Nothing Lasts Forever
by bj max
Down home, a man’s good word and a handshake are all you need. This line, versified by the country band Alabama, describes perfectly the hills and hollers of West Tennessee where I was born and raised. I was forced to move to the big city thirty-odd years ago to eliminate a forty-mile commute and save gasoline that had rocketed to an outrageous fifty cents per gallon. Our intentions were to move back home when prices went down. Needless to say, we are still here. All those years and miles caused me to lose touch with old friends. But since retiring last October, I’ve made a concerted effort to re-acquaint myself with a few of these characters from my past. Some are long gone, but not all. Paul Elzie, the person most responsible for firing my interest in motorcycles in the early sixties is just one of them.
Paul is a retired truck driver, retired mechanic and one of the best Harley technicians around. He could overhaul a V-twin blindfolded if necessary, and that’s not a figure of speech, he really could. Paul and I have been friends for nigh on to fifty years but after I moved to Memphis, we sorta’ lost touch, something I decided to remedy now that I am retarded.
Paul lives in a house that he built years ago. When I say he built it, I mean that literally. He didn’t have it built; he built it himself and while he was at it, he whipped up a shop out back too. Actually I think the house was simply to appease his wife so he wouldn’t catch a lot of flack about building a shop. It sits just off the Austin Peay, a fifty mile stretch of highway as straight as a ruler. Visiting the old building is like traveling back in time; kinda’ like Mr. Peabody’s WABAC (pronounced way back) machine. You remember Mr. Peabody don’t you? You know, that bow tie wearing pooch that had the “pet boy” named Sherman. Yeah I thought you would. Well, Mr. Peabody invented the WABAC machine and, like Paul’s shop, it too would transport you back in time.
Paul built the shop on a meager budget over forty years ago and it has aged handsomely. His construction material was second-hand lumber with a few retired telephone poles thrown in to hold up the corners. The roof is vintage tin scalped from a ramshackle barn and the floor is solid bottom land dirt; some of the best in the south.
Out front for the whole world to see is a fifty-foot flag pole that proudly flies Old Glory with the Stars and Bars waving bravely underneath. In the shadow of that flagpole, under a tarp, sits a 1941 Studebaker. Now I know it’s not unusual for someone to have an old car around, but this one is unique in that Paul has it mounted on a Toyota Corolla rolling chassis. It looks for all the world like a vintage Studebaker, but has the heart and soul of a modern automobile. When asked why he built such an odd hybrid, he replied in his calm and quiet way that it was just something to do.
Rusting away out behind Paul’s shop are parts and pieces of several motorcycles in various modes of disrepair, as well as an old electric scooter. Across the fence on blocks sits a decomposing cabin cruiser with its bow pointed into the wind, bound for oblivion.
Inside the shop, the walls are plastered with pictures and memorabilia of cars, motorcycles, fancy ladies and a few old friends that have long since departed. Parked on the far side of the shop is a 1929 Model A Ford, an honest-to-goodness barn car complete with a rumble seat. The old car served as a taxi until 1950 when it was parked in a shed and spent the next sixty years in quiet retirement. Paul recently resurrected the Ford with an engine, transmission and rear gear overhaul. It is now undergoing initial prep for a new coat of paint.
Parked in another corner of the shop is a 1996 H-D trike. Paul bought a Champion kit and did the work himself and that included adding reverse. He said the reverse kit kicked his butt, but he eventually got it right.
There’s always something going on at that old shop. I rarely stop that there’s not a couple of characters hangin’ out, relaxing on fifty year-old Coke cases, swapping lies over a disassembled motorcycle scattered all over the floor. Paul does a lot of work for area motorcyclists. Harley-Davidsons are his forte but given the time, he can fix anything. He picks up a few bucks to augment his retirement and as a bonus, he’s accumulated a few thousand friends along the way.
Paul has been riding for fifty years and the worst accident he ever had was not on a motorcycle. It was on, of all things, a lawn mower. His place sits about six feet above the cut of the road and his front yard is on a slight grade. While mowing the grass parallel to the grade last summer he flipped his Lawn Boy upside down and got trapped underneath with a broken leg. Since he had no neighbors within earshot he was in the proverbial fix. So he whipped out his cell phone and called one of those many friends mentioned above who just happened to be a State Trooper that patrolled that very highway every day. Trooper Max rushed to the scene, dragged Paul from under the mower and packed him off to the emergency room. Incredible. You ride motorcycles all your life and never get a scratch then almost buy the farm cuttin’ the grass. Go figure.
After retiring, when I got the urge to take off, and that was often, Paul’s shop became a destination. I had been in motion almost every waking hour for the past thirty years be it in a semi, my pickup truck or bestraddle a motorcycle and slamming to a dead stop into the brick wall of retirement left me restless and uneasy. A world that wasn’t moving was strange and my wandering soul longed for the road. Paul’s shop became my refuge, an escape hatch so to speak and made my new life in the slow lane bearable.
Inside the rubble of a house unearthed in Pompeii sixteen hundred years after it was buried by volcanic ash, an archeologist discovered the following graffiti scratched into a wall, “Nothing lasts forever” That scribbling would now be a fitting epitaph for Paul’s shop. The Austin Peay Highway, built in 1962, is a two-lane blacktop today but the planners, looking to the future, bought enough land back then to four-lane the highway someday should it become necessary.
Well that day has arrived and the wooden stakes driven into Paul’s front yard marking the new roadbed may just as well have been driven into his heart. He built this place with his bare hands; his kids were born and raised here; his wife lived and died here; his life happened here and in a few months, thanks to eminent domain, there won’t be a trace left of its existence. Future motorcyclists will ride right across where the old shop now stands and won’t have a clue that a genuine time machine once stood here. And my asylum from retirement, and possibly my sanity, will be gone.