Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why On Earth Would You Buy A Motorcycle?

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Written 2001

Most people have a certain degree of tact. When you tell them you bought a motorcycle, they usually go into some story about their friend who had a dirtbike when they were kids or how Uncle Bob took them for a ride when they were 5. They smile and seem happy for you, but you know deep down, they are thinking, “Why on Earth would you buy a motorcycle?” You can see it in their eyes, like they think you’re going to be dead in a few days. Can you blame them? Motorcycles get a lot of bad press. There are several automobile fatalities each day, but let one motorcyclist get plowed down by a careless cell phone talking SUV pilot and it’s all over the news like another Presidential scandal. Then there’s the “Motorcycle Gangster” image. Nasty men donning black leather terrorizing small town U.S.A. with their loud pipes and drunken brawls. Let’s not forget the sportbiking squid blazing down back roads and byways with little regard for himself or others. These are the images most people have of motorcyclists.

So, why on Earth did I buy a motorcycle? I think riding a motorcycle means different things to different people. To me, motorcycling isn’t about the buzz words we often see used to describe the feeling of riding. “Freedom” is the big one I think of. How many times have I heard people say, “You’re so free when you ride.” Free of what? That never made much sense to me. If anything, you are more confined. Ever try to sip a cup of hot coffee while you motor down a twisty? Or enjoy a cheeseburger and fries while cruising down I-65? What about having a nice conversation on the cell phone? Sounds to me like riding may be MORE restrictive. That sort of rules out the freedom thing. Do you think Peter Fonda on his Captain America chopper had any more freedom than a bunch of clam baking Deadheads in a VW bus driving cross country? Fonda himself admitted that after a day of filming ride scenes he could barely lift his arms thanks to the extreme ape hanger bars installed on the custom hog.

My first ride was on my brothers 70’s model Honda 100. I was probably about 5 years old and don’t remember the exact year. I just remember him putting me on the seat in front of him with my feet on the engine guards and riding me down Wilson Pike in Brentwood (back when Brentwood was pretty much the Boondocks). Down past the old Concord General Store and into the “country” where we would get out past the first one lane underpass going toward Franklin and the trees would create a perfect arch over the road. That’s been almost 25 years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. It’s amazing how things like that stick in your head. I don’t remember riding anywhere else, just that one place.

My brother is 12 years my senior, when I was 4 he got his drivers license. A little while later came his big blue Chevy Malibu. I remember him tinkering with the engine and flipping the air cleaner cover over to make the engine louder. Next came his Olds Cutlass. Orange with white vinyl interior…what a beauty! Big ole CB antenna whipping around on the trunk. He’d sit me on the seat and let me steer it and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. So what does this have to do with motorcycling? Well, everything in my case!

My Dad traveled quite a bit. He left on Monday and came home on Friday for a good portion of my childhood. I was born very late in life for my mother and father. Dad had long graduated to Lincolns and Cadillac’s and I’d never seen him turn a wrench in my life. His tool kit consisted of a hammer, a crescent wrench, and two screwdrivers.  I had heard all the stories of him working at a service station during his youth and even rumors of him racing cars. I’d never seen any of this side of my Dad. But the old saying of the apple not falling far from the tree is true. As I got a bit older, I quickly developed a liking for tearing things apart. I wanted to know how it worked. The beauty part of this, was even as a 6 year old, I could put it back together.

During the big 3-wheeler ATV craze of the 80’s I began begging my Dad for an ATV. He was reluctant to buy me a three-wheeler, and I ended up with a Suzuki Quadrunner 125. I was in Heaven! I rode that four-wheeler till it would barely run. Valve adjustment? Oil Changes? Carb cleanings? What was that??? If it started…I rode it. Period! Of course the day came when the thing wouldn’t start. I yanked the pull starter until the rope broke (that’s right…no electric start). My Dad decides that it’s time to sell it for what we can get for it. So, of course, he takes it to the shop and has it totally repaired before selling it! This just cut me deep. I loved my little ATV but my anguish would only be answered by my Dad saying, “Hell son, you never rode the damn thing.” Humm, maybe because it didn’t run!

