When the guy across the hall freshman year said he was going to buy a motorcycle, I thought it was just another example of the depressive tendencies that had him painting his entire bedroom black (including the windows) and that would eventually drive him from the college the first time he failed to be first in a class. His name was Bobby and I think he ended up at the University of Montana and is an environmental Justice out in the Upper Northwest somewhere.
To put it simply, I thought a motorcycle was suicidal. Also wet, cold, bone shaking and generally inimical to civilized human life. I made impassioned pleas for him to change his mind (it was February of freshman year; at that point, you make impassioned pleas to get someone to go to the dining hall with you) All of my arguments failed and he came back one day with a Yamaha 250.
Now, he didn’t know how to ride it – he’d had an older brother truck it in in the back of a pickup truck. We were freshman at the college with the toughest entrance requirements in the country, we felt we could learn just about anything. So, at 3 in the morning, I helped him push the bike down to the parking lot behind the field house.
After a fair amount of confusion about what was the fuel cock and which direction it needed to be turned followed by an intense discussion on the meaning and probable use of a choke, we got it started. The Yamaha 250 was what was then called a “utility motorcycle” – something that simply doesn’t exist anymore (now there are only enormous cruisers, crotch rockets and off-road bangers). It was for people who needed to get to work and didn’t have much money to spend. It had a two-stroke engine with a tank of cloudy oil that mixed with the gas in the carburetor and produced a fog of sweet-smelling smoke. The sound as it went by was best described as “Ring-a-ding-ding-ding-ding.” For some inscrutable reason, they only came in red and both the paint and the spring steel had a tendency to fade with age.
Bobby tried the bike out first, puttering slowly around the parked cars and alternately jerking forward as he braked and backwards as he applied the throttle. After a while, he took a break and said I could ride.
I took it up the street in first gear and then stopped and spent a frustrating few minutes trying to turn it around – they don’t have reverse gears, oddly enough. On the way back, I managed to find second gear and what felt like an unmanageable speed. At the end of the road, it took a very gentle turn to the left but that was completely beyond me. I managed to slow the thing down, ran gently into the curb and fell on the grass.
I was completely and utterly in love.
I’ve been infatuated and deeply in love with some excellent women. I have seen Paris and Rome and had a beer after 10 hours hitchhiking in the Kansas sun. I’ve won Emmys and been praised by the best for my work.
I have never ever felt the way I felt about riding a motorcycle at that precise moment. It was love at first ride. I lay on the grass and instantly promised that I would buy a bike as soon as possible and learn everything there was about riding it.
That night, I concentrated on learning to stop the damn thing.
I had the great good luck to live across the hall from Curtis Wright IV. Everyone at Haverford was pretty damn smart but Curtis took things to a whole different level. He not only read comics and built his own bed out of railroad ties, he had a motorcycle shop in the basement and had constructed a “Triton” – which was a Triumph frame with a Norton engine (or perhaps vice versa) . After the school fire marshal found out about the amount of fuel and grease stored directly below the freshman dorm, he moved to an empty space in the center of campus and proceeded to expand his shop.
At one point, the local chapter of the Pagans showed up to “request’ that he become their house mechanic. Now, legend had it that the proper way to enter the Pagan clubhouse was to knock and move quickly to the side. They would fire a pistol through the door and if you weren’t dead – well, clearly you knew the password. I had my doubts about this just over the question of replacement doors but it certainly gave you an impression of how they were regarded. Curtiss gently turned down their offer but the sight of the five of them roaring off through the quiet Quaker campus on their custom Harleys remains with me. I’m fairly sure that Curtis became a doctor and now runs a couple of medical companies. I don’t know if he still rides.
As I’ve explained, I didn’t want to be the person I had been in High School so I decided to become Curtis. I began to buy and read comic books (luckily this was the Silver Age of great artists and writers), I learned that being intelligent didn’t mean that you couldn’t have fun and I learned how to ride a motorcycle. The first think Curtis tried to sell me was a 1940’s Indian Chief – an enormous machine with a foot clutch and a gear shift that you had to let go of the handlebars to operate. It was called, of course, a “suicide shift”. Since I could barely hold it upright, I got cold feet and instead bought a wrecked Honda 250 in a box – intending to fix it up in the basement of Spanish House.
This taught me the valuable lesson that no one can unscrew the engine bolts on a cheap motorcycle. The old British machines would quite willingly unscrew themselves (what Curtis used to refer to as the “warm feeling of motor oil filling your boot”) but the cheap steel in a Japanese bike bonded to itself in an unbreakable weld. Luckily, an act of betrayal rescued me or I would doubtlessly still be trying to get that thing running.
One of my best friends from high school had also bought a bike – an identical Yamaha 250 – but he had a problem I didn’t. His parents had told him he absolutely couldn’t buy a motorcycle and he cared about what they thought. So one day, he drove down from Franklin and Marshall to visit me at the gas station where I worked in the evenings and, while we were talking, my mother stopped by.
No one had cell phones back then but I’ll swear that Mom called my buddy’s mother within seconds of leaving. At that point, what could I do but offer to buy the now-forbidden machine at a reasonable discount? I sold the boxed bike for about $20 and I was mobile.
The very first day I drove my new machine, I passed a car on the left and watched as he turned left right into me. I managed to remember where the throttle was so I didn’t’ get dismembered but the picture of that fender heading towards my unprotected leg stayed with me. From that point on, I didn’t ever drive drunk (or on any other chemical enhancement), I didn’t pass on the left except at extremely high speed and I learned to watch all other drivers in an attempt to discern what stupid things they were about to do.
I reveled in mobility. I drove that bike on every back road in suburban Philadelphia, took it to New York, drove 40 miles a day to summer jobs, learned how to draft behind trucks and , eventually, could fix damn near everything with the toolkit under the seat and the wrapper off a pack of Marlboros (the width of the cellophane is exactly the right distance to adjust the points.) I still have a hard time with the concept that motorcycles not only don’t have kickstarters, they don’t have tool kits or even points.
In my sophomore year, I decided that I would take a vacation. I’d worked through every summer, winter and other vacation for the past 3 years – giving what money I earned to my father to help pay for college. With $29 in my pocket, I hitched to Florida and stopped in Daytona. That was my first experience with Bike Week in Daytona.
A couple of vivid memories from the five or six years I attended this Lourdes of the Two-Wheeler: waking up about 2am inside the pup-tent I’d raised in the parking lot of the Speedway, looking outside to see a lean, tattooed member of the Florida Outlaws come by stark naked on his chopper; working with a film crew and pulling the cameraman back behind the barrier whenever a sliding racer would head our way; passing a tattered press pass through the fence so that five of us could come in on one ticket, working with the cameraman to shoot the burned carcass of the Number One Harley (and consequently the end of the funding of that particular film) and most of all, standing in the pits and hearing the shattering, heart-stopping, enfolding wonderful noise of the engines at the start.
- Ride with safety and style: A look at motorcycle helmets (poststar.com)
- 20 Reasons Why You Should Date A Biker !!!!! (binillive.wordpress.com)
- ‘The Evolution of Motorcycle Fashion’ Infographic (amog.com)
- the development of the motorcycle (muscleheaded.wordpress.com)