Originally published on Page A1 of the York Daily Record/Sunday News on Sunday, December 4, 2011.
By LAUREN BOYER
Daily Record/Sunday News
York, PA - After emerging from a nine-month coma, Adam Boxleitner twisted his tattooed wrists into a biker’s grip.
“I want to ride,” he told his family, from a wheelchair at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital.
The year was 2004. His head still ached from a cracked skull and battered brain, scars of a motorcycle crash that nearly claimed his life.
But Adam — like many diehard gearheads before him — desired few things more than the chance to ride again.
To his supporters, the aspiration initially seemed unattainable. For family, thrusting a son and brother back in harm’s way seemed counterintuitive — reckless, even.
One person — his younger brother Andy, a fellow rider — couldn’t ignore their shared passion. He convinced surgeons and nurses the counterculture hobby is “in (Adam’s) blood. It’s something he has to do.”
It took years. Andy eventually stumbled upon a York Township bike shop known for custom sidecars and trikes, often modified for those dismembered or maimed by the same hobby they long to resume.
For Adam, the fulfillment of a dream came just in time.
On a dreary October morning, designs of black ink — the remnants of a wild past — emerged from beneath his black leather sleeves as he stared stoically, slumped in his wheelchair outside his home, the Conestoga View nursing facility in Lancaster.
Andy, 45, tugged on the orange safety harness as he weaved it through each epaulette, casting a friendly jab: “He’s a tattooed freak.”
Dulled by medication he’d been given after getting aggressive toward nursing staff, Adam appeared numb to the 2003 Harley-Davidson Road King parked 3 feet away — that is, until the engine growled, awakening something that had been asleep for nearly a decade.
After all these years, he still remembered.
From the adjoining sidecar, Adam’s somber scowl morphed into a wild grin as he pumped his fist toward his sister, Joy Craun, 37, who fended off tears.
A month later, the emotion returned as she stood over the casket of her 49-year-old brother, who, on Nov. 11, succumbed to his 7-year-old injuries.
He was buried in that leather jacket.
The date was June 19, 2004 — a Saturday night in Philadelphia.
Adam, a carpenter, had just finished a job on the set of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” when he hopped on his motorcycle, a 2001 Road King he’d named “Shadowfax” after the horse in the book “Lord of the Rings.”
As he cruised through a two-lane intersection, a car turned into him at full speed. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“I was irate,” Andy said. “That guy wanted to see my brother. He clearly felt bad. But it was always in the back of my mind whether he tried to beat him across the intersection.”
The impact caused a midline shift, an injury where the brain moves to one side because of massive swelling. He’d lost pieces of his skull and cracked vertebrae.
Doctors at Hahnemann University Hospital gave him a 5 to 10 percent chance of living.
“They just felt like there was some life in there,” Craun said. “They didn’t want to let him go. They thought he was worth fighting for.”
After dozens of surgeries — each a brush with death — Adam transferred to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital that December. After three months, he slowly opened his eyes and relearned to walk, never losing sight of his ultimate goal:
“I want to ride.”
Andy, desperate for his brother’s full recovery, pitched a deal.
“I’ll buy you any motorcycle you want,” he said, “if you can work yourself out of this.”
Adam moved back to his childhood home in Willow Street in May 2005.
“He was never going to be the same,” Andy said. “That was pretty clear.”
The arrangement lasted nearly a year before Adam’s combative behavior, a symptom of brain injury, overcame his aging parents.
And thus started his navigation through the health care system. First, an Acadia group home in Lancaster. Then, Brighten Place, a nursing facility in Chalfont two hours from home.
By then, the former U.S. Marine had fallen, broken two hips, and was no longer walking.
His buff body had morphed into a frailer form as his condition declined.
“He wouldn’t say a word to you the whole time,” Andy said. “You visited because you had to.”
Still, Adam, who used a wheelchair, longed for another set of wheels — the ones he fell in love with as a Lancaster County teen.
The brothers browsed Harley-Davidson motorcycles on the Internet and paged through a big book of bikes kept by his nursing home bedside.
Six years had passed since Adam’s injury. Doctors had said he would make most of his gains in the first five years of recovery.
“He wanted to ride,” Andy said. “That was his thing. But it became clear pretty early on his odds of that were zero.”
In 2010, on a whim, Andy bought a 2003 Harley-Davidson Road King in Long Island, N.Y., and searched up and down the East Coast for a sidecar large enough to accommodate his 6-foot-1-inch tall brother.
