es, it did. It seems that I have been in love with motorcycles since my pre-school years.
Those of you born after Sputnik launched won’t have direct recall of this but once upon a time well before the internet, in fact it was in a time when we were still rather marveling at black and white television, there was a different kind of search engine. It was called the Sears catalogue and it was where you went to fantasize and develop your material dreams. I’m talking back in the days before your mail was deluged with the irritating, puny, little catalogues from companies whose names you wouldn’t even know if they didn’t harass you with their repetitive pulp twice a month. The Sears & Roebuck catalogue was thicker than most big city phone books and when it showed up at the house twice a year, it was a big deal. It promised hours of escape into a parallel world; a special place you visited to daydream over the things you didn’t even know about, couldn’t afford, and maybe would never own. It seems strange to me today but, believe it or not, in the 1950’s, Sears & Roebuck’s carried motorcycles in their catalogue and those were the worn-out pages in mine.
It was during those great childhood years, I remember, that I was completely intrigued, consumed even, by a royal blue motorcycle that lived in the garage of one of my little buddies across the street and down a ways.
These folks left their garage door up a lot so, when the dad was gone to work and their car was out of the skimpy single-car garage, you could see that Harley Davidson just sitting there, taunting from its indifference, all day long. It was a K model, 750cc, street tracker and it was bobbed and devoid of a front fender in a way that was just so cool it strained me to dream about it. There were hours in those days when I could think of nothing else but owning one just like it.
We kids used to play a lot on the sloping lawn and concrete driveway across the street at Mark Blair’s house. Most of us in the neighborhood had blacktop driveways in front of our single-car garages but the Blair’s had been upgraded to concrete and it had a ninety-degree turn in it. That curve, combined with a short downhill slope and the smoother-finished concrete, made it an irresistible surface on which to leave big, black brodies with our bicycle tires.
Anyhow, I would sometimes hang around there for hours (or so it seemed to me as a kid) intermittently gawking at that Harley between other distractions and games. It strongly beckoned to me. I would lustily dream of the day when I would have my own motorcycle to ride. With the impatience of youth, I ached for that reality and wondered, almost daily, as to just how and when that would come about. Notice I did not say “if” that would happen since I never seemed to question that it would. Never mind that I was too young and physically too small to ride or that I was without the means to even buy a tankful of ethyl let alone a motorcycle.
Today, those thoughts make me nod, almost imperceptibly, as I sit here with a serene grin, recalling the fleeting, innocent years of my youth; those promise-filled, boundless days before the self-imposed limitations of adulthood had set-in. Those were the years when everything was possible, the means was not a consideration and the fulfillment of your dreams was, like-as-not, waiting just around the bend – maybe when you were just a year older.
You might understandably, wonder, especially if you knew I had never before ridden on a motorcycle, if it had ever even occurred to me to ponder why I was so inexplicably drawn to them. I didn’t consider it any more than a moth asks why it’s drawn to a flame?
It never even crossed my mind to think that I might not like the experience of riding a motorcycle or that I might be scared, or that I might not be any good at it. Since I am writing this, the question has obviously, finally, come to me now but I still don’t really ask it. I just feel a sense of gratitude and mild comfort at the quiet wisdom of knowing that the “why” really just doesn’t matter. It’s not unlike gravity. I don’t need to understand the physics of it, or to study on it, to know that I need it and I’m very grateful for it.
The timing was about right for me to have seen “The Wild One” and been inspired by it since it was distributed sometime in the early fifties. Maybe I had, but my passion wasn’t about rebellion. I may bristle against authority today but back then I was much too young to have developed anything societal to rebel against. I think the attraction was much more about free will and, for that matter, controlling and accelerating my physical existence in space and time. Okay, there was the “cool” factor too.
That tormenting blue object of my desire was kept parked up against the white, plastered, rear wall of the garage, cross-wise to the front door so that from the outside you had a good, full-profile view of it. You stepped right by it every time you walked into their kitchen from the garage and on the way in I would always run my fingers along it, caressing the leather saddle and the enamel on the rear fender; sneaking a fleeting connection of forbidden affection and intimacy.
It was dusty and dry. Neglected. Where there should have been no sound, it rasped abrasively where I touched it. I suspect that, had I looked, I would have found the tire-walls cracked and the grips and foot-pegs weather-checked as rubber was prone to become back then in smog-filled L.A.. I don’t remember ever hearing it start up (and I would have) and I’m certain he never rode it out of this cage he had forgotten it to while I was around.
