As Monty readied to take a bite of his hotdog, I subdued the bizzilian snarky, suggestive comments that were trying to fight their way past my blurt filter. Monty paused before taking the bite to give me a stare that reminded me that like most larger men, he was much faster than he looked and me making it out of that A&W in Sweet Home alive was not a good bet. He took that first bite, ever vigilant should the oversized mesh of my filter let pass an objectionable comment.
It was September, which is the best part of the Oregon riding season, meaning all things meteorological only go downhill after that. Our on/off-road motorcycles were ready for traveling the Green Peter forest service road to Detroit. We stopped for an All-American, though phallic lunch, to await the arrival of our third rider, Buddy. Buddy is somewhere between 75 and 104 years-old, depending on his mood or who’s telling the story. His affection for motorcycling has carried him over at least six decades of two-wheeled insanity, and he fit in quite nicely with our brand of affable derision.
Lunch passed with the absence of homosexual allusions, violence, or Buddy. Buddy was a planner. Conversely, combining Monty and me achieves an anti-GPS critical-mass, and we can get lost on the way to the bathroom. We’ve been known to get turned around and pop out in another state, mystified by how we got there. Buddy knows where he’s going, how traffic will be, road conditions, and the best places to pee. So him being late was not how he rolls. My phone rang, just as Monty and I were commenting about exactly this.
“Hey, I’m not gonna make it today. Bike trouble.”
I was glad to hear Buddy’s voice.
“Won’t stop. Hit some moss on the road. On my way to the hospital.”
“Damn, brother. Where ya going? Monty and I will meet you there.”
Buddy disagreed. “I’m fine. Do your ride. Summer’s ending, and I’m not going to hold you guys up.”
Monty could hear him on my phone and shook his head.
“I think Monty and I would feel better if we came to see you.”
“Tough shit. Go on your ride. Come by the house after. Gotta go.”
Later that afternoon, we found our way down Buddy’s street and parked in front of his house. Before the side-stands were down, his garage door was opening, and he was walking out to meet us. His knees, elbows and hands were bandaged, but he was walking and talking. He showed us the impact point on his helmet, his shredded riding jacket, and destroyed boots.
Sylvia is Buddy’s wife of multiple decades and is perhaps one of the sweetest, most elegant, eloquent women I’ve ever known. She finished up her most recent college degree at the impressive age of 75 years-old, which confirms she is a force to be reckoned with. Predicting that she may not want to see motorcycles parked in front of their home so soon after Buddy’s brush with gravity, we elected to leave before she returned from the pharmacy.
And boy, did he need those meds. It turned out he didn’t just slip and fall. The bike did three cartwheels before it landed on top of him. He somehow managed to break no bones but had a 1 1/2” hole in his arm that no one could figure out from whence it came. But the worst part was the trauma revived the polio symptoms he had had as a kid. Thus, his legs were not behaving as well as they had the last 70 years, since the childhood braces had come off.
Charles Bukowski, temperance advocate and professional Buddhist, wrote a lot of stuff, and this:
Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.”
Anyone who rides a motorcycle will see the tides of youth recede, exposing the jagged reality that our able-bodiedness is fleeting. The sands of time will beach all passions, often unkindly. During his convalescence, Buddy explored giving up motorcycling for the safety of knitting and writing romance novels. But, I never believed that he was done with motorcycling (though I think he’d make a helluva writer). When he got well enough to part ways with the opiates his faculties returned with unexpected gusto: So, we took a stroll out to the garage.
His bike had some serious bouncy-bouncy, boo-boos. But his other bike, the one that did not do three cartwheels then try to crush him, sat in her shiny readiness in the garage. Buddy wanted to ride it. Badly. His desire being so pyrapistic, Sylvia took me into the garden for a chat. Being an English ex-pat, she has the ability to intone all the authority of the Queen Mother. Using her most dignified, no-nonsense tone, she informed me that if Buddy got up on two wheels again and fell, it would be she who would have to take care of him. And that it would be much appreciated if I would consider keeping him off of his motorcycle, thus extending what life he had left. Thank you very much.
Well, this was awkward. She was, of course, correct on all counts. Who was I to be contributing to the delinquency of her senior citizen? At the moment Buddy had no business being on anything that didn’t recline and come with an end table and a TV Guide. Though I might have been somewhat embarrassed and a little guilty, I promised I would do nothing to seriously endanger Buddy—by either allowing him to ride when diminished or wallowing in the depression people like us experience from lack of riding.
Being out of the wind was undoubtedly taking it’s toll on Buddy. I came to see him every week and he could tell me to the day the last time he rode. What he loved wasn’t killing him or sustaining him. He was in purgatory.
Hope arrived on neither two wheels nor four, but on three: A sidecar. Or, as we saw it, a big-assed training wheel. With a sidecar he no longer had to rely on his balance or cranky legs to keep the bike upright, but he would still be on a bike! Buddy now had a mission that consisted of more than chasing his cats around the house and keeping up on his physical therapy. He was going to get in the wind again; and though to say Sylvia was on-board with the idea was generous, it got him to promise to be good.