At the same time, he convinced his reluctant family to support an idea.
“I asked, ‘What more can happen to him?’” Andy said. “He’s more than likely going to be in a home the rest of his life. If I can show him a little bit of fun and make this work, I promised it would be worthwhile.”
He got in touch with Bob Adamson, owner of Adamson’s Susquehanna Cycle.
“A lot of sidecars are like getting in and out of a kayak,” Adamson said. “You can get in the damn thing, but you can’t get out.”
Adamson joined the bike business in 1997, after a 38-foot fall at York Welding and Equipment Service Company, a business he owned in Lower Windsor Township. The nerve damage still lingering from that accident helps him relate to the struggles of his customers.
“You go through a very traumatic experience with something like that,” he said. “To be able to conquer part of your fear and move on with your life, that’s a big accomplishment.”
For Andy, Adamson prescribed a Ural sidecar. The Russian company is known for its open-style vehicles.
Then, he helped install a full-body harness, the only recommendation made by Adam’s surgeons. The whole project cost about $4,700.
“(Adam) doesn’t like being restrained,” Andy said. “He’s pretty bull-headed. But, for whatever reason, he seems to listen to me more than anybody else in the family. And I told him, ‘Don’t give me crap about wearing a helmet.’”
This summer, the Boxleitner family gathered for the bike’s maiden voyage. The brothers drove for 40 minutes around Lancaster looking for deer, circling through a county park and a covered bridge.
“We were yelling,” Andy said. “He was smiling ear-to-ear, which is something you don’t see much.”
In Adam’s mind, the crash never happened.
Doctors initially said he would never form new memories or recollect old ones.
Until a cranialplasty in May to repair his skull, he needed a re-introduction to his sister’s husband, each time the couple visited.
“Every time I told him I was married, it was this huge surprise,” Craun said. “He’d get so excited. Every day was like Groundhog’s Day.”
After the surgery, the family had high hopes. Adam — out of nowhere — started calling Craun by her childhood nickname, “Fudd.”
Andy continued to take his brother for spins every Sunday and on breaks from his job as a street supervisor for Millersville borough. Elderly residents would come outside to cheer him on, Craun said. “It inspired them to see him doing things.”
And then, on Nov. 11, Andy got the call he had expected seven years earlier. Adam had passed away suddenly.
“It was bittersweet,” Andy said. “He didn’t want to be where he was. The better he’d get, the more he’d understand that.”
A few days later, Andy parked the bike — with an empty sidecar — outside a Lancaster funeral home where more than 50 friends and family gathered, dressed mostly in jeans, like Adam would have wanted.
Among the childhood photos sat a faded VHS tape of “Easy Rider,” a 1969 classic about two bikers traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America.
Adam, an officiator said, had enjoyed “the ride of his life,” aided at the end by his giving brother and a handful of rides on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that gave him a purpose during his last few months alive.
“It was worth every bit of time and money,” Andy said. “That was the only time anyone saw him truly happy.”
He plans to keep the bike and, perhaps, use it for charity events to help children.
Meanwhile, the man who said he’d never ride again after his brother’s crash also owns another Harley, purchased, he said, to slow himself down.
He knows the risks, but he can’t sit on the sidelines. It’s in his blood.
“I always tell my wife there are two kinds of riders,” he said. “Those who have wrecked and those who are going to wreck.”
About Adamson’s Susquehanna Cycle
At 6 years old, Bob Adamson rode his 3.5 horsepower mini-bike on the sidewalks of Haines Acres in Springettsbury Township.
“That was the good old days,” he said, laughing. “You could ride up and down the street and this and that without getting in trouble.”
The 54-year-old still remembers his first real motorcycle — a Honda 90 Dream — purchased at legal riding age.
Today, he keeps busy organizing the flat track racing for the White Rose Thunder motorcycle rally, planned for September at the York Fairgrounds, and running Adamson’s Susquehanna Cycle, a York Township shop specializing in custom sidecars and trikes.
Until 2009, the business, at 890 West Broadway, was a certified Ural dealership, receiving regular new shipments of the Russian bikes known for open-style sidecars — a vehicle trend that’s fallen from popularity.
The specialty comes in handy for his customer base, which often charges him to make modifications to vehicles for those limited physically by factors including old age, a missing limb or disability.
Adamson considers himself disabled. He started the business in 1997 after a 38-foot fall at his former welding business, which left chronic nerve damage.
“You can change people’s lives,” he said. “You get someone who is disabled and can’t ride, and this will change their life.”