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.

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