by bj max
Back in my smokin’ drinkin’ and cussin’ days I hung out with this scruffy looking bunch of characters and we rode Harley-Davidsons. Well, maybe I should say we owned Harley-Davidsons ’cause the truth is we spent so much time workin’ on ’em, there wasn’t a lot of time left to ride. But now and again, when we had ’em all running’ at the same time, we took a trip, if you can call a hundred mile ride a trip. But a hundred miles on those rickety old machines was quite an achievement and if we made it back with all the big parts, we were happy.
One of our favorite roads was state route 104, a skinny little two lane blacktop that curves and carves its way through the lush rolling hills of West Tennessee with hardly a straight piece of asphalt to be seen. Not as crooked as Deal’s Gap but highway 104 presented a challenge the Dragon has never offered. Driveways. When you go bowling headlong over a hill just as Old McDonald is backing his John Deer cotton picker from a hidden drive, 104 becomes every bit as exciting as that famed piece of asphalt to our East.
At the other end of 104 was our destination. W.W. Ringwood’s blacksmith shop, Harley-Davidson pre-owned parts emporium and Coke machine. W.W. Ringwood, or Rang as we called him, was a crusty old coot with a full beard, a twinkle in his eye and a reckless affinity for tinkering. He once jerked the flathead V-8 from his old Ford pickup and stuffed it into an airplane that he had designed and built from scratch. And, according to the locals, it actually flew. But eventually, probably due to it being a tad nose heavy, it fell headfirst into a persimmon tree at which point ol’ Rang decided that flying was for the birds and gave up the sport forever.
We were poor boys back then and the only new parts we could afford were points and plugs. Not Harley Points and plugs mind you but Chevrolet points and Champion spark plugs. And, thanks to International-Harvester, we were able to buy chain from a bulk spool at the local farm equipment store. But for genuine Harley parts we relied on suppliers like Rang who ran a small motorcycle junkyard from the weeds behind an old Quonset hut shop. Made up of a cupla’ dozen Harleys and an old Indian or two, it was like a gold mine to us.
Money was scarce in those days and labor was cheap. The way we looked at it, if a part was good for another thousand miles, then it was worth the trouble to install. I once helped a friend squeeze a set of well used rings into a forty-five cubic inch Harley and he rode it for a year before having to scrounge up another set. Charlie, that was his name, Charlie, tore his engine down so often he could overhaul it blindfolded. Those old bikes were laughable and dangerous I guess but our passion was such that we were more than willing to slave over em’ all week for the reward of a few hours in the saddle.
On one particular Saturday morning, six of us rumbled into Rang’s around ten am and found him in the shop fussing with a broken throttle cable. He dropped what he was doing and stood to greet us. We shook hands all around, pulled up some coke cases and sat down. Tilted back against the corrugated steel of the shop, we lazed in the early morning sunshine for awhile, sipping cokes and bad-mouthing all two-wheeled vehicles not built in Milwaukee.
Our excuse for visiting Rang this day was my rear sprocket. Not that we needed one, an excuse that is, it just seems that a ride is more enjoyable if you’re on a mission of some sort and the teeth on my sprocket were worn right down to the gums. Rang said he thought he might have one.
We finished our sodas then followed him around back and watched as he searched and scrounged around in the weeds. After discarding several rusty sprockets that Rang knew wouldn’t meet my lofty standards, he finally uncovered a suitable piece with teeth that leaned only slightly forward and for two bucks, it was a steal.
With my bike on the jackstand, Rang sat down cross-legged on the dirt floor of the old shop to remove the wheel. He hesitated, shook his head in amazement, then called me over and pointed to the axle. “Yo axle nut’s gone ol’ son.” I glanced at the axle. Sure enough, the nut was missing. No wonder it handled funny on the ride up, I thought. But I wasn’t overly concerned. We were used to pieces falling off and considered it only a minor inconvenience.
Rang must have had thirty or forty coffee cans filled with all manner of nuts, bolts and small parts scattered around the premises. Everybody joined in the hunt, pouring the contents of the cans onto shop towels, then digging and fingering in what proved to be a futile search for a replacement nut.
We checked out behind the shop and Rang even walked across the road to a dilapidated old tractor shed thinking there might be a nut off the farm equipment that would fit. But it was all in vain. Of all the junk around that place it was almost impossible to believe there wasn’t some kind of nut off something that would fit a Harley-Davidson rear axle.
Now I was faced with the prospect of leaving my bike there at Rang’s until a new nut could be scrounged or, heaven forbid, ordered. And I didn’t like the idea of riding two up all the way back home either. I don’t trust anybody at the handlebars but me.
Then Rang, with his wildly inventive mind, had a brainstorm. He grabbed a wrench, walked over and stooped down next to Charlie’s bike and commenced removing the axle nut. When Charlie protested Rang held up his hand and quietly told him to keep his britches on. He placed the nut in the vise and proceeded to saw it in half. He then walked over and kneeled next to Charlie’s machine and patiently threaded one half of the nut onto his axle, turned and threaded the other half onto mine. Finally, with crescent wrench in hand, he carefully snugged the nuts down on each bike then backed off and examined his handiwork. That oughta’ do it he allowed as he looked around at each of us, beaming at his own brilliance.
As crazy as it seems, W.W.’s idea worked like a charm and we made the trip home without incident. The two half nuts held the axles just fine. In fact, they did such a good job we could see no practical reason to change ’em out so we left ’em that way and eventually sold both of those Harley’s with those half nuts still attached.
Those were the good old days and I miss them but I don’t miss those raggedy old bikes, although I do wish I had kept a few of them just for their present day value. Now, after years of hard work, my financial situation has improved to the point that I can afford a full-boogie touring rig. And, other than regular maintenance, I never have to work on it. It’s always there, waiting patiently, ready to go whenever I take a notion. That’s all well and good I suppose but I do miss the camaraderie that I shared with my friends working on those greasy old machines so long ago. Rebuilding an engine or changing out a generator with four or five buddies was fun and there was time to talk and laugh and share a story or two. But now, well now all I do is ride.