Monty stumbled upon some necessary parts for this project while in the Arizona desert, where he goes in the winter to call me daily to describe the warm weather and the great motorcycle riding he enjoys while we burn up wiper blades. Buddy had the rest of the sidecar frame made in a shop in Washington. When everything was in Oregon, I promised to free up all my Tuesday afternoons to spend putting these pieces together into something that would be close enough to legal that would whisk Buddy to and fro, unencumbered by a metal cage.
However, nothing fit. Nothing. And all instructions were incomplete and anecdotal. Granted, this is not new territory for me. One walk through the projection booth of the Darkside gives an intimate glimpse into how my mind is drawn to the incongruous and celebrates McGyver-esque engineering. Rube Goldberg is my Jewish patron saint, and I’ve always seen reading directions as an indicator of mental laziness. So, I was right at home. Buddy was glad to pace around the garage, fetching me tools and telling stories from his years as a drug and alcohol psychologist. Buddy’s garage became a refuge. The workers know I’m taking some me-time, so they only call when a box of Lemonheads is one candy short, or someone complains about the quality of our toilet paper.
After a few months of drilling, fitting, conjugating the F-word, laughing, and lifting, we were ready for our test run. Buddy led the way in his pickup and I followed on the now augmented motorcycle. We got all of a half a mile before something slipped and my leg was pinched between the sidecar and the motorcycle. Startling, but not injurious. Did we think to bring tools? Hell, no. So, I had to ride the motorcycle and sidecar back to the garage side-saddle with my legs sticking out to balance out the errant geometry produced when the sidecar folded into the bike. I’m told it was quite a sight. Buddy had the courtesy not to take pictures.
Installing a sidecar took all the geometry my high school teachers warned me I would need some day: The wheel of the sidecar has to be 10% of the length of the wheelbase from the back axle with a tow-in of 3/4” between axles and the bike has to tip in 3/4” from the top of the back wheel with the rider and load on the seat,…and so on. We had no lasers or jigs. We did all the math in our heads, aligned frame and bike with strings, used a tape measure to a get within 1/16th of an inch of tolerance and a carpenter’s level to check our work. Moving one piece meant resetting all the pieces. But, with all the pieces placed where Google and the seat of our collective pants said they should be, we re-torqued everything to the proper specs (this time) and set out for a test ride.
Buddy and Sylvia live at the bottom of a lovely Salem neighborhood that is the type of neighborhood a kid would love to live in—if it snowed a lot, and the child was prone to tobogganing. Hills. Lots and lots of hills. With curves. It struck us that Buddy’s first foray back into the motorcycling world shouldn’t be navigating these slopes on a machine that handles nothing like a normal motorcycle. So I donned my helmet and slowly made my way out of the ‘hood onto the streets of rush-hour Salem.
Our prayers to the Gods of Redneck Sidecar Setup were heard, and the damn thing went straight! It didn’t wobble, and nothing seized the controls and forced me into oncoming traffic! Soon I was up over 35mph, and the motorcycle and sidecar straightened right up and flew perfectly down the road. It cornered like it was on rails. So, by the powers vested in me by my C- in Math 95, I pronounced it safe for Buddy.
We found a big parking lot and I was barely off the bike when Buddy scampered over (hadn’t seen him moving that well in months), took my helmet from my hand, ignored my warnings, mounted his mighty beast, and brought it to life. With no ceremony he was rumbling down the parking lot with the biggest smile I’d seen on anyone’s face. After the first lap he started pushing it. He got the sidecar to fly up in the air by accelerating into a left turn. Then he did it again, and I realized he was doing this on purpose—that cad! Sixty-five years of motorcycling had not been lost in a few milliseconds of lost traction half a year before. He owned this. He knew what he was doing, but he was still smart. I asked him if he wanted to ride it home, but he said he would do that after a little more time without traffic around. I was glad to get more time on that thing and made it sing. I’d never rode a bike with a sidecar before, but I now see one in my future.
We got the bike home, remeasured all the angles, and checked the bolts. It was solid. With a celebratory cup of coffee in hand we walked around the machine, obsessing about the little stuff: Where will we put the other headlight? How will we mount the fender? Where will the other turn signal go?
Neither Buddy, Monty, nor I are going gentle into that good night. Our passion for motorcycling burns and raves at the close of day. We will rage, rage, rage at the dying of the light. But today we celebrated life. Today, Buddy was in the wind for the first time in a long time. As with anyone who loves something enough to let it kill them, we knew his joy. It was the same joy we had all felt the first time we had had a motor beneath us move us through the atmosphere. This afternoon Buddy was that kid in Douglas, Arizona again, atop a 1953 Harley Davidson. It was contagious. I was reminded of that kid in Santa Cruz being propelled by a three-horsepower mini bike into a passion that still moves me as much as it ever did.
This spring we’ll try the Green Peter run again. We’ll probably stop for lunch and root-beer. I know Monty will have a hotdog just to watch me slowly implode with restraint. Buddy will make it this time, sporting his bike with a sled. The kids might think of us as three weird old guys on motorcycles. They’d be right, but they should be so lucky.