Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Boomers and Bikes

As I look back over my life, a reminiscence that I have often shared in stories and notes on this very blog, I reconsider and relive the events — the “life and times” so to speak. I mean, who wouldn’t like to turn a dial and return to those earlier days? To re-inhabit a twenty-year old body, full of good health and promise. To once again live those exciting years, growing up, raising a family, re-experiencing the experiences. It was fun the first time, it would be great the second time.

Of course, it doesn’t always go well. There can be losses and changes and bad decisions that would make someone my age just be glad to have reached this point in life and have no desire to go back and do it again. As they say, “your mileage may vary.”

Putting negativity aside, I’m a member of the baby boomers. That generation born after the end of World War Two … that giant pig in the demographic snake, working our way through to the bitter end.

By definition, baby boomers would be those born after 1945 or '46 to a point about fifteen or twenty years later … say 1960. Since I was born in ’47, that puts me on the leading edge of that special — just ask us — generation. We were the “me” generation, and still are. We did things our way and we demand things our way.

Sons and daughters of the “Greatest Generation,” we had it all, or at least a lot of us did. They made sure of that. We were raised in a world of luxury and freedom from want. We had a soundtrack and the movies were made for us. We had television and stereos and hot cars. Madison Avenue aimed their charms at our wants and needs, and Detroit shaped their vehicles to our style. We were rebels, perhaps without a cause or a clue, but one thing was for sure: we were in rebellion. Against exactly what? Well that didn’t matter much. It was the rebellion that was the point. No one was going to tell us how to live our lives!

That hasn’t changed in the nearly 70 years I’ve been here on this planet expecting to have it my way. From Woodstock to Social Security, we’ve always redefined life in this country, and we’re headed for retirement homes with that same edge and attitude. Will there be room for our Fender amps at “the home?” What size engine in that wheel chair? Can it be supercharged?

It is fun to frame that time in terms of events, issues, and products. One that has always been a focus of mine, since I got the first one at the early age of 14, is motorcycles.

As you study the history of these machines you find Harley-Davidson producing a range of bikes affectionately known as “Panheads.” It is common to define the big Harley twins by the appearance of their heads. It started with the “flat-head” engine, although that name wasn’t unique to Harley. Then, in 1936, they produced their first production overhead valve big V-twin, and it quickly gained the moniker of “Knucklehead” due to the appearance of the castings on the top of the engine.

As the design of Harley-Davidson engines evolved through the years, the distinctive shape of the valve covers has allowed Harley enthusiasts to classify an engine simply by looking at the shape of the covers, and the Panhead has covers resembling an upside-down pan.

The history of Harleys is one of steady improvement and an evolution of design and engineering. After the end of the war, Harley began to create a major revision of the “Knuckle.” They designed a new aluminum head, replacing the previous cast iron and taking advantage of the availability of this light weight metal after the shortages of the war.

They made a major change to the top-end design, enclosing the valves and rocker arms in a large pan, somewhat reminiscent of something you might find in the kitchen. This change improved the performance of the engine keeping water and dirt out and the oil in, the latter being something Harley struggled with for many years. The “Panhead” came out in 1948 and lasted until 1965 when the steady H-D evolution morphed the design into the “Shovelhead.”

Since, like the Panhead, I too was "born" in 1947, and I graduated from High School in 1965, moving on to bigger and better things, it seems the Panhead and I were twins separated at birth. We "grew up" during that 18 years before becoming transformed into a more adult image, yet retaining the basic style and ambiance we had developed during that critical "boyhood."

In terms of style, I believe the Panhead models are the archetype of the Harley mystic. Sure the Knucklehead is cool and established the size and shape and expectations, but it is the Panhead that refined the lines and the look into the timeless model that our generation has followed throughout our life.

It was the Panhead bikes that first gave us the hydraulic front fork. The Hydra-Glide, introduced in 1949, the second year of the “pan.” That was the clean and modern, and not to mention more comfortable and rideable, front end. Ten years later came the Duo-Glide when Harley finally added shocks to the rear and the hard tail was replaced — only to come back in Choppers and the Softail. Then the Electra Glide replaced the kickstarter in 1965, the final year of production of the Panhead. That was boomer built too. I mean, kicking a bike to life was cool, but we had matured and ease-of-use became our mantra, later to be picked up by Apple and the computer nerds.

A momentary aside: Descriptions of Harley engines based on the head design was a creation of the riding public, not the Harley sales department. Instead, Harley adopted these various “Glide” nomenclature. They started by putting the description on the front fender, and from there the monikers became regular brand names. When the new Evolution engine came out, some thought they would be called “Blockheads.” But that name never really stuck. You will hear some Harley engines, especially in the Sportster, called “Ironheads,” but EVO and Twin-Cam have become the names of the latest Harley motors.

So, starting approximately when I was born in 1947 (first one sold in 1948) right up to 1965, the year I graduated from high school, the Panhead was the latest and greatest Harley product. Since then the modern motorcycle world has pretty much tracked we boomers. We defined the market for most of those years, and — as we’ve grown older — Harley has continued to cater to us and our demands.

Not all motorcycle brands followed that trajectory, although the influence of Harley has led both the Japanese bikes to copy the V-Twin design and led the British models — at least some of them — to experiment with 270 degree crankshaft designs with the goal of duplicating the signature exhaust sound of the big V. Sure there are those of us that rode something different. That was part of our generation’s creed too … being different. But I think the Harley really captures, and continues to capture, our muse. And there is no question that the Harley Marketing and Sales departments have had us in their bullseye for all these last fifty years.

Just ask any Harley dealer about their “core customer” — boomer. Talkin’ about my ge-ge-ge-generation. (Hope I die before I get old.) Then there’s the Rolling Stones … that's the counter argument of “too old to rock and roll, too young to die.” As long as we’re enjoying the old sayings, don’t forget “all good things must come to an end.”

Think about the current popularity of trikes … three wheel motorcycles that you don’t have to hold up when you stop for a light or a stop sign. Very popular model from Harley and the big Honda Gold Wing alike. Heated seats, heated grips, loud stereo and GPS. What twenty-something would have asked for those options. We boomers … we do like our creature comforts.

Since the trailing edge of the boomer generation has about 10 or 15 more years to fit in the saddle before moving on to one of those four wheel carts the TV ads are always reminding us Medicare will provide, one has to wonder what next. Harley continues to produce the descendants of the original knuckle, pan, and shovel machines, but they have also moved in some new directions. Whether it is to attract younger riders or just to respond to constantly increased emissions and EPA rules is a matter of opinion.

Yet Harley has done new things from the V-Rod to the newer 500cc and 750cc sport bikes with the “Revolution” engine. Plenty of technology has been added to the “boomer-bikes,” but water cooled and overhead cams don’t really fit the Panhead defined mold.

Is there anything on the road more typical of a boomer than a big Harley “bagger” or cruiser? I don’t think so. I look at those crotch rockets that appear like fugitives from Daytona or some other road course, and I see that’s where the young blood is riding. Next time you meet a Harley, check the rider. Yup, gray hair, beard, a bit of a belly.

Consider the essential boomer movie. No, it’s not The Big Chill or Apocalypse Now. It’s Easy Rider. And what were they riding? Both Panheads. It doesn’t really matter. Knuckle or pan, shovel or EVO, or the latest version of the Twin-Cam or Sportster engine. It can be a hard-tail or a softail or a low rider fat boy. You, see, they are all the same. Slightly evolved over the years, but a comfortable and familiar shape. That hasn’t changed since the Greatest Generation. Just like the boomers, these H-D bikes have kept the same spirit through the years, even as they grew up and “matured.”

But the ride is nearly over. Next stop, the “home.” Will the next ride be electric? Will it have two wheels or three … or even four? All good things come to an end … eventually.

Now all the companies are starting to focus on the “younger rider.” Those 18-to-35 year-olds. They are the future. We boomers, we’re the past. It is a good past. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But nothing lasts forever, even a Harley. Face it fellow boomers … But it has been a good RIDE!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Motorcycle Tales, PART III — Colorado

After the Navy, I spent a few months living with my parents in Spokane. Then I headed for Colorado. It was always my plan, and the plan of many of my Navy buddies, to relocate to Denver once we got out. Many of us went to school at Lowry Air Force Base (that’s right, Navy guys at an Air Force School) and thought it would be a great place to live. The mountains and the climate beckoned us.

