Me and Paul and Elvis
by bj max
In 1965 I rode my first Harley-Davidson. It was a 1938 forty-five with a foot clutch, three-speed transmission and a tank mounted gearshift. Up until that time the biggest motor driven cycle I had ever ridden was an Allstate Moped and a Cushman Eagle and when I first straddled that old beat up flathead I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It belonged to a friend of mine and after noticing me caressing the fuel tank one day he felt sorry for me and offered to let me ride it, a kindness he lived to regret I’m sure ’cause I became a constant companion from that day forward begging rides at every opportunity.
Back then we referred to Harleys by their cylinder volume. And none of that namby-pamby metric measurement business either. We used good old American cubic inches. Hence the forty-five designation mentioned above. There was also a sixty-one, a seventy-four and I’m sure there were other variations that I never heard of.
Paul Elzie owned the forty-five and due to our mutual affection for two wheeled vehicles, we became good friends. We worked opposite shifts so when Paul was on the job I had access to the bike. Paul was a young newlywed then and lived with his new bride in a shotgun shack about two miles down the road from the shotgun shack where my new bride and I lived. For those underprivileged readers that live outside the redneck loop, let me explain the “Shotgun Shack” layout. The shotgun shack is really very simple. All the rooms are in a straight line. In other words, if you fire a shotgun through the front door opening, the blast will pass through the house and out the back door without hittin’ anything. Thus the term, shotgun shack. The architect of the shotgun shack, Bubba somebody or other, was a less complicated man than say a Frank Lloyd Wright type and a lot smarter too if you ask me. The sheer number of shotgun shacks in this country leaves no doubt that Bubba was the true architectural genius.
On my days off I would drive down to Paul’s, park my pickup, kick the old flathead to life and ride with, as the great Chuck Berry versified, no particular place to go. Sometimes I would ride all day. Designed originally for military use, you could go anywhere on that thing. It was as sure-footed as a billy goat. I rode it up and down gravel roads, across grassy pastures, down into the river bottoms and once I bounced it right across some new plowed ground to say hello to my wife’s uncle working in the field. Didn’t think a thing about it either. In fact, I rode very little on paved highways. Mainly because Paul never bothered to register it. After all, it was only a motorcycle.
Paul was a wheeler-dealer. A regular Mister Haynie. You know, one of those guys that’s always got a pocket knife or an old car they want to trade or sell. Paul would trade for anything and actually wound up one day with an old mule named Kate. That’s right a mule. Don’t laugh. Mules ain’t cheap. A good mule nowadays will probably run you in the neighborhood of three to four thousand dollars and a good team, well you don’t even want to know what a good team would cost. And besides, no good southern story would be complete without a mule. Preferably a dead mule but an old mule will work in a pinch. So, as I was saying, Paul made a killing on this old mule and wound up with enough hard cash for a new motorcycle.
So, on a gorgeous spring morning we climbed into Paul’s International pickup and, flush with cash, we struck out for Memphis and Al’s Honda. Now up until 1960 Al was a Harley dealer. In fact, not that its of any significance to this story other than to get Elvis’s name in the title, but this was the very same Harley dealer that Elvis did business with. But In 1960 it became a Honda franchise and that’s what it is today. Speaking of Elvis, everybody knows he was a dyed in the wool Harley man. Right? But one day, back in the late sixties, old swivel hips snuck into Al’s one night and bought eleven Honda’s. What? Elvis on a Honda? Get outta’ town.
Paul and I arrived at Al’s that Saturday morning way back then around ten AM I guess. As I said, this was now a Honda dealer but there were several used Harley’s on the floor. And to me, they were all beautiful, even the junkers. And I hadn’t seen so much chrome since my Dad traded in our ’54 Roadmaster a few years back. But in amongst all these glorious two wheeled wonders there was one that stood out from all the rest. Sitting in the middle of the showroom was a drop dead red ’55 full boogie Hydra Glide. It had white handle grips with white ten-inch fringes attached and a huge white leather buddy seat encircled by a chrome double rail with a big chrome “V” in the center. A chrome luggage rack adorned the rear fender and refrigerator white fiberglass saddlebags clung to either side. The toolbox was plated as well as the oil tank and chain guard. The headlight was hooded as were the accessory running lights and the bottom half of the windshield was tinted red to match the bike. But the icing on the cake was a set of gangster walls mounted on gleaming chrome plated wheels. What a motorcycle. Paul looked at a couple other bikes that day but I don’t think he seriously considered anything but that gorgeous fifty-five. And the price was right. Only five hundred bucks.
The deal was made and the Harley was pushed outside, gassed up and a mechanic started it up and sorta’ went through the motions of looking everything over. When he was satisfied, Paul threw a leg over the machine and lifted it off its stand. He gunned it a time or two, rolled the spark back and sat there a minute listening to that spine chilling idle. Fifty feet in front of him heavy traffic whizzed back an fourth on Summer Avenue. Paul sat there a minute or two then eased the bike back down on its stand, reached up and cut the switch. “What’s the matter?” I asked, thinking something was wrong with the engine…Paul was an expert mechanic and I thought maybe he could hear something that I couldn’t. But no, there was nothing wrong with the motorcycle. Paul stepped off the bike, turned and asked me the dumbest question I think I’ve ever been asked in my life. He said that he had never ridden in big city traffic before and wanted to know if I would ride it out of town for him.
Would I ride it out of town for him? Are you kiddin’? That’s like asking Osama Bin Laden if he would like a key to the weapons grade plutonium locker at Oak Ridge. What a silly question.
Hey, I had never ridden in big city traffic either but I was just dumb enough not to be intimidated. I was on that Harley before Paul had a chance to change his mind and by the time he had walked to his pickup and pulled out into traffic, I was a speck in the distance headed for the city limit sign as fast as traffic and the cops would allow.
I made it outta’ town that day without hittin’ anything or killing myself. And I was too busy noticing my image in the storefront windows to pay much attention to traffic. What a ride. After clearing the city limits I just kept going. I was a groovin’ and a cruisin’ and was almost twenty miles from town before I realized that the new owner was nowhere in sight. So I reluctantly pulled over at a little country store, cut the motor and waited for Paul.
That old forty-five with its clumsy foot clutch and tank shift would never be the same. Paul was a good friend and held on to it so I’d have something to ride but I had been ruined by that powerful seventy-four and I would never be happy until I had one of my very own. And so there it is. The motorcycle bug had bitten and I was hooked. My never ending quest for a more powerful, bigger and better motorcycle has continued to this day and I don’t guess it’ll ever end. Will it?