That was it. I had to have another one. Begging did me little good, and having no real money of my own at that young age, buying one was pretty much not a solution. When the opportunity came up to trade some car stereo equipment for my friends Suzuki SP125 dual sport, I was all over it. I’d never ridden a motorcycle unless you count the time my brother-in-law let me pilot his Yamaha 650 down his neighborhood street. I nearly took out a mailbox before coming to a halt in someone’s front yard. MSF course? Safety gear? Motorcycle operators endorsement? I don’t need no stinkin’ gear, courses, or license! Just give me the bike and get out of my way.

My parents were furious to say the least. I could care less. I finally had my hands on a bike and I was loving it. Sunday came, and my parents were going up to see my grandparents in Kentucky. I begged them not to make me go so I could ride my bike. It was my first full day of being able to ride. They agreed with one condition, that I not take the bike out of the neighborhood. I could live with that, and I said I’d keep it in the neighborhood. I told them I ridden my friends bikes lots of times and I knew how to ride. They left for Kentucky, and I took off on my bike. Of course, being 17 and male, I had to show the bike to all of my friends. So I headed off from Franklin to Nolensville where my friend lived. I stuck to the back roads and snaked my way down Clovercroft road. I made it all the way to Nolensville and visited with my friend. You could see the look of envy in his eyes. It was great! He had a part time job and had to go to work, so off I went. My little 125 was not just small, it was old, worn out, and not well maintained. The tires were bald, the rear brake didn’t work, and running in 5th gear with a tail wind yielded a top speed of 45mph. All this with an untrained, inexperienced rider. How far do you think I got?

About three quarters of the way down Clovercroft from Nolensville to Franklin, I came upon a gentle left-hander. Nothing dangerous. But for some reason, I froze. I couldn’t make the bike turn hard enough. I grabbed a handful of brake (remember, no rear) and that lightened the rear enough to make it slide out a bit. The bike high sided and tossed me head first into a row of trees lined with barbed wire. I remember thinking about nothing but the bike falling on me. I thought I was dead. What seemed like an eternity passed.  This consisting of me flying through the air, crashing parts, whacking weeds, and coming to an abrupt stop thanks to my belt loop catching a fence barb causing my head to snap forward and hit a tree.

My thin nylon jacket was torn to shreds and the right arm covered in blood. I walked down to where my bike was and tried to pick it up. That’s when my left arm began to bend in places where arms aren’t supposed to bend. “It’s broken”, I remember thinking to myself, “but where’s all this blood coming from?” I searched vigorously for an open wound. I had taken off my helmet, and despite my splitting headache, there were no cuts on my head. That’s when I pulled back the right sleeve to reveal a huge gash running from my middle knuckle to my wrist. It was spurting blood profusely, but surprisingly, it didn’t hurt until I actually saw it. Can you imagine being cut to the bone by a piece of barbed wire, and not feeling it? I took off my jacket and tied a sleeve around the cut to control the bleeding. I used the other sleeve to make a sling for my left arm. I climbed out of the ditch and flagged down a car.

The nameless person that picked me up was a real Samaritan. I didn’t know who he was and still don’t, but I’m sure I got plenty of blood in his car. The hospital was only a mile or so away, and we started off for the emergency room. My vision started to get really bright. I started getting light headed, and I told the guy my name and then I passed out. I woke up in the shrubs outside the emergency room, with the nameless guy and a couple of hospital workers trying to get me up. I had lost control of my bladder and was quite a mess. I finally got into the ER and was lying in an examining room waiting for a doctor to fix me up. My arm was throbbing and my wrist was hurting, but no one came to work on me. I lay there for what seemed like hours. I reached over and grabbed some gauze to dress my wrist. My nylon jacket couldn’t hold any more blood and was starting to drip. A hospital worked finally comes in to ask me questions and I tell them who I am and that my parents are out of town. I give them my brothers phone number and they call him. The next thing I hear is the sounds of doctors frantically working on a patient. My brother walks into my curtained off area and he looked like he’d seen a ghost. He tells me that just as he got to the hospital, one of his neighbors pulls up with his kid in the bed of his pickup truck. He’d been in a motorcycle accident. My brother helped carry him in and could tell he was dead. To top it all off, the boys name was also Chad.

