April 8, 2013

Motorcycle Memories

Driving down to North Carolina on I-95. Up from behind me comes a biker, riding a Harley Fat Boy. He switches lanes after giving a hand signal, and I'm thinking back to when I rode a bike and I don't remember using hand signals. I used to ride the dotted line, sliding from one side to another as I wove my way through traffic. You don't see bikers do that much any more, but when I was riding -- this would be 1970-72 -- it was common to see bikers busting up the white line between slower moving cars. I mean, what's the point of having a motorcycle and then driving it like a car?

It began when I got out of the Army and resumed civilian life. I went back to work in Washington, DC, at the Department of Agriculture at 14th and Independence Avenue, right between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian. I rode a pedal bike back and forth to work, a distance of maybe four and a half miles, downhill to work and uphill from work.

This got to be a bit of a chore as August rolled around and the days got hazy, hot, and humid . One steamy afternoon, I found myself sitting between two cars on K Street, their engines throwing out enormous waves of heat on top of the humidity I was feeling. Not to mention I was smoking about 5 packs a day back then, a habit I brought home with me from the war. Anyway, sitting there in the stifling heat, my lungs desperately trying to find some fresh air among the exhaust fumes and residual cigarette smoke, I had a bit of an epiphany. I liked riding a bike, I just didn’t like pedaling it in city traffic in the middle of summer. What if my bike had a motor? Seems like that would be a whole lot easier.

A friend let me ride his motorcycle a few times in a parking lot. I survived that and went to a dealership in Arlington, VA, where I had been stationed for a few months at Fort Meyer, and bought a Suzuki 500cc two-stroke. After the sale was complete, I cranked it up with the kick starter – no fancy electric starters back then, thank you very much – and immediately proceeded to drive straight towards the side of the building, only managing to stop it inches from the brick wall. The salesman asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing ... not an unreasonable question. I assured him I would be fine and actually made it all the way back to DC without incident.

After that, I spent a few months learning how to ride a motorcycle half-assed properly. I would go out to a winding stretch of road in an area of DC known as the Palisades. There I would take the turns at a little faster speed with each run. My aim was to go maybe 5 percent past my comfort zone, figuring that in a panic situation that’s what I would have to do. The war was still very much in my head, and I labored under a confusing mix of survivor guilt, which leads to reckless behavior, and acute situational awareness, which made you calculate your survival situation every two minutes.

On days I was feeling mellow, I would take the bike out and flow through the s-curves, tilting my body this way and that to adjust to each curve. On days when I could feel the hot breath of the war on the back of my neck, I would push deeper into the curves, sliding into the oncoming lane, heedless of the blind corners where I couldn’t see any oncoming vehicles until it was too late. Or I might go to an isolated stretch of straight road and push it up to 100 miles per hour, just to see what it felt like.

The Suzuki was a little two-stroke rice burner, with an annoying whiny engine sound, but it had rapid acceleration and could get from zero to fuck-it in about six seconds. Once I learned how to dispense with using the clutch to shift gears, I could run through the gears seamlessly. Once I got out of first, if you weren’t ahead of me by then it was pretty much over. I would run the engine up to the max torque zone at about 4000 rpm's and dump it into third. By then I would be doing over 60 miles per hour. The bike didn’t have a lot of top end speed, but it got there pretty quick.

It took a lot longer to learn to relax the muscles for long-distance runs, like the time me and my buddy rode up to Nova Scotia. Part of that came with the ever-so-gradual ebbing of the war from a 24/7 presence in my head to a time when I could actually go several hours without thinking about it. Eventually time passed, I got married, and traded the bike in for a washer and dryer. As Gandalf observed in Lord of the Rings, he who cannot part with a thing at need is no longer free.

A few years back I thought about getting another bike, but decided against it. The decision was really not that difficult. Getting licensed was way more of a hassle than it was in 1970. More to the point, I wasn't the same guy with the same reflexes I had back then, but in my heart, I knew I would want to drive like that guy. A lethal combination.

I may have tempted death back in the day.  When you feel the Grim Reaper tap you on the shoulder and get to live to fight another day, you develop a false sense of invulnerability, a shield of denial to fend off the fear and guilt that comes with survival. But I guess we do get a bit wiser as we get older. Like smoking, which I gave up in the 1980's, I don't miss having a motorcycle. I see the bikers out on a beautiful day, feeling the micro-climates in each dip and turn of the road, but I don't miss it. Really, I don't. Not much, anyway.


  1. George, I really enjoy reading your blog! I've shared some of it at times, and just chuckled at others. I grew up (off and on) in the Arlington, and DC area...military brat...and spent lots of time on the Outer Banks (sister lives there now, so still do visit). I know your sister, Ginny, and your friend, Roger, from WAY BACK in the '60's, when we were all young. Used to ride around Cohasset on Roger's Vespa, lol. AND, I've even baked your English Muffin Bread, although mine came out with problems, lol. Just wanted to say hello, and thanks for the smiles and the thoughts that you share. Bobbi Jennings (Roberta Marchant Jennings on FB)

    1. Sorry about the English Muffin Bread. I think I had a conflict in a key ingredient. It really is worth a second try. What's nice is that it really comes out well when microwaved, which most bread products won't. Anyway, thanks for the kind words.