Jack Lewis' BMW R69US Motorcycle - Riding Home

An Iraq War Veteran Comes Back From The Front

When I stepped off the Amtrak in Portland, Paul stood up from the oak pew and got a hug from my free arm.

"One-arm hug, huh?" he grinned.

My goatskin Langlitz smelled like bad folks wearing good leathers. Sensing its gun pocket, urbane locals edged away.

Paul drove me south to fetch my black beauty. Aside from flat tires and crud, she matched my memory. It's not always that way, is it? Wobble-pumping the tires, I pushed her home for a work-over.

As a mechanic, I make a serviceable wheel chock. Paul, who's memorized every Bavarian bolt, apprenticed me to de-varnishing Bings and lubing flyweight arms. We adjusted her idle, replaced a carb slide, freshened balding grips, retarded the timing and adjusted the idle some more. We stepped back and saw a filthy bike, chuffing industriously. Beautiful!

Paul rolled out his workhorse R90/6 and we rode a shakedown trip to Ben's place. Once a scout/sniper, Ben lurks in his handmade house. We took note of his guard tower, watchpoints and a home armory not shown on the permit. He eyeballed my stained desert boots.

"I don't walk my perimeter with a weapon anymore," Ben said as I fiddled with the idle. I tightened the mixture nut, shook his hand and motored off.
"Ben's stuck, isn't he?" I asked Paul over sandwiches.
"He's OK for three or four hours a day."
"I don't want to get stuck, Paul."
He smiled. "That's what motorcycles are for."

That night, I bungeed on my gear and gave Paul a hug with both arms. Then I rolled out my patrol bag and slept one-hour shifts before pulling on my boots in the predawn, watching for moving shadows. Prayer call or no, it was time to move. Geared up and helmeted, but no weapon.

This R69-US, the American model with a telescopic fork, is an old friend. She's called Honey because that's how we communicate: "Let's go, Honey" or "Aw, c'mon, Honey!" Typical of an old flame, her seat's squishier than I remembered. A tickle to her Bings started her second-kick and we were off.

En route to Estacada I stopped for gas and stomped Honey's starter mit follow-through, snapping her sidestand bolt flush at the frame lug. Wrestling the foundered motor-cycle onto her wheels, I took inventory: one sprained ankle, one busted toe, sidestand now ballast. I splinted up with electrical tape and munched a Power Bar, envisioning Cascade roads. Good to be home. Good to be alive. Good to have a centerstand.

"Bet I can still start that bike..."

Highway 224 draws blue lanes southeast through the Mt. Hood National Forest along the Clackamas River. Bedazzled by road ecstasy, I missed my turn east at Oak Grove Fork and ended up 40 miles south in Detroit, just in time for breakfast. At a log-cabin roadhouse graced by sunbathing Harleys, I parked in the shade. Its menu asserted, "We speak bike." The proprietor held court in a flamed shirt, allowing that he tolerated old Beemers all right. My teenaged blonde waitress, cheerfully vacuous, shorted half her customers and over-reimbursed the rest.

"You know, I've just been like this all day."

Longer than that, probably, but the eggs were good and the coffee flowed.

That day was filled with rivers, forests and roads to make you weep for beauty. Honey and I straightened many crooked lines, sojourning to John Day. Growing up hereabouts, I itched for some less-boring place. Polite locals and stunning landscapes grow monotonous-until you unspoil yourself with Third World exotica. Road music came courtesy of moving water, blustering trees, the hum of vintage Dunlops and a balanced drone of aircraft-quality engineering.

Honey's the last of the Slash Twos, manufactured the year Honda birthed the first superbike. Beemers were engineered to endure; the 750 Four was designed to change the world. Honey's no slam-dancer; unlike my late, lamented Ducati, she balks at standing on her nose and insists wheelies are for punks. Even with fresh Bel-Ray, her fork remains Gummikuh-squishy. Her sprung-cellulite saddle squeaks like Auntie Joyce's love seat. She craves a firm hand on her double-shoe drum. But Honey's low CG and modest torque make hard braking irrelevant. You just carry moderate speed and attend closely to her antique tires. Steer, shuffle, ssslide to your right; steer, shuffle, ssslide to your left. Fox-trotting is dancing, too.

