My dad only bought one new vehicle during his whole life. It turned 50 last year.
This is a 1966 Harley Davidson Electra Glide in ‘Candy Apple Burgundy’. Here is his photograph as featured in the Plain Dealer Newpaper, getting his Motorcycle Endorsement with it.
My understanding is that this was when motorcycles were available with ‘reverse’, though he opted against it. Not only was it his only new vehicle, it was probably the only one he didn’t crash. Dad drank a little (OK a lot) and was known to occasionally bring most of a telephone pole home with him, or he’d arrive less a bumper. He was wont to declare that luckily the bike knew the way home when he didn’t. The worst abuse that bike ever endured was the regular high-speed ejection of the lids to the white fiberglass saddlebags.
Before most of the trees in Kirtland were cut down for McMansions & BMWs, this was a lovely little sleepy town of pickup trucks & drunks with only the occasional Mormon cult killing. My dad was a known figure- the big guy on the pink Harley, helmetless, shirtless, often shoeless and smoking a cigar as he motored down the road often with his long-haired kid on the back (or chasing saddlebag lids down the road).
I have a few pictures of it at our house in Eastlake, where we lived until I was almost two years old. The bike was there 7 years before I was, so it has been part of my world for as long as I can remember. After my parents divorced and my father’s place turned into a flophouse for his other drunken buddies who took turns being tossed out by their ‘ol’ ladies’, we would take the gas out and wheel the damn thing right into the dining room for winter storage. Yes, dad had a two-car garage and 3 or 4-door pole barn where it could have been stored but never mind that. The Hog needed to come inside. As time passed, it pretty much became the only thing we had of value. The most remarkable thing about it was the sound. I’ve only heard a few bikes that sound like it. Unfortunately, Harley Davidson attracts the type of people that do stupid things with the exhaust, often under the pretense that if you’re as loud as a jet engine, you …are less likely to be hit by a car? I mean, I live minutes from Amish Country now. Buggies are low-visibility, too. They just drive where they’re supposed, when they are supposed to at a reasonable speed and use reflective tape. But I digress. This thing had a little bit of rumble, but also had a high-pitched cat purr that I could pick out of 100 other near-by running bikes. I used to think it sounded like The Jetsons’ saucer.
The community knew my dad was often in dire financial straits, so he weathered many a cold knock at his door by friends and acquaintances who were interested in in buying it from him. He never felt to be in such dire need as to go that far. My dad passed away when I was nineteen; barely out of school, still clueless as what to do with this stupid life. We had to figure out what to do with it. My sister and I had no idea how to take care of it or do the maintenance.
My family even had a 40-acre farm in Maryland (this will come up again later) that my dad sold when he was quite ill, right before he died (without consulting me!) in order to clear some debts he was afraid of leaving to me & my sister. But the family farm went before the bike! I wanted to go to college (another cruel joke that I played on myself!) and was intimidated by probate court, antique vehicle maintenance and home management and the hassles of the estate that my sister was in charge of anyway, so I let my family talk me into “selling” it to the next-door-neighbor, Ken.
Ken Barbe and his wife Linda were awesome neighbors when I lived on Locust Rd in the South end of Kirtland. He had a full-size tee pee for his grand kids, a functioning canon, an in-ground swimming pool and most importantly a garage that was probably bigger than his house. All we had was a tennis court that was so neglected by the time we bought the house it couldn’t be used for anything but crossbow practice. Ken was a fussy, exacting mechanic who was always working on something cool like a ’47 DeSoto with suicide doors or a hot rod for his kid. His son Michael or Mike was a few years older than I, but I don’t really know him from school. My sister may.
The arrangement with which I was presented was that Ken would buy it from us for a very low amount of money, then restore it. Later in life when we had our wits and stability about us, Ken would sell it back to us for what he paid + what he put into it. Instead of interest, he would get to enjoy it as his own- as it was (you know where this is going). This sounded great. I knew Ken would be the guy to help us out and his exacting nature in mechanics would be the only one I trust with Dad’s bike. My family comes to me in these situations with my decision and my reasoning for the decision laid out for me (always the same as theirs): “Jimmy you don’t know how to take care of a motorcycle and neither do I, so we’re going to sell this to Ken under these circumstances so we don’t have to worry about this now. Sound good ?” (said with a Sullivan nod).