One day, overcome by the yet unacknowledged draw of my destiny, I actually scrounged up the courage to make my move. I doubt that I was more than seven or eight years old. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t courage at all but, in fact, a weakness; a simple failure to resist a primal draw or a covet-driven urge. I distinctly remember straddling a motorcycle, that motorcycle, for the first time. Don’t ask me how I got into the garage alone. I guess I just surrendered to the siren and marched over there to encounter the inevitable.
Blessedly, as I swung a leg over that Harley, God chose to have me not tip it over. It’s a wonder that I could even get a leg over it given my small size at the time and while I clearly remember the event, I don’t actually remember how I managed it.
My buddies and I had walked by it with eyes wide in adoration, a hundred times. But we had been told that it was out of bounds, not to be touched and, certainly, never to be sat upon. I laugh now at that vain restriction. My destiny-call was compelling and far more potent than the relatively vague fear of an ill-defined punishment for doing some forbidden deed. I mean, what scofflaw ever expects to be caught anyway? Looking back, childhood was about testing the arbitrary limits, the Maginot lines, and seeing what I could get away with. That testing was different from rebellion; it was about discovery. I sometimes wonder if anything has changed.
Look at the sophisticated shenanigans we adults contrive in an effort to hide our true purposes. Women have that derisive saying: “The only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys”. Confessing the grain of truth in that, I would add: “… and the degree of their belief in the illusion that they can conceal their hidden motives”.
The thrill that rippled through me as I leaned over the gas tank and stretched my arms wide to grab hold of those handlebars is tattooed on my memory; still fresh and readily available for instant recall. I just knew I was cool and that I would ride a motorcycle! That rush infected me with a dis-ease that has gripped me tightly ever since. Motorcycles, as it turns out, have molded much of the course of my life.
I’m sure I made rumbling sounds, revving them through vibrating lips as I imagined leaning, perfectly of course, this way and that through mental, mountain curves while I held on for dear life — although I had no clue as to what all the levers and gizmos were for, let alone how to use them.
My legs were too short and my feet couldn’t even reach the pegs and foot-controls. I knew how to ride a bicycle. How much harder could this be? It mattered not that I didn’t know how to shift or how to even start this behemoth, or that I didn’t pack enough freight to even stomp on that kicker to turn it over. I was hooked. My destiny was revealed.
The playing cards that all us kids were in the habit of clothes-pinning to the rear-frames or the forks of our bicycles took on new relevance. We would attach the cards in such a way that they would flap, stiffly, against the spokes of the wheels as they rotated when we peddled down the street. The result was a sound that we were convinced was very much like that of a motorcycle. For Christmas I really, really wanted a pair of black leather gloves and one of those multi-zippered, black, leather, motorcycle jackets. Maybe I’d have an eagle put on the back.
About seven years passed before I got my first motorized two-wheeler and, curiously enough, she was blue; chipped and beat up to be sure but if you looked close you could tell that when she had been painted, blue had been the intended hue. The image below is what she would have looked like when new.
Back then, you could get a scooter permit, which was restricted to a maximum size and horsepower, at the age of fourteen. My first was a Cushman “Highlander” – a step-through motor scooter with a 15 horsepower, air-cooled, Briggs and Stratton engine and a centrifugal clutch. I bought it from my brother for some ridiculously small sum like twenty-five or fifty dollars. It had small diameter, fat tires like a wheel barrow and it had lost most of its sheet-metal to forgotten collisions and anonymous scavengers over the years. The upholstery was gone from its bare-metal, tractor type seat. There was no front brake and hardly one on the rear. It was already old and very, very tired by the time I got it and, on a paper-route income, I could scarcely afford to put gas and oil in it, let alone maintain or (are you kidding?) improve it.
But it went faster than any bicycle and I didn’t have to peddle it. Twisting the wrist is a skill that I honed quickly. I am sure I pushed that Cushman one mile for every two miles I rode it but when she was running she was without question the most exhilarating fun I had ever had.
My parents belonged to that old school that dictated that you didn’t just “give” kids anything. My brother and I had learned to not even ask for a dime for an ice cream bar from the Good Humor man or a doughnut from the Helms Bakery man when their truck came jingling down the street lest we get rebuked by the wrathful and too-familiar, “You know better than to even ask”. Those were different times and spare funds weren’t very available.
Be that as it may, my needy desire to ride was so overwhelming that I knowingly confronted the inevitable, anger-laced “no” one time when we visited The Isthmus at Catalina Island. They had Mo-Peds for rent there and even though I was on a mini-paradise island with a plethora of distractions, I still longed to get on something that had two-wheels and an internal combustion engine.
