When I was about five years old in the early 1970’s, my Mother, Father and my sisters all took a trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to visit my father’s family. I can’t recall if it was some sort of reunion or not, I do know that my aunts and uncles also stopped by my grandmother’s house. It was summertime, all of us kids were out of school and I have to believe it was a weekend and us kids were either busy playing on the pool table in the basement or running around the neighborhood playing the games kids play. Hide and seek, kick the can, red rover and tag were the order of business for our over energetic fueled systems. My uncle, at least I believe it was my uncle, had a motorcycle. I can’t say for sure it was a Harley because looking back through the fog of my age, I want to say it was a Triumph or a Honda, the only reason I say that is because I distinctly remember the bike having what is known now as European styling. He was generous enough to give any of the kids rides on it. Even me.
I remember the ride, it was just down the sidewalk for about a block, I sat in front of him, cradled in between his arms as he navigated us past houses with folks screaming at him to get off the sidewalk. That was all it took. I was bitten by the two wheel bug and infected with gasoline fumed haziness. By the time I was eight, I was riding my buddies go karts and mini-bikes around the neighborhood. In my teens I made sure to make friends with anyone I found out had a dirt bike and rode them as much as possible. I have even written a bit about those early dirt bike rides on this blog. When I joined the Navy I met a fellow sailor, a shipmate really, who owned several bikes. He taught me how to ride on the street and handle myself on the large steel beasts that dominated the asphalt maze of Hampton Roads. I don’t ever think I got to thank him for that.
When I got out of the Navy, I got married and went to work, no time for a motorcycle when you’re starting a new life and your personal needs grow exponentially by promising to do everything you can to take care of another person. My dreams of buying a motorcycle got shelved as the responsibility of marriage and family come crushing down on you like an avalanche. I stood as tall as I could and went on with making sure I did everything I could to take care of the woman in my life. Soon, our duo became a trio and more and more my dream seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Every now and then though, I would see or hear the glorious, unmistakable sound of America’s best iron. I watched the men and occasionally women, ride down the paved paths of our lives in jealousy. The jealousy was of the freedom and liberation of the mundane life that seemed to be an ever oppressing presence in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I was and am grateful for my family. I have never once said to myself or anyone else that they were the reason for me not fulfilling a childhood dream. I knew what was important and I did not forget it. I never will. I will always try my best to do what is necessary to take care of my own. I’ve never owned a new car and I doubt I ever will. I’ve never liked driving; I don’t think I ever will. Anyone who knows me knows this. I don’t like driving so much that I try to rarely do it and I’ve even made up excuses as to why I can’t drive. But riding… that is another story.
You see my dear reader, riding on two wheels without walls and a roof around you to protect you from the elements seems to me at least, to be a bit like being prom king and having your sister as your prom queen. Sure it’s a nice accolade but you know it will just be a hollow memory as you put your youth behind you. On a bike, you are more engaged with your surroundings and more aware of the asphalt only inches beneath your feet. Yes, I know, people have a definite prejudice against the two wheel riders. I can’t blame them, I’ve seen all sorts of idiots on motorcycles doing all sorts of crazy things, and I hope to God I will never be one of those.
Today however, today… where to start… I guess I have to start with the unmistakable need that has been growing inside of me for the past year. A need that said “Skip, if you don’t act now, it will be too late.” So I acted, I researched bikes and watched bikes, and read about bikes. I even went so far as to write a short story about motorcycle riding. I knew my time was running short for me to make my dream a reality. So I acted. I went online to both the Triumph website and the Harley Davidson website and tried to find a bike I could call my own. A bike I would purchase and be happy with. Weeks went by and I kept flip-flopping between the either the T-100 Bonneville or the HD 1200 Custom. I didn’t know which one would fit me or make the eight year old living inside me jump up for joy.
Then, one fateful evening over a month ago, my wife, my daughter and I went to the local Harley dealership, Bayside Harley Davidson, here in the town I adopted so many years ago. I was quite familiar with this dealer because over the past eight years I would take my daughter there to look at all the shiny metal and chrome that seemed to cast its unmistakable magic over not just me but my offspring as well. As a family we walked around the showroom and my inner child tried hard to break free and climb on the wares displayed before us. He was unsuccessful. But I, as an adult, was smitten even more. My wife knew what these machines mean to me and she pushed me ever so gently to take the next step and talk to a salesman.