Colorado has more motorcycle friendly roads per capita than any other state in the union, and many of those twisty roads recommended for bikes are right here in Boulder County. People trailer in from the other 49 just to ride the twisty Colorado canyons and between our 53 fourteeners (That's a mountain taller than 14,000 feet. We've got more than any other state. Heck, we've got more than all the other states combined.)

Colorado is motorcycle paradise … at least for half the year … and you can always ski the other half. (Really the riding weather is pretty good for more like 8 to 10 months a year.)

While on the Vulcan, there was a sailor, Tom Aerts, temporarily assigned while his ship, the USS Inchon, was completing construction. He was from Longmont, Colorado, and he suggested I look him up when I got out. So I did and ended up staying with him and his wife for a few weeks until I got my own place in Longmont. By then I had a job in Boulder, and Longmont seemed a good place to live.

Tom’s wife, Linda, had a brother, Chuck. Although he was younger than me, we hit it off as friends. We shared many common interests including music and motorcycles. He had a Honda 250 thumper. A four-stroke, single cylinder dirt bike that was very state-of-the-art. I helped him out a bit with that bike. He needed to change a bushing inside one of the side cases. I explained that the case was some exotic metal Honda chose for light weight, probably magnesium alloy. Since it would expand more than the copper bushing, I suggested we heat up the case in the oven and it would be easier to remove the bushing. I didn’t realize that Honda had coated the outside of the case with clear plastic to protect it from the elements and the plastic started to smoke. We had a hard time explaining to Chuck’s mom why we had his motorcycle parts in the oven.

Shortly thereafter, Woody arrived in his VW minibus containing his Harley Sportster and a two-stroke dirt bike … I think a Yamaha or Suzuki. So there I was with nothing but four-wheels and Woody was on his scooter. That had to change.

Woody found a Yamaha RD350 in the paper and started to explain to me just what a powerful bike it was. Since my Triumph was a 650, I didn’t think I’d be satisfied with a 350. Woody quickly clued me in to the error of my ways.

In the first place, since a two-stroke engine fires twice as often as a four-stroke (the RD was a two-stroke), it produced more power than a comparable displacement Honda. And since the engine is lighter, the weight / horsepower ratio favors a two-stroke. Plus, the RD350 had a good racing heritage, with the frame, brakes, etc. based on the Yamaha road racing bike. The RD350 evolved directly from the piston port (pre-reed valve intake tract), front drum-braked, five-speed Yamaha 350 cc “R5.” The front brake was a single disc and a rear drum brake, a combination described by Cycle Magazine as the best in its class. (I've noticed a trend here in the 21st century to return to drum brakes in the rear with disk in the front. It works very well for machines under 500 cc.)

Although the frames for the racing bike and the street bike had many features in common, the RD’s frame weighed about twice the road racer version, primarily due to the brackets added for street required equipment such as lights and the like. Still the RD’s 350 pounds was coupled to an engine producing around 40 HP at 7,000 rpm and it was a real “crotch rocket.” It had a six speed transmission, so you could keep it in the "power band" at any speed.

Maybe not a hot rod comparable to the mega-bike 750cc triple from Kawasaki, but those bruisers would only go in a straight line and you had to drag your feet to assist with the brakes. Nor was it the equal of the Honda big four, but then those couldn't really lean without hitting something from pipes to engine cases. No, the RD350 was a very fine tuned ride, albeit a bit on the small size. But, then again, back then, I, too, was on the small size.

In addition, the engine was even more efficient than the race version with the reed-valve injection and the additional gear. As I was later to prove, or at least demonstrate, this was a road racing wolf in sheep's clothing. The balance between power and handling, braking and acceleration, made it a perfect ride for someone that was more at home on the street than the race track. It was really a perfect bike for me, and I often wish I still had it.

I had to shop around for a bank that would loan me any money, but I succeeded in obtaining the few hundred dollars requested for the near-new Yamaha. It had an oil injection system, so you didn’t have to add oil to the gasoline, and it was a very fast bike, although, on the Interstate, its small size and weight made it a bit of a problem keeping up with Woody’s bigger (900cc) Harley. But when the roads got twisty, which they do a lot in the Colorado mountains, the Yamaha’s spry handling, great brakes, and multiple gears let me keep right up, if not pull ahead.

Chuck would join us at the Berthoud Raceway, a combination motocross track with a TT dirt track. TT tracks have left and right turns and one jump, but aren’t as extreme as a motocross course. We would race Woody’s bike and Chuck's and switch off rides. It was lots of fun and a good way to spend the weekend. I didn't ride the RD on the dirt. We rode Woody's dirt bike and Chucks Honda 250.

Later Chuck bought his own RD350 which a coworker at the FAA almost immediately drove into the fence denting the tank. Chuck later rode that bike all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska and back, and then it sat in a shed at his dad’s until a few years ago when I put it together and sold it to some young kid. The engine was seized from sitting in a wet shed for over 25 years and the chain was more rust than steel, but the kid was going to rebuild it and realized the price was right for such a great bike.

Woody lived with me in Longmont for about a year, and we had a lot of adventures, both road riding with our large bikes, and also racing his dirt bike at nearby tracks. I’ve recounted some of those adventures elsewhere on this blog. But, eventually, Woody felt the pull of home and returned to his native state of New Hampshire, leaving me alone, but with a new job in Denver replacing my original work in Boulder. So I moved to an apartment in Denver just off the turnpike and about equal distance from Boulder and downtown Denver. I began attending Metropolitan State College. Now in those days, Metro (as it was affectionally known) held classes in rented spaces all over downtown Denver. Since I was working full time, I took all my classes in the evening. One night I went to class and parked my bike on the street with the front fork locked so it could only go in a circle.

But, when I returned later that night after class, the bike was gone. I reported it to the police and my insurance and soon received a settlement that I used to purchase a used Honda CB550 four cylinder. I had friends with the bigger, “super-bike,” Honda 750 four when I was in the Navy, and I was very impressed. Although the engine was a bit wide, the technology in the Japanese bike, and the sound — reminiscent of some European sports car — sold me. I don’t remember if I bought the smaller cousin of the 750 because it was there or it was what I could afford, but, in truth, the CB550 was a much better handling bike and a lot more fun to ride than its bigger cousin which was a large bike for a small guy like me.

I quickly changed the exhaust system into a “four-into-one” set painted flat black. Now the sound was even sweeter. My 550 was colored turd brown, but I even like that. Then the cops found my RD. It was in a basement near where it was stolen. I think some bum drug / rolled it into a building with unknown intent, but it was as good as the day I lost it except for a broken mirror, so now I had two bikes.

By then I had moved closer to downtown Denver. I had a very nice duplex on King street about a quarter mile from Mile High Stadium. The house had a garage and I kept the bikes in there. I had my van, but rode the bikes whenever the streets were dry. By then I was dating Chuck’s sister, Linda. She lived in Longmont and I would travel up there on weekends.

I remember one trip up. I had a cold beer in my pocket. I always took the “back roads,” because the Interstate is a bummer on a bike. I was on US 287 just leaving Broomfield and headed down that big hill toward Lafayette one early evening. I pulled the beer out and, riding with no hands, opened it up. I put the beer between my legs to free up my throttle and clutch hand. At 60 mph the wind over the top of the open beer can started sucking the cold liquid out and onto my pants.

Before I could finish the beer, it ended up all over me just below the waist. Fortunately, dark blue Levis don’t show that and the night air soon dried my pants. Remember what I said, “Don’t drink and Ride.” It’s a good motto for everyone. I’m just a slow learner.

One of the great roads in Boulder County is the “Peak-to-Peak” highway. That road winds from Nederland at the top of Boulder Canyon, past the magnificent Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker, ending up in Estes Park. I had Linda on the back of the little 350 and I was scraping the foot pegs on the deep curves. She was not impressed. "Slow down!" she shouted in my ear. "OK." But you’ll have to relax your grip around my chest so I can breath. (That was the best part of a bike ride, making the girl on back hold on tight. But let’s just keep that little secret between us boys.) I think she cracked a couple of my ribs on that ride, but it was worth it.

Before he left, Woody helped me get a job teaching at Electronics Technical Institute in Denver. However, I didn’t really quit my old job at A.R.F. Products. I had a key to the small building and I’d go there after work at E.T.I or on weekends and test Command Receivers. The extra money was nice and I enjoyed working in the lab all alone.