Breakfast carried me all day. I hit John Day around eight with a vague plan to eat dinner and roll out my bag at Clyde Holliday Park. Road-blissed, comfy on my Yesterday's Standard, I hadn't monitored fatigue as Honey carted me across a large Western state.

The Ore House served me a steak fit for three kings, alongside a berry tart my helmet couldn't have held. With blood rushing to my stomach, I nearly crashed pulling off the curb. Gluttony being the gateway to sloth, I rode one block north to the Dreamland Motel. When I inquired about military discounts, the manager saw road dust and dirty stubble.

"You're active duty?"

My Ft. Bragg mug shot, hungover in battered DCUs, makes even my driver's license picture look good. I told her the truth: "Just returned from Iraq."

She squinted at me. "Your discount is 100 percent."

Showered and packed by 0530, I knocked out some push-ups, loaded the bike, balanced on the left rear peg and trod the kicker with my sprained leg five times: nothing.

Too much idle adjusting?

Checked the gas: reserve. Throttled her from zero to WFO. Drained float bowls twice. Tried bump-starting five sweaty times. Changed plugs. Traced wires. Prayed quietly. Cussed urgently. Kicked her 50-odd times before extracting a muffled pop. Rest break. More kicks, more pops, and she burst to life after only 70 minutes. My epiphany came 100 miles down the road: I'd never tickled her! Should have kept my old T-shirt emblazoned with, "I'm not real smart, but I can lift heavy things."

Gassing at the rim of Hell's Canyon, I adjusted her idle and we rode down by the riverside, not to lay down my sword and shield but surely to lighten my load. Ghosting along Reservoir Road in the sun-washed stillness, I looked left to see sepia hilltops repeating their images across the unrippled surface, and heard my grandmother sweetly reciting the 23rd Psalm: "He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul."

Dismounting, I walked to the edge of that well of peace and remembered...

A second-tour sergeant from Michigan who didn't have to be there. Gunning a Stryker, he was finishing his enlistment before settling into a diesel mechanic's job.

A sawed-off butterbar who rode his bicycle all over FOB Sykes. He loved jokes, and could take 'em. We'd leap out with "attack salutes," trying to make him crash while returning them. He never got mad.

An Iraqi major, commanding his line company from Tal 'Afar to Muhollibiyah. He mouth-kissed Americans to freak us out. I bailed out of our up-armored HMMWV one day to ride standing in his tiny, open jeep alongside six Iraqis. No roadside bombs that day.

A hundred-thousand others I either knew or didn't, who died or lived, who believed or soldiered anyway, were American or Iraqi, whom I laughed at and with, who swore an oath and went and did what they could on this earth.

Squatting in the dirt, I fished a metal lump out of my jacket. Once it zipped into the sandbag by my head, high on the battlements of an Ottoman castle. Sss-SS-zzss, thwip. I never spotted the shooter, but when he stopped Ops, I dug out his slug with my Leatherman.

It wasn't the only bullet, the first or last. But it was perfectly undeformed. Held close as a lover, it whispered to me for months. It was my rosary, my ballistic lodestone, taunting with a papery laugh long after its author died in his barricaded window, head-shot by a better soldier than me. Zzzzip. I showed it to no one, ashamed as if it were needle tracks on my arm.

I held it up to know this place of peace before I drowned it, throwing it far out over quiet waters to hush its sibilant whisper forever. Eventually the ripples stopped.

