I fell in love with motorcycles as a teenager in the late 1960s. I don't remember what started it but I remember the absolute lust for two wheels that engrossed me. I devoured any book or magazine about motorcycles that I could put my hands on. I dreamed motor cycles. I even tried, unsuccessfully, to mount an old rototiller motor that I found in the garage on my bicycle. But my parents, being cautious types, would not allow me to have "one of those death traps" so my dreams were to go unfulfilled for several years.
My friend Mike was the son of the Harley‑Davidson dealer in town and he would talk endlessly about the virtues of Milwaukee iron. But I was a product of the motorcycle press at the time and the magazines had little good to say about H‑D. I wanted a Triumph. When a Honda/Triumph dealer opened in my neighborhood I spent dozens of hours in the showroom, sitting on a Bonneville or a Tiger 500, rolling the throttle, shifting up, shifting down, fantasizing that I was riding the twisting roads of western Pennsylvania. I don't know why the owner of the dealership allowed such play on his inventory but I learned the mechanics of motorcycle riding in that showroom. Years later, when I finally got to ride a motorcycle for the first time, I got on and immediately rode away, just like I knew what I was doing.
In 1976 the same Honda motorcycle dealer expanded his dealership to include the new Honda car line and I went to work for him as a technician. Walking through the back room one day, I saw it! Someone had just traded in a '73 Honda 4 cylinder 350 cc and it was calling my name. The years of not being able to have a motorcycle had dimmed the passion but the minute I mounted my Honda I was hooked again. I rode it all the time. I took long rides without destination. I learned how to carry 4 bags of groceries between me and the handlebars. The Honda was so smooth and balanced that I could do anything on it. On really long rides, if I got a little bored I would stand up and ride with my arms over my head or crawl over the seat and ride sidesaddle for a while. I rode my bike everyday until the winter snow would begin to stick to the ground. Then I would sadly cover it and await the early days of spring when I could again be on two wheels.
A couple of years later I moved to California and took my trusty Honda with me as my sole transportation. The helmet law had not yet been passed in California and I discovered, to my delight, that riding helmetless is to riding what swimming nude is to
being confined in a pair of cut‑offs. The new feeling of freedom only increased the joy of riding for me and I set out to discover all of the wonderful highways that California had to offer.
Then California joined the ranks of the states that imposed a helmet law. Once I had tasted the freedom of riding without, I could not return to wearing one of those "brain buckets". A dungeon where the I could no longer feel the wind, where the sound of my own breathing was louder then the sound of my little Honda's exhaust. I sadly sold my Honda and returned to world of four wheels. Over the next 15 years I briefly owned a Honda 550cc 4 cylinder and a CX500 but the joy of riding free had been stolen and I could no longer connect with my motorcycles.
Last year I met Gail. She lived and breathed Harley‑Davidsons and was the first woman I ever knew who owned her own big twin. We talked (and argued) endlessly about Harleys. We surfed the web in search of Harley sites, I read through all her back copies of assorted Harley oriented magazines and I became totally immersed in the Harley culture. The relationship was short lived and Gail and I took separate paths but the spark had ignited. I still wasn't interested in owning a Harley but the desire for a motorcycle was back and as strong as ever.
When my father died a couple of years before I met Gail I had inherited a few thousand dollars which I was trying desperately not to squander on drugs. I had been addicted to crank for several years and suddenly having some spare money made it just to easy to buy increasingly larger quantities of the drug. My father had worked hard his whole life and I knew that he would be spinning in his grave if he knew how I was sucking his money up my nose. I had used some of the money to buy some land in Hawaii where I hope to live in the future. I felt good about the investment and wanted to use the remaining money on something that would last longer than a few bags of crank. So I started shopping for a motorcycle hoping to recapture the joy I once felt from riding and thinking that at least I would have something to sell to retrieve some of my money when the time came.
I rode several newer Hondas, Yamahas and Kawasakis. I have always respected Japanese engineering and used to argue with Gail that if you want to "put gas in your bike and ride everyday, get a Honda". But all the while the taste of the Harley culture that Gail had introduced me to was in the back of my head and the smooth, sophisticated Japanese machines just felt like something was missing. Big twins are expensive machines, averaging much more than the money I had to spend so I rode a couple of Evo Sportsters. Compared to the Japanese bikes, the Sportster is a little crude and even though it is made by Harley, it does not have the appeal of a big twin. One day I was at the Harley dealer in Rocklin, CA and asked a salesman if I could ride one of the big bikes. As he led me out to a '99 Wide Glide he asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. "It's gonna hurt you", he said. To nodded and told him it was something I had to do anyway. The test ride was a revelation. The Harley was, by far, the nicest motorcycle I had ever ridden. The hook was set and I realized that nothing but a Harley would do for my next bike.
So I began shopping for a used Harley. I knew it was going to have to be an older model but I was confident that my 20+ years of mechanical experience would be useful in resurrecting even a badly abused machine. After a month or so of looking at some of the most badly beaten motorcycles that I could imagine, with price tags ranging from $5500 to $7000 dollars I began to feel frustrated. I was hoping to spend no more than $5000 which would leave me another $1000 for repairs. But it was the beginning of summer and Harley prices were at their peak and none of the sellers I had talked to were willing to deal.
One night a friend of mine called me and said that he had just met a guy who had a '77 Harley that he wanted to sell and that he would take $5000 for it - - - - and it even ran! He came to my house and we spent the night getting wired and talking Harleys, waiting for morning when we could go see this bargain. Brian knew a lot about Harleys and had been a bike builder for a local club. Over the long night and $50 worth of crank I came to put myself in his hands, telling him that I was going to allow him to tell me if the bike was actually worth even the bargain price that the owner was asking.
