I got an email from an old friend the other day. He asked about the family, wished us a happy holiday and closed with a question:
“Are you still riding motorcycles?”
My reply was short and after I hit the Send button I started feeling a little guilty. I felt like I had cut him off a bit. See, I never stopped riding motorcycles and the reason he asked—at least I think the reason he asked—was it’s partially my fault that my friend never really got into motorcycles.
Roy and I went to high school together. He was one of those quiet guys who didn’t say much, but to me he looked like he knew more than he let on. He and I became friends our junior year in school. Back then, I was crazy about three things: music, girls and motorcycles.
I had a girlfriend and an old Honda motorcycle with a duct taped seat and no front fender or title, but it ran great. I also had a guitar but couldn’t play a lick. Roy was a musician; he could play the piano, the trumpet, and he was a good guitar player. Roy started giving me guitar lessons and I had my girlfriend set him up with one of her friends, cementing our friendship. After high school we started a band and for the next two years spent a lot of time together. I think I got the better end of our friendship. Roy never stopped showing me things on the guitar and I would be hard pressed to say what he got in return.
One afternoon he came by my house while our band was on a hiatus and we were looking for a new drummer. Our original drummer had decided the Air Force could offer him better opportunities than fifty bucks a night and all the beer you could drink playing music. Roy and I both had full time jobs and the whole band thing was starting to take a back seat to real life.
My old Honda had been replaced with a 1972 Honda CB350 which I used to ride back and forth to work. It had an intact, duct-tape-free seat, both fenders and legal tags. I was also getting into dirt bikes then, and on the day Roy stopped by I was wrenching on my latest purchase, a 1974 Yamaha YZ250. Looking at these two bikes sitting side by side you couldn’t help but notice that the differences outweighed the similarities. The Honda looked safe, almost pedestrian. The red and black tank with white pin stripes, the chrome fenders, the tail light reaching out past that rear fender yelled STOP and the turn signals sticking out on either side of the bike looked like caution lights on a road sign. The Yamaha looked almost coltish, taller than the Honda with a narrow silver metal fuel tank flowing into the seat. The handlebars laid almost flat across the front of the bike dared you to take the reins and hold on because this was one serious ride. The Yamaha was almost devoid of chrome, the single cylinder motor was blacked out and the exhaust swept up towards the rear of the bike.
Roy got out of his car and as we talked we ended up over by the bikes. I leaned against the Honda half sitting on the flat seat, as Roy sat on the Yamaha.
“I should take this thing for a ride.” He looked at me like it was more than a statement, but it was really a question.
“Well, why don’t you take this old Honda around the block a time or two first?”
I was thinking about the last time I took the Yamaha down to the reclaimed strip mines in southern Ohio, where I rode a couple of times a month. The bike was all power. No hill was too steep nor water too deep if you could hold on and keep it upright. It demanded respect and I didn’t want Roy to get hurt.
“Here,” I said as I turned the Honda’s key and hit the starter switch. It purred like a lazy cat lying in the sun.
“Let me take this one for a ride.” Roy was still sitting on the Yamaha, holding onto the handlebars, smiling eagerly.
“Are you sure, man? That bike’s a little squirrelly.” I was getting nervous. Roy really wanted to the Yamaha.
“Ah, come on man, just start this thing.”
He got off the bike and I stepped forward to kick it over, the YZ roaring to life on the first try. It sounded wilder than the Honda, with wispy puffs of white smoke rolling out of the muffler, unleashing fury with every crack of the throttle.
Before I got off the YZ, I gave Roy some pointers. “Just ease off the clutch, don’t even give it any gas. It won’t hurt it if we kill it a time or two until you get a feel for the clutch.”
I put the Yamaha in neutral and dismounted. Roy was on the bike before my right foot hit the ground, grinning like a two-year-old as he worked the throttle just to hear the bike bark.
I motioned for Roy to wait a minute and headed for the open garage to retrieve a helmet. Before I had taken two steps towards the garage, I heard the bike’s engine rev. As I turned around I saw the front wheel come off the ground as the bike and Roy headed off the pavement. I have to give Roy some credit. He held on as the bike cut across the gravel driveway with the front tire never touching the ground. When he released throttle, the bike hit the gravel on its side and started a slide under a parked pickup truck. Roy somehow landed with his face hitting the passenger door of the parked truck and both hands and knees sliding through the gravel.
The whole incident couldn’t have taken more than five seconds, and the old pickup truck suffered even less damage than the bike. Roy, on the other hand, needed six stitches in his chin and was picking gravel from his knees and the palms of his hands for several weeks. It was, as far as I know, the last time he ever got on a motorcycle. Despite a cracked hip, broken collarbone and too many scratches and bruises to count, I never stopped riding. I’ve been riding so long I honestly can’t remember my first ride, but it must have been a lot more enjoyable than Roy’s.
Happy Holidays, Roy! You keep both feet on the ground and I’ll keep mine on the pegs.