Back in the Day
by Thomas Day
When I was a kid, barely into my 20’s, I moved to west Texas for one of the worst jobs anyone ever suffered. A pair of the few upsides to that miserable experience was that I discovered new ways to play with motorcycles in one of the biggest motorcycle playgrounds on this continent. And I met Karl.
[My kids were born in that awful place, so at least two other good things happened there. I thought I should mention that.]
Karl was a sixty-something machinist who was a Texas lifer; other than a 3-year aerospace stint as a Lockheed machinist in California during WWII. Karl and his brothers were west Texas motorcycling legends. When he was a kid, between the two world wars, Karl and his four brothers rode Indian Scout V-twins. Back then, there wasn’t a decent road between Hereford, Texas and Amarillo, so the boys rode their Scouts cross-country. As best they could, they rode straight from their parents’ farm to where ever it was they wanted to go in “the big city” and, after doing whatever it was they wanted to do in Amarillo, they rode straight back home. Every day I worked with Karl was spiced with stories of west Texas at the end of the cowboy days; or his adventures in California during the war.
Karl was more than a machinist, as much as that talent is undervalued. He was an inventive mechanic who was as likely to make his own replacement parts as use what the manufacturer’s provided. He had a decent, if old fashioned machine shop in his home and turned out all sorts of tools, parts and marginally-artistic pornographic novelty bits. Working with him gave me practical skills and insight into design and fabrication that was, for a long time, key to my career.
In 1971, Karl still had one of the family Scouts in his “barn,” along with a WWI biplane fighter turned crop-duster, a couple of old Ford coupe hotrods, two 1940’s Ford-Ferguson tractors, assorted pieces of obsolete farm equipment, and a late 50’s Cadillac Eldorado. Of those possessions, the only ones that were in any sort of usable shape were the airplane and the Indian Scout. I saw him fly the plane, once, after a party at his neighbor’s house where he and my boss finished off a pint-and-a-half bottle of Everclear and got into a pissing match over who could do the dumbest thing at that very moment. My boss, Arnold, tore off in his company pickup, bragging that he would bust 100mph before he made it to the highway. Karl ran to the barn and fired up the plane, planning to strafe my boss before he made his destination. There was a gun on the old plane and the chances were pretty good that it still worked, but Karl probably didn’t have ammunition for it so Arnold was relatively safe, although he ran the pickup into a ditch on the way back from the main road. Karl didn’t manage to do much more than circle his house a few times before he put the plane down in the field behind his house. The next day, he towed the plane back into the garage and I suspect it never moved from that spot for the rest of Karl’s life.
A fellow employee, Charlie, a kid who had been a pretty good local motocrosser before he was drafted into the Army in 1972 and went to Vietnam. Charlie came back pretty emotionally and physically damaged in 1974. The last story I head about Karl was he and Charlie had redesigned a Honda street bike that could run on diesel, naphtha, or practically anything that would burn and Charlie was riding all over the remaining open Texas fields and across the state smelling like French fries, an oil stove or himself. From what I heard, Karl and Charlie had worked out a pretty effective rehabilitation plan.Karl’s signature moment came after he had a heart attack. He dropped to the ground on a trip to the local hardware store. Paramedics arrived and began CPR. They got him to the hospital barely alive and the ER doc put the paddles on Karl and whacked him several times before his heart restarted. Karl told me that it hurt like hell and that he’d been pretty comfortable with dying before being rudely brought back to Texas and 1973. He told every doc in the hospital, “If you ever do that again, I’ll shoot you between your beady little eyes.” When he got out of the hospital, he bought a little .32 pistol and kept it in his pocket in case he ever woke up in a hospital again. It’s hard to argue with a living will that is enforced by a loaded gun.
By the late-70’s, I’d lost track of the few Texas friends I wanted to keep. I’d moved my career across three industries in five years and the internet was about 20 years from becoming a useful resource. If he’s alive, Karl would be a little over 100 and that seems unlikely. But if he’s still around, I bet he is still packing that .32 and scaring the crap out of Texas doctors.