One Saturday, after working all day at A.R.F., I arrived at Linda’s apartment. I told her I was too tired to go out and I fell asleep on the couch. The next morning she asked if I wanted to go on a picnic. I told her I going back to work. At that point she realized I didn’t seem to have any time for her and she made the very wise decision to kick me out of her life. She told me to take my drum and beat it. Take my horn and blow. There I was, sitting out on the curb with the other trash, and that was the end of our romance. She is a very wise person, and I’m just lucky it took her so long to boot me out of her life. It was fun while it lasted. But now what?

As a result of our parting, I was faced with a summer with no girl friend and nothing but two jobs and two motorcycles. I quit the job at A.R.F. products shortly after that and started stripping down the RD. It was a race bike at heart, and I was sure I could do well with her … at least until she too tossed me off.

I removed all the city gear from mirrors to turn signals to headlight and taillight. I got a new seat with a low, aerodynamic back and clip on handlebars. I adjusted the pegs and controls backward to facilitate the new riding position. I joined the M.R.A. (Motorcycle Roadracing Association) and started entering road races.

(Pictured below is a slightly newer YZ250. I didn't have a fairing on my RD racing conversion, or the special tank. But I did have the seat and the clip on bars. I remember Woody telling me that the power band on the YZ is so narrow it was like riding a light switch. It was either "on" or "off." No "in-between.")

I should have taken a clue from the question on the MRA application that wanted to know my blood type. Why do you need that, I asked naively? Soon I was in a pack of riders all accelerating at maximum throttle toward a tight, hair-pin turn. The track in Aspen was one of my favorites, partly because it was a tight track and you never got going too fast. At the end of the first straight-away was a sharp turn, over 110 degrees. If you missed the turn there was a big rock about the size of a dump truck that would bring you and bike to a quick halt.

As the pack of racers zoomed toward the turn and that immovable rock, everyone would wait until the last possible moment to slam on the brakes and then lay their bikes into the ultra-tight turn. I was always the first one to hit the brakes. I quickly realized that I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude for racing. Besides, I wasn’t as good a rider as those other guys anyway. In any case, with jokers to the right of me and clowns to the left, I quickly realized that gasoline didn't really run in my veins and I was definately stuck in the middle again.

I did meet some cool people like Bruce Sass who rode this Suzuki 500 Titan. He was a great rider and is now in the Colorado Race Hall of Fame. I rode in a few races in Aspen and at the Douglas County Fair Grounds, but my racing career was short and sweet. I never ate the asphalt and I never won a race.

With still more summer to dispose of I thought I’d take a road trip. The Honda was big enough for around town, but it was a bit small for the Interstate. But it was the only bike I had that was still street legal, so I pointed it north on I-25 for Lewistown, Montana. Boy it’s a long ride across Wyoming! By the time I got to Billings, Montana the ride got better and soon I was back in my old home town.

I met up with my old friend, Jack Barney. He had completed four years (in the Navy, I think) plus four years of college and now he was on the local police force. I think he was a deputy sheriff. We were sitting in a bar with my bike parked outside at the curb when his radio sounded off about some suspicious motorcycle with Colorado plates. Jack responded that he was “questioning the suspect at that time.”

Nearly 30 years later I would return to Lewistown for a high school reunion and Jack would loan me one of his bikes (a Yamaha V-Twin if I’m not mistaken) for a great ride with several classmates. Linda was holding on tightly in back, as before. And, also as before, I really liked that.

But back to the past. As that summer of "single life" turned to fall, I was back in Longmont. I drove out to Chuck’s parents to visit him and Linda was there doing laundry. We talked and I asked her if she would like to go for a ride. I drove up North to Loveland and then into the mountains up the Big Thompson canyon. No bike, just my van. We both had a good time. (Well, I did.)

I think she might have missed me. I know I had missed her … a LOT!!

We started dating again and, in a couple of months, I proposed. We were married the last few days of December, 1976. We’ve now been married for nearly forty years. I’m lucky we got back together as I can’t imagine anyone else who would have put up with my silliness for all these years. We've had a wonderful life together, and I'm about the luckiest guy in the world to have that sweet lady as my bride.

We returned to Longmont from Spokane, Washington where we were married at my parents. Within two months we bought our first house. I sold the Honda 550 for $1,000, exactly the price of a new refrigerator. Now that's domestication. I sold it to one of my students at E.T.I. A week later he told me he got drunk and rode it up the steps at the State Capital. He tore off the entire four-into-one exhaust. I keep telling you, "Don't drink and ride." It is a lesson learned in the school of hard knocks.

It was about twenty years later before I put my Yamaha 350 back together and got it on the street, only to sell it to another young kid. But I didn't remain without a bike for too long.

Oh, I had my distractions. I bought a Mazda Miata. That's a little, two-seater roadster that is the closest thing to a motorcycle you will find on four wheels. Even has a six speed shifter. And, if it rains, you can put the top up. But not the same.

So I started hunting for a new ride and eventually found myself back on a Triumph. This one's a Bonny. The design has changed a little through the years and carburetors became fuel injectors and displacement was increased to compensate for the added weight and emissions doo-dads. Other than the modern stuff added, the bike maintains the classic look and sound. It has that beautiful Limey vertical twin rumble through those original style, pea-shooter pipes. Now I'm out ridin' again … but not drinking. I finally learned that lesson.

Took Linda for a cruise up to Nederland and north on Peak-to-Peak. I gunned it a bit in the sweepers. She squeezed me tight. Some old tricks still work. I've got out the maps and I'm drawing lines through those winding Colorado canyons that make summer a time of joy for two wheelers.

This bike I probably won't tear down in the living room. After all, now I have a garage!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Motorcycle Tales, Part II -- The Navy

It was during my Navy service that I got my next bike. After one year of college without any wheels, I bought a car the following summer. I worked for over a year before the draft caught up with me forcing an enlistment. (Take that Uncle Sam. You can’t draft me. I’ll just join. Yea, that’s the ticket.)

I didn’t need wheels through bootcamp, and I made it for about a year and one-half of various schools and training in Great Lakes, Illinois and Denver, Colorado car-less before reported to my first duty station aboard the USS Vulcan in Norfolk, Virginia. Once there I quickly shopped and bought a brand new Toyota Corolla. I was about to buy a used MG B, but I decided on a nice new Japanese car instead. Turns out that was a good decision. Having one vehicle with British Lucas electrics is about all a guy can handle. It was a small car, very reliable and very economical. A little yellow two-door hardtop with black leather seats. It served me and my buddies well for almost four years of Navy life. A great commuter, and I never really took it out of Norfolk.

After a short time on board, two shipmates, David Woodman (Woody) and Dan MacDonald (Mac), and I moved into a house we rented on the “beach” in Norfolk. Later Mac got out and Fred Gardner moved in. Then, years later, Woody moved to Orlando, Florida for a new duty assignment. As people moved out, I’d replace them with new roommates, keeping the magic number at three.

All my buddies were getting motorcycles, mostly Harley’s, although there were medium size Hondas and Yamahas too. I was fond of Triumphs ever since I saw the bike owned by my high school friend, Gary Murphy. He had a Triumph Twin and that was about the coolest bike I’d ever seen. So, with the help of my buddy Woody and his loaned $600, I was soon the owner of a nice ’66 Triumph TR-6. This was very similar to the more sporty Bonneville model from Triumph; the main difference was the fact the TR-6 had a single carburetor rather than the Bonneville’s two. A 650cc vertical twin engine with overhead valves, it was a state-of-the-art British bike in the days of Honda and Harleys, although the Lucas electrics left a bit to be desired.

The bike was blue over white and had all the typical British accouterments. There was a small luggage rack on the tank and a steering head tensioner knob sticking out of the triple-tree. Typical Triumph “pea-shooter” exhaust mufflers and a tall and wide seat that lifted up to access the battery. You could lock the seat down to protect said juice box, but more likely to lock your helmet via a hook that engaged the helmet’s strap D-ring. Typical of most used motorcycles, it had low mileage and ran like a charm. You had to kick it to start as most “non-Honda’s” were still not electric crank. I never had any mechanical problems the whole time I owned it, but that didn’t stop me from tearing off parts, stripping down the engine, and making changes.

