Chances are you didn’t start riding a motorcycle without having seen someone near and dear to you mount up and roar off into the distance in a cloud of dust, pipes roaring, shirttails flapping.
Once you’ve seen the Way of the Motorcycle, it’s hard to forget the experience, and if you were young enough the first time you actually got to ride one, it sticks with you for a lifetime. The first time you climbed aboard and screwed on the throttle, that first change up into second, that first change down through the gears heading into a bend, all marked you for life as surely as if you got a tattoo plastered to the side of your neck.
Once you’re hooked, the deal is done and you are a rider. You may find yourself, at various times, too busy or too broke to ride with any real frequency, but the fact that you’re a rider is simply lying dormant deep within your DNA, and the need you feel to ride will rise again within you when you least expect it.
My first serious motorcycle was a mid-1960′s Honda 305 CL77 Scrambler that I got as a legacy of sorts. I say mid-1960′s as the bike had obviously been stolen at least once (all the numbers and badges were filed off), enthusiastically (if not skillfully) chopped in various ways and painted more than once with a series of rattle cans. It was dented, leaky, ugly and starting to rust at an alarming rate. The tires were crap. It was a flat-black vision of neglect.
The bike showed up in our garage late one night, under the cover of darkness and away from my mother’s scrutiny, after my dad and his pals spent the earlier part of the evening consuming what had to be a large volume of adult beverages. It arrived hanging out of the trunk of a reasonably cherry Oldsmobile 98, half wrapped in a packing blanket, and was swiftly unloaded to the soulful sounds of some eight-track tape or another to be admired by those present.
It was 1973. I was 13 years old and the arrival of that bike provided me with an epiphany. Motorcycles mean freedom, a touch of madness and taking a step through the looking glass into the world of the outsider. I belonged outside in the garage with the other hooligans, not among those in polite society.
At that time, Mom and Dad lived in a pretty nice, and partially completed subdivision where, while the homes were brand-spanking-new, the streets were as yet unpaved. The lot where our home stood was surrounded by a network of trails cut through the woods by dirt bikes and off-road vehicles of all stripe. None of the other homes were much past the framing stage.
For a while, the bike was the center of attention around our house. Watching my dad and his pals tear out of the driveway – and then return dusty and smiling a few minutes later – made me want to join the club and kept me hanging around the front yard listening to them shoot the bull between tours. In fairly short order, that bike, after undergoing a couple of weeks of late evening proficiency runs by dad and his pals, was duly set aside by them for other more pressing adventures. It leaned in forlorn majesty against the outside wall of our garage for a stretch.
It was then that I began my campaign.
It was the kind of war of attrition only a 13-year-old has the time and the lack of other interests to pursue. I started hammering my dad to let me push my bicycle aside and ride that motorcycle whenever I felt the need. I’d gotten to take some short, supervised jaunt up and down in front of the house, but that was just a taste. After most of that summer had moved on, he caved in to the relentless whining and told me, in no uncertain terms, that though I could use the Honda, I was under no circumstances to ride it on a paved road until I had a bona fide driver’s license. And I had to buy my own gas to keep it running. And not annoy him with it – or piss off my mom – in any way.
I would have agreed to the removal of a pinkie finger in exchange for that assent, but he must not have needed an extra one, and I had carte blanche to ride the bike once all domestic and scholastic duties were accomplished each day.
I was officially a free man.
My first solo ride, begun right after I got off the school bus one afternoon, ended with a protracted bout of pushing and twisting a disabled bike through the woods on the way back home. I arrived at the garage as darkness was falling to the sight of my dad, leaning against the back of his car smoking his pipe and shaking his head in sorrow at my piteous state. Rather than enjoy my misery, he helped me push the bike into the garage, grabbed the toolbox and proceeded to give me a lesson in the mysterious workings of a motorcycle engine. He drained the tank into a coffee can, pulled the carbs, gave them a liberal spraying and wiping with cleaner and reassembled the whole shebang. He pulled one plug, tested it for spark against the jug, cranked the plug back in, hopped on the bike, and kicked it over a couple of times with ultimately satisfactory – if somewhat smokey – results.
When I asked him why things went south and how he knew what to do, he simply said, “It sat for a long time. Bad gas or some crap in the lines?”
Watching him at work on the bike was a revelation for me. He wasn’t a motorcycle mechanic. He was a writer at an ad agency during the day, and while I’d seen him tinker with a variety of cars, I’d never sat next to him while he went about doing something I found reasonably comprehensible. Watching someone work at a typewriter does not provide a whole lot of insight into what’s actually going on. Watching someone clean up the fuel system on a motorcycle does.
Over the next few years, he was pressed into service to work on that bike a number of times as it slowly got hammered into rusty oblivion from hard use. Every one of those times, dad showed me something important, and one thing I’ve kept with me is simply this – you can do things yourself and the results don’t have to be perfect to be satisfying.
After a few years, I’d piled up some cash which was ultimately dumped on a series of cars, vans and bikes, but none of them came close to providing me the joy that ratty Honda – and my dad – delivered to our garage.
Thanks dad, for all the skills…