As Honey and I putt-putted across the one-lane dam and over the canyon rim, through Midvale and on into Cambridge, my baggage felt much lighter. Winding through high valleys tasted like another slice of home, but McCall was unrecognizable. Dropping past Brundage Mountain Ski Hill, I passed 30-mph signs at 18-per behind contractors, vacationers and blinged-out Hummers. Payette Lake may still provide the last city water in the USA that needs no purification, but I avoided the lakefront for fear of tramping across some condo-phile's postage stamp of heaven.

Cold Coke in hand, I stumbled out of a street caf to find a crowd admiring Honey. Couldn't blame them; she exudes Saville Row subtlety. Good bikes wear black, adorned only by white pinstripes and cloisonn. Honey's double-cradle frame wraps a sand-cast engine rendered perfectly, right down to its aluminum fins. Her inviting seat and questing headlight nacelle put one in mind of Ralph's steed in The Mouse and the Motorcycle. It's all I can do not to perch on her and squeak, "Brrr-RRRM, BRRRMM!" Since one kid already had that idea, I cranked her up for real and broke camp.

Down the Long Valley, over roads I drove often through foot-deep snow drifts, to the county seat. No longer the Town of a Thousand Loggers, Cascade's ridge-runners bailed when their mill was razed flat as a clearcut, its blades sold off as backgrounds for folk art. Still, the reservoir's boat launch hops with Boise fishermen chasing kokanee (it's a fish, not a beer), and a nearby mega-resort holds untold promise. Realtors industriously buy and sell the town where once I gear-jammed the volunteer fire department's '68 Ford pumper. They're probably still driving the damned thing. Maybe it still holds water.

Parking in the old Advocate lot, I lumbered across Highway 55 to find a walrus mustache grinning back.

"Big Jack! What're you doing here, man? What bike're you riding?"

Mike is Cascade's resident editor-publisher, hell-raiser and my old boss who taught me to fly-fish badly. He stood us to bottomless root beers, we caught up on several years and a couple wives passed, and I walked out making plans to return. Far better a too-short life with friends than a long, embittered solipsism.

Pocketing another piece of home, I adjusted Honey's idle and set off southward to the Payette's middle fork and one of the West's better roads. Every winter a half-dozen cars slide into the drink. Some are never recovered. It's that good.

When four impatient kids in mom's Hyundai shot the gap between oncoming cement trucks, I smiled behind my chin bar and tiddled on. Eight miles south where the river road shimmies, I passed on a short straight and left that car for dead. I swear I heard Honey snort.

Midway down the Middle Fork is a pit stop called Banks that serves eggs-over to kayakers. Still full of root beer, I turned east up the tributary onto the best motorcycle road extant. Highway 21 surges up the South Fork over Banner Summit at 7056 feet, dropping into a high, wide and handsome valley, then pelts through Obsidian, over Galena at 8701 feet and down through winding sweepers between the Sawtooths into Ketchum.

The late sun still roasted the ground when I gassed in Garden Valley. That Chevron is as perfectly situated as I recalled from hustling a V-Max through here years ago, packing barely a credit card and receiving withering sneers from a young guy on a camper-chic Slash Five. We evidently didn't see eye-to-eye on the No-Bad-Motorcycles Theory.

Finding a tap to soak my T-shirt, I nearly hallucinated from the icy bite of mountain water. Dripping back to the pumps, I encountered a non-standard question.

"Is that the 'S'?"

Honey's unique fender jewelry hasn't survived. I nodded.

"Restored?"

"Maybe when I feel rich."

"Don't do it! She looks great. They were meant to be ridden."

Something about Route 21 demands misbehavior. Despite me reminding myself there was no one around to police up my bleeding scraps if I blew a corner, despite gathering dusk and my time out of the saddle, we sailed up that closed-in-winter road like water splashing magically uphill. Honey's factory steering damper abated wiggles, and we bought the dappled daylight with the remains of my karma. It's not safe and I know it, but I always ride faster into the twilight.

