the ground. It turned out the colonel was drunk. A general apologized profusely, and at a dinner that night announced that the colonel was being demoted and sent elsewhere because of his behavior.
Throughout his life, Bill has found that biking has opened doors. When he was in high school, he was considered what might be called a nerd. But biking gave Bill a mobility that other kids didn’t have, and eventually other kids, including girls, took interest. His status rose.
For years, Bill taught bicycling classes at the Flossmoor Village Hall. At work, he was a train dispatcher for EJE Railroad in Joliet. The title did not reflect the eventual scope of the job. By the end, he was in charge of operations. His office was the size of a gym. It was big enough to bike in. In fact, on the day of his retirement, he biked around his desk, and out the door forever.
As he talks, Bill tells story after story of adventures big and small. He takes particular pleasure at the memories of generous, friendly people he has met through biking, and of friends who have stuck by him through the worst as well as the best of times. When Char went off to an international shuffleboard tournament, cycling friends dropped by daily to keep him company and make sure everything was okay.
Along with cancer, Bill has sustained a stroke. He has a pacemaker. His incurable myeloma continues. By this time, he says, half of the people who contracted the disease are dead. “If I hang in another three years, I’m getting down to less than one percent survival.”
“Will you make it?”
“Yes,” Bill replies without a moment’s hesitation. “Why not?”
Bill Lang will be speaking at Folks on Spokes’ monthly meeting, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 22, at the Flossmoor Village Hall, 2800 Flossmoor Rd. Nonmembers are welcome. The author is past president and current vice-president/program chair of Folks on Spokes, and a Flossmoor lawyer.