Within the short span of two hours I had not just laid down a down payment on a bike but I had custom ordered it. As my wife drove us home I was in a state of disbelief. I kept asking myself if I had just done something I had always wanted to do. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and went about my daily routines as I normally do. But every now and again the reality of what was coming became overbearing for me. So overbearing that for the past five days I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, my chest felt tight and my stomach felt like I had swallowed water balloons with very active goldfish inside them.
My nervousness did not go unnoticed by my co-workers and I eventually succumbed to their questions about what was wrong and I told them I had purchased a bike. Some were surprised, most weren’t. Those who’ve known me for a long time know my affliction with motorcycles. A few nay-sayers claimed I would kill myself or become a part of the “DONOR-CYCLE” gang. I ignored them. I had to. But over the days that passed some of their comments sunk in and I wondered if I were making a mistake. Should I call the dealership and cancel my order? Should I just purchase a gently used car and drive it two miles a day and be miserable for the next forty-six years of my life? Should I just tell myself that as I approach middle age that I am far too responsible for one of a handful of dreams that have plagued me my entire life and on my death bed look back and regret the things I didn’t do?
The resounding answer was “NO!” But, what about my doubts, my inexperience over the past years of not riding? Sure, I had my class “M” license, I’ve never let that expire and even if I never bought a bike I never would let it expire. That little “M” next to my name on my license was a constant reminder to me of something I’d always wanted. And, I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve looked at my license and wondered why I kept it there. I know I looked at it weekly at least.
So today I went to the bank, got a cashier’s check and went and got myself my dream machine. After all the pomp and circumstance that seems to be custom when a person purchases Milwaukee’s best machine, I spent a half an hour getting acquainted with my machine. I practiced starting and stopping, tight curves and I only managed to stall it out once. Yes, I was rusty but those cobwebs soon fell to the concrete and asphalt as I lost track of time and mileage in the oversized parking lot. The oneness I felt with my surroundings as a child riding the dirt paths of Wisconsin soon came flooding back to me. The sound of the engine filled my ears, the wind tickled my face and the feel of the world seem to overtake me. I couldn’t help but feel good. Sure, it was cold out, sure I could be completely insane and yes, this is not something I really needed… I could have purchased a used bike, I could have purchased a car, I could have continued to ride my bicycle and be just as responsible. But deep inside me my past seemed to come into synch with my present and my future. I felt almost perfect.
My daughter, God bless her, stood watching beside her mother in the grass next to a picnic table. She was wearing her helmet and gloves waiting for me to come and give her a ride. My wife stood there with her hoody pulled over her head watching with what I can only assume was a look of pride on her face. I pulled up next to them and my daughter climbed on and we practiced maneuvering as a team on my black beauty. Soon we were leaving the parking lot, her grip tight on my hips and her head resting comfortably between my shoulder blades. A mile down the road we arrived at her grandparents’ house and they came out and looked at the machine with pride and a touch of jealousy. Fifteen minutes later I was back on the road, by myself this time.
I needed time to communicate with my new family member, learn her moves, and feel how she responded to my commands. It was a bit rough but eventually smoothed out a bit as I learned her particular needs. I rode around town, took her through old neighborhoods and even up onto the interstate for a few miles. The biting cold of the wind made me shiver but those shivers went unnoticed. I was enthralled with my mode of transportation. When I got home there was an open spot in the driveway and I parked her there. And as I write this, I’m sitting on my front porch looking at the chrome gleam in the incandescent light of my porch light. I’m smiling.
I still can’t say if what I’ve done is a mistake or if it is one of the most right things I’ve ever done in my life. I can say I feel almost as happy now as I did when I first held my daughter in my arms almost fourteen years ago. These to feelings are ones I know when I’m old and feeble, lying in a hospital bed with a mind filled with Swiss cheese holes the size of the Appalachian Mountains I will never forget.
Have a great week.