Finally they get someone in there to stitch me up and take some X-rays. Sure enough, my arm was broken. It was broken so badly that it would require surgery to fix. That surgery wouldn’t happen until Tuesday due mainly in part to what happened next. When my Mom and Dad finally arrived, I began to speak in gibberish. I knew what I was trying to say, but my mouth wasn’t producing the right sounds. I was given an IV and rushed to a hospital in Nashville where I was placed in special care. By the time I arrived at the hospital, the drugs had done their job and I could speak again. I had suffered a pretty bad contusion (an injury causing the brain to swell).  Five days later I get out of the hospital and begin my therapy. A year later, the hardware was removed from my arm and all was normal again. At least for 12 years…

I had always wanted another bike, but memories of my last ride and the fact that my wife and family would greatly disapprove kept me away from two-wheeled travel. Years passed and every time I would see a bike go by I’d always envy that person. Why did their wife let them ride? What powers of persuasion do they have that I’m lacking? More time passed and I settled into a comfortable life. My old SUV was paid for, and it got me to work and back safely, but it wasn’t very fun to drive. After owning a number of go fast cars made in limited quantities I was in love with high performance vehicles. The thrill of rapid acceleration, the grab or world-class brakes, the force of a hard corner.  The old SUV wasn’t cutting it. I used to drive for fun and would rack up about 30,000 miles per year with most of that being joy riding in the country blasting the radio. It made me feel alive. There’s something about sitting behind a desk for 8 hours, and coming home to a cushy La-Z-Boy for the remainder of the day that just seems to make you feel like there has to be more to life.

I knew I couldn’t approach any car with decent performance for anywhere under $30,000, and since the wife and I were trying to trim the budget, not expand it, a high performance car was out of the question. I told my wife I was considering getting another bike. That went over like a stripper at ladies church social. Much fighting and gnashing of teeth took place and against my better judgment, I rushed out the next Saturday to buy my bike. I decided to do it right this time and get some training before I rode off into the sunset. I put a whopping 200 miles on the bike and never took it out of the neighborhood! I am sure the neighbors wondered what the heck I was doing riding in circles for hours on end. I completed the MSF course a couple of weeks later, ordered a nice jacket, and hit the road.

Petrified and exhilarated. That’s the only way I could describe how riding the bike made me feel. I was expecting at anytime to be in an accident and if I was lucky enough to live, having to hear my wife scold me for going against her wishes. Worst off, she would be right and I’d be wrong! That would have been the real tragedy. Even though my modest little Kawasaki ZR-7s was only pumping out 65hp, it felt really fast. Gradually I got used to it, but never lost respect for it. I practiced what I learned in MSF and began reading books such as Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies. Those books helped me understand the dangers of riding and what to avoid. My favorite thing about Hough’s books were the little “physics lessons” he tosses in. Centrifugal force, available traction, center of gravity, balance, rake, and trail. I began to realize why I like motorcycling. It was almost like religion. You can’t see centrifugal force, but you know it’s there and you have to trust it. You have to force yourself to lean an 800+ pound two wheeled machine with rider traveling at a swift rate in to a corner and not hit the brakes or make dramatic throttle adjustments. You have to have faith in the laws of physics.

Four months after buying my Kawasaki, I knew I was in love with riding. I wanted a bike that would do it all. Long distance, twisties, two up, or commuting. Speed wasn’t that important to me, since even my Kawasaki would give a Corvette a run for it’s money and that bike cost a whole $5600. I ended up buying an 1150RT and haven’t looked back. The bike inspires confidence, and you have to watch yourself so you don’t end up shattering the legal limit. When I ride, I don’t do it to relax or to unwind. Riding to me is a cerebral activity, the kind that exercises your mind and spirit. You must constantly think about what the bike is doing, what the road it doing, and what others around you are doing all while keeping your thoughts focused on a set of conditions and rules. Your senses are so sharp that things you’ve never noticed before leap out at you. Beautiful trees, flowers, hills, fields, etc. It’s the ultimate game that takes the utmost skill. One mistake and it may be your last. That’s the thrill of riding.  Every time I go out, I know that I will be facing risks and dangers. It is up to me and the man upstairs to return me home safely.

I’ve experienced a crash, and am determined to not let it happen again. Tempting fate seems to bring it’s own brand of excitement that turns my face to a smile. Life is too short to sit around trying to figure out how not to die. I prefer to find new and interesting ways to live. So, why on Earth would I buy a motorcycle? It beats the La-Z-Boy 0-60, out corners my computer, and is faster than my office chair.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

-Helen Keller

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