Birth of a Gear Head
by bj max
I pulled up under the big walnut tree across from the Garland Baptist church, cut the engine and put the stand down. I was born in this tiny little community a long time ago and if I twist in the saddle I can see the house where I was raised just down the hill. When we lived there, my Dad kept it painted and in pristine condition but it’s been empty for a few years now and time has taken its toll. The front porch is sagging, most of the windows have been shot out and there’s a hole in the roof where a tree limb fell through. There used to be a smokehouse out back. It’s long gone now though, burned to the ground when I was a kid. But there was one summer in the late forties when the contents of that smokey old shed spawned a love affair, one that has withstood the test of time because right now, some fifty odd years later, I am still, hopelessly devoted.
In the summer of 1948 as I sat watching my Momma iron while listening to the soaps on the radio, I heard my older brother Bobby talking with his friend Raymond as they came down the gravel road that ran in front of our house. Not unusual back then to hear somebody walking down the road talking. No air-conditioning you see and the windows were thrown wide open in the stifling summer heat. I ran to the window to find out what was going on but I was too little to see over the facing so I jumped up as high as I could but was only able to get a single frame view. But that one frame was enough for me to know that my brother and his buddy was pushing something exciting into our driveway and whatever it was it piqued my curiosity and I just had to see it again. So I jumped once more and got another frame, then another and another until my Momma scolded from the kitchen for me to quit jumping up and down before I shook the house off its foundation.
Well, I was only five years old but I had enough sense to know that it wasn’t very likely I was gonna’ shake the house down but I also had a deep respect for Momma’s disciplinary talents, namely a keen little switch from the shrubbery out front applied vigorously to my naked little legs. Corporal punishment of this type burns itself into your memory after only one or two applications and I knew instinctively to mind her. So I quit jumping up and down and ran through the house to the back porch to see, but I was too late. My brother and Raymond were closing the double doors on the smokehouse and I only managed one more quick image, a flash of sunlight reflecting off something just as the doors slammed shut.
I was beside myself and excitd beyond belief as I tried to imagine what it was they had pushed into the smokehouse. I just had to know but I was forbidden to leave the confines of the house without an escort and that just wasn’t gonna’ happen. As I pleaded with Momma to take me out there she shushed me and told me to go play with my toys. Momma was just too busy to be frittering away her time on such foolishness so I quieted down but I didn’t forget. My excitement, although soothed somewhat, was still there and I began plotting my escape from Momma’s apron strings long enough to go see what was out there in that shed.
About two o’clock most afternoons our neighbor and my Momma’s best friend, Aunt Mae, who lived about a quarter mile up the road, would walk down and visit for a spell. As was the custom back then little kids had to take a nap in the afternoon so after Aunt Mae hugged my neck and commented on how fast I was growing Momma would put me in the big bed near the front porch window while she and Aunt Mae sat in the swing sipping iced tea and gossiping. The open bedroom window was within ten feet of the swing and even though Momma was out of sight I continued to be under house arrest for my own protection and escape would be tricky if not impossible. So the plan I was cooking up as I lay there pretending to be asleep would have to be pulled off with stealth, cunning and split-second timing.
Momma and Aunt Mae talked on and on and then they began to laugh hysterically, the moment I had been waiting for. I slid silently off the bed, tip-toed through the house, out the screen door remembering not to let it slam shut, then across the yard to the smokehouse. But my plan was temporarily foiled. I couldn’t reach the button latch that kept the doors closed. I looked around, found me a stick and, stretching as high as I could, I managed to push the button up freeing the doors. I stood there a moment tingling from head to toe in anticipation, then grabbed a door with each hand and flung them open. My heart leapt and my jaw dropped. For there, barely visible in the dusky dark of that smoky old shed, sat the most exciting thing I had ever laid my young eyes on.
It was huge, this two wheeled wonder and dwarfed my chain drive tricycle, the only thing I had to compare it to. I remember standing in front of it and I was so little I had to look up at the headlight and the big silver perforated plate underneath that I now know was the horn. With a solemn reverence I slowly approached, my mouth still wide open in wonder. I marvelled at the giant seat with its fringes and conchos, stared dumbly at my reflection in the big chrome air cleaner and thrilled at all the mechanical gadgets and doodads. I didn’t have a clue as to what they were or why, I just knew they excited me beyond belief. I fell in love with a mechanical marvel that day and I have never wavered in my devotion. A gear head was born.
Ironically, years later as parts manager of the local Chevy dealership, Raymond worked for me chasing parts and he told me everything he remembered about that old motorcycle. It was a 1939 Harley-Davidson WLC side valve. Said he bought it for fifty dollars, rode it a couple hundred miles with a missing exhaust pipe and burned a valve. That’s why he and my brother had to push it to our house where it spent the winter. Needless to say, I snuck out there to visit at every opportunity and got to know every piece of it, every curve and every line. But you know what really sticks in my mind about that old bike, what really turned me on? No, it wasn’t the big chrome headlight or the chrome gearshift lever or the fancy fringed seat. Strangely enough, it was those big fat tires. For some reason they fascinated me and sparked a sixty year love affair with two wheels.