I immediately started customizing the bike. My friend Woody had a full-blown chopper, a custom Harley 74 ci with an extended front end and a very nice paint job. (Actually, since it was a Panhead, it was possibly a 61 c.i.) Other friends had Hondas, but were soon purchasing Harleys. Big “dressers,” Harley Sportster, even a Harley “Servi-Car” which was the three-wheeler, flat head engine bike used by meter maids. We would spend our weekends working on the bikes and riding down to Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina or out to Virginia Beach to cruise Atlantic Boulevard.

One roommate (after Mac got out of the Navy) was Fred Gardner. He traded his 250cc, two-stroke Yamaha for a big Harley “dresser” with all the bags, windshields, and floor-boards that came with those "Glides." Once we were at our favorite watering hole, Brads. We might have had a few. Anyway, Fred took the bike off its side stand and immediately dropped it on the ground. We all started laughing, Fred included. We grabbed the down side of the bike, lifted it upright, and over it went on the other side. It had “crash bars,” and the drops didn’t hurt anything although I think I might have hurt myself laughing. Somehow we made it home that night. Don't drink and ride. The life you save may be your own!

The Triumph had a fully enclosed chain with an automatic oiler that dripped oil onto the links. Even with the enclosure, this resulted in a messy situation. I shut off the little petcock that regulated the oil flow and oiled the chain manually.

Then I removed the bottom half of the chain guard and threw it away. I took the top half into the ship, and — with the assistance of friends on board — I cut away most of the top guard leaving a small covering just on the top of the chain. I also cut off the back part of the rear fender with a hack saw, losing the tail light in the process. The term “chopper” refers to this wholesale removal of parts, lightening the bike and giving it a more sporty appearance, although this was more common on a big dresser Hog, transforming it into a British bike look-alike. I replaced the tail light and license plate holder with a chrome combination I purchased from a catalog. I removed the front fender and threw that away too … something I often regretted any time I rode in the rain.

I painted the rear fender, side covers, and gas tank a light blue metallic, and I painted my helmet to match. I was new to painting and put the color on the tank too thick and it “wrinkled” into something called “orange peel.” I then tried waxing the tank and the little crevices in the orange peel trapped the wax and left white residue. I quickly learned that the degreaser I used to clean the engine would also remove wax, so I at least corrected the problem with white stuff all over the tank. If you didn’t look close, the paint looked OK. I replaced the large, stock seat with a thin affair from a chopper catalog. It was called a "cobra" seat because it resembled a cobra snake, wide at the front and slim behind. It was about one inch thick, but style over function was my motto.

I put a simple and cheap “sissy bar” on the back behind the thin “cobra” seat I added and I attached the license plate / tail light to the sissy bar. These custom parts were stretching my poor sailor’s budget, but it was a necessity, and we could always do without food and clothing … but never beer.

At one point I was helping my shipmate and later roommate Mike Bott (Bottman) with his 450 cc Honda customization. We picked up some nice square metal stock on the ship and heated it up, bent it into a sissy bar, and attached two brackets on each side. We then sent it out to the chromer for a new shiny surface. When we picked it up he chewed us out. “You should have told me it was stainless steel!” said he. We didn’t know. He asked why we used the very expensive metal when simple cold rolled steel would work fine for a sissy bar and be much, much easier to chrome plate. We didn’t realize it was stainless. Probably worth ten to one hundred times what a piece of regular steel bar stock would cost. No wonder our defense budget is so high with sailors making stainless steel sissy bars on weekends!

A year or so later, I got real serious about customization. I bought 6-inch extensions for the front shocks which gave me a bit of a typical chopper front end but not so much I had to modify the frame to change the front geometry. Not as severe as my friends 24 inch extended Harley front end, but a bit of a chopper look. (His steering head was modified. Otherwise the extended front end would make the bike so tall no one could ride it, not to mention how squirrely the steering would be.)

I found a Harley Sportster "peanut" tank and replaced the original triumph gas tank. I didn’t want to drill a hole in the frame, so I machined a small steel cylinder on the ship and a neighbor who was excellent with a welder attached it to the bottom of the frame top tube. When he got done doing the best job of welding I’d ever seen, I asked him what I owed. One dollar, he said. Now things were cheaper back then, but that was ridiculous. I gave him a five. (Should have given him a ten or a twenty, but I wasn’t rich either.)

The rear mount for the tank matched the original Triumph fitting and a bolt through the new welded attachment if front held the tank like it came from the factory. I also replaced the Lucas electric regulator with a custom heat sync and a diode from General Motors. I replaced the ignition coil with an auto part. (Can’t remember if there was one or two, but I think that TR had dual points and dual coils.) I moved the headlight/taillight switch to the side cover and, using a double-pole, double-throw, center off switch, I created both the light control and the high/low beam switch. Not as convenient as a handlebar dimmer, but it worked fine. In those days you didn’t ride with the headlight on. The Lucas electrics wouldn’t handle that anyway.

I added a bicycle horn to comply with legal requirements and replaced the standard mufflers with short “stubbies” connected to custom pipes that put the mufflers right under the engine for maximum lean clearance. I never hooked up the brake light switch until just before I sold the bike, but otherwise it was a fine looking and reasonably legal machine.

I remember one Saturday I was going to replace the handlebars and the rubber mounts in the triple-tree. These mounts were a brass fitting set in rubber and surrounded by another brass fitting. This was to minimize vibration to the handlebars. They were pressed into the top of the steering head. I had a big “drift” which is like a large nail setting tool and a 5 pound mallet. I was trying to just strike the outer brass and drive it out of the steering head. I had my bike in the living room of our house, our preferred work space, and I spent all day trying to get those two mounts out and replaced. The drift would slip off the narrow brass cylinder and I'd end up hitting the rubber which didn't work at all. The hammer would just bounce back in my hand when I hit rubber. It took me all afternoon, but I finally succeeded. I don't recall how many six-packs that required. I should have written it down in case I ever had to do that again.

I went to school on that Triumph. Service manual. Hanging out at the local Triumph store. Talking to other mechanics. I started building my tool collection. The first special tool you need is an impact driver. Many of the case screws, like the ones that held the primary chain cover were phillips head screws. But they could be pretty tight and hard to turn without stripping out the screw head. So, down at the local bike shop, I bought an impact driver. It is solid metal and about the size and shape of a short flashlight. One end held a heavy duty screw driver bit. You put it on the screw and hit the back of the driver with a mallet. That forced the bit into the screw … no slipping or stripping, while tough internal gears turned the driver. You could set it to remove screws or drive them tight.

I also bought a Sears torque wrench so I could tighten the screws the required amount. Folks working on American iron like a Harley need a set of wrenches in "SAE" sizes — "American" sizes like one-quarter inch or eleven-sixteenths. You need open end and box wrenches plus sockets. If it's a Japanese bike, then you want metric tools. Guess what? Triumphs used yet a third size called Whitworth. These are specified by the British Association for Advanced Science and Triumphs, BSAs, and Nortons used these odd size nuts and bolts so it required special wrenches … of course the Brits call them "spanners." It was an odd form of metric, but you had to have special wrenches because you can't do all the mechanic work with a Crescent wrench. I gave all my Whitworth tools away when I sold my TR.

Allen wrenches, voltmeters, rubber mallets, pliers and feeler gauges, special tools for inserting O-rings; I had them all, and still do except for those Whitworth wrenches. I didn't have a lift, but my TR had a center stand as well as a side stand and I could easily change front and rear wheels. I would take them to the dealer, however, to put on new rubber. I was good, but not into changing tires. That's a pretty tough job, even on a bike. I became friends with welders and machinists and the local chrome plating shop. The ship had plenty of experts that were available for the cost of pizza and beer, and I fixed a lot of radios in exchange for some machine work. It was a good deal for us both.

Before long I could tune up an engine, change oil, fix a flat, and tell if a plug was fouled. I rewired, re-hosed, added chrome and aftermarket speed stuff, and generally turned that bike into an extension of my psyche and into the best shape it had been since leaving Coventry … probably better. I started collecting special factory tools. Once I replaced the rocker arm shafts on the bike. They had a rubber O-ring on the end to seal in the oil. When I slid the shaft in place, it cut off part of the O-ring. I got more rings and figured out how to use a hose clamp to squeeze the rubber ring down for insertion. Later I bought a factory part that looked like the socket from a socket wrench. The inside was smooth and tapered down. You put the cam shaft through the tool and it would squeeze the O-ring. I added a small clamp for inserting pistons and squeezing the metal piston rings. Auto mechanics are familiar with a similar, although larger tool. These special tools made the job of working on the engine much easier.

