by bj max
In the winter of 1969 I found myself bikeless after selling my 1955 Harley-Davidson 74. Donald Mills, better known as Duck, was my number one partner in crime back then and rode a full dress Harley Davidson Hydra-Glide. You know, the one with the hard-tail frame. It was a sharp machine but the thing rode like a log wagon. So Duck, with constant prodding from his pulverized spine, was looking to upgrade to one of those new fangled soft tailed Duo-Glides.
As luck would have it, while hanging around the pool room one Saturday afternoon, we overheard this guy a few barstools down carrying on about a bike for sale over in the next county. And it was a Duo-Glide, just what Duck was lookin’ for. And according to this fellow, it was a steal. Said he was gonna’ buy it himself as soon as he could round up the money but, for the moment, he was strapped.
Duck and I decided then and there to go fifty-fifty and buy that bike out from under the guy, if indeed it really existed. We believed all was fair in love and motorcycling and had no qualms about such a dirty trick. The deal was for me to get the drive train from the Duo-Glide and Duck’s hard tailed frame and Duck would get the Duo-Glide rolling chassis and whatever went with it. We shook hands, picked up our beer and scooted down next to this fellow and introduced ourselves. One hour and a six pack later we had the information necessary to locate said bike, bid our unwitting conspirator good-bye and headed for the Mississippi River Bottom and the little community of Gold Dust.
It was pouring down rain as Duck slowly brought his pickup to a stop in front of a brand new double-wide that sat shining against the bleak winter landscape. The lot it was parked on had been graded and leveled recently and the heavy rain had turned it into a muddy bog. There was no driveway as yet, and a temporary walk made of wooden planks laid end to end led from the road to the front steps. Ducking out into the rain we made a run for the front door.
Our knock was answered by a rough looking character dressed in bib overalls and sportin’ a full beard. He wore a greasy baseball cap that flew the stars and bars and a toothpick hung loosely from one corner of his mouth and a hand rolled Prince Albert cigarette poked outta’ the other. An intimidating figure to say the least. He took a deep drag on his smoke and thumped it between us and out into the muddy yard. Deftly flicking the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, he slowly looks us over then asks in a not so friendly tone, “Yeah?”
After nervously explaining why we dared to bother him on such a beautiful day, his eyes light up, a toothless grin splits his face and he invites us in out of the rain. Turns out he’s not a motorcycle rider himself and had accepted the Harley as settlement on a debt. The bike is out back he says and we are invited to take a look. We made our way out the back door and spot the Harley about fifty yards down a sloping hill. We step off the porch and slog down the hill and can’t believe what we find. Lying on its side in the mud was a 1959 Duo-Glide in near perfect condition. A quick check determined that it was all there and the potential was obvious at a glance. We hurried back to the trailer, hoping against hope that the price was within our meager budget.
Back inside, we got right down to business and said we might be interested if the price was right. The guy said that all he wanted outta’ the deal was his money back. “How much we talkin’ about?” Duck asked. After hem-hawing around a bit he said, almost apologetically, that he would like to get at least a hundred and fifty dollars for it. Said that’s what the fellow owed him. We didn’t even pretend to haggle and snapped up the bike before he came to his senses. Three hours later we were unloading our new found treasure in Duck’s driveway.
After stripping the Duo-Glide and Donald’s Hydra-Glide to the bare frames, I loaded my half of the deal into the back of my pickup and hauled it off to Pretty Boy Floyd’s shop on the other side of town and began a two month project that I just knew in my heart would be an award winning custom.
The drive train from the duo-glide was in perfect shape, except for one small problem. On the engine case there were a bunch of important holes that required a bunch of important bolts and one of these holes had its threads stripped. The simple fix would be to chase the threads with a tap that, naturally, I didn’t have. And I didn’t want to waste precious beer money on a tool I would probably never use again. So I sat the engine on a work bench and tackled those boogered up threads with a three cornered file, one millimeter at a time. I could have probably finished the job in an hour or two if I had stayed at it, but bench racing and beer drinkin’ was a constant distraction and progress suffered as a result. But, eventually, the job was completed and my buddies declared it a remarkable feat of redneck engineering.
I painted the bike myself. Easy Rider was the big movie that year and being an easily impressed, up and coming young redneck, I painted it with Red and white stripes and sprinkled little blue stars all over it. It was really a pitiful imitation of the Captain America bike but I was proud of it anyway.
The day finally came for my dream machine’s maiden voyage. I was putting the final touches on and a couple of my friends had come over to help me wire in the brake and tail lamps and double check everything. We planned on riding out to the Top Hat, a favorite watering hole, and show it off after we finished up and so naturally, I got in too big of a hurry and in my haste I forgot to bolt the sissy bar to the fender. The lower bolts were snugged down tight and held the sissy bar in position so I failed to notice the missing upper bolts and without them, the bar could easily pivot back and forth with pressure. I didn’t know it at the time, but this little oversight would quite possibly save my life.
It was dusk when Charley, Duck and I rolled into the Top Hat parking lot. The red flip sign on the door read closed. We had a quick POW-WOW, yelling to make ourselves heard over the idling bikes and decided to ride up to the poolroom. I could show the bike off up there. After circling the parking lot, Charley and Duck managed to beat the oncoming traffic and headed towards town, but I got caught by a couple of fast moving cars. Downshifting into low, I sat there waiting, impatiently blipping the throttle, when all of a sudden, on the upside of one of those blips, the clutch cable broke. Snapped in two like a super tuned fiddle string and the motorcycle roared forward.
With my hands on the grips, the sudden acceleration rolled the throttle wide open and the bike took off like a rocket. I let go of the handlebars, stood up and let ‘er go. As the motorcycle sped from beneath me, that sissy bar mentioned earlier whacked me across the back and thanks to those missing upper bolts, it rotated to the rear and the bike accelerated away without me. I watched wide eyed as weeks of hard work roared across the road, darting crazily through traffic like some kind of thrill seeking rabbit. The highway was about four feet above the surrounding terrain and when the motorcycle reached the edge, it launched itself and went soaring out over a cotton field and actually gained altitude momentarily, climbing out in a nice right hand bank, and for a second there, just for a second mind you, I actually thought it was gonna’ fly away.
Now a Harley-Davidson, in its natural environment, is a beautiful and graceful machine. But aerodynamically, it’s a pig with a stall speed somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand miles an hour. As its momentum evaporated, the inevitable happened and it quit flying, snapped over into a hammerhead stall and augured in. After bouncing a time or two it came to a halt in a cloud of dust. With the engine still running full blast and the rear tire spinning madly, it flayed the ground like a dying horse, machine gunning me with clods of dirt and cotton balls as I came running up to shut it off.
I was devastated. All that sweat and blood for nothing. My beautiful paint job ruined. The fender that I had so lovingly sculpted was smashed and the sissy bar was twisted like a pretzel. In just a few short seconds, my dream machine had been reduced from a thing of beauty to a smoking pile of junk and a tear in my eye.
I never did re-build that old motorcycle. I thought about it but my heart just wasn’t in it. I just patched it up, sold it, and moved on down the road.