So speed-addled was I when we crested Banner Summit that I kept edging past 80-not a good idea on a bike whose harmonic balancer disappeared decades ago due to endemic self-destruction. Big Speed also defeats driveline seals. I would find gear oil hemorrhaged onto the rim that night.

From Stanley, a summer eve's drop into Ketchum reveals a long, contemplative sunset as you pelt southwest toward the limit of Mountain Time and the sun paints billowy aureoles over Purple Mountains' Majesty.

Pete was waiting when I rolled up for the first time in five years. Ignoring quarts of bug juice, he administered a punishing bear hug.

"Dude! Where you been?"

"Long story."

Pete's a Sun Valley wheel who's completely eclipsed his big brother's career arc, but he wouldn't talk business.

"Your mission is to rest, relax and have fun."

No problem. By ordinance, there are no weekdays in Ketchum. It's a full-throttle party town.

On our third night of semi-Pro drinking, I got the call to ride out of there. We were bellowing goodnights from the loudest bar when someone took vociferous exception. To his everlasting credit, my little brother turned and walked away.

But the fella wouldn't let it lay.

I've conceived a strong distaste for people running up behind me. When he charged after us, I spun around, grabbed for my weapon and came up with...nothing.

Once in a far-off alleyway, an Iraqi policeman drew the Glock that U.S. taxpayers had bought for him. Way too close to my soldier, he nearly earned a 5.56mm reprimand before throwing up his hands and showing his ID. Grunts from that sector laughed: "Hey, he's a good guy. Ibrahim's just drunk." Weeks later, Ibrahim-probably drunk again-was detained for randomly capping civilians.

This tweaker-punked by poor testosterone management-was no credible threat. But when he twitched the wrong way, I laid him out. Pete and I exfiltrated without further ado.

The next day, I fled Idaho. Abandoning washing and waxing plans, I settled for an oil check and hasty packing. Who was running up behind me now?

The journey home blurred. I couldn't wrap my hand and ride, so I ignored its throbbing. My cozy Arai squeezed my skull, the pounding in my ears echoing off its liner. I changed oil that night in La Grande, freezing my ass off the next morning until I stopped by Pendleton Woolen Mills to glean a $2 offcut. I bought 2001 Reserve Merlot for Lily at Columbia Crest, crossed myself at the Stonehenge Memorial and crossed the river to buy gas at Biggs.

After triple-trailer semis torpedoed my plan to 'slab it back, I rode the Washington side of the Gorge to White Salmon, then veered north into Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where I have been lost before. Honey and I nosed through to Randle without incident, except to cough out her mirror glass on a bumpy dirt road. Real standards can go anywhere.

West to Morton, then north-by-northwest into Olympia, where I collected a VA counselor's name from a friend once court-martialed by the Corps while comatose. We ordered pizza and talked for hours. For at least the third time, Rusti and Sean proved better friends than I have earned.

And on to Seattle. At 10 till midnight, I dug out my well-interred house key, quietly opened the door and walked straight into the arms of my wife.

"I missed you," she said into my shoulder, but I could not speak. Warm is the woman who welcomes you home.

None of this may make sense, thumb-typed with an aluminum splint strapped onto my broken throttle hand, filtered through glimmering coruscations of grief, warmth, fear and love. I'm back from long blue roads and wars abroad, back to internal jihads and marital strife and off-site parenting. I have a business to build, a household to husband and a cat who rides my shoulder and growls when I misstep. I see everything with fresh wonder, like a Japanese tourist fending off reality with batteries of loaded Nikons.

I will carry no weapon, because I am not afraid. I will not hide behind yellow stickers or swing picket signs. Those loud assertions are luxuries purchased for the privileged, bought lately by over 3400 men and women who learned what it is to leave it all on the field.

I took my chances, spun the wheel, prayed every day and brought my guys back, scuffed but alive. It's time to be off now and get unstuck. My war-fighting days, my bar-fighting days, are over. In my garage, a motorcycle waits.

Time to get that idle set just right.