When my father began chemotherapy, he told his oncologist, “I’ve been in situations in my life where my odds of survival were considerably lower, and I don’t kill easy.” This was no idle boast. His cancer—diffuse large B cell lymphoma—would be a formidable adversary, but he had no intention of letting the disease accomplish what his enemies could not in the skies over North Vietnam or in the nearly seven years he spent in Hanoi’s dreary prisons. His cancer announced itself fortuitously in winter, when the inconvenience of chemo would not interrupt the good motorcycling weather of summer and fall. No sooner had he been diagnosed than my father began looking ahead to celebrating his inevitable defeat of the disease.
In the vernacular of fighter pilots, the Victory Roll is a gesture of exultation—an act of thumbing one’s nose at a defeated enemy and declaring against all odds, “I got you, you son of a bitch.” Motorcycles had always been an earthly extension of this old fighter pilot’s thirst for speed and love of elegant machinery, and so a celebration ride with close friends and good twisties seemed a fitting activity to commemorate his triumph over this most recent foe. Throughout the grueling regimen of chemotherapy it would serve as a potent psychological goalpost. True to his word, after 18 weeks of chemo he was declared cancer-free. The Victory Roll was set in motion.
My father and I began riding motorcycles together almost 10 years earlier—in spite of his thinly veiled reservations. I was, he knew, ungraceful in many things, and the combination of horsepower and my preternatural lack of coordination would likely be a deadly combination. Perhaps to his surprise, and certainly to mine, I grew to love the sport and became a passably competent rider. Competent enough, that is, to at least fake keeping up with a rider, then in his 60s, who derived great satisfaction from shaming bikers half his age into performing their “personal best” in the turns. Together we logged many thousands of miles on two continents, attended to each other in emergency rooms following our periodic spills, and generally sucked the marrow from this wonderful sport. The cancer diagnosis had threatened to bring this, our principal form of bonding, to an untimely end. The celebration ride signified much more just than his victory over the disease.
Invitations to join the Victory Roll were issued, and the assembled Boyd Motorcycle Gang, as we dubbed ourselves, was an eclectic mix of riders: West Coasters, East Coasters, Floridians and one European, frantically employed and semi-retired, two sets of fathers and sons, a pair of brothers. More than 40 years separated our youngest and oldest riders; to the chagrin of the younger members, advancing age seemed strongly correlated to superior riding ability.
Medicine only does so much—the right mental state is also important when fighting disease.
We rode 1785 miles of the best roads in America (without a single mechanical incident or significant route mishap), and at the end we said our good-byes, and the Victory Roll came to an end. For most of us, that is—the old fighter pilot still had the juice left in him for an hour’s ride to his home in the country, where he could sit outdoors, sip a glass of wine, and toast his good health. To the annoyance of his son, who would soon be couch-bound and fisting an Ibuprofen bottle, any soreness on his part was nowhere in evidence.
When my father first informed his friends and colleagues of his illness, he reassured them that this would be a temporary, if unpleasant, chapter in a life that would have many more adventures. More than a year after he began treatment, his cancer was a long-vanquished enemy, and the roads were once again beckoning. It was a grand journey founded on the bonds of friendship, a love of motorcycles and a common appreciation for the preciousness of life.