If our landlord had known that we regularly tore down and rebuilt bikes in the living room, she would have had a heart attack. Actually we were model tenants. We always paid on time, never called the land lord to fix a running toilet, and I painted the house from top to bottom when I moved out. We lived there for almost four years and I had about six different roommates during that time … and they all had bikes from Woody and Mac to Bottman and Mark Foreman. We didn't have garage, just a car port, but we did have the living room. When I finally moved out, she told me we were the best tenants she had ever had and was going to miss us greatly.

Bikes were much simpler in those days. I learned to adjust tappets and carburetors. I rebuilt top ends and rewired, re-tanked, and remodeled many bikes. Changed carburator jets and ignition timing cams. We cleaned and polished and degreased and chrome plated and painted and stripped. We became expert outdoor painters conquering skills like making a "lace" paint job and pin stripes. Never did do "flames." I spent so much time at Mac's Triumph, a Norfolk landmark, he offered to hire me for busy Saturdays, but I didn't do that for long.

I had a learned a lot about painting by this time, and I painted the new tank, side covers, and rear fender a second time. This iteration was a dark blue, almost black. I didn’t repaint the cut up chain guard, sending it out to the chrome plater instead. My first customization included a sissy bar behind the seat, but his time I went for a cleaner look and no sissy bar. I kept the old cobra seat. I moved the tail light and license to the side of the bike by the axil. Not the best location, but a common sight on many choppers.

We were always on the lookout for a good bike. One day Woody spotted a used Sportster in the paper and we headed over with our buddy E.J. to try to buy it. E.J. wasn't his real name, but a nickname he got from E.J. Potter, the Michigan Madman. The original E.J. would drag race motorcycles with Chevy V-8s in them. Since our friend shared the surname and was into bikes and choppers, so the E.J. moniker sort of stuck.

We got over to the house advertised and talked to the owner's wife. She said her husband would be home in a few minutes. We waited in the car until he arrived. He was showing us the bike, which I think he was asking $800 for, when another guy drove up and walked into the garage. This new arrival said he would take it and he'd pay $100 more than asking price. The owner was an honorable man, and told him we were there first and the price was as advertised. We all threw our money into a hat and bought the bike on the spot.

E.J. customized the bike in our backyard. As I recall it had high rising pipes that swept up the side. They would burn the passenger leg, but sure looked cool. He did a lace paint job on the tank. You take a piece of lace … not having any in the house we went to a local thrift store. After spraying an undercoat, you tape the lace to the tank and spray paint through it. When the lace is removed it leaves a fascinating pattern on the tank. No spray booth available, we used the great outdoors on a sunny day. We hung the tank on the clothesline outside to dry. I've got one picture of three hardtail Harley frames in Joe Eden's back yard in the process of getting new, metal-coat paint jobs. We were becoming professional at this customizing stuff.

As I approached time to leave the military, I considered going into the chopper business, but I thought a better idea would be to start customizing vans. They were becoming very common and a lot of the motorcycle tricks like custom painting would apply equally to vans. I had also planned to become an "organ repairman." (That's Hammond Organ. Stop snickering.) So many possibilities for a twenty-something kid. The future was so bright, I had to … well, you know the rest of the lyrics.

Woody came back up from Florida for a visit one week. He’d traded the chopper for a brand new Sportster, and we had quite a ride that weekend. There were about a dozen of us on all kinds of bikes headed south.

We rode to one of our favorite weekend destinations, Nags Head in North Carolina. It was a hundred miles or so ride to places like Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills (the latter more home for the Wright Brothers than the former). Beautiful rides to beautiful places.

One time I was threading my way through some rural Virginia road and I got to an intersection. One of those simple highway “T’s” and there was a split off of the left lane to turn left and the right to turn right. Suddenly, out of the blue, there was a stop sign and I was going around 40. I hit the brakes hard (had a passenger). I slid a bit and gave up, powering through the stop sign. Turns out a cop was there to see my display. He stopped me, but I talked him out of a ticket with my explanation. “I tried to stop, but I was speeding.” Honest, no ticket.

A while later I spent some time at a girl friend’s apartment. It was about 3 A.M. when I left and there wasn’t a car on the road. Back then Norfolk had those big plates you rode up on to trigger the stop light to give you a green. The bike and I wasn't heavy enough to trigger the stop light switch. After waiting what seemed like half-an-hour for a green, I said to hell with it and ran the light. There was only one other car on the road and he was half a mile away. Turns out it was a cop. I talked him out of that ticket too. Now I was on a roll. Soon after I was roaring through a parking lot doing a wheeling late at night. I got to the street, stopped for the stop sign, and turned onto the street lit up by a police car’s red lights. I reminded him I had stopped for the stop sign and there was no legal speed limit on the parking lot since it was private property and all the stores were closed so I thought it was a very safe place to practice dangerous acrobatics and I would never do that again and couldn't he be kind to a young sailor and …. He agreed. Again no ticket.

After that I didn’t want to test my luck. If the speed limit was 45, I never went over 50 … except a few times when I went 60. (Smile)

When I customized my Triumph the first time, I painted my helmet to match the light blue bike. (Not something recommended in this modern world — paint may react with the helmet plastic damaging the integrity of the helmet.) When I repainted the bike and new tank, I left the helmet alone. One night my roommate, Bottman, wanted to borrow my helmet. He was riding down to Virginia Beach and hoped to pick up a girl. (What sailor doesn’t HOPE to pick up a girl?) Since Virginia requires a helmet, he hung mine off the back of his bike for the girl. He rode the twenty miles to VA Beach and back (no girl). All that time, my helmet rubbed against his back tire and I got it back with a hole in it. Maybe he bought me a new one. I don’t remember.

One time Woody and I headed for Richmond, Virginia, a trip of about 150 miles. (This was before he moved to Florida.) It started to rain which soaked my leather jacket. (Leather may be “cool,” but it does soak up water like a chamois.) We stopped for gas and a break at a little station. They had one of those chest type coke fridges with cool water circulating about the sodas keeping them at the delicious temperature. I threw my wet jacket over the machine. My pants and boots, levis and leather in that order, were soaked too. When we were ready to leave I reached for my jacket and took a 110 volt zap. I jumped back. Old fashioned machinery with a poor ground put the line voltage on the metal chassis. If I’d been dry I wouldn’t have noticed it, but I was soaked and, therefore, well grounded. I tried to yank it off several times, but the electric shock forced me to let go. I asked the owner to grab it, but he refused fearing a shock. He was dry. It would have been OK for him since he was dry. Woody wouldn't help either; he just laughed. Finally I gritted my tech and yanked the jacket off as fast as I could.

I often rode with a 3/4 helmet. Those completely full helmets weren’t popular back then. Usually I just wore my glasses, although I did have a shield I could snap on the helmet. Let me tell you that rain at 60 mph feels more like b-b’s or bee stings. “You can tell the happy biker by the bugs on his teeth.”

One of my roommates, Mark Foreman, had a Harley three-wheeler. (I always had two roommates. As different guys either got out of the Navy or transferred, I’d find another person to share our three-man house.) He had bought the Harley Servi-Car from another shipmate, Pat Matzell. The Servi-Car was designed by Harley to fill service rolls such as delivery of parts and wasn't exactly a speedster. Right up to when H-D discontinued them in the late '70s they had a simple 45 c.i. flathead engine, but they were as reliable as can be and putted just fine down the highway.

The bike had been partially customized, although it just had a 4x4 sheet of plywood for a body and snow tires on the back. Pat and friends had put about twelve pounds of “Bondo” on the front head stock, covering all the old Harley castings with a big, flat, and smooth surface to which a beautiful dark, dark blue finish had been applied. The first time the front end snapped around against the stop, it cracked all the Bondo. Those extended front ends would gain a lot of acceleration when they twisted at a stop light. The front end of the trike was show quality (before the cracks), but the backend never got completed.

It was tré strange to ride. From the seat you looked forward and thought you were on a regular bike. But when the road curved, you didn’t lean. You actually had to steer through the turn. What many don’t realize is that with a bicycle or a motorcycle, you don’t “steer.” You actually “counter-steer.” That is, to turn right, you move the handlebars to the left. That throws the bike over on the right side and you lean around the curve with the bike taking it's own path. Sure the front wheel turned in the direction you were going, but you didn't "steer." It is more about body than arms. Once people learn to ride a bike, they never forget. What you learn is counter-steering.

