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Motorcycles Without Zen

Have you ever ridden a motorcycle? I have. I never rode one as a kid because my parents thought they were too dangerous. They let me smoke cigarettes instead. However, when I was older-- much older-- in fact, I had a relationship with a motorcycle.

It all started one evening when my oldest son, Roger, called me from Florida. He inquired about my health and my wife and made the kind of small talk that people make when they want to say something but don’t just want to jump right in. Finally he got to the point. “Dad,” he said, “I need a bigger motorcycle to ride to work; would you like to buy my old one?” I thought about it for a while. Gas prices were high, although not quite as high as now. Motorcycle riding looked like fun and as, I mentioned, a joy of which I was deprived as a youth. Cheap enjoyable transportation—why not? I called my son back and agreed to buy the bike. It was a Suzuki 125 street bike. I’m sure you are thinking, “Not a big and dangerous motorcycle.” Hold that thought for possible reevaluation later.

Roger said he would bring the bike to my house in Auburn, Alabama, the next Saturday. Since I lived in a house that had neither garage nor carport, I had to find a place for my new motorcycle to live. The only real prospect seemed to be the back patio/deck. It was commodious, about 12 by 18 feet, and it was covered, an important consideration unless one enjoys sitting on a seat covered by morning dew and occasionally rain. There was one problem with this arrangement—the deck facing the back yard could be reached only by ascending 5 steps. “Not a problem,” I thought. I’ll build a ramp. The construction of the ramp was fairly simple. I bought two 2x8’s of appropriate length and some long nails and nailed the 2x8’s to the stairs. I now had a ramp about 15 inches wide leading from the back yard to the deck. (You should ask a real carpenter why two 2x8’s placed side by side yield a ramp only 15 inches wide.)

I stepped back to admire my handiwork. The ramp looked and felt solid. It also looked a bit steep. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” I thought. Motorcycles are designed to climb steep things, like hills. I was now ready to receive my new motorcycle. I could hardly wait.

On Saturday Roger arrived with the bike. He had to reassemble it since it had been disassembled to make its trip from Florida in the trunk of his car. He started the machine and rode it around the block to make sure it worked. It did. Roger rode the bike up the ramp and parked it on the deck in a simple graceful maneuver. Now comes the disclaimer given to protect oneself against lawsuits, to wit: “Dad, when you start up the ramp you need to make sure that you are going fast enough to keep gyroing or you will lose your balance and fall. Also be careful not to stall the bike, because it would very hard to back down this ramp.” OK, fine. Get outta my way because now it’s my turn. Keep in mind that I’m a novice, having been deprived as a youth, as I keep reminding you. Roger showed me how to shift gears and apply the brakes. For those who don’t know, a motorcycle has two brakes, one for the front wheel and one for the back. The front wheel brake is operated by a lever on the right handle bar, the back with a foot pedal.

I was now ready for my maiden voyage. I rode that bike all over town and even out into the country. I was having more fun than a “possum in a persimmon tree.”* After refilling the gas tank, I returned to the house to park the bike. I rode to the back yard, lined up with the ramp and cautiously proceeded up the ramp. Too slow. The bike stalled. As Roger had predicted, it ain’t no fun trying to back a dead motorcycle down a steep ramp. “I’ll not do that again,” I thought as I restarted the bike and lined up with the ramp. “VROOOOM. VROOOM,” the motorcycle said as I revved it up for my second approach. No caution this time. The bike whizzed right up that ramp without hesitation. In fact, when it reached the top of the ramp it still didn’t hesitate-- it actually became airborne. At the speed the bike and I were traveling, I’m sure we were in the air no more than a second. It was, however, the longest and most productive second of my life (which flashed briefly before my eyes). First, I felt the need to apply the brakes with considerable vigor. The firm application of the front-wheel brake to an airborne motorcycle results in the front end of the bike sharply rising toward the sky without slowing the back end one whit. Second, I just had time to utter the same plaintive expression as Butch Cassidy when he and the Sundance Kid jumped off the big cliff.

The motorcycle never touched the floor of the deck until after it hit the wall of the house in an approximately vertical attitude. The bike fell to the left and I fell to the right. The bike was still running but I was not.

My wife Lynn took me to the emergency room to get conformation that my arm was broken. It was. In fact, it was so crunched up that fixing it required surgery and the insertion of a shiny and expensive stainless steel plate. I have the x-rays to prove it. My wife left me in the care of the medical experts and went to a regularly scheduled meeting of our archery club of which I was president and she was secretary. She related the story to explain my absence, probably embellishing it somewhat as she is a woman not to be trusted. I, of course, expected a great outpouring of sympathy, which, of course didn’t happen. It’s hard to imagine that hard and sustained laughter could have caused a bunch of tough archers to become physically sick. I suspect the beer was also a contributing factor.

*This expression would have been another from Dan Rather’s quaint election night sayings if he had only had more time.