“Get your motor running, head out on the highway.” So goes the opening lyrics of the great 1960’s tune “Born to be Wild”, and to me those lyrics capture something of the unrestrained joy and sense of freedom that a person gets when seated on a rumbling, throbbing metal horse and flying down the street, highway or trail with the wind in your hair and bugs in your smiling teeth. The motorcycle has symbolized the free spirited outlaw since before Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One”. “Easy Rider” continued that cinematic legacy while Evel Knievel presented that daredevil image in flesh and blood (much of which he left at the site of his stunts). Today racing and acrobatic motorcycle events keep the heart of the motorcycle mystique pumping at ventricular fibulatory levels. Among a great many American men and no insignificant number of American women the cross country trucker may be the new cowboy, but the motorcyclist is the new outlaw.
Very romantic, but my experience with motorcycles has been anything but romantic. I didn’t mount my first aluminum steed until I was twenty one, or very nearly that, and freshly home from three years in the Army. My father had a motorcycle which he would secure to the front of his pick up truck and take to the mountains or desert when he went camping. It was a cute little thing with a 100cc engine, which made it a little more spunky than my old single gear bicycle into the spokes of which i would stick playing cards held in place by clothes pins in order to make a sound like a motorcycle. Dad’s motorcycle had the advantage, however, that I didn’t have to pedal it, and that made all the difference in the world. I would buzz around the streets of San Diego with my baseball cap on backwards, something done only by the rakishly cool in those days, and sunglasses intended to deflect flying bugs more than anything else, and feel free as a bird.
I collected a good many flies in the glasses and the teeth before one particularly nasty fly found its way into the ointment. One afternoon I was rolling down El Cajon Blvd. headed eastbound towards I have no recollection where when a woman in a mid sixties Chevy station wagon (for those of you under thirty, a station wagon was a car that was a little like a long SUV without four wheel drive) pulled out in front of me. I do not hold this against her. The sun was dropping towards the horizon behind me and my skinny body on the tiny motorcycle was simply swallowed up by its bright glare. The moment that she pulled out of her stop in order to make a left turn I knew that my day was going to take a serious turn for the worse.
I naturally grabbed the brake levers and squeezed them with all my might. The wheels stopped all right, but the bike and its rider (yours truly) continued on at very nearly the original 35 miles per hour that I had been traveling. The sound of the tires shrieking as they scraped along the asphalt alerted the driver to my presence and as understanding of the situation dawned on her she did the one thing I needed least; she stopped. If she would have continued driving I could have laid the bike down and rolled behind her, but stopping instead only gave me the option of where on the Chevy I wanted to hit her. I quickly decided that the driver’s door would be as good a place as any, and roaring a lusty obscenity I slammed directly into that portion of her car.
I can still remember the look on the driver’s face. She was clearly terrified as the screaming hippie came crashing into her door. I have to admit that I was just a little scared myself, but the adrenalin which was coursing through every cell of my body kept my vision clear and my memory intact as to the whole event. I hit the door and flew off of my seat, the left side of my face making contact with the area where the door slopes up to the roof of the car. It was probably that curved angle of my contact point that saved my life. The bike and I both shot straight up into the air and I had a nice bed of broken headlamp glass to land in.
I jumped up more or less immediately and began to drag Dad’s bike out of the road. The bike was squeezed like an accordion and so it didn’t roll very well. The woman was speaking to me from the front seat of her car but I don’t remember what she was saying. I just pulled the bike to the curb and sat down on a bench at a bus stop to assess the damage. The bike was totaled; I could see that at a glance. I also quickly noted that i was leaking from several holes in my body created by the bed of glass that I had landed in. I was still engaged in this when the police officer drove up.
