This post will sort of build a little bit on my last post, “So You Want to Be a Stuntman.” What I mean by that is that I think my reckless adventures on my BMX bike eventually led me to have an interest in something that could really do some damage – motorcycles. By the beginning of high school, a lot of my friends were learning to ride motorcycles, some of them had already been riding dirt bikes (off-road motocross motorcycles) for a couple of years.
In 8th grade, in fact, I approached my parents about letting me purchase a Honda XL80S dual purpose motorcycle if I could come up with the money from summer jobs. It had an 80 cc single cylinder “thumper” engine and was the right size for me then (it would now be ridiculously small and under-powered for me, but more on this later). I respect my Mom for not just laughing in my face. The answer was not just No, but Hell No. Dad was indifferent on the matter, as he was on many of my perceived adolescent tribulations. The typical useless fight between a 13 year old boy and his parents ensued. I threatened to buy it anyway and keep it at the Blockplant (the broken down and abandoned cement factory behind our house). I stormed out of the house and went downstairs to my room to look at the brochure again.
My poor parents.
That summer, after 8th grade, and just after the Horse Trek took place (see previous post of the same name) I got a job doing odd jobs for that same Honda Motorcycle dealership in town. This had to have been illegal, but Hey, it was rural Wyoming in the summer of 1983. I was cheap labor, I was eager to learn everything there was to learn about motorcycles, and I earned some money to save up for my own bike, my mother be damned. My mother, incidentally, was vehemently against this course of employment, but for one reason or another she chose not to stop it. That did not mean that I didn’t have to ride my bicycle the 6 miles into town every day and back in order to hold down the job for the summer. And yes, as a matter of fact it was uphill both ways. Thanks for asking.
Man, it was a dream job at the time, and that summer I fell in love with motorcycles. They had me organize spare greasy parts into boxes and put them up on shelves, sweep the shop floor, clean the bathroom, pretty much what you would expect a 13 year old employee to be doing in a motorcycle shop. During my lunch breaks and when things were slow around the shop (which was more or less always) a lot of times the other employees and the owner of the shop would let me sit on the new motorcycles and tell me what each one was for, how much it cost, how fast it went and how much power it had. My favorite was the 1983 Honda Goldwing Touring Motorcycle; its cockpit was big enough for me to lay down on the seat and I knew it was waaaaayyyyy too much bike for me.
Looking back now, I realize that I was an employee of that shop that summer only in the loosest of terms, which was probably why they let me screw around a lot. I wasn’t actually on the books as an employee of the store; what they had was a kid willing to work for a $5.00 bill a day tax free who would work hard and cared about the shop, a kid who was falling in love with motorcycles. Mark, the owner of the shop, saw this in me, and decided to encourage it.
Future customer, I guess. Or maybe it was something more. Maybe he saw that I was going to eventually ride one way or the other, and decided knowing all about motorcycles would be a lot better than the alternative. He took me under his wing, and one day, he offered to let me ride the XL80S I was interested in. I was floored, and ultimately I politely declined the offer (against the advice of my inner child, believe me), telling him I was too afraid I would crash it. He nodded, and said that an insecure rider indeed has no business on a motorcycle. We settled on letting me wheel it out to the front of the shop and kick start it. It fired up on the first try.
I wanted that thing in the worst way. Mark showed me how to properly put a helmet on, and taught me all about proper riding gear. I knew that in no time I would be learning to ride, and if there was a way on Earth for Mark to sell me that XL80S, I think he would have.
But that summer, like all summers of our youth, eventually came to its inevitable close. A week before I started high school, I had to quit my job at the Honda dealership in lieu of my high school studies, my continuing obligations in Boy Scouts, and home chores. It was my favorite summer job of my adolescence, and this is the first I’ve written or spoken of it in 37 years.
In December of that same year, I crashed my BMX bicycle on what is known as black ice (so named because it is invisible and often forms on blacktop pavement) and dislocated a spinal disk, although I didn’t know this at the time.
There I was lying in the snow and ice down at the Blockplant, my BMX crashed in a heap ten feet from me and me unable to move in the frigid temperatures. “I could die out here,” I thought to myself. But then feeling slowly returned to my stunned body, and I was able to get up and literally limp my bike home.