My next two-wheeled terrorizer was an Aer Macchi Chimera acquired when I was sixteen. Destiny was again hinting at my future as the Chimera turned out to be the forerunner of what would later become the Harley Davidson “Sprint” when The Motor Company associated with, and eventually bought-out, the motorcycle division of this Italian company. This used 175cc upgrade in my personal motorcycle history was a tremendous step-up from scooter category to bona-fide motorcycle; however small. It actually had the requisite motorcycle gas tank for me to grip between my knees, as well as a clutch and transmission, a speedometer and a front brake.
The first thing I did was pull the guts out of the muffler to get a better sound from it. It ended up being much too loud so I took some soda cans from the trash barrel and, using a church key, popped holes in both ends and stuck them into the muffler pipe to help baffle the noise. It worked pretty well except that, when at an idle, you could hear both cans embarrassingly rattling around as they rotated to some harmonic call – no doubt induced by just the right ratio of RPM’s in relation to the shape, displacement and weight of the silly cans. As I couldn’t yet afford a Harley in my teens and twenties, I owned other brands too, mostly of English make. My first-ever brand new motorcycle, a BSA “Victor”, was bought in 1967 after I had joined the air force.
I was twenty years old and taking home $84 a month but room and board and medical were covered and, coming from Uncle Sam, this was a reliable paycheck. Single-cylinder bikes like this were commonly nicknamed “thumpers” as they had 441 cc’s stuffed, by a high compression ratio, into that solo cylinder and they had tremendous torque. The BSA “Victor” was a poor compromise though; an effort to cross between a street bike and a dirt-hill climber that did neither very well. But she was real, respected and she was mine!
Later, after I got out of the air force, I rode a sweet, used Triumph Daytona; a 500 cc twin that had the prettiest copper and black paint scheme I’d ever seen. I rode it until I got my first Harley. That was the last kick-start motorcycle I owned. Good riddance to that!
I have some rich memories of my early scoots but though they were admirable for their relative simplicity, I cannot deny that they were pretty crude motorcycles when compared to today’s advancements in motorcycle technology. We now have ABS, air suspension, cruise control, heated grips and saddles, high tech sound and intercom systems plus much improved engines and tires and electric starting ferheavensakes! Did I mention chrome?
Now, in my early sixties, I have owned motorcycles for most of my life. The regrettable lapses in ownership were periods that, although relatively short, seemed unpleasantly long while enduring them. These voids were the pluckings that resulted when I submitted to an externally-induced hiatus like, for example, the USAF indifferently shipping me several thousand miles off to some so-called paradise named Hawaii in the Pacific.
By 1973 I had gotten out of the air force and become a city policeman after a stint as an L.A. deputy sheriff for a few years. I finally got to actually ride my first Harley Davidson when the City of Newport Beach graciously sent me off to CHP motorcycle training in Sacramento. It was a two-week intensive with one unabashed goal: To make its graduates the finest, safest and most skilled street-riding motorcyclists in the world. I was in heaven for that half-month and focused intently every single day to pay attention and get every morsel I could out of that training. In addition to Chippies in the class, there were officers from San Jose and San Bernardino and the City of Orange. Many of those that I started with were good guys and, I assume, fine cops but they were getting washed-out for one reason or another. It was the very difficult task of these excellent instructor’s to separate those of us who had been blessed with the right stuff from those who were not so fortunate. In the instructor’s estimation these motor-cop aspirants weren’t grasping the concepts. Others failed to display the physical coordination or skill to safely execute the moves. So you can imagine the daily strain and how hard the rest of us were working just to not get the boot.
To this day I can still spot a graduate of the California Highway Patrol Motor Academy by the techniques he will use when he rides. It is with frank gratitude that I can say I’ve never had a serious motorcycle accident – which is quite unusual for a person with the number of years and thousands on thousands of miles I have chalked up. I thank God and then attribute that blessing to my excellent CHP training.
When I graduated and got back to Newport Beach with my proud new P.O.S.T. Motorcycle Certificate, they called my new play-for-pay assignment, “hazardous duty” and so they paid me extra to ride around on a brand new black and white 1974 Electra Glide Shovelhead every day! They even asked me take it home at the end of each shift! It had an old “growler” siren that only worked if you were rolling because the thing operated by pressing a lever down with your left heel which in turn held a roller against the rear tire. I’m still wondering why I ever, voluntarily, quit that job??!!!
So I’ve been riding for over 45 years and I’ve owned five Harleys – from the smallest (a Sportster with an extended front end)
to the biggest (an Ultra Classic).