Later, in my racing days, I learned how to reverse that process to move upright quickly after a sharp curve. By twisting the bars deeper into a turn the bike will be quickly forced upright. You gotta be careful, though. Too much and the bars will go from stop to stop and you will go from ouch to ouch.

So riding a three wheeler is completely counter-intuitive and it is freaky. Once I tried out a BMW with a Steib sidecar a guy was selling that lived near ODU in Norfolk. Same strange feeling as you steer through turns with no lean. (Hack racers lift the sidecar up and the guy in the car, who has a colorful name I’ve forgotten, uses extreme body english and wide leans to assist the fast turns.) Sidecar racing is fascinating to watch, but it isn’t done any more, even in Europe … at least that’s my assumption. Looks like Speedway racing is only happening in California these days. A lot of old things have disappeared. The world is always changing. Sad. But the Isle of Man TT is still going.

As I approached the end of my naval enlistment, I purchased a new Dodge Maxi-Van with the intent of hauling my bike home. However, I ended up selling the bike (and a lot of musical instruments and amplifiers) in order to pay for the van. Sort of an O’Henry story (Gift of the Magi). I sold my Gibson Firebird guitar and a Fender Deluxe Reverb I had had since high school. I did bring home a nice Fender Dual Showman speaker cabinet that was custom made for Woody and me by a Navy cabinet maker. I ended up selling it to Mike Goodman in Longmont. Dual 15 inch speakers aren’t much use without the amp.

After my military discharge, I spent several months in Spokane, Washington, living with my parents and customizing the interior of my new van. I then headed for Colorado where I’ve lived ever since. Soon my Navy buddy, Woody, joined me there. He brought his Harley Sportster and also a dirt bike. So I started shopping for another motorcycle.

That story and my Colorado bike adventures will have to wait for part three.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Motorcycle Tales, Part I -- High School

In the summer of 1961, I was a fourteen-year-old ready to start my first year of high school in the Fall. That summer I bought my first motorcycle, a Sears Allstate MoPed made by Puch. It was $200 and my grandmother helped me buy it. She paid $100 down and signed on a loan for the remaining balance. I paid $10 a month for a year and it was mine.

I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, but that didn’t stop me from driving the bike all over town. Now this was a MoPed, but that doesn’t mean it was a bicycle with a motor. Sure it had pedals, but it had a nice 50cc engine. You would start the motor with the pedals like a regular motorcycle kick starter. It had a thumb operated compression release that was used to kill the motor and could also make it easier to kick over, but that little engine was very easy to start.

It had a two-speed transmission shifted by rotating the left hand grip. There was a regular clutch on the left and the right side had a hand break and throttle like most bikes. I don’t remember how you activated the rear brake. You probably peddled backward like a bicycle. The motor was air cooled with a fan and a cover over the cylinder head. The one-cylinder engine was very underpowered and the top speed was around 30-35 mph, and you probably needed a hill and a strong tail wind to get to top RPM. It had a single seat and a sort-of luggage rack on the back fender, although I did give friends a few rides on that precarious rear fender.

After the cops caught me driving on the street about three times, they threatened to take the bike away if they caught me again. I didn’t get any tickets. It was a small town. So I had to wait for the next spring, March to be exact, when I turned 15 and that was old enough to get a driver’s license. But, before I got shut down by the cops, what a summer I had. I remember the first day I rode so long that I got sunburned on my arms. Now I always wore short sleeves and had a good tan on my arms. Yet I was out in the sun almost 12 hours that first day and got a real red going on my usually tan arms.

I mostly remember riding down fifth avenue toward the swimming pool. That’s a nice part of town with lots of trees and good streets for riding. I must have been about the only kid in Lewistown out on a motorbike that summer. Things began to change the next year, however. Honda came to town. The first Honda bikes were called CB100 and they were sort of like step-through motor scooters with a 50cc engine, but Honda got a lot more power out of that little mill than my rather anemic MoPed. They had a centrifugal clutch so you just gave them gas and away they went. I think they had three speed transmissions shifted by a foot operated lever that you would press in front to shift up and press in back to shift down.

I've written elsewhere in my blog about my cycle crash that broke my collar bone. I was riding off road and ended up flying over the handlebars when I rode into a big hole in the ground. I seem to always get in trouble when I leave the "two-lane." (You can read about it here if you like.)

Honda also had a very nice model that looked like a miniature version of a real motorcycle called the CB110. It also had a 50cc engine, but a regular hand operated clutch and really put my little bike to shame. I can’t say exactly when, but shortly after this Honda craze started when I must have been around 16, I got a Honda 150cc. A model called a Benly. Like the larger “Dreams,” it had a rather unique pressed steel frame rather than the tubular frame that was more common and a short swing arm front suspicion like you tended to see on European motorscooters. The engine was an integral part of the frame bolted on top and bottom to add strength and stiffness.

Compared to my previous bike, or the CB100s and 110s around town, this was a “real” motorcycle. I remember one of my first rides in the early evening out toward Eddy’s Corner and feeling the difference in air temperature as I dropped down into the little valleys and rose up the small hills.

Riding a motorcycle you are directly exposed to nature, not encased in a ton or two of glass and steel like folks in automobiles. That means your senses are directly involved with the journey. Besides being acutely aware of small changes in temperature, especially when riding at night, I also was keenly aware of surrounding smells. A ride past “Eddy’s Bakery,” for example, and your nose was filled with that wonderful smell of fresh baked bread. I also noticed the clean, “soapy” smell when I rode past a laundromat. This close connection to nature and the outside world is one of the key reasons people ride, in my humble opinion.

About a week after I got the new, big bike, I rode up into the Judith mountains towards the Air Force radar base. I turned down a rough road and descended into a valley. The road was a “fire road.” It was built for access in case of a wild fire, and wasn’t really suitable for regular traffic. An off-road bike wouldn’t of had problems, but my big “city” bike wasn’t able to make it back up the road. A combination of steep inclines and very large rocks with the low ground clearance and a suspension meant for smooth asphalt soon had me stalled. I was up there with friends. I don’t remember; I guess they had bikes too, but small bikes more accustomed to off-road. More likely, I was just with Charlie Bardwell and he was riding on the back. We hiked to Charlie’s parents trailer which was parked for the summer in the cool mountain area. I remember we were starved and feasted on a can of beef stew. It tasted good to us starving souls. We were saved!

Somehow, eventually, I made it home. Charlie’s mom probably drove us. My dad was pretty mad I’d “lost” my bike. The next day, my friend, Ron Fleming, and others headed up in his dad’s Willys Jeep Station Wagon. (Might have been Gary Hornseth or Jack Barney or both.) We had a big rope to tie to the front of my bike and, with the assistance of my friends pulling like Egyptian slaves building a pyramid, we got my bike up the hill and back on the main road. Oh the trouble you can get into when a teenage brain is in charge of large machinery. There should be a government warning label on teenager’s forehead!

My Benly was a miniature version of the larger 250cc and 305cc bikes known as Honda Dreams. There was also a big version of the 110 called the Super Sport. That was the largest Honda bike at that time and my friend John Barr had one that he souped up for racing. He had bored out the engine to expand the displacement to 350cc and had a sport fairing made of fiberglass that was used on serious road racing bikes of the era. He added to scoops two feed air into the carburetors, although I don’t think they were directly attached.

We both took our bikes to the “King Kam Raceway” out by the airport and dragged raced them. I won in my class, a feat not diminished by the fact that I was the only bike in the bracket and as long as I made it to the finish line I was guaranteed first place. Years later my young son, Michael, broke the nice trophy I got that day for just competing. My wife, Linda, never understood why I didn’t get mad when Mike broke the trophy. She didn’t realize that I had little attachment for a token of simply showing up at the drags. Still it was fun and it was a very nice trophy. I threw it away along ago.

At one point I suggested to my parents that I be allowed to take my bike on a road trip. John Barr and I (and I think, maybe, one other person … don’t recall for sure) were planning a trip down to Yellowstone Park, a ride of about 300 miles one-way. I was frankly very surprised when my parents said OK. We rode down to West Yellowstone in one day, and then spent the next day touring the park. I recall being concerned about bears. Sometimes there were traffic jams called “bear jams” as the animals approached the edge of the highway and people stopped to gawk. We discussed how we would make a U-turn and quickly escape if we encountered such a bear traffic jam.

