If you ever buy a motorcycle I’ll pour sugar in the gas tank and slash the tires!
This was my mother’s reaction to motorcycles, even though I was a boy of no more than 8. This was her fearful, sharper version of “I love you” and I knew it; how many family members had been injured on motorcycles over the years? Right many, to tell the truth. Motorcycles were the domain of the reckless, the rebels, the outcasts. No son of hers would be involved in that madness.
Turns out she was right to worry. Because of an early encounter with one motorcycle in particular, I kept a burning ember hidden, a hot coal of fascination with motorcycles, which would lay dormant for years. It would take decades until I was able to buy my first motorcycle, free from the fear of an empty five pound bag of Dixie Crystals and two slashed tires. As it happens, the rebels and the outcasts and the reckless antiheroes were quite compelling to any kid who grew up on a steady diet of Star Wars, as I had.
Raleigh was a southern everytown in the 1970s, and aside from the odd mention on “The Andy Griffith Show” we were an anonymous hamlet, with only the universities and the state capitol building to bring people in. On TV everything interesting seemed to happen somewhere else, New York or California usually. Nothing really happened here. It didn’t take much to shake up the town – and my Uncle Robert loved nothing more than to shake things up.
A dedicated bachelor, “Bob” certainly lived by his own rules. He could probably provide anyone with a detailed map of vices and their consequences (and rewards.) “Remember, get a ride if you drank 8 or 9 too many!” was certainly advice borne from his experience. Bob was the wildcard, the untamed Dionysus; mercurial, but surprisingly sensitive. The youngest of the set of four brothers and sisters and it showed, a raspy voice and an ever-present toothpick clenched in his teeth, surely a rebel’s rebel.
One sticky summer, Uncle Bob appeared on his Harley, probably for a seat at my Dad’s poker table. Bob shot into view, booming up the deteriorated tarmac leading to the house, casually parking the shiny beast in the pine straw front yard in the shade, with a well practiced kick of the side stand. He cut a mean silhouette on the bike, squinting against the sun and hopping off as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Just another day for the wild bunch. I could not have been more fascinated and terrified had aliens landed under those pine trees. What was this loud, amazing thing that had brought him here?
Bob was off to talk to my Dad, while his iconic motorcycle sat shimmering and ticking as it cooled, reeking of hot oil and dripping with menace. Indeed it had an alien air about it, spindly chopper forks set at a wicked rake, the tall thin sissy bar reaching for the sky, the unforgiving thunder of the chrome pipes pounding my young ears. This wasn’t transportation, it was an excavator that dug straight through my skull and into the nightmare factory in my brain, to erect a bloodied metal flake monolith there forever. It didn’t leave an impression, it scraped a gouge out of my soul. I didn’t care about the poker game – this motorcycle had me consumed.
Hot, shiny, loud, and decidedly dangerous – clearly this was from the Dark Side. I couldn’t shake it out of my head later, even though I managed to burn myself on the pipes despite the repeated warnings from the adults. This clinking, clanking clattering collection of collagenous junk was a show stopper every time I saw it – and I knew, despite the warnings and the pleading from my mother, that someday I’d command one of these beasts for my own. It was certain.
I’m not sure what ever happened to that Harley but I know what happened to Uncle Bob. His banquet of consequences is now spread before him; a lifetime of hard living sown, visits to specialist doctors now reaped. I saw him a week ago and wished him well. I didn’t ask about that Harley, even though it had clawed and torn its way to the front of my mind when I saw ol’ Bob again. Perhaps I should have.
Keep the shiny side up, Uncle Bob.