“Are you all right?” the officer asked as he got out of his car and walked toward me. “I’m fine” I responded. The officer stared at me for a few moments and then went to get the necessary information from the woman. It was then that I noticed the two children who were in the back seat of the car with eyes as big as saucers. I instantly felt very sorry for the driver, whom I now saw was terribly shaken up by the incident. The officer asked her to exit the car and I saw that I had impacted her door so forcefully that she could not open it. Remember, cars in the Sixties were still made of steel. When the officer was finished writing down the relevant information he allowed the woman to drive on and returned to me.
“Do you want a ride to the hospital?” he asked. “No, I’m all right. I just need to call my dad to come and pick up his bike.” The officer did not look convinced. “I think you really should go to the hospital” he reiterated. “You took a nasty pop against that Chevy” “No, really, I’m feeling OK” I insisted. “Whatever you want” he replied, “but I was parked right across the street and saw the whole thing. I was certain that when I made the turn and got over to this side I would have to write up a fatality. I thought you would be dead, man. I really think that you should go to the hospital”
I assured the policeman once again that I felt OK and, after taking down the information that he needed for his report, he drove off. There was a phone booth (what people away from home used before cell phones) across the street from me and I crossed over to it, thumbed in a dime and called my father. Dad arrived about fifteen minutes later and took me and the bike back home. When we got there we unloaded the bent and wrecked bike and I went in to bandage my wounds and take a shower. It was only when I looked into the bathroom mirror that I saw the blue paint on the left side of my face; the paint that I removed from that Chevy with the force of the impact. I had neither a broken bone nor even a black eye as a result of that accident, and i cannot point to any natural explanation as to why that would be.
I had many other motorcycle adventures, such as riding on the back of my brother’s bigger 500 cc bike from San Diego across northern Mexico to the central Arizona/Mexico border in the fall season. We met our father there at a campground near the border. Dad had arrived there first, with his nice new 120 cc bike which the Chevy driver’s insurance had purchased for him. We spent a fun few days riding the highways and trails of Arizona and then decided to head back in the late afternoon. Unencumbered as we were by irritants such as speed limits we flew through the increasingly frigid Mexican air on Mexico Highway 2 and pulled into Yuma, Arizona, about nine o’clock at night. The night had become bitterly cold and we crossed over ice patches as we flew at over 80 miles per hour across the Imperial Valley on Interstate 8 and then climbed more than 4,000 feet to pass over the mountains and descend into the El Cajon Valley. My brother pulled slowly up to the old, sagging wooden garage which came with the house that he and his wife rented and we tried to extend our legs as rolled to a stop. We both failed miserably and the bike keeled over and landed on us both. We crawled out from under the bike and laughed like idiots as we wrestled it into the garage. It took us the rest of the night to warm up and get the cramps out of our legs.
But I am relieved to be able to state that I am not the only rider who has had trouble staying vertical on a non-moving bike. One summer when I was living at the beach my friend Claude who, as you might guess, we called ‘Clod”, and I were returning from one of our frequent evenings at the Quiet Village Bar and Grill drinking beer and playing some silly version of shuffleboard. By about 10 o’clock we had either finished drinking or, what is more likely, run out of money, and climbed into my car to drive back home. Clod and I pulled out onto Mission Blvd and turned right onto Grand Ave, and just ahead of us was a classic American biker; leather boots, dirty jeans, jeans jacket with the emblem of some motorcycle club on the back, the whole enchilada. I held back a bit from him as I had already had a few dealings with bikers and understood that they could be a little hair-triggered. That proved to be a wise course of action. The biker was clearly hammered on God-knows-what mix of intoxicants and was a bit less than steady. As he reached the first red light he eased up to the line, stopped, and WHAM! Over on his side he went. He had forgotten to put his foot out to prop himself up.