The next morning, we called the seller and drove across town to see what I was now sure would be my Harley. It appeared to be pretty worn and had been chopped to where there was nothing left on it but the essentials needed to actually drive down the road. The battery was dead and the registration sticker was 3 years out of date. But it was still in better shape than most of the bikes I had looked at over the last month so we pushed it out to my car and attached some jumper wires so the ignition would work and Brian jumped on the kick starter. To my amazement the engine fired, spit about half a quart of oil on the sidewalk and died. After some effort, some adjustments and much swearing (the mechanic's most used tool) we managed to make it run long enough for Brian to ride it around the block. When he got back he grinned at me and said, "It's workable". I made arrangements with the seller to have him bring it to my house the next day where we could complete the transaction.
The excitement, and another $20 worth of crank kept me from sleeping again that night. When the seller arrived the next day, I gave him the $5000 he was asking, gave Brian $100 as a finder's fee and took possession of my '77 FXE shovelhead. I immediately called Gail, the one I held responsible for starting this snow‑ball rolling and told her of my purchase. I was sure she'd be happy for me but she took one look at my pride and joy and asked me "What, were you in a hurry?". That comment from a Harley lover, coupled with my lack of sleep and drug haze kicked the kickstand out from under my world and the reality of what had just taken placed crashed to the ground.
What had I done? I had just squandered all of my money, my inheritance for god's sake, on a bike so ugly even a Harley lover couldn't say anything good about it. I was crushed and I just wanted to cry. Through the night, as I waited for the drugs to wear off so that I could sleep, I ran the whole thing over and over in my mind, torturing myself for being such an idiot. I wanted to take the bike back to the seller and get my money back. But I knew that wasn't an option. I felt lost and betrayed. Finally, just before dawn I drifted off to a restless sleep, still tortured even in my dreams.
When I awoke I went to the garage and pushed my bike out into the driveway, then sat on the steps and looked at it. The closer I looked, the worse it got. The previous owner had ground his initials into every part of the bike, twice on some parts. The spray‑can paint job was scratched and dull looking and it seemed that every piece of sheet metal was dented and bent. Looking in the oil bag I discovered that the only reason the bike didn't smoke the previous day was because the oil that it spit on the sidewalk the first time we fired it was apparently the last of the oil in the system. I put some oil into the bag, hooked up some jumper wires and tried the electric starter. Nothing. Gathering what little was left of my wits, I decided to apply my mechanical knowledge and find out what was wrong with the starter first. I fixed a bad wire in the solenoid and tried again. The starter spun and caught, cranking the motor for a few seconds until, to my relief, the motor started. I revved the motor once then looked up to find a cloud of smoke had completely obscured everything behind the license plate.
After a few minutes of running I decided that the motor was not going to clear itself out and shut it off. As the smoke cleared I could make out my neighbors, pointing and shaking their heads disapprovingly. Things were not getting better. I pushed the bike back into the garage and went inside. I got back into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I think I was still too wired and spaced out to even cry. I slept fitfully that night, awakening periodically and pondering the sorry situation I had put myself in. In the morning I called my boss and told him I was going to take 2 weeks vacation. I had come to accept the fact that I had f***** up and that drugs were a part of the reason. I couldn't do anything about what had already happened but I'm a mechanic and this was just a machine. If it's a machine, I can fix it. As for the drugs, I can't do anything about the money I've thrown away on them but I can do something about the future. I resolved right then to stop doing drugs and turn the Harley into a rideable motorcycle. Maybe I could even turn a profit on it.
For the next 2 weeks I became intimately familiar with the bike. I would sleep 12 hours a day and every moment I was awake I spent tearing it apart, tracking down parts, grinding initials off, polishing, painting and rebuilding. When I was finally ready to start the motor, it turned over 3 or 4 times then fired and ran with the loping idle that would be unacceptable in any other engine, but is the signature sound of a Harley‑Davidson. By the end of the 2 weeks the bike had completely transformed in looks and function. I was elated, thinking that I would indeed be able to sell this beast for more than I had paid for it.
But something had changed. The time spent with my bike and the emotional trauma that was magnified by my withdrawal from a long time drug habit had created the beginning of a bond between my bike and me. When I deemed it road‑worthy I got on and started to ride and from that day on I ride everyday. I ride to work, to the store, to visit friends and strapping my cue stick to the handlebars I ride to my local bar to play some pool. Every time I ride I learn something new about my scoot.
Whereas riding a Honda tends to be a solitary act, riding a Harley is a very social thing. Everybody notices a Harley and nearly everybody seems to admire them. Whenever I stop somewhere, someone will come up and say "nice bike". Going on runs is a completely different world for me. Being in the company of thousands of fellow Harley riders gives a surprising feeling of fellowship. The sound of riding with a group of Harleys makes me feel like I'm flying a bi‑plane and imparts a feeling of peaceful bliss that no drug I've ever had can match.
Am I happy about trading a drug addiction for a Harley‑Davidson addiction? Oh yeah. They may not be the most technologically advanced machines on the road and yes, I do have to keep track of things that tend to vibrate loose and fall off, but there's nothing quite like a Harley‑Davidson. Am I going to sell it and get my money back? No chance. You will have to pry the handlebars out of my cold, dead hands.
© Thomas Macom