by bj max
A crusty old timer yells at James Stewart over the howling wind. “Contact.” Stewart, portraying Charles Lindbergh, screams back, “Contact”. The old timer, with every ounce of energy his tired old muscles can produce, gives a mighty pull on the propeller. The engine coughs, spits and wheezes but doesn’t catch. So the ritual of cranking the old bi-plane starts all over. “Switch off.” says the grizzled old timer. Stewart repeats the words, “Switch off.” Pulling his hat down tight against the blowing snow, the old timer walks the propeller through then yells at Stewart. “Contact.” Stewart repeats “Contact.” The old man grunts with another mighty pull. The engine whistles, coughs, belches a puff of black smoke then, through my home theater system, the old radial roars to life sending my wife’s fresh cut poseys vibrating across the end table and crashing to the floor. The noise and power thundering from that old engine was electrifying reminding me of Dr. Frankenstein’s gleeful exclamation when his monster opened it’s eyes…”Its alive…IT’S ALIVE!”
Starting those old radial engines was a lot like starting an old Harley. The only difference is you kicked the Harley through instead of pulling it through. If you stop and think about it, a Harley engine is really nothing more than two cylinders sliced off a radial anyway. They even have a similar sound. And whether you ride a Harley or not, if you have so much as one milliliter of testosterone in your body you’ve got to admit that the exhaust note of a Harley Davidson is captivating.
Are you old enough to remember when the Beach Boys were one of the hottest groups in the country? Me too. Well, back then I had a buddy that rode a Harley-Davidson Sportster. An XLCH. The one with the magneto. The magneto provided more voltage to the spark plugs than a conventional distributor and in its day the XLCH was one of the baddest things on two wheels. But the mag coupled with the aggressive ignition timing made it a monster to start.
Back then I belonged to this gang of pre Electra-Glide Neanderthals and we spent most of our time in the local bars and pool rooms. There were several pool rooms in my hometown, all located on the square, but we preferred the “Northside”, it was the seediest. Spider Webb owned the Northside and when he threw open the big double doors on those hot summer mornings the flies that had been trapped inside all night swarmed all over him. They had been drinkin’ and partyin’, got themselves all likkered’ up and you know how rowdy drunks can be. Retreating from the onslaught, Spider would duck behind the bar where he kept a can of Raid and a .44 Colt navy revolver. The Raid was for horse and house flies but the .44 was held in reserve for the more aggressive “barfly”.
After kicking the flies out, Spider would make a half-hearted attempt at cleaning up the joint. About this time the regulars would start drifting in and by eight o’clock the daily marathon domino game had started and Spider had already tapped a keg and pulled the first few drafts.
On Saturdays, the biker crowd would rumble in and out all day, riding from one bar to another. Court Square was the center of social activity in those days and the farmers would show up with their whole family in tow. Dad would conduct some business at the cotton gin and maybe get a haircut, Mom would take care of all the shopping needs and the kids would spend the afternoon with ‘ol Roy at the picture show. The Saturday throng perambulated around the square all day and into the evening, window shopping, gossiping and almost everybody was munching popcorn bought from the vendor over at the ten-cent store. And the old men warming the benches on the courthouse lawn chewed tobacco, whittled and told the most wonderful lies you ever heard.
In the summer, Spider would chock the big double doors open to relieve his patrons from the stifling heat and humidity. From our vantage point, the bar stools nearest the door, we would sit nursing long neck Buds and silently admire the sales ladies passing back and forth on errands for the various shops around the square. There were no wolf whistles or catcalls mind you. After all, this was the South at a time when even hooligans like us knew to mind our manners, something we were taught from birth by example or hickory stick, depending on which form of educational process one gravitated toward.
After polishing off a beer or two, it would be time to ride to another of our favorite watering holes, the Top Hat Café. But, we knew it was gonna’ take a while for Parnell to build a fire in that ornery Sporster of his so we sat tight, ordered another round and rared’ back to watch the show.
Eddie Parnell, God rest his soul, was slim and trim, clean cut and could drink twenty gallons of beer a day and never gain an ounce. He was one of those rare individuals who could do the most outrageous things and get away with ’em. You couldn’t help but like him but at the same time he could be aggravating. He was one of those unforgettable characters that sometimes you would just like to forget.
Parnell strolled out to the Sportster, the steel taps on his cowboy boots clicking and clacking with every step. Wearing one of those old white-billed bus driver style Harley hats, he sidled up next to the Sportster, glanced up and down the street, sucked the last drag from a Viceroy and flicked it into the gutter. He reached into his shirt pocket, whipped out a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses and slipped them on. Cool. Throwing a leg over the Sportster, he let his right foot come to rest on the kick-starter. Taking a seat, he leaned over and fiddled with the choke, then, satisfied with the setting, he placed both hands on the handlebars, rolled the spark back, kicked the engine through several times then flipped on the ignition.
Parnell raised himself off the seat and with the whole of his 150 pound mass and all the energy he could muster converging on the kick-starter he stomped with all his might. To the uninitiated it might appear that he was trying to stomp the motorcycle to death but in reality he was just using the tried and true method of cranking a Harley-Davidson. Stompin’ on Harleys was the accepted and only way that I ever knew of to get the contrary things to start. But you gotta’ be careful stompin’ on a Harley ’cause it just might stomp you back.
Parnell’s first stomp didn’t produce so much as a pop. He tried again. Nothing. And again and again and again. Over and over he stomped and stomped. Summer time humidity in the south is legendary and coupled with a cupla’ hundred thousand Viceroys it began to take its toll. Parnell was drowning in his own perspiration and losing his cool. But finally, the red monster fired and came to life with a stuttering roar that rattled windows around the square. “It’s alive! It’s ALIVE!”
Parnell twisted in the saddle and beckoned to us. Mordon Goon, a tall gangling red neck farm boy staggered to the open door of the pool hall and yelled over the idling bike that while Parnell had been doing the Monster Mash on the Harley we had been gettin’ snockered and, being the upstanding and responsible citizens that we were, we had decided that it would be in our best interest, not to mention the good citizens of our fair city, if we just stayed put.
Parnell blew a fuse. He had worked to hard to get his fiery steed lit and he was riding to the Top Hat with or without us and we could just go to blazes. With the aplomb of an exploding hand grenade he blasted from the curb and flipped us the bird as he thundered away. With the echo of the angry Sportster howling in the distance we whirled around laughing like a pack of drunken hyenas, ordered up another round and settled in for the evening.