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 trĂ© 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.

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