Summer Of Love - Slumdog Mechanic

Drawing The Line

My personal "Summer of Love" came in 1968, combining college, the San Francisco music scene, politics, motorcycles, and, yes, love. Personal history doesn't always agree with history with a capital "H."

The real Summer of Love found me in a far different scene, in a village about 180 miles northwest of Calcutta in India. I'd joined the Peace Corps and been assigned to an agricultural program in the Indian state of West Bengal. I'd sold my two motorcycles and hopped a plane halfway around the world. My day-to-day transportation was a bicycle, and trips to the big city were via trains pulled by steam locomotives that chugged through a green, flat countryside broken by countless wheat fields, rice paddies, groves of mango trees and slow-moving brown rivers.

I'd hatched a plan to try and buy a Royal Enfield 500 single, virtually the same bike that you can still buy today. Enfield India started making the bikes in '54, and in '69 they were the "big" bike of India. I missed riding and always checked out the bikes I saw in the city, towns and, much more rarely, the villages.

The members of our program were gathered in a village for agricultural training and instruction in Bengali, the language of the state. One afternoon there was unusual activity in the normally empty field next to the small compound of buildings that formed our school. Workers were erecting a tent and village children gathered to see what was going on. The circus had come to town!

What got my attention, though, were two guys pushing a decrepit single-cylinder motorcycle back and forth. They were obviously trying to bump-start it and, just as obviously, it wasn't cooperating. I walked over and asked them in my best Bengali if I could help. I hardly needed my Bengali: Guys pushing silent motorcycles form an instant brotherhood.

The bike was a WWII-era Norton single, its military khaki paint faded, the metal worn and rusted. Its rider was the circus stunt man-the "Stunt Wallah"-and the climax of his performance was a jump through a ring of fire. Posters in the village advertised the event, and the show must go on!

I had brought a decent tool kit from the states, and went to work on the bike, pulling the plug, checking the wiring, the points, the carburetor. I'd had a '57 BSA 650 and so the Amal carb and Lucas magneto were instantly familiar. Everything on the bike seemed worn to the point of failure, but nothing had in fact failed. There was no way to know how many miles this Norton had seen in its 30 years of service, but every one of those miles was evident. Yet I was impressed with how original everything was: At that early stage in my life I was already a tinkerer, modifying everything whether it needed it or not. Here was a bike that hadn't been modified-had hardly been maintained-for 30 years.

The carb was supplying fuel, there was some compression, and after about an hour I got some spark out of the magneto. I don't remember if I was able to kick-start it or had to run-and-bump, but eventually I got it going. I was the guest of honor that evening and the next as the troupe went through their juggling, acrobatics, tumbling and animal acts. Finally, a steel ring covered with gasoline-soaked rags was lit and my new friend roared into the tent, up a wooden ramp, through the flaming ring and back outside into the night.

The second and final day of the circus's stay was a repeat of the first, with the rider this time flooding the bike while trying to start it. I got it going again and explained to him the correct starting drill as well as I could. In my experience (one notable experience was with a Velocette Thruxton), British singles of a certain age can be damned hard to start even when almost new. This Norton needed a minor miracle to keep running, and I only hope one was granted to keep this circus act alive.

The village circus was a far cry from the Cirque du Soleil, and the Stunt Wallah's act far from a back flip. But I still remember the look in the children's eyes as they saw him ride that old Norton through the flames. "Sensational" is a relative term. But in that time, in that place, the Stunt Wallah was sensational.