I typically have at least two at a time (a man really needs two – just trust me on this) but, for me, my favorite never changes.
My favorite of them all is a Softail Springer that I bought brand new for my forty-fifth birthday in April of 1992. I named her “Spirit”. I’ve done so much over the years to get her dialed-in just right for my long legs and visual tastes.
My best friend even did the custom paint job and she’s still the best ride I ever had. I expect to never sell her. I intend to just leave her in the garage, plugged to the battery tender and ride her as much as weather and responsibilities will allow. When I am gone, I know my son will take her in, ride her often and love her well.
Yup. My son rides too. In fact, as unlikely as it may seem after all of this rambling commentary, in some ways he is more devoted to motorcycling than I am. He is an accomplished and skilled rider in his own right and he rides to work every day where he sells motorcycles for a living! Since he was selling BMWs and rode one, I bought a BMW myself to provide a more compatible riding experience when we rode together.
We rode round-trip from San Rafael, California to Topeka, Kansas in 2004; a 4000 mile “putt” to celebrate his college graduation. Motorcycles are an excellent bonding agent.
Today, riding our Harley Davidson Ultra together is a blessed time of sharing the beautiful outdoors and the freedom of the road for my wife, Audrey, and I. We get a local ride in nearly every weekend as weather permits and also manage to take in a few longer “putts” each summer.
Our road trips typically include camping out in a small tent one night and then staying the next night in a nice motel or B&B to get a better shower. It’s an amazing way for a couple to share and intensify the wonderful reality of just being alive and together.
Long ago, I understood that riding motorcycles was to be my personal tension-release; a natural high if you will. I know it’s more predictable than clever but since I have no use for psycho-therapy I call motorcycling, my “Cycle Therapy”. If weather or some other adversary keeps me off of my motorcycle for much more than a week I start getting anxious and edgy. All it takes is five or ten miles on the road and I am recovered.
My favorite ride is a long road trip; one that gets you at least out of state and hopefully a thousand miles or more from home. With a twist of irony, we riders affectionately call such a trip a “putt”. Typically, I take at least one of these road trips every year. As the departure day approaches, invariably I get senselessly giddy with excitement. Once I actually head out of the garage and get on the road, I become so completely overwhelmed with my regained sense of freedom and looming adventure that I cannot help but let out a loud whoop and a holler. After which I will often make a quick right turn and smile a silent thanks, knowing that my loud pipes prevented anyone from overhearing my lunacy.
My “putts” may only be fifteen hundred miles but, in a really good year, they are several thousand. A putt is just so much richer when you can savor it with another rider, especially a good friend. So the length and duration depends a lot on who I can get to go with me and how much time they are willing to choose to get away for. I’m always happy to get back home but after a month or two, I begin again to pester my riding buddies. I cajole relentlessly to pick a date and commit to the next road-trip.
I have ridden extensively through most every state in the West and the Midwest. Harleys have also taken me to the east coast and back and into Canada and throughout central Europe, through the Black Forest of Germany and over the Swiss Alps down into northern Italy.
A man needs something good and adventuresome to look forward to; something out-of-reach to reach for. Come to think of it, so does a boy; which, I reckon, is why I stared at the old blue K-Model in the garage across the street for so long.
Stashed in the back of my figurative sock drawer, I keep gotta-do places like New England (maybe one October during the fall colors?) the Appalachians, the Smokeys, the deep South, The Natchez Trace and the Florida Keys. These dangling carrots are possessively sheltered in my velvet-lined bag of dreams that I gotta do before I die.
Even when it’s cold and wet outside, I still get surprising pleasure just hanging out with my Harleys in the garage and tinkering on them or gawking at their beauty. I know we are told to not “love” material things but I am one who scoffs at the status quo and questions conventional wisdom. If you can remember the political byte, “I like Ike”, you’ll be old enough to perhaps forgive my irreverent pleasure-taking in simple ownership of a few, important, earthly things. Nothing has held such a continuous passion and devotion, for so long in my life, as my motorcycles have.
I wish I still had every one of them. What a hoot it would be, just once, to have them all lined up in chronological sequence together in a big open garage. Maybe I would actually just arrange them in a circle about me. I’d sip on a single-malt, savor a good cigar, and mentally wander along Memory Lane from the primitive Cushman to the luxurious Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic.
Can you see me grinning at it all? I’d be kickin’ back in the center of that circle, wearing those black leather gloves and that zippered, leather jacket that I finally got. And I’d be astride the queen of the stable, my “springer”, Spirit. Man it’s been a good ride!
Copyright Rik Goodell 2008