Ridin’ On Ahead

by bj max

I lost two motorcycle riding friends within three days. Donald, or “Big Boat” as we called him passed away on Friday and “Pretty Boy” Floyd died the following Monday. Now these guys weren’t just casual friend’s mind you, they were long time riding buddies and their passing has left a big hole in my social life. Especially Floyd for I had ridden with him a lot recently. Big Boat quit riding several years ago but the memories are still fresh and his passing weighs no less heavy on my heart.

Services for Donald were on the very day that Floyd passed away and Floyd was laid to rest two days later. Two funerals in three days took a bit of adjusting so after services for Floyd were over I decided to ride around the old hometown and see what, if anything, had changed. Lured by the promise of a more lucrative lifestyle, I gave up the calm and serene life of small town America twenty years ago and moved to the big city. One lap around the square was all it took for me to recognize the fact that this was no longer home and I was but another stranger passing through.

Wal-Mart moved in a few years back and destroyed the small town atmosphere and as a result, Court Square was all but deserted. I cruised by some of my old haunts but nothing stirred, not even a bird. I stopped in front of a weed choked vacant lot where one of my favorite watering holes, the East Side Pool Room had once stood. The East Side, for some long forgotten reason, was oddly on the North side of the square. Nothing here now to mark its passing but a pile of broken brick, an empty beer bottle or two and a few pool shootin’ ghosts. It was like the Twilight Zone where the guy returns to his home and aliens have kidnapped everyone and hauled them off to some distant planet. Eerie.

Sad and depressed I finally gave it up and pointed the bike south towards the big city. As I rolled out of town and into the countryside I thought of my two friends and all the good times. I headed for Pretty Boy’s place just up the road. Floyd had been a simple man and lived in a simple white clapboard house. “Ain’t much” he liked to say, “but it’s paid for.” Off to the side stood his shop, an old military Quonset hut that doubled as a beer hall and club house.. There were two huge double doors at the front that you could drive a truck through and a wood burning stove stood, usually cold, in a rear corner. A faint light from the sun somehow managed to penetrate the lone yellowed window and the floor was made up of the finest bottom land dirt in the state of Tennessee. Dust shafts from holes in the roof were prominent on sunny days as if we were under attack by alien lasers. I drank many a brew and skinned many a knuckle working on Harley’s in that old tin building and, like visiting an old friend, I was looking forward to seeing the place again. But when I reached the point where everything should have been visible I was stunned to find that it too, like my friend, was gone. Even the house where Floyd and I broke our backs pouring a concrete porch had been reduced to rubble to make room for the new Baptist Church. And poor old Floyd ain’t even cold. What a shame.

I pulled into the gravel drive, parked and walked to the spot where the shop should have been. In the sixties this place was a beehive of motorcycle activity and Pretty Boy ran a small motorcycle salvage business here. There was fifteen or twenty junked Harley’s and Indians in various states of ruin lying around back then and as I strolled where the shop use to stand I stubbed my toe on something and stumbled. I stepped back, stooped down for a closer look and discovered the pitted curve of a set of handlebar’s sticking about a half-inch out of the ground. I tried to pull them out but they had been there too long and were stuck fast. For all I know they might have been bicycle handlebars but I like to think they were from an Indian or maybe a Harley. It crossed my mind to come back later with a shovel and dig ’em up but, I never did.

Lots of memories here. I spent all winter one year building a chopper from a 1956 Harley 74 and pieces I pirated from those old junk bikes. The most prominent was the skirted fender from an Indian Chief. I trimmed the skirt away, scalloped the rear edge and carved me out a nice custom fender. I scared up a set of ape hangers, built me a four foot sissy bar out of some three eighths re-bar, installed upswept pipes with fishtail tips then polished everything that wasn’t plated. I worked, cussed, sweated and bled over that thing and loved every second of it. I sent the fender and tank to a custom painter in Memphis and when I picked them up they had been miraculously transformed from rough primered steel into colored glass. When the day came to fire the engine, all my friends showed up to help work out the bugs and they respectively ooohed and ahhed over my work but the paint job got most of the attention as it should have.

After tidying up a few odds and ends and a final check of the wiring, we were ready. I kicked the old panhead through several times to pump a little oil around inside, rolled back the spark and flipped on the ignition. With my hands resting on the handlebars and my right foot on the kick starter I raised myself as high as possible off the seat then, with all the strength I could coax from my hundred and thirty pound frame, I stomped with all my might. A puff of black smoke belched from the tailpipe and wonder of all wonders, it roared to life. On the first kick. My buddies were impressed and I was taken completely by surprise.

I rolled the spark back immediately and revved the engine to about a thousand-RPM to get the oil circulating. Didn’t want anything dumb to happen now. After a bit, I retarded the spark, backed off the throttle and stepped off the bike. Big Boat smiled and shoved a cold one in my hand and slapped me on the back. I took a long pull, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and stood there grinning like a fool and tuned in on that glorious racket thundering from those beautiful silver pipes. The Harley’s booming idle was electrifying as it bounced around the confines of that old tin building, rattling the roof and shaking the ground. Sweet thunder. I was twenty-three years old then and dumber than a box of rocks but I could make a Harley talk good people and I had that sucker blabbing like Rush Limbaugh strung out on sodium pentothol.

I totaled it that night.

Sitting here now staring at a dusty old black and white photo of my friends and I gathered in a semi-circle in front of Floyd’s shop, I smile at the images mugging back at me. We are so young and cocky like we were gonna’ live forever. Then it suddenly dawned on me. Everybody in the picture, except me of course, has passed on. Rode on ahead if you will. All of ’em. As I mentioned earlier, Big Boat and Pretty Boy succumbed to cancer. Charlie, one of the best Harley mechanics I ever came in contact with, succumbed to a heart attack and Parnell succumbed to a .38 caliber bullet out in Texas a few years ago. Someone once asked the great Billy Graham what was the one thing in his long life that surprised him the most. He hesitated a moment then answered, “The brevity of it.” Never a truer word was spoken. Life is short good people. Ride far.

God Bless America


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