Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Veteran’s Day Motorcycle Story

Looking back through the years, