by David Russell #832
Saturday. The Day of Recovery, if not the Day of Rest. The one day of the week when it’s OK not to work; OK not to think about work, OK not to obsess upon the work you’re not working at. The weekend day without even Sunday’s frantic combing of little boys’ hair, prior to herding them in to the car for church—for which we’re already late. Saturday is a time to breathe and slow down without the worry of being overrun; a time out for the soul to regroup and regain the strength which has been expended in the previous week.
This particular Saturday came to life slowly—a cold, rainy day in January on which the early morning fog continued throughout the daylight hours; a thin, wet, steel veil more affecting to a person’s mood than visible to his eyes. But despite the weather, this was my Saturday. A Saturday I had negotiated from my wife, and wrested from the hands of my children. A Saturday which would—for the bulk of its early, delicious hours—belong to me alone.
A lover of old motorcycles (“old” meaning those motorcycles I had or wanted to have, when both they and I were newer), I had begun collecting a few old bikes in the past years, after enjoying restoring my first old bike (a 441 BSA). At the time, an interesting little stable of machines had begun arriving to spend their retirement in my basement, but my favorite was certainly Maico. I had been forced to put my bike interests on hold for the last year or so, at least as regards the spending of any significant quantities of time or money, due to having left my former career and being totally absorbed in hacking out the underbrush of a new one. Besides these realizations, I had removed myself for lack of feeling that I really deserved such pleasure…after all, I was decidedly behind the materialistic Power Curve. While my peers were just settling into their respective careers as airline pilots, mid-level managers and businessmen, I was starting all over. While they were in the process of planning and building beautiful new homes in which to raise their growing families, I had returned to rent the little house I had lived in as a child. While not many months before I had been a military officer and pilot of the largest helicopter in the Western world, and had been addressed as “Sir”, now I was taking an extra job at night to make ends meet. Loading packages on the 10:00pm to 2:00am shift at UPS, my supervisor—and awkward kid 10 years my junior—would refer to me as “Ace” and write in his evaluations of me that I “lacked urgency”. Had I acted foolishly in leaving a comfortable and respectable profession in which I had done well but seldom been happy—for a tenuous and insecure career as an Artist? Given the eclipse of commercial illustration by photography, becoming an artist in the late 20th century was about like entering the professions of Blacksmithing or Wilderness Scouting—wonderfully romantic, but not too practical. Was I stupid and irresponsible…or did I just perceive that everyone else only thought that I was stupid and irresponsible? Add to this a young family, used to a comfortable lifestyle, and you had a Man under Stress…a Man in Need of a Saturday. Desperately. Time to go hunting.
After an early morning of household details, I loaded my old Chevy van—the “MiRV” (Motorcycle Recovery Vehicle)—with several mission-essential items: gloves, tie-downs, map. The former would hopefully be needed to load and secure my quarry; the latter would navigate me to the residence of “Jon”, a man who, yeah, had a couple of old Maicos out back, and yeah…he’d sell them, he guessed… A few years before—in the late 1980s—I had begun collecting a few old bikes, and they’d love some company! (Yeah…the ’74½ 501 for $525 and the 250 for $200…was I crazy to be spending so much money on these old dirt bikes??)
Leather jacket, wallet with cash (“bullets”, in our local old-bike-hunting vernacular), checkbook, and baseball cap (to establish fashion bond with country folk) complete my preparations. I’ve calculated my ETD (Estimated Time of Departure) to be 12:25; this allowing 60 minutes time enroute, 10 minutes for gas fill-up, 15 minutes slop time (to get lost), and an arrival 10 minutes prior to the appointed meeting time (“…if you’re not early you’re late!”, the Marines always said).
As I slip the van into gear and pull out of the driveway, up the street and onto the highway entrance ramp, I begin to lose my prior weights and stresses. As I merge onto the interstate and enter the blurry grey February curtain of rain and mist, lights on, wipers intermittent, I completely pass from the week’s concerns and gently but surely re-enter a world of adolescent excitement—one pretty simple, built in large part on girls and dirt bikes and everything having to do with them. And this part of that re-entry—looking for the old bikes of my ‘70s past—usually carried the same feeling as being in the woods with a rifle on a still day, waiting…senses accelerated, concentrating wholly on that sound---that rustle in the leaves many yards away…Can I turn to look?...What will I find?...Will there be a trophy for me today? Will this very van be weighted down with the object of my hunt several hours from now—rendering me thus artful, competent, and successful in at least something? Will I posses this treasure, seldom more than a flash of fur in the forest—or something we kids could only dream of from the pages of DIRT BIKE magazine…today?
The rain is constant and unremitting. I follow the highway past Indiantown Gap to the east, then cut north and back east through Swatara Gap. The highway now ascends slowly, pulling the trucks, cars, and my old Chevy van progressively higher and higher, onward through the rain and the clouds. The trees are large and mature, spaced well back from the smooth, straight, climbing highway. When I was a teenager, I saw a doe and two fawns along this same stretch of road—I remember how calm they were, just looking at none of the cars in particular with a long and steady stare, entranced by the climbing/passing/falling noise of the cars. I wonder to myself if they ever crossed the highway.
