Dromely’s Last Ride

by bj max

While mowing the lawn the other day, I noticed a lady step from the sidewalk into our drive and wait. I steered the mower towards her, pulled up to the edge of the grass and cut the motor. She smiled, introduced herself and pointed to a home up the street and said that that was where she lived. She was passing out brochures, and after a few words were exchanged she noticed the motorcycle in our garage and commenced to tell me about her Grandfather up in Michigan and how he and a friend rode motorcycles all over the west. So have we, I said, and I mentioned Colorado and the Grand Canyon. She smiled and said that’s nice, but my Granpa’, well he did it in 1922. He’s 102 years old now and he’s told me many, many tales of his adventures on motorcycles.

A hundred and two years old. To put that into perspective, Mr. Dromley was born twenty one years before Lindy flew the Atlantic, thirty five years before WWII, sixty three years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and one hundred years before Nicky Hayden won the World Championship. Wow! I just had to talk to this guy.

I told the lady I was kind of a writer and asked if I might speak to her Granpa’. She said she would have him call me, took my number and sure enough, he called the very next day and patiently answered all my questions. Some of them twice. Mr. Dromley was quick witted, sharp as a tack, and his sense of humor has not been dulled by the years. He and I talked and laughed for the better part of an hour and I caught myself wishing I had been along when he made that ride.

In the twenties, there was a fast growing fad called motion pictures. Durwin Dromley and his buddy Pete were privileged to view a few of these highly entertaining spectacles and they became infatuated with the likes of Tom Mix and Buck Jones and decided to spend their sixteenth summer of existence on a sabbatical to the Wild West in search of cowboys. So, they loaded a tent, some grub, and a change of clothes into a 1911 friction drive Cartercar, and pointed her into the sun, leaving Mt. Clemens, Michigan in the rear view mirror.

Mr. Dromley’s memory has faded somewhat over the years and the details of that trip have dimmed, but it must have been, compared to today’s standards, a grueling adventure. For instance, there were no roads to speak of. Route 66 planning was underway, but construction was still three years away. Dirt roads and cow paths were the Interstates of the day. At one point, he said, they stumbled upon a sprawling tent city in the middle of nowhere and it turned out to be a road construction camp. So the effects of the automobile were being felt, but highways as we know them today were a long way off. Especially in the west.

On a broiling summer day in 1922, Dromley and Pete arrived in Needles, California, gasping for breath and a cool drink of water. The desert heat had really beat them down. They rolled into the only service station in town for some much needed gas and even more importantly, water. But before they could dismount from the car, a man ran up and began slobbering all over the thing. He was a Western Union telegrapher and said he could really use a car in his kind of business and wondered if they would consider selling it. Not for sale, they replied. Undeterred, he continued to admire and caress the old heap and pressed for a price. There was an outhouse in the back and as Dromley headed around the corner to take care of some pressing business, he passed an old dilapidated shed. Inside, in the dark towards the back, he could vaguely make out two dusty motorcycles leaning against the wall. Motorcycles were even more rare than automobiles and, being a sixteen year old kid, naturally he was intrigued. This was, after all, the beginning of the industrial age and young boys were interested in anything mechanical. But Dromley’s interest in the motorcycles was two-fold. Not only were they fascinating, but it was hotter than Hades and he reasoned that motorcycles would be cooler transportation than an automobile and that Western Union guy was really keen on buying the Cartercar.

After taking care of business, Dromley asked the station owner who owned the motorcycles. Wiping his hands on a dirty rag, the owner told him that two fellows rode them in here a couple of years ago, left ‘em and never came back. Dromley wanted to know if they were for sale. The owner said if he would just get them out of his way, he could have ‘em for twenty bucks. So they made a deal with the telegrapher, sold the Cartercar, paid the station owner twenty bucks for both motorcycles, and one hour after arriving by automobile, Dromley and Pete departed Needles bestraddle a 1916 Harley-Davidson and a 1918 Indian Scout.

They rode them all over the west coast and according to Dromley, they gave them very little trouble. And they were cheap to operate. Even then, at twenty two cents a gallon, that’s three bucks by today’s standard, gasoline was expensive. They rode the bikes to San Diego, then up through California to the Redwoods National Park and back down into Old Mexico. In Tijuana, they found rooms for twenty five cents. Can you imagine that? A quarter to spend the night! And, for fifty cents, they were told, there would be a Senorita included.

Just outside Tijuana, the boys stumbled upon on this tiny Mexican casa. As they cut the engines and dismounted, a little boy came running out screaming and yelling and running around and around the motorcycles, jumping up and down and laughing like a lunatic. He had probably never seen a car, much less a motorcycle, says Dromley, and it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.

After taking the kid for a spin to calm him down, they rested under a shade tree. The little boy’s sister, who had been watching from a window, finally came out and struck up a conversation with the two handsome gringos’ and despite the language barrier, they managed to communicate. At one point, the little boy stood against the shade tree and held up a playing card. His sister whipped out a stiletto and from about twenty feet drilled the card dead center. Dromley said the Senorita wanted to go with them, but after the knife throwing demonstration they thought that might not be such a good idea…

The boys left Old Mexico and rode over into Arizona where they were offered fifty dollars for the bikes. They were interested, but they still had sixty miles to cover to catch a train in Ash Fork, Colorado. A drummer, hearing the conversation, said he was going to Ash Fork and they could ride with him. So they sold the motorcycles on the spot, hitched a ride with the drummer to Ash Fork, where they boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and headed home to Mt. Clemens.

What a story! There’s so much more to Mr. Dromley’s ride; just not enough space here to tell it. They did meet a real cowboy out west, but were disappointed that he was nothing like Buck Jones and Tom Mix. “No such thing as a cowboy.” he said. “They’re all ranch hands. Just simple ranch hands.” It was a real downer to learn that their heroes were nothing more than a figment of some slick movie producer’s imagination.

Expecting a long, storied career, I asked Mr. Dromley how many years he had ridden motorcycles. “Oh, I never rode again.” He said. “When we sold those bikes in Colorado, I never got on another one.”

“What? You’re kiddin‘, right?.”

“Nope. You have to understand”, he explained, “In them days, motorcycles were a way to get around, not a sport or hobby like today. They were a practical and cheap mode of transportation. So, after they had served their purpose, we were through with ‘em and never looked back.”

It was, Dromley’s last ride.

M.M.M.

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