An Attempt At Understanding

by Thomas Day

A friend who’s girlfriend had just completed the MSF Basic Rider Class was telling me about his experience at picking out a new motorcycle. The girlfriend really wanted a big cruiser, but the boyfriend was trying to convince her to try a mid-sized standard; like the SV650 or the EX500. Her cruiser rational was that she liked the look of the retro bike; the “classic” motorcycle look.

I admit it. I don’t understand people. Not at all. Not ever.

For my 40-some years as a musician, I’ve wanted to understand why people listen to country music, especially city people. I started rock and rolling in the early 1960s and it seemed to me that country music was just old rock and roll with hillbilly vocals. The twang is going away in modern country and now most of what I hear on the country stations just sounds like early-1970s rock. Why anyone wants to listen to old folks’ rock and roll sort of confuses me. It’s not logical.

I live by the saying “form follows function.” Not by choice, but by nature. A form that doesn’t have a function is lost on me. Cathedral ceilings, backwards baseball caps, neckties, and tall-heeled shoes, are just a few of the forms that seem functionless to me; and incomprehensible. I have no idea why anyone likes the look of chrome, especially chrome that has to be constantly polished and rust-protected. I like leather on baseball gloves and boots, but I think heavy nylon makes a far better day-to-day riding, protective material. If I have to make a choice between waterproof and stylish, I’m repelling water every time. But I thought I’d take a stab at figuring out the “classic look,” in terms that I might understand.

Horses, for instance, are similar to motorcycles in many ways. You have to balance yourself on a horse. There are practical and impractical reasons to own a horse. There are stylish and functional aspects of horse ownership. Cager personalities would ride in horse-drawn wagons and carriages, biker types would ride a horse. Right? There are stylish and practical riders, owners, horse-persons, or whatever the politically correct term might be.

When I was younger, being a western Kansas boy and having cousins who ranched and rodeo’d, I went to a fair number of rodeos. The opening ceremonies were always led by a pack of geezers and bimbos on decked-out horses. The horses were loaded down with silver, fringe, and precious stones. The geezers and bimbos were just as well-dressed, usually wearing white (the good guy color) “western” shirts and pants littered with embroidery and glittery beadwork, tan, fringed leather jackets, high-heeled ostrich or alligator-skin boots, and huge white “cowboy” hats.

Many of the horses were over-stuffed and well-groomed and carried themselves (and their owners) with a fancy step for the couple hundred yards as they suffered the parade ceremony. Some were downright ancient and looked about as lively as Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger, after he’d been stuffed and mounted in the RoyRogersMuseum. A few, usually ridden by the bimbos, were young, mildly spirited, and out of control, usually prancing sideways across the rodeo grounds, bumping into other horses and riders, and generating lots of laughter from the crowd.

The parade horses were well groomed, with teased manes, braided tails, and flowers. They were all decorated with silver, fringe, and fancy, often white, leatherwork. Even the horses’ shoes would be polished and shiny. One old geezer had his horse shod with silver for these events. For the rest of the evening, the cowboys were the show. I have no idea where the geezers and bimbos went after the opening parade. Maybe they are put back into packing crates so they don’t mess up their clothes.

After the geezers and bimbos paraded past, the cowboys made a circuit around the grounds. They always wore jeans, denim shirts, beat up Justin or Acme work boots, and ratty Stetsons or Jayhawk baseball caps. The cowboys’ horses were all pretty much the same: five to ten years old, lean, muscled, alert, and looking like the ceremony bored them as much as it did the cowboys. Their gear was minimal: black or brown saddles (a lot of the tack is made from synthetic materials these days), no fringe, no silver, and rubber or ordinary steel horse shoes. Not much to look at. The cowboys and their horses made you forget about how they looked, once the show started. Performance is everything, image is nothing.

Choosing a horse is probably like choosing a motorcycle. You can buy a tired, old, worn out plug that won’t run away with a poor rider or you can buy a young, fast, spirited horse that takes some skill and experience to manage. If you pile enough equipment on the worn out plug and you curry it out with enough care, the plug will make a fine parade horse. Nothing you do to the plug will make it run fast or cut cattle or perform any useful task beyond making glue. The old nag will often be overweight, sway-backed, slow, and easy going. The worst habit you’ll have to deal with is the tendency to return to the barn a whole lot faster than you left it.

There are some advantages to this sort of animal, as every young equestrian’s parent knows. It’s a lot easier to get on a sway-backed horse than to mount a tall, spirited, straight-backed colt. For one, the old horse has a lower saddle height. Once you get on, the old nag isn’t going to jump out from under you. That old glue-supply is going to stay motionless until something motivating convinces it to mosey along. A nag is, mostly, fairly safe; unless you need to get somewhere or move quickly.

That’s not to say that some old horses can’t give a good ride. I once had the pleasure of working with an ex-National champ cutting horse. She could out run, for a short distance, well-conditioned thoroughbreds. She could out-think me, and most riders, when it came to anticipating where cattle or other horses might turn or stop. I’ve never experienced a mode of transportation that was more exciting or more fun than that horse. She was eventually crippled by a rich old fat man and that pretty much ended my fascination with horses. I’m not a big fan of rich old fat men, either.

However, thinking of motorcycles in terms of horses still doesn’t get me any closer to understanding why people want to ride a vehicle that has the characteristics of an over-dressed, over-polished 1940’s motorcycle. Outside of museums, can’t see the fascination with old technology. Do these same folks use Z80 CP/M or Altair computers out of nostalgia? Do they still cook and heat their homes with wood or coal stoves?

The whole nostalgia thing reeks of old folks pining for a youth they forgot to enjoy when they were young. One thing I can prove with absolute perfection is that you can’t go back and you’ll never be younger than you are right now. Being young and indestructible is a “use it or lose it” proposition. At the end of that proposition you get to mull over “if I’d have known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Rocks and hard places, that’s what life is all about.

A friend of mine recently purchased a Honda VTX 1800 hippo-bike. This guy’s tastes run from the incredibly sophisticated to the ridiculously comical. His motorcycle collection ranges from a Honda NX650 Hawk to a Yamaha Venture to a collection of Yamaha XS650s, with a random half-dozen intermediate bikes thrown in for garage ballast. Now the VTX holds a special place in his purchase history; it’s the first bike he’s ever bought that caused buyer’s remorse. One characteristic of this motorcycle that made a particular impression on me is his inability to read road signs when the VTX waddles slightly above the speed limit. The bike’s vibration is so intense that even objects directly in the path of travel are blurred by the big Honda’s unbalanced engine; forget about using the mirrors for anything other than checking hair and makeup before firing up the motor.

In 1930, that sort of performance wouldn’t have been a surprise. In 2003, it’s more evidence that American motorcyclists are very strange. His purchase of this motorcycle is another piece of human activity that I will never understand. No function, weird and useless form, and he still bought it.

M.M.M.

 

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