What followed was a year of slowly losing the use of my right leg: Missing school, doctor’s appointments, CAT scans, MRI’s, spinal taps, ultimately surgery, a month in St. Mary’s Hospital in Billings, Montana learning to walk again, physical therapy, then a slow, painful recovery and home tutors so that I wouldn’t get held back in school.
I eventually recovered fully and returned to school no longer limping as I had for a year, and it was quietly understood by everyone that motorcycles were no longer up for discussion.
Which was fine with me. I could barely even look at my bicycle anymore (as if this was all somehow its fault).
After that I really didn’t ride my bike as much anymore. Hell, I was glad I could walk again, and I planned to do a lot of it. Motorcycles, I realized, were not for me.
And then, one evening three years later, our telephone at home rang, and the caller asked for me. It was, in many ways, probably one of the more important phone calls of my entire life.
So it’s important to note a couple of things here, not the least of which is that in high school I wasn’t very popular. I didn’t play sports, the football coach disliked me, and I was a nerd. I was tall, lanky, terrible at athletics, I read ahead in our science textbooks, I got depressed when I couldn’t understand nuclear equations in Physics class, and I openly argued in class with the Literature teacher about what Ray Bradbury was actually trying to say in “Zero Hour.” (I still think I was right, by the way, and he gave me an A for original thinking.) But I digress. The point is that I was a Nerd. A Dweeb. A Geek with a capital G. (If you have read my previous post “Rock and Roll High School” you already know this about me.) And we all know that nerds don’t belong on motorcycles.
Or do they?
The other thing to remember here is that in a small town like that in the 80s, everybody pretty much knew everybody.
The phone call was from a guy I will call Brian Smith. His dad ran the only radio station in town (an a.m. station that played a lot of Paul Harvey and farm reports). Brian was just out of high school a couple of years ahead of me, and even though his father was the local media, Brian was also a bit of a nerd, and was known as a loner. Some people were even slightly afraid of him. He was always one of those weird kids. He and I had shared a few school lunches together in years past and we had even talked after school a few times. But that was pretty much it. I was driving now (currently I was driving my parents’ Chevy Chevette) and had seen him on Main a few times. I knew who he was. Didn’t really consider him a friend or anything. It was generally known that Brian didn’t really have a lot of friends. Or any.
So I guess that’s why the phone call surprised me a little bit.
“So I have a question for you, Brent. You’re like a science geek, right?”
“I guess so. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.” (I was still incredibly shy and introverted at this age, but much less so than I had been before, thanks to Boy Scouts and my summer working at the Honda shop.)
“What do you know about Morse Code?”
“We learned about it in Scouts. I know a little.”
“Can you interpret it? Do you have like a key?”
“I actually think there is a Morse Code key in our encyclopedia set, yeah.”
“Can you grab that key and get over here to the radio station?” (He was working the night shift for his Dad.)
“I’m getting what I think is Morse Code over one of the unused frequencies here at the station. I think it’s like a secret message or something. I need someone like you to help me with it.”
You have to remember that this was the height of the Cold War and the Arms Race. The distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union was at all times palpable anywhere in the country. A secret message in Morse Code? Holy Shit! You already know from my post “The Spy Novel That Changed My Life” that I immediately said Yes.
Now, while yes, teenagers really were and probably still are actually this stupid, it did at least occur to me that suddenly announcing at 7 pm on a Monday night that I had to go to town with a volume of our Encyclopedia Britannica in my hands was very likely going to garner more questions than I wanted to answer. So I looked up Morse Code in our Encyclopedia: See Telegraph.” Dammit. Thwarted at every turn. Under Telegraph, like a secret message waiting just for me, was the Morse Code cipher. Holy crap. Just what I need. So I quietly tore the page out of the Encyclopedia, folded it up and put it in my pocket. I knew my parents would kill me for such complete and utter disregard for our property; this is why we can’t have nice things. But of course how could they possibly know that the fate of the Free World could be at stake here? It wasn’t their fault. And besides, failure was not an option here.
I now own that very same 1963 Encyclopedia Britannica set complete with the original bookcase, and friends, I am here to tell you that page 885 – 886 of Volume 21 under “Telegraph” is missing.
