Irreconcilable Differences

The Milwaukee Kool-Aid Acid Test

I have tasted the Milwaukee Kool-Aid and it is good. I keep a couple of reminders right here on my desk. This ancient Bosch magneto is all that’s left of my Dad’s first Harley. And like the man long gone, it’s still capable of delivering a convincing jolt when provoked. A 1:10-scale 72 XR750 sits to the left of this keyboard. You’ve seen it here before.There weren’t any Harleys in the garage at 205 Orange Drive by the time I showed up. Just stories, but they were enough to convince me that there were really only two kinds of motorcycles in my pre-adolescent mental hierarchy: the 74-cubic-inch Harley-Davidson and some distance below it, everything else. To 7-year-old ears like the hammer of Thor pounding down the Bayshore Freeway and the top of the two-wheel food chain for everybody from Hell’s Angels to the Highway Patrol.

The Honda CB750, Kawasaki Mach III and Yamaha’s Mini Enduro changed all that. The first Japanese Superbikes were a bit out of reach when you’re riding a Schwinn American to E.E. Brownell Jr. High School and mowing lawns to earn magazine money. The odd assortment of Aermacchi-built two-strokes in Sam Arena’s San Jose Harley-Davidson showroom didn’t do much for me or my Dad. But the immortal JT-1 materialized under our tree on Christmas Eve in 71 laid out the coordinates for a seemingly inevitable trajectory that – for better and worse – landed me here.

Unplugged from the constraints of moto-jouralistic objectivity, I’ve always harbored some degree of malignant affection for Milwaukee heavy metal despite empirical experience that should have formed a cure decades. For the most part, no H-D twin – Sportster, Revolution, Knucklehead, Panhead, Shovelhead or Twin-Cam – has taken up residence in the garage thus far. They’re too slow, too heavy, too expensive or all of the above. But as the millions of bar-and-shield decals adorning all manner of four-wheel vehicles around the world will attest, ownership is no prerequisite for admiration. America loves an underdog. Especially one not even American Machinery and Foundry couldn’t starve to death. But who knew 13 H-D execs could turn about $1 million in personal equity into $4.34 billion of total revenue in the first 9 months of 07? And that’s in a decidedly down market. If I’d spent $4000 or so in the Motor Company’s 86 IPO instead of on that YZ490, these words would emerge from shorefront digs in Lake Tahoe, not fashionable West Lancaster. Alas. The pieces didn’t quite fit, then or now, though I still suffer occasional public outbreaks of that old pathology when provocation meets justification.

I’d cashed in my Honda ST1300 long-term bike awhile back and needed a new one. But what? Nobody around here had lasted a year or 10,000 miles on a Harley. Could I? Maybe, but which Harley could I live with? A short fishing expedition on the virtual waters of landed at the FLHX Street Glide: a slammed Electra Glide with a suitably understated bling factor, cruise control, am/fm CD sound system and optional ABS. Classic form meets everyday commuter function, with enough room in those bags for a few comfortable weekends beyond the brown-tinged horizons of Southern California. I could live with that. Or so it seemed. The realities of getting in and out of Hollywood on 786 lbs. of classic American steel are less kind. Especially the part where I have to slip between lanes of congealed traffic without leaving Pearl Red Sunglow paint on anybody’s rear-view mirror. Confronted with the occasional open stretch of freeway, that stubby smoked wind deflector atop the Glide’s signature Batwing fairing stirs up an insufferable barrage of noisy turbulence that cancels Steve Earle on the CD player and delusions of extended play through Wyoming and Montana on the Beartooth Scenic Highway. Hope, in the form of a H-D accessory catalog offering only slightly fewer listings than the latest Manhattan phone book, springs eternal. At least for now. And in the mean time, whether this thing ever measures up my current rendition of real life, the old Kool Aid still tastes pretty good. Some things never change.