Back in the early 1980's, when I was going to high school in suburban Philadelphia, we heard the first whispers about Wrong Way Wooten. He was a mysterious disaffected young black man from the area who rode his tricked out bike backwards everywhere he went. No one knew when or where he could be seen, but you would catch glimpses of him at unexpected times and places. His bike was outfitted with all kinds of gear including a TV and rear view mirrors for him to see where he was going. It was said he traveled the entire country on that bike.
Some of the stories I read or heard:
"A TV was mounted where the seat should be; two mirrors hung on long brackets, facing front; the bars were padded in a peculiar way - and the toe clips were mounted backwards! "No” I said, "Can't be.” So he showed me clippings from his numerous ocean-to-ocean and Canada-to-Mexico charity rides, and then jumped on the bike and pedaled around. I'm dumbfounded to this day."
Someone in Arizona spoke of his generosity in giving advice about girls and how he and Wrong Way Wooten got arrested for practicing nunchucks on campus.
"He was very gregarious and likable. He always had a story to tell of his adventures."
"After being featured for his unique long range backwards bike riding habit, he used his celebrity for cancer fundraising on his multiple cross country trips."
"I built him a custom rear wheel for his bike that had a 44-hole tandem hub and rim the helped him carry his 300+ pounds of possessions."
"He actually did ride his bicycle backwards ALL THE TIME. It was not altered in any way other than to wrap some tape-covered padding on the stem and handle bars for a bit of comfort. He had removed the seat and seat post which permitted him to cover that portion of the bike with more tied-down possessions. He sat on the bars facing to the rear and pedaled backwards. The shift levers were in their original stem-mounted position which now placed them between his legs. He used two rear-view mirrors on extra-long brackets to provide cues to what was "up ahead”. He claimed to be traveling for charity and readily took advantage of any offerings of food, shelter, and money."
"I can remember going to a Dunkin Donuts at one or two in the morning with my beau and having Wrong Way Wooten ride his bike around the parking lot while singing 'Chances Are' along with the 8-track tape player that was strapped to his bike."
"He had an ultra heavy blue Schwinn Varsity with one-piece forged crankset that supported the several hundreds of pounds of gear and himself. It was a 21-speed, 12-foot-long custom-made bike that, quite frankly, resembles a home on wheels. It's complete with a dozen or more small, red pouches of food, a mini-television, stereo cassette, AM-FM receiver, amplifier and microphone, weighing 450 pounds."
Some said he died of Aids, but he actually died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 47.
The reason I share his legend is he fathered a son. Years later, when I had graduated college and returned to the area, I volunteered for a year in an alternative educational program called The Watershed. It required a lottery to get into. His son, along with 35 other 7th grade kids, won the lottery and it forever changed all their lives. Previously he had been 'that troubled kid' who was destined for failure. While his father was traveling the country on his bike, his son was floundering in school and life. He sought any negative attention he could get. He would get in fights, or rebel against every educational expectation given him. Before that special year, many felt he was destined for "juvey" and likely would drop out in high school.
The classroom setting was unlike any I had been a part of as a student. There were two main teachers who taught all the subjects, but math, in a mingled custom curriculum based around the concept that we are all part of a watershed. There were no grades. There were no tests. Much of the learning was experiential or group research. They took weekly field trips to the watershed to study the ecosystem in all its facets. I volunteered that full year, while taking teacher certification classes and student teaching in the spring.
I recall the tremendous challenge of dealing with Wrong Way Wooten's son. He became my personal project, as he was a distraction and detriment to group cohesion. He was so starved for attention that he would rebel or act out negatively at every opportunity. You couldn't reason with him. I had to physically restrain him on multiple occasions from acting out. All the while, I was trying to introduce the notion that he had potential as a contributing positive member of the classroom. He had the additional hindrance of not being able to read well, which was an area we focused on. While the experience was quite exasperating, by the end of the year, we saw some improvement in him. He started to realize he could gain attention for his positive contributions. He realized he could be liked for who he was, and not how bad he acted. He saw that education and authority weren't necessarily his enemies.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to follow up with him in the following years. One year can't make up for many years of neglect, but it pointed him in the right direction. I heard that he turned out to be one of the best football players of his year, something he would never have considered doing previously - a team sport. He graduated, something his father probably couldn't say.
I firmly believe each person has many paths that they can take in their lifetime. The subtlest touch here or there can move you in different directions. Wrong Way Wooten said he first started riding backward when he was 13, after someone said a bike could only be ridden forward. "I told them there had to be another way" said Wooten. l don't know what ultimately created his father's path, but it created a certain infamy for him. I'm glad to know that I played a very small role in seeing that his son had a chance to take a different path.