As calmly and nonchalantly as I could, I announced to my parents that I had left my science textbook at Dave’s house and I needed to go get it because we had a quiz the next day.
“Okay Honey, but you come straight home, and no Helling Around Town – it’s a school night.”
“No of course, Mom. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay Honey, drive careful.”
And with that, like the children in Zero Hour trying to stop The Invasion, I was off to save the world.
I arrived at the radio station on the other side of town about 15 minutes later, and was ushered inside by a nervous-looking Brian. He took me over to the machine that was making the offending beeps.
“I’ll bet you it’s in some sort of code.”
“It is – Morse Code. That’s what you said on the phone.”
“No I mean – c’mon, do have the cipher or not?”
I produced the secret encyclopedia page and started translating.
“Let’s see. 6….X…..Q.…W….1….3. Stop. 9….C.…L…P….2….”
We looked at each other. Secret Code. Holy Shit.
Good science always teaches you to eliminate the simple explanations first, so perhaps that is why, before we went any further down this particular rabbit hole and stopped The Invasion, I peeked around behind the offending piece of equipment, noticed a slightly loose cord, plugged it firmly back into its jack, immediately silencing the beeping.
We looked at each other stupidly, which I suppose was all either of us could really do at the moment. We looked at the radio equipment again, and burst out laughing. There would be no Invasion tonight.
Brian took a few more minutes to finish up his shift and sign off, and asked me if I would like a quick tour of the radio station before I went home.
Who wouldn’t, right? So he showed me around – I was taking journalism in high school in preparation for that major in college, so I had a natural curiosity about such things. He then showed me his drum set and showed me how to do the drum solo from Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” and a friendship was born.
What in the name of everything Good and Just does this part of the story have to do with motorcycles?
Well you see, like a lot of folks in town, Brian just happened to be a motorcycle enthusiast, and he owned a brand new 1986 Honda XL250R. A larger and more powerful version of the XL80S I had wanted three years before. And of course I had grown some since then.
I guess I thought having a buddy who worked at a radio station was kind of neat, so that year, before I got involved with the Rock and Roll Gang (see the post “Rock and Roll High School) I started hanging out with Brian a lot. He taught me how to play the drums a little, we went on ill-advised driving adventures in the badlands in his maroon two wheel drive GMC pickup (the one that he had put nitrous through the year before and now ran pretty rough but still seemed dependable enough) and we even got drunk at a friend’s private sound studio that I had no idea existed out in Kirby Wyoming, and yeah, we became pretty good friends.
One Sunday afternoon he called me and asked me if I wanted to go riding in the badlands on his motorcycle. So we went out there and I watched him ride around before he asked me if I’d like to try it.
I told him I didn’t really know how, and he said it was time that I learn, then. We started with learning to let out the clutch slowly and smoothly without stalling it, only give it a little gas, and remember the gearbox, like most motorcycles, is one down and the rest up when accelerating, all down when gearing down. Up for neutral.
And before the day was over he insisted that I take the bike down a gravel road, get it up to 55 mph, and gear back down to a stop in front of him, a test they incidentally make you do at the DMV to get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license.
All of this brilliantly without a helmet or any protective gear.
The next weekend I learned how to lean, how to brake evenly with the front and rear brakes, and the next weekend after that I learned how to recover from a rear skid, and by the following weekend I was doing small jumps and dirt courses in the badlands.
“Okay, semester test,” he told me one Sunday about five weeks later. We were at an unofficial homemade course out in the badlands. “You’re going to use everything I’ve taught you. Sharp curves, spinning the rear wheel around a turn, correct leaning, braking, tracking, and at the end I want you to make the 20 foot jump off the top of the hill at the end of the course. Take as many practice runs as you want, and then I’ll time you for the real deal. You have to beat my time, which is 1:51.”
I took three practice runs, and then nodded. I don’t think I was ever more scared than when I got to the top of that last hill. I remembered the lessons Brian had taught me about jumps: “Jumps are all or nothing. You go for it or not. But whether or not you give it full throttle depends on the jump and it depends on the bike. Right as you hit the jump, lean back and pull up hard on the handle bars, but not too hard.”