Extricating himself from his chopper he struggled to lift the heavy machine, and then glared around just in case anyone was laughing. Of course we WERE laughing but the dark and the distance of my car behind his bike prevented him from being able to see us. The befuddled knight remounted his steed and when the light turned green he resumed his journey down Grand for six more blocks until he reached the next red light, and once again he rolled to a stop and WHAM! Over he went again. This time we rolled up our windows even though it was a warm summer evening in San Diego for fear that he would hear us laughing, for we were splitting our sides at this point. Sir Drankalot went through his drill once again and propelled his misguided and increasingly scraped and dented missile down the road until he came to the next red light. Yes, you guessed it dear reader; WHAM! At this point I could hardly drive. The next right turn would take me to my house which was only a couple of blocks away, but Clod and I wouldn’t pass up this show for all the tea in China. At the next red light our boy managed to get his foot down, although it appeared to be a close shave. At the fifth and final light however the Man Without a Plan did not disappoint; WHAM!
At last however our hero’s luck seemed to turn for the better, because there were now no lights between him and the freeway onramp. I don’t suppose that was actually good news for him or anyone around him, but at least we can be sure that there were no red lights on Interstate 5. Clod and I continued driving straight, passing under the freeway to an intersection where we could make a “U” turn and returned to our rental where we laughed about this story with our other roomies for the rest of the night.
My motorcycle days continued on their way toward an exciting and bumpy denouement, and by the time of my last ride I had gone down once again when an elderly woman turned directly in front of me to enter a restaurant parking lot. I had decided earlier that I didn’t like eating paint and so I put my bike into the curb. Ejected from the seat, I bounced and bumped across the parking lot, leaving patches of skin, hair and blood on the asphalt while the lady calmly parked and began to walk towards the door of the restaurant. She had no idea whatsoever of what she had caused
I also had the joy of riding through a swarm of bees. Cruising along with traffic on a main road in El Cajon I felt the soft thud of a large insect hitting my jacket. This was quickly followed by the thwack of another hitting my forehead. Then thud, thwack, thud thud, thwack thwack thwack, …. I knew that there wasn’t a thing in the world that I could do but accelerate to get the ordeal over as quickly as possible. After getting to the top of a hill where I could pull off the road I took off my old Army field jacket and combed the wounded but still armed and dangerous bees out of my long and curly heir, and ultimately counted only nine stings on my head and neck, and one where a crippled bee crawled inside my jacket. That evening, when the sting sites had all swollen up, my head resembled a bunch of grapes.
All of that brings me back to my last ride. I had borrowed my brother’s 500 cc for the night and was returning it to him. I had been drinking and getting high as usual, but no more than usual, and it was dark when I decided it was time to take my brother’s ride back to his place. It was a very damp and misty evening, unusual for southern California, and the streets had become slippery as the moisture mixed with the oil that had collected on the surface of the street. I was not thinking about that at all when I tried to make a left turn at an intersection that was utterly deserted. I was doing nothing out of the ordinary but as I leaned into my turn the bike slid over and I once again found myself eating pavement. The landing was not too bad, as I was not going very fast in my turn. Getting up, I pulled the heavy motorcycle erect and checked for damage. There was a little but hardly enough to mention, so I fired it back up and rode the rest of the way to my brother’s house.
All the way there I was thinking how I had now gone down three times with remarkably little personal damage to show for it, and with a flash of rare clear thinking I reflected on how lucky i was. I would later know a biker who lost both legs when he went down and somehow slid into a road sign which sliced him like a knife. I showed my brother the damage and told him that I intended to sell my own 305 cc scooter and give up riding motorcycles. “Yeah, sure” he said, but I told him again that i just didn’t want to press my luck, and so it has been to this day.
I have since had to even give up my bicycle which I owned for over forty years when my balance began to be somewhat suspect. I gave the old Peugeot to my son and he doesn’t know that I cried just a little when he peddled it down the driveway and out into the street, heading to his home across the river. Even now, though, I get the occasional thought of how grand it would be to get a little Cushman or something like that so that I could putt around town once again, helmet on this time but once again with a big, stupid grin and bugs in my teeth, just like in those long ago good days.