A Failure to Communicate

by Thomas Day

A few years ago, a friend who had just taken up motorcycles decided that we weren’t getting enough out of our trips into the Colorado Rockies. He’d become a motorcyclist, mostly, to be part of a group of two, of which I was one, who spent most weekends exploring the area within a day’s ride of Denver on bikes. He discovered yet another intrusive piece of technology that he was convinced we should all buy for the purpose of enhancing communication on our road trips; helmet headsets.

One of the two experienced riders, not me, was into vintage Japanese bikes. Lots of vintage Japanese bikes. At the last count, I think he has 11 unreliable, under-powered, bad-handling junkers that he loves like children. The third hand in our deck of mountain explorers bought a Yamaha 650XS for his first bike. It didn’t take him too long to discover that he couldn’t keep up with us on that brick. Regardless of the XS’s limitations, he was such a cautious rider that I always took the precaution of planning our rides so that we’d have a designated place to meet at specific times, along the route. I thought this effort was an extraordinary act of friendship, on my part. He was so slow moving that he’d often be still fiddling with his minimal riding gear when I arrived at the first “check point” to wait for him to catch up. I caught up on a lot of reading during those trips.

One day, while waiting to pick his bike up, after some minor repair work at a dealership, he discovered helmet communications systems. From that day on, every conversation we had started and ended with “I think we all ought to get these things, then we could talk to each other while we ride.” I could ask him where he wanted to eat lunch and end up having to fend off a pitch for why I needed a radio in my helmet. Even the absolutely true and logical argument that I didn’t need yet another voice in my head failed to deter him.

I admit that, purely through accidental survival and decent genes, I am a geezer. I’m not all that fond of new stuff for the sake of newness. I hung on to points and electro-mechanical ignitions longer than necessary because I understood them and could fix them. Being a geezer isn’t something that I actively pursued, but I have to take some responsibility for having made a few choices that resulted in my getting old rather than getting dead.

However, a lot of people have contributed to my holding grudges. The folks at Nady, for example, had made those damn helmet communications systems inexpensive enough that I could have afforded one if I were lifeless enough to want one. Which provided my friend with the ammunition to bug me about buying a set, whenever something resembling an opportunity arose. Because of that fact, I will never wish the engineers at Nady anything but uncontrolled feedback and poor fidelity. A grudge that I plan to hold till I die.

Eventually, after a year of nagging, I had to give up my feeble attempts at being a nice guy. When my buddy fired up one too many arguments on the radio-in-the-helmet thing, I admitted that I don’t ride a motorcycle to socialize. In fact, I ride a motorcycle to be alone. I don’t take passengers and I don’t want a radio in my helmet because I like it that way.

I didn’t quit while I was ahead, either. I told him that these things are glorified walkie-talkies and they have a range of about a mile, in perfect conditions. Since he was only likely to be able to stay within a mile of me when we were in the same parking lot, the radios would be a waste of helmet space. This is a guy who actually believes that posted speed limits are “reasonable and safe speeds,” not arbitrary numbers selected to irritate skilled motorists and to compensate for the more common totally inept screwball behind a steering wheel.

After absorbing my insults, he doubled his efforts on the other member of our trio. Finally, he convinced him to waste his money on a helmet transmitter-receiver. After a couple of rides with his new electronic riding buddy, he discovered how irritating conversation can be when you’re doing something fun. After a while, he started leaving the radio on, 24 hours a day, draining the battery while appearing to be cooperative. When our talkative buddy discovered that he was going unheard, he started carrying extra batteries so that his gems of wisdom wouldn’t go unappreciated.

Finally, his victim gave up the pretense and bought a new helmet, sans radio. He took to wearing that helmet all the time, claiming it was more comfortable because it did a better job of muffling the “wind noise.” (which, technically, was true in more than one way) I wish I were that diplomatic. I wouldn’t have thought of that excuse in a million years. The closest I came to being subtle was, when we were all in a bike shop together listing to the helmet-yak lecture, I bought a tee-shirt with “Shut Up and Ride” silk-screened on both sides.

When I see bikers coming into a bar, obviously continuing a conversation they’d been having on their helmet walkie-talkies, I know I don’t want to be anywhere near them when the road turns twisty and fun. When they ask me if I don’t get lonely out on the road by
myself, with no one to talk to, I remember a lyric written by an old Minnesota folk singer, “You ask why I don’t live here? Man, I don’t believe you don’t leave.”


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