“Uh….OK?” I didn’t like it but I couldn’t disagree. I certainly didn’t have a leg on which to fight. What college-age boy didn’t at least secretly what a motorcycle? Especially as a replacement for a lost connection with a parent? But I did ask one thing of them: Put this is writing because who knows how long this will take. I trust Ken but things happen and if he were to be hit by a bus, I could present this to his heirs. I may have even had the forethought to ask that it be notarized, even if I didn’t have the wherewithal to maintain a bike. Dad had told me recently that one of the tires was original (it had very low miles) and not only did I not even have the money to replace that, I didn’t want to be on it when it blew.
A year or so later, Ken saw me in the yard and invited me over to take a look at it. He had purchased a stainless steel replacement for every bolt, nut & screw in the thing, then he decided not to use them. Instead he acid washed what he removed in order to keep it as original as possible. He replaced the white saddle bags and handles with black leather ones with long fringe. Not my thing (I’m not into the car wash look), but as long as the white ones were still around, I didn’t mind. The only other change was to add an oil cooling system, which it lacked. It looked pretty cool. I was happy.
Then some years went by. Then a bunch of years went by. Life proceeded and I met a girl to marry. So I had to save money for a wedding. Then we had to save money for a stinky old farm house. Along the way, I picked up a cool old diesel Mercedes that I wanted to keep going, but before I put money into it said, “Wait! I can’t have a project car and a project house, plus I need to focus on getting dad’s bike back before Ken kicks it. Ain’t none of us getting younger! I have been telling this story to friends with motorcycles for decades! I need to be actionable. So I let the Mercedes go because let’s face it, I’m not a “car guy” by any definition. Though I sure loved that diesel.
Sure enough the day came. Someone in the family came to be in possession of a fair amount of liquid cash and said, “Hey, maybe we should talk to Ken about getting the bike back”. So Mom made the approach and big surprise: Ken has no idea what we’re talking about. Other artifacts of Life proceeding include the passing of my stepfather and the move my Mom made to another house after that event. Of course, no one has any idea where that paper got to in 20+ years and those moves. I may have had the wherewithal to ask for notary, but not a safe deposit box. So we have no argument and no one to blame but ourselves.
I guess I need to abandon the idea that an object can or should maintain a link to a loved one. This isn’t about having a motorcycle. I have purchased many vehicles, new & used. But you know, when my step dad was in his last hospital stay, someone came and stole his Quad-bike out of his driveway. My dad sold the family farm to a childhood friend who was still paying on it when my dad passed and tried to claim that he was paid in full when that happened. We had to sue him for the rest of the money. Who does that to the children of a deceased school friend? Seeing my dads getting kicked in the ass posthumously is certainly less shocking after a few times, but does start to grate. But in the end it’s a lesson: Don’t make these stupid deals because you think someone is your friend. I had a glow of “I live in a small town where you leave your doors unlocked and we’re all chummy family”.
Ain’t true. Things and like they used to be. I live out in the country and lock my stupid garden shed so my tools don’t get pawned for heroin. That defunct tennis court? My parents sold that to the Kirtland Tavern. After the down payment and receipt of the fence for their volleyball court, they decided that they had paid in full. The judge said, “Where’s the paperwork?” (or something like that) Don’t make these stupid deals. No one is your friend.
Now, is Ken a dishonorable person? I don’t know. He’s a lot older now and the grapevine says he gets debilitating headaches. Maybe he has no idea what we’re talking about. But how any reasoned person can come from that conversation with my mom and look at the title for that bike and think that we sold him a 30-year-old collectible Harley Davidson with super-low miles on it for a couple thousand bucks? A family as broke as mine is so used to not having anything nice that money doesn’t mean anything to us. We live for experiences. I’ve never been so broke or in debt that I would start just hocking stuff that means so much to me- I can live with debt. I surmise that Ken knows better. I surmise his family knows better. But I’ve made my peace. What else can I do? Enjoy your bike, Ken. I would never had agreed to this if I didn’t trust everyone involved.
So there’s the story. It may be a little too personal, but every time I found myself holding a beer in some dude’s garage, looking at a motorcycle or collection of motorcycles, I had to pipe up with: “Well, you know one day I’m supposed to get my dad’s bike back….” I don’t tell the story too much these days, but in case I did previously and someone needs a wrap-up or wonders why it didn’t materialize, here it is.