The Love Of Motorcycles - Behind Bars - Up To Speed

Comes Around

It was 1974 when my cousin barreled into dad's circular drive and skidded to a stop on 432 pounds of booming black badass, good for a buck and a quarter on a cool day with a tailwind: a Norton 850 Commando, last and greatest dinosaur to stomp out of Druidic folklore, hunting for Harleys and scaring the womenfolk, dripping with primordial chrome. It was all Carl could do to boot that beast, but the roar it made convinced me that my grandma was right about everything except them debbil motorcycles. I wanted that. It was the coolest thing ever.

Bikes became my alternative homework. I sketched dirtbikes with 17-inch suspension in algebra, and spent part of every lunch hour wearing out the library's bike mags. By these one-way correspondence courses I studied motorhead philosophy under Dr. Allan Girdler, racing Italian from Signor Cook Neilson and the home economics of fried-egg sandwiches from Prof. (emeritus) Ed Hertfelder.

Magazine dreams aside, I came late to the party, finally learning the clutch-throttle dance at the wizened age of 13 on a Harley (Aermacchi) 250 Sprint. It came with all the options: ribbed front tire, knobby rear and rubber-mounted handlebar. Periodically, it would backfire on startup and blow its muffler tip across the garage, which is how I chipped my dad's ankle that day. That's my story, anyway.

My first traffic ticket came at age 14, sneaking a ride to freshman two-a-days on a Yamaha DT175. Two years later, its hairy-nippled cousin, my notorious IT175, administered a Monocross bite in the ass and tore my left leg mostly off. For years I kept a sandwich bag full of stainless orthopedic hardware, determined to recycle my tibia plate into a beer opener. It's probably around here somewhere, maybe under the Whitworth wrenches behind the 6-volt battery charger, or under that pile of questionable nitrogen cartridges

My mom, expressing sharp interest in the survival of her progeny, marched me into Langlitz Leathers for a "Christmas and birthday" present the year I turned 16. The jacket they fitted me for traveled with me for 23 years. After crashing on it four times and growing a prosperous midlife midriff, I passed the brown bomber to my little brother in fine working order. I have another one now, and it may be my last. Or not.

By my senior year, I was practicing wheelies on a red 1978 RD400 (gawd, but I loved them two-smokers!) with DG expansion chambers dented on their bottoms from landing street jumps on Cornell Boulevard. My buddy Bill bought a blue RD just like mine, and we took many an informal sabbatical from academic endeavors to pursue girls, various contraband (what isn't contraband to a 17-year-old?) and potential victims on Hondas. We were convinced you beat the nicest people on a Honda, but I hear they're actually pretty fast now. And they don't seize hard after the Autolube line comes adrift, 200 miles from home in a leather-loading NW thunderstorm.

The Cool GuysTM at my high school drove hopped-up Camaros, but no matter how much got spent on paint and blowers, those were still Chevys. Big, fat things that worked as well static as moving. The definition of The Edge is that you fall off when you stop paying attention. No car has ever been that kind of test. What good is a vehicle too stupid to kill you when you're drunk?

My best and dumbest moments have mostly been on bikes. Because of that, motorcycles remain part of home, no matter where I am in the world: an international language, a brain-breeze respite, a core competency that-like combat shooting or fire-eating-raises eyebrows and starts the best (or dumbest) conversations.

I've had a slew of bikes now, most good and some better-are there any truly bad motor-cycles?-all bristling with lessons I needed to learn. There is no better way to learn humility than by begging your buddy to yank your suddenly porky dirtbike off you, now-right-now-please-now before your barbecuing leg starts to smell like food. There isn't a finer lesson in the subtleties of international relations than seeing the wiring diagram of a Moto Guzzi 850 T-3 translated into Texican with a roach clip and circuit tester 180 miles east of Santa Fe. The world's best abject lesson in sweating the details is your first lusty leer at the steering head of a new-to-you Ducati. Triumph hardtails, plunger Beezas, RZ350s and single-cam Hondas all had things to teach this slow, hard-headed student.

All I've really learned is that I'm a rider first. I've nailed two degrees, failed at two industries, gone to war and written a book. I've piloted armored vehicles, Class 8 trucks, construction equipment, large yachts, hydroplanes and aircraft, but those are only pieces of my experience.

Motorcycles are a component of my personality. I still whip my head around to see what kind of bike just went by. Bilateral hearing damage doesn't prevent me telling a Harley from an open-pipe Virago, eight blocks off.

My second wife was too practical to suffer riding. Important things must come before such frivolity. Leaving her to grind away at those important things, I decamped south to work on fine and frivolous things with a pretty girl who learned to ride her Kawasaki KZ440 around the green hills of Eugene, Oregon.

After a couple of weeks, sister Joy called to tell me that my old buddy Bill is a chicken farmer in (where else?) Eugene. The BMW R1200S I fired up to run out there may not be Commando-cool, but it is a sinister-black thunderhead of vicious torque and Wagnerian pathos. One hot spring afternoon I skittered down Bill's steep dirt driveway, ignored the 12-gauge and chugged his last beer. In random order, we viewed his chainsaw, glass-blowing lathe and flock of free-ranging guard chickens that lay pastel Easter eggs. Behind his shed door, I spied a flash of blue Yamaha paint.

Bill still keeps his RD400, in sad shape but mostly complete. As my dad still says of every pretty girl, it makes an old man want to try again. With radial-finned heads, maybe, and some Spec II chambers off Craigslist...

A long time ago, I thought a Norton 850 Commando was the coolest thing ever.

I was right.