I vaguely wondered how I get talked into these things as I torqued the throttle, pulled up, and rode a motorcycle off the crest of a hill and into the sky.
The rear suspension nearly bottomed out as the rear wheel landed cleanly 20 feet below the jump. The front wheel came down and I hit the rear brake a little too hard. The bike started going down on its left side and sliding into the dirt. The side plate caught my lower leg and ripped the leg of my jeans open, tearing a laceration into my calf. I came to rest in a cloud of dust. I had cactus needles in my right elbow. Other than that, I was unhurt. To be honest, my biggest fear was that Brian was going to be furious with me for crashing his bike.
He came running over to me with a big smile on his face. “That was perfect, that was perfect!” he said excitedly. “You’re a natural! You hit a loose patch there at the bottom, that can happen to anybody, but that was great – you did it!”
The second time I took that jump, I stayed off the rear brake and landed perfectly. I had to admit the adrenaline rush was really something. Whether or not I beat his time, Brian never said. I told my Mom the truth about how I had hurt my leg even though it was just a bad scratch. She looked hurt, in a way, and just turned and walked away, saying nothing.
From there I rode Brian’s bike all over the badlands. He often let me borrow it and take off on my own with it. One time we got his truck stuck in the mud in the badlands and had to drive 20 miles into town in the November cold on the bike to get help from someone with a 4×4 truck who could pull us out of the mud. The guy who ended up helping us was Mark, from the Honda shop. I never told Brian I knew him.
I had learned to ride. I had learned so well that I knew how to practically make the bike an extension of myself, and had learned all manner of difficult emergency maneuvers.
One time during the Glory Days of the Rock and Roll Gang, Dave and Lisa took off on his dad’s Honda 750 (street bike) throwing me the keys to his Honda 250 as they took off, as if to say “Keep Up,” and I did.
As I became more involved in the Rock and Roll Gang, my friendship with Brian seemed to dwindle as quickly as it had begun. Then there was a dumb argument we had over who owed who $20 for one thing or another. A lot of the people in the gang didn’t like Brian because he was “weird,” forgetting that being social outcasts was how and why the Rock and Roll Gang came into being in the first place.
We are often cruel in our youth without meaning to be, and being a social outcast can, in many ways, be a relative term. In the summer of 1988 I moved to California with my father, and I said goodbye to everyone I knew except for Brian. I don’t really know why.
* * *
In 2005 I bought a motorcycle because a friend of mine had one and had no one to ride with, and it made me realize that I had gotten into my thirties without ever owning a motorcycle the way I had once dreamed of. It was used – $1300 for a 1979 Honda CX500. But it ran great. I bought it after not having been on a motorcycle for over 16 years and drove it 70 miles home on the freeway.
I owned that bike for four years, putting 5,000 trouble free miles on it. I once drove it to Lake Tahoe and back with friends. Several times during that four years California drivers made freeway maneuvers that could have easily ended my life, but I was able to avoid them with a precision and skill few riders really seem to possess these days, if I do say so myself. In fact, the only time in my life I have ever laid a motorcycle down was that day of the first jump on Brian’s 250.
I sold that bike in 2009 after I blew the stator out of it going 117 miles per hour on it on the freeway. It got me home fine but wouldn’t start the next morning. Two of my friends later got seriously hurt on motorcycles, though they mended fine, and somewhere along the line, after selling the CX500 for parts, I realized that luck often only goes so far and decided that I was done with motorcycles. I still like them, and there’s a small piece of envy in me every time I am passed on the freeway by a Harley Davidson Electra Glide, but I feel that I had my fun on them and that I finally got my turn to ride, a turn I had been waiting for since 1983. I doubt very much that I will ever ride again, and that’s okay.
When I test drove that CX500 that day in 2005, my father, who took me to look at the motorcycle, looked at me with the strangest expression, (maybe I showed off just a tiny bit on the test drive) and he asked me,
“Just one question, son.”
“What’s that, Dad?”
“Just where in the Hell did you ever learn to ride a motorcycle like that?”
I just smiled.
Thanks for saving my life, Brian – I owe you one, Brother.
As always, thanks so much for reading!