I pass through Ravine Gap. To the right is the little town of Ravine, which I’ve seen so many times from the highway, but have never actually been through…probably because there is no exit from the highway for the town of Ravine. Which is because Ravine does not matter to motorists. There are no facilities at Ravine necessary for the traveler that cannot be provided at an exit several miles in either direction by name-brand, predictable businesses; so, with no more future in coal mining or farming, and no way in which to sell gas, coffee, or Twinkies to the travelers, Ravine will undoubtedly continue being a town that doesn’t matter, until it matters so little that it ceases to exist.
The time comes to exit the highway, and I do; picking up the detailed directions on my little hand-drawn map to navigate through the town of Pine Grove and out into the country. Off the exit ramp and turning right, passing the 24-hour McDonalds, continuing on through the town of Pine Grove, and onto another right-hand turn, onto a series of roads that will lead me out onto the rain-drenched countryside. Over small hill after small hill, past old and new country houses, some with Christmas lights illuminated—yet they all appear lonely and inhospitable in the cold rain. In about 20 minutes I have the place in sight, a not-very-meticulously-maintained little farmstead (minus the farm) that rises amidst a clutter of dilapidated buildings and assorted junk/treasure—ancient tractor hulks, farm implements, and old Honda street motorcycles missing major parts. After surveying this scene through the water-streaked windows of my van, I park on the driest mound of earth I can find and am soon knocking on the door.
“Uh, my Dad’s not here…”, I’m told by a pleasant-looking boy in his early 20s, blasting Led Zepplin from his bedroom. “But I know where he is—he’s just at my Grandma’s…I’ll give’m a call.” (Great start, I’m thinking…I drive an hour to meet this guy in rotten weather and he forgets all about it…) The son returns. “He’ll be here in about half an hour. He figured with the rain, you wouldn’t show up. Uh…you can wait in here if you want.”
I thank him and step through the “mud-porch”, avoiding piles of clothing, hunting gear, dirty boots, and other assorted items that you’d expect to find in a house like this. Animal leg-hold traps are hung from nails on the wall. We enter a kitchen which is quiet and warmer, bathed in the low-wattage orange glow of a single, naked light-bulb suspended from the ceiling. Every available inch of shelf space is piled high with cereal boxes, dirty dishes…every sort of item…
“Do you think I could look at the bikes while your Dad gets here?”, I ask.
“Yeah, sure…uh, I really don’t know which ones you’re looking for, but we’ll take a look outside.”
As we head out to the barnyard, I notice that the son is wearing several items of military clothing, and I ask him if he was in the service.
“Yeah, Army. I was a “33-Romeo”—electronic intercept equipment repairer—out at Fort Hood. Just got out last month.”
I let him know that my Army Guard unit has openings for his specialty…if he’s ever interested.
“Ahhh…I don’t know…the BS just really got to me, you know?”
We walk around the house, down the path, and I see it—catch it out of the corner of my eye. Like a teenage boy noticing a beautiful girl by the merest glimpse of her figure or shining hair. There it is—red “coffin” gas tank, external fork springs, that characteristic serious German look! It’s rough (really rough), but it’s there. I continue glancing around—I notice this and that Maico part on the ground or hanging from nails, an old square-barrel cylinder cradled unnaturally in the limbs of an apple tree, engines sitting on tree stumps, an NOS aftermarket fiberglass tank, still in the box, half-submerged in mud… Junk to anyone else, but archaeological treasure to me! My heartbeat is still rising. Rising? No—racing! This place is a combination ancient Indian burial ground and Easter egg hunt; the dead and mummified pieces of Motorcycling-Past peering out at us from seemingly every angle. I walk further. Inside a dilapidated, roofless shed sit two more machines. One is amazingly intact, with orange tank and new (20-year old) rear tire; rusty, but totally intact…a 400cc square-barrel. Beside it leans a late-60s red 360cc with its engine off to the side. What’s this sitting over there—wheels off and engine on the ground?? Some sort of road-racer!