On the way home we drove on the Interstate past a small town near Billings. John said he heard there was a guy with a fast bike living there, so dropped off the highway to go check out the town. I continued on. A while later John caught up with me. (In those days there were no daytime speed limits in Montana, and my 150cc Honda only went about 60 mph, so John’s much faster bike caught up with me easily.) He said he drove up and down the main street, but didn’t see any other bike.

Although I remember some things that happened over 50 years ago like it was yesterday, other things "I don't have a clue." I don't remember what I did with either my old MoPed or the Honda. I know I didn't take them to college, so they must have been sold by 1965. I asked my dad, but he doesn't remember either. In fact, he thought my grandpa won the MoPed and that is how I got it. So his memory isn't helping either. So I don’t know what happened to my black Honda, but it was gone before I went into the Navy. That's the next stop on this nostalgic journey. Tune in to "Part II" for the continuing adventure and the tale of my two-wheeled escapades while stationed in Norfolk, VA.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Earthman on Mars?

This will be the last task before landing. Strap myself into the acceleration couch. Ship is secure and ready for landing. It’s been a long voyage. Now it is in its final hours. All the check lists are completed, and it’s all up to the computer now.

Who thought that I, alone, the smallest astronaut in the history of NASA would be here? About to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere. Soon — if all goes well — and the board is lighting up green indicating systems are ready — soon I’ll be the first Earthman on Mars.

I remember when it all started some seven years ago. There were twenty-eight of us back then. A few washed out during the training process. I was the smallest. I’m only 5 foot 8 and I weigh 130 pounds soaking wet. They even had to make a special space suit for me I am so small. I didn’t expect to make it through all the training, much less be picked for the trip. Didn’t seem likely, and I doubt anyone on that first day would have predicted that I’d be the lucky winner of the ultimate lottery. The captain — and the full crew — of Earth’s first manned flight to Mars. No one, least of all myself, would have thought that it would be me — or anyone — alone.

It wasn’t supposed to have turned out this way. We had originally planned for a four or five man crew. Then it was three, before it was trimmed down to two, and then the plan changed to a single astronaut.

You see, the problem is quite simple. Weight vs. rocket fuel. The heavier the rocket, the more fuel needed to make the trip. In fact, the extra fuel adds more weight, which makes it an even tougher equation to balance. So add up the weight of all the astronauts, plus the air, water, and food required for each occupant, and you can see the problem the engineers struggled with.

The greater load required larger engines and more fuel and the tanks to hold the fuel, which increases weight all the more requiring yet more fuel. The ship just keeps growing and growing to lift the load of the astronauts and their required supplies.

The final solution was strikingly simple. If there is only one astronaut, and a small one at that, then the fuel requirement is the minimum. That made for the simplest solution, and — in engineering — simple is often the best.

It’s a long ways to Mars (and back). Over 35 million miles even when at the closest approach to Earth. Over nine months in travel just to get here. So designing a ship that could carry a small crew and all the provisions needed led to bigger and bigger rockets to carry more and more fuel, and that just proved impossible to build.

I still recall when the Colonel stopped by my small room (smile) and gave me the result. The design team had reached a decision. The rocket would be built for only one man. And, as the smallest astronaut, I’d be that man. What a way to win the lottery. It turns out that size does matter.

So here I am. Over 35 million miles and nine months later. (Funny that it worked out that way … just like a new baby.) Soon the rocket will enter the upper atmosphere of Mars. The ship has already rotated so the approach is tail down. I’m sure Mars is beautiful from here, but I can’t see it. You see, there are no portholes in this ship. (Actually, you don’t see. Get it?) No openings to reduce the structural integrity. That keeps the design simple and as light as possible.

The ship does have a view. It’s exactly like the periscope you have on submarines. It is located in the nose of the rocket and it gives an excellent, 360 degree view, but it can’t look backward. So I’ll be descending to the surface of Mars depending entirely on radar and instruments. Those are the eyes of the computer doing the actual navigation those last few miles. Shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, if it is, I won’t have long to worry about it. At the speed I’m going, if the rockets don’t fire for a gentle landing, it will be a quick trip down.

There, I can hear the pumps starting up. It’s all under computer control. I’m like that elevator operator. All I do is punch the buttons. Next stop, main floor and lobby.

Now the noises are increasing. Pumps and gyros coming up to speed. Soon the engines will fire. There, I hear the roar and, for the first time since launch, I feel weight. After coasting all the way to Mars in a weightless state, it’s good to feel the pull of gravity again — even if it is artificial gravity from the rocket acceleration. See, I did listen in all those lectures, even though I didn’t think I’d ever be the one to get here.

The computer is increasing thrust. I’m pressed hard into the acceleration couch. The timer shows five minutes to touchdown. Like the Mohel said when the knife slipped, “It won’t be long now.” I remember Abraham, the Israeli astronaut I trained with. He’d tell that joke every time we simulated countdown.

Now three minutes. The acceleration is getting hard to take. After months of weightlessness drifting through space, I’m not used to gravity. Hope I don’t pass out and miss the final moments. But then, I’m alone, who would know?

There, only one minute left. Thirty seconds. Ten seconds. Touchdown. I felt the bump. Not bad. If I’d crashed then there would be no way back even if I survived. Felt like a good landing and now the engines are shutting down. Finally I have something to do. Push the button elevator man. But the doors won’t open yet.

No, you see I’ve landed on my tail and the only way down to the ground is a small ladder through the center of the ship and between the rocket engines, which, right now, are about as hot as the center of a volcano.

So it’s more of a waiting game. I have to sit here for twelve hours until the rocket tubes cool in the thin Mars atmosphere. It’s been nine months. A few more hours won’t be bad. But at least now I can take a look around. I climb out of the acceleration couch and activate the periscope. Now I can see Mars.

Oh wait, almost forgot. I’ve landed on the night side of Mars. I won’t be able to see anything until morning. Even if Mars’ two moons are out, they are too small and we’re too far from the Sun for them to light the scenery like a full moon would back on good old Earth. So I’ve got to be patient.

First job is to contact Earth. Let them know I made it. Then I’ve got some equipment checks and maybe a light meal and a short nap. Actually there is no way I’m gonna be able to sleep now with the surface of Mars only a few feet and a few hours away.

I know Neil had prepared his speech for when he first stepped down on the moon. We’ve talked about it a lot during training.

“A small step for man ….” He meant to say “A small step for a man …” In fact, he is sure he did say the “a.” But we’ve all heard the tapes.

In any case, it worked OK for him. As famous as “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

At first I thought I would tease him in my little speech. “A small step for a small man.”

But this is a great moment for Earth … and not just the good old US. No, this mission was international. Sure, I’m an American, born and raised in Montana. Over half the astronauts were from the US. But it is a Russian engine and a Japanese computer and an Israeli periscope and … well, you get the idea. So my little inside joke would not be appropriate. Kids in school will probably learn what I said. Better be formal if this is for the history books.

What will I say? Actually I have no one to say it to. No orbiter over head. No copilot in the lander. This mission is much simpler. One rocket. One man. Land on Mars. Take off from Mars. That too kept the weight and the fuel requirements small. I do have a recorder, however. So my speech will be heard ultimately.

What will I say? Now you’ll just have to wait and see.

The hands on the clock move so slow. A couple more hours and it will be time.

Getting close. The sun is starting to rise, and I’ll be descending the ladder in just fifteen more minutes. Now that it’s light, I can check around. “Up periscope.” That’s fun to say, even if I’m just talking to myself.

Looking west. Nothing much to see but sand and hills. Swinging the scope around to the north. More of the same. Now looking east. Wait. There. Off in the distance. It looks like a city. I’ll crank up the magnification. Yes, it is a city. A walled city. Looks like a castle. Wonder how old it is. Possibly millions of years. Are there going to be relics and fossils of a previous Martian civilization? Were the canals actually “man”-made?

No, on top of the castle. I see it. A flag is raising. A flag waving in the thin air. That’s not a fossil. Someone raised that flag. There must be life.

Suddenly it dawns on me that the periscope has another control. I can aim it down and observe closer to the rocket. I think the excitement of spotting the castle in the distance made me forget all about that. I’ll rotate the scope downward now.

