The guy on the back was my father.
The classic Zippo Lighter
(Photo From Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
Many kids have wonderful memories of unique moments with their dads. The most common of these take place at ballparks, where little league games were played and cheered, and at major league stadiums, where legendary players whacked ‘em out of the park. Fishing is another great Norman Rockwell type activity shared by fathers and sons. Who doesn’t remember the first bass or trout taken in the company of your dad? Working on the engine of the family car with one’s pop can provide another source of prime bonding moments.
I hated baseball almost as much as my father did. I assume he hated baseball because he never once mentioned it in conversation, nor watched it on television, nor ever gave any sign that he had heard of it. Fish came from Russo’s Fish Market on West Side Avenue. I never knew him to walk by a stream, nor to express the slightest interest if anything lived in one. He hated bugs, the sun, and the heat. My dad had a great collection of tools. He would let me use any one of them provided I did so without his knowledge and concealed such activity while he was alive. And though my dad’s mechanical ability greatly exceeded mine, it was not something he gave classes in. In fact, he once told me that it was his greatest hope that I would one day make enough money to always pay somebody else to do the things on my car that he had to do on his. This advice was lost on me at the time because I was four years old and had just dropped one of his tools down a sewer grate.
I learned to drive when I was seventeen. At the same age, my dad learned how to assemble, maintain, and fire a .50 caliber machine gun at unpleasant Nazis, who were aggressively shooting at the B-17, in which he was the tail gunner. (Despite the fact this position required frequent filling, my dad asked for it as the B-17G had a separate door for the tail gunner, facilitating exit. He had started out as a ball turret gunner, but did not trust to the good intentions of his fellow crew members to crank the damn thing up in the event the aircraft became disabled.)
The Boeing B-17G, at the time, the largest aircraft of WWII carried a crew of 10.
The Office of Staff Sergeant Riepe is visible just under the rudder.
(Photo from Wikipedia -- Click to enlarge)
He was a “no bullshit” kind of person, which made him one of my more articulate critics. His name for me in my adolescence was, “Shitbird,” and he was convinced that I was one of life’s more annoying barnacles.
In the summer that followed my successful completion of the eighth grade, I was presented with a reading list for high school. Atop the list was “Northwest Passage,” by Kenneth Roberts. I was out of class about two days, when my father wanted to know what I thought about the book. (What I thought was that I intended to read it about 30 seconds before I’d get quizzed on it in September, but I was reluctant to share this strategy with him at the moment.)
A rather one-sided dialogue ensued, in which my dad suggested that the reading list was a Darwinian plot by the Jesuits to separate the higher life forms from the shitbirds, and that I might fool them for a bit if I pulled my head out of my ass and attempted to read a great book that I might enjoy. I looked at the book with suspicion. It was a paperback with 1,000 pages. By page 30 I was hooked as if the book had been printed with narcotic ink. I have since read it at least 20 times.
My dad and I spent thousands of hours in late night conversations on the most incredible topics. These spanned Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” the Six Day Israeli War, injuries to the soul, the great works of men and their undoing, the perfection of whiskey, sailboats, float planes, the flaws of politicians, and whether or not I would ever pull my head out of my ass long enough to amount to something. (The smart money said, “No.”)
It was during one of those conversations, he asked if I had ever considered getting a motorcycle. My answer was, “No.” The explanation, which I did not share at the time, was that you could have sex in a car, even if it was a Volkswagen Beetle, like mine. Dad spoke about how much fun a motorcycle might be and what adventures lay waiting for the guy who had one.
It never occurred to me that this could have been the passing daydream of a Jersey City fireman (albeit a Battalion Chief), with a mortgage and three kids in private schools. But the seed was planted. One friend of mine, Ricky Matz, did have a motorcycle, but he kept it out in the country, in some obscure whistle stop called Honesdale. I was pretty much on my own. I wandered into a dealership (another story for another time), put money down, signed some papers, and became the proud owner of a Kawasaki Triple. (The “Sucker” light burned so brightly in the dealership that day that Stevie Wonder was able to read a newspaper without assistance.)
My mother nearly shit, but I was almost 19. I learned some important things that year. The first was that motorcycles and cars have nothing in common, especially when it came to tires, warranties, and certain aspects of service. But I also learned that you didn’t need a car to have sex in, as the bike would heighten your presence to women with apartments.
On this particular day, about two months from the time that I would move out, I found my dad in the driveway admiring the bike. I showed him how it worked, the tool kit under the seat, and some other neat aspects of that otherwise primitive machine. And before I knew it, I said, “Want to take a ride with me?”
He never hesitated.
Wearing only a light zip up jacket and my spare open-faced helmet, he climbed on the back and we took off. It was a weekday afternoon and there was plenty of traffic. We went passed Route 3 and the Lincoln Tunnel to Route 17, then north to Route 17a, where we cut west to the town of Greenwood Lake, New York. I pulled into the parking lot of a bar. The drinking age in New York State at that time was 18. For the first time in my life, I went into a bar with my dad.
We each ordered the specialty of the house, a beer and a ball. This was a glass of whatever the hell they had on tap, probably Budweiser, and a shot of whiskey. I had Jamesons. He had Fleischman’s, a kind of scotch that you would use to clean paint brushes. He bought a round, and I bought one.
I remember telling him about an idea I had for a story. It was about inner city life. He didn’t think much of it and told me if I gave it some thought, I wouldn’t either. He was right. I never wrote the story. We were on the bike again an hour later. The ride home was fun, and took about 70 minutes. I think I heard him laugh once. The expression “Shitbird” didn’t come up the whole day. My Dad was one of six people who ever rode on the back of my Kawasaki.
Now some of you will raise your eyebrows and say nothing. Others may feel compelled to lecture me on the message this sort of story carries about drinking and riding, and how it will impact the nation’s youth. And some may feel that my father exercised really poor judgment.
But if you are going to set me straight about what I did wrong in my youth, I must advise you that this episode doesn’t even make the needle flicker on the “regret gauge.” As for my father, he was the bravest man I ever met. The emphysema that eventually claimed his life was just taking a toehold, and prevented him from getting a decent night’s sleep in the firehouse. He was a captain then, and volunteered to work “rescue.” In Jersey City, “rescue” rolled on every call. Jersey City is New Jersey’s second largest city, with a collection of tenements connected by “cock lofts.” The place used to burn like a Roman candle. Since my dad couldn’t sleep, he walked through smoke-filled buildings in the dark.
I remember looking through the dresser drawers in my parents’ bedroom when I was about eight. I found a wicker basket filled with pictures of a skinny kid in an army uniform, in Egypt and in Italy. There was a maroon box with something called the “Air Medal” in it. I would learn later that it was for 36 successful bombing missions. There was a red flag with a funny cross that had bent corners on it. And among this stuff was a little box that held something that looked like a jagged stone.
Curiosity overcame my better judgment, and I asked my dad what it was.
“Flack,” he replied.
This is the story in my mind this Veteran’s Day.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- Perdition’s Socks (With A Shrug)