I pour over the machines in the leaking shed until I can no longer in good conscience keep the boy out in the freezing rain. We make our way back through this German motorcycle cemetery into the house. We talk a bit more in the orange-lit kitchen, and soon Jon arrives. Jon’s entrance is his son’s excuse for retreating upstairs at the earliest break in our now 3-way awkward conversation. Following the son’s departure to his little ancient farm-house room of free-weights and Zepplin, Jon and I begin a verbal journey recounting the last 35 years of Jon and motorcycles…
He fell in love with motorcycles and the art of making them go fast early in life, watching the older boys and men ride their Indians, Harleys, and Triumphs near his home. Racing by the time he was in his teens, he recounts being the only student at his high school to skip the Senior Trip to the Jersey shore, electing instead to collect the $25 cash and put it into his racing (“Heck—that money bought a new top end and entry fees for two days racin’! They thought I was crazy, but I di’n care! Haw!”) Jon began racing the then-obscure West-German Maicos during the late 1960s, and through the “sponsorship” of a local dealer (parts at dealer cost) was able to race both motocross and eventually road events. He seems to remember each race, each weekend on the road, every difficult section of the most demanding and notable racecourses of the day. He talks on and on…most listeners would not be interested in such stories, but this afternoon he’s found a very willing audience. The riders, the machines, the winners and the casualties among other men who shared the same passion to operate outside the norm of everyday safe, logical and predictable life. Jon worked for the local giant aluminum company as a machinist, weathering corporate moves, layoffs, and relocations many times throughout the last 30 years. He is the type of old-fashioned man who takes work very seriously, more as a duty than the present-day concept of work as simply an obstacle to leisure. He often rode a motorcycle, he says, one and a half hours—each way—on snow-covered roads to get to work down in Harrisburg when the mill laid off. He’s done all that could be asked, and endured it all. Sadly, the Asbestosis which now cramps his body will now try even his endurance. Jon knows the likely outcome, and it is the one topic of our conversation that he cannot cheerfully laugh about.
We finish the beer that the son has retrieved for us, and decide, finally, to head outside and see the motorcycles he has for sale. We walk toward the Burial Ground, and as I stare ahead at the red, engineless motorcycle hulk with the vine now almost obscuring it, I ask the inevitable question.
“So, Jon…how much do you want for all this?”
My head is racing and the heart pumping again. Money is no longer in abundance, as it once was—especially for personal indulgences like rusty non-running foreign motorcycles. Jon had told my friend a year or so earlier that he wanted $500 for everything. Would he want even more, now?
“Ahhhhh…I don’t know. How ‘bout fifty buck for everything? A check’s fine.”
We dig through fallen beams and under piles of refuse, reclaiming buried treasure. Another gas tank under a fallen door; a wheel there; another engine here. Everywhere are bits and pieces of machines so exotic that I could only dream of them as a boy…magical objects that possessed one or two of every five waking minutes; whose forms became little pencil doodles on the class papers of 13-year-old boys in sunlit old classrooms who were supposed to be paying attention to the importance of Iambic Pentameter; motorcycles that, in my juvenile mind, held the secret of flight for an earthbound boy. [In Robert Mason’s Viet Nam biography Chickenhawk, the author recalls his earliest desires for flight; sitting among the stalks of corn on his father’s farm, watching the eagles and hawks float overhead on the rising afternoon land-breezes. He dreamt of levitating like these birds—flying a helicopter. When I was a boy, I dreamt of cruising through that same hot summer air mass, fast and smooth, free of earth but yet reassuringly restrained by her. Quiet and focused under my helmet, racing over the hills with my motorcycle wheels leaving the earth and then gently kissing it again—the flight of a swallow.]
It’s all enormous fun, but soon Jon is tired, and it’s time to leave. We move the van into position and commence loading the material remnants of his youth from the barnyard into the van. I pay him, say goodbye and thank him for the afternoon of talk and beer, and head down the muddy driveway.
Leaving the country and the town of Pine Grove with my quarry, I near the interchange and stop for a quick cup of coffee at McDonalds (caffeine makes everything even better!). Am I just prolonging the day? I know that once I return to the highway, I must begin the transition from the world I’ve regressed to—and enjoyed so much—back to the real world of responsibility and obligations.
Riding home I think of work; of life, health, and joy. Of worldly “success”, of material possessions, of love and peace of mind. Will I sell the bikes?...should I sell the bikes?
It is still raining when I pull back into my own driveway. My hunting trip has been successful. I wrestle with the kids on the way in, sit down in the kitchen, and tell my beautiful wife of the day’s adventure—at least as best I can in terms she can understand. So much of what I’ve pondered and enjoyed and experienced today just doesn’t translate well…but I do my best. My wife tells me, That’s nice; it’s good that I’ve enjoyed my day, and the supper will be ready in about half-an-hour.
That night I make a few trips out to the driveway, “…just to look at the bikes, Karyn.” I take in their angular forms, their beautiful functional lines. (Given their state of repair, they undoubtedly look much better in the dark.) I examine the bits and pieces, and wonder if I can get one running, and how I’ll go about locating the parts I’ll need. The air is very cold, and about 10 minutes standing, staring into the back of the dark MiRV is all the endurance I can muster. Actually, there are about 3 or 4 of such trips—just making sure they’re all there…
As I return downstairs for the last time that night, my wife smiles and asks me how it was.
“Oh, alright…I’m just looking—seeing what all I got on my Hunting Trip.”
She smiles again, as she puts her work aside and turns to extinguish a table lamp. I suppose, at that moment, that she probably does understand.