Wow. There’s a caravan of people moving toward the ship. I can make out the animals … very odd. Looks like they have too many legs. Look a bit like a camel but somewhat like an elephant too. And more the size of an elephant. I can see people riding on the back of the animals in big boxes held by straps under the belly of the strange beasts. Other are walking alongside. They’re carrying shields and spears and some have colorful flags. They are bare skinned with little but wide belts for clothing. Also I think I have spotted some flying craft off in the distance. What a strange combination of ancient and modern items. Half naked riders on animals and aircraft too. Odd indeed.

They look a lot like Earth people, although it appears they have a bit of a red tinge to their skin, but there are some dark skinned people too. They have very large chests. Probably needed for the thin atmosphere. Long legs. I can’t tell at this distance, but I’ll bet they are taller than me. But that’s an easy bet. Odds are that I would win it on Earth too.

I’ve move the scope’s direction to the front of the procession. It’s led by a large man. He's riding some beast about the size of horse, although, again, there are too many legs. He doesn’t look quite like the others. Not as thin. I think his skin is white, although he has a good tan. He’s only wearing simple clothes, sort of a skirt or kilt, and his chest is bare. He’s riding in front and headed toward the ship. He has a loose article of clothing with a wide belt at his waist. A curved sword hangs from the belt. There are other things attached to his belt. I see instruments and devices that look like a cell phone or portable radio walky-talky. Even something that looks distinctly like a gun or a hand weapon of some sort. Looks rather high-tech for a society with castles and swords.

I don’t know if there is danger, but the mission plan has me staying here for four months until Mars is in the correct position in its orbit for the return trip, so there’s no use trying to hole up in the rocket for defense. This space craft could easily be toppled or disabled. I had best go out and meet these “people.” If they are blood thirsty savages, that will be the end of me. No reason to delay. “What’s for dinner? said the one missionary to the other.” “Clowns taste funny,” said the cannibal to his friend. I think I’ve read too many comics.

Better get into my surface clothes. A heavy jacket as the morning is pretty cold. Warm pants with boots and gloves. I also have a small oxygen concentrator to assist with the thin air. Back on Earth they assumed that I would quickly adjust to the thin air like mountaineers get used to high altitude. Then I won’t need the oxygen device. I best head down the ladder now. I may be the first Earthman on Mars. I just hope I’m not the last. No use putting it off.

Climbing down. Between the engines. They’re still a little warm. On the last step. There, I’ve stepped off the ladder. Darn! I forgot all about my little speech. Turning around.

The procession is approaching. They’ve stopped at the base of the rocket. The man in the lead dismounts from the odd looking animal. Up close I can see that the creature he rode has four legs on each side and a ferocious looking face like a wild boar. He walks toward me and appears ready to speak. And so the first Earthman on Mars meets the first Martian. I hope it is a welcome and not “no trespassing.” But then why would I understand his language. But I do. It is English with a bit of a Southern drawl.

He says, “Welcome to Barsoom.” “My name is John Carter.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Light Bulb

A common symbol or icon for an idea is a picture of a light bulb. Thomas Edison, famous for inventing the modern light bulb (among many other useful things including the record player), is the archetype for the American Inventor and even for American innovation.

Now three Japanese scientists have been awarded for their innovation. Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura have been given the Nobel Prize for Physics for their invention of the blue LED (light emitting diode). When they produced bright blue light beams from their semi-conductors in the early 1990s, they triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology. Red and green diodes had been around for a long time but without blue light, white lamps could not be created. (Color television … even before LED flat screens … used the three primary colors of red, green, and blue to produce the full rainbow (spectrum) of colors.)

Despite considerable efforts, both in the scientific community and in industry, the blue LED had remained a challenge for three decades. These three succeeded where everyone else had failed. Akasaki worked together with Amano at the University of Nagoya, while Nakamura was employed at Nichia Chemicals, a small company in Tokushima.

Their inventions were revolutionary. Although incandescent light bulbs lit the 20th century, the 21st century will be lit by LED lamps. Thanks to their invention, LED lamps can emit a bright white light, are long-lasting, and energy-efficient. They are constantly being improved, getting more efficient with higher luminous flux (measured in lumens) per unit electrical input power (measured in watts). The most recent record is just over 300 lm/W, which can be compared to 16 for regular light bulbs and close to 70 for fluorescent lamps. That works out to around 5% efficiency for incandescents and the much improved, but still very poor 25% efficiency for CFLs.

As about one fourth of world electricity consumption is used for lighting purposes, these LEDs contribute to saving the Earth's resources. Materials consumption is also diminished as LEDs last up to 100,000 hours, compared to 1,000 for incandescent bulbs and 10,000 hours for fluorescent lights.

It appears to me that the current shift from incandescent to compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) (driven by "green" concerns for both the environment and the wallet) is starting to transition to LEDs. Price remains the biggest disincentive, but volume production is bringing the prices of LED lamps down quickly. A trip down the aisle at Home Depot or Lowe's will quickly demonstrate the surge in LED products.

Improved manufacturing techniques and economy of scale is bringing LED prices down further, and the long life of LEDs improves the economics for home users. CFLs were long lasting compared to the often “burnt out” incandescents, but LEDs are much longer lasting than CFLs. In fact, with modern LEDs, storing replacement bulbs in the closet may become as antique as outdoor plumbing and the dial phone.

A significant feature of LEDs is that the light is directional, as opposed to incandescent and CFL bulbs which spread the light more spherically. This is an advantage with recessed lighting or under-cabinet lighting, but it is a disadvantage for table lamps. New LED bulb designs address the directional limitation by using diffuser lenses and reflectors to disperse the light more like an incandescent bulb. LED lamps can also be designed to support dimmers, a problem for CFLs, and there are more options for size and shape; no need for curly-Q glass designs.

The LED lamp holds great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity grids: due to low power requirements it can be powered by cheap local solar power.

Because of the low power requirement for LEDs, using solar panels becomes more practical and less expensive than running an electric line or using a generator for lighting in remote or off-grid areas. We are already experiencing a wave of garden lighting powered by the sun and rechargeable batteries. LED light bulbs are also ideal for use with small portable generators which homeowners use for backup power in emergencies. Even the trusty flashlight is using LED bulbs.

This may lead to other changes in the future and the power distribution systems and wiring in the modern home may change in response to this new lighting appliance. The 115 volt power in the US, which is optimal for incandescent lamps, is much too high for LEDs. Ironically it is too low for CFLs and they contain circuits to jump the voltage.

In a CFL, electrons from a heated filament flow through the bulb and collide with mercury atoms in the tube. As a result of these collisions, photons are released, but they are in the UV wavelength range and thus not useful for illumination. To convert UV to visible light, the inside of the fluorescent tube is coated with a phosphor. As the emitted UV photons hit this phosphor, the coating glows and gives off the visible light of the bulb.

Although this sounds simple, it requires three different voltage levels to get started and to operate. That’s why older fluorescent lights had starters and ballast and other additional circuits to produce the starting current and maintain operation. Modern CFLs contain miniature circuits in the base to provide for starting and operation.

LEDs, on the other hand, operate at the voltage of a semiconductor junction, about 1.5 volts. So the base of an LED lamp must contain circuitry to reduce the 115 volt to a lower value. It is possible, once LED lights become the only bulbs in the home, that low voltage circuits will become as common as today’s 115 volt wall socket juice. As LED lighting is adopted, 12 volt house wiring may become the standard. (Most modern electronics would operate well on 12 volts, although there are a few home appliances that need higher voltage. Perhaps the house or office of the future will have both 12 volt and 115 volt circuits like many travel trailers and motor homes do now.)

When I finished my basement, I put in two 12v circuits to run low voltage LED lighting in my entertainment/family room and the downstairs bathroom. In the future, this will become much more common.

The lower voltage would be safer from electrical shock, short circuits, and fires. In addition, CFLs contain very hazardous materials including mercury, making waste disposal an issue. So the ultimate shift to LEDs will be good for the environment and for society in many ways.

Although the Nobel Prize is usually given for theoretical discoveries, this invention of the blue LED ranks up there with Edison’s equivalent invention in how it will ultimately change the world. I believe the 20th century was enabled by the light bulb. Now the 21st century may see an equal transition due to the LED lamp.

LED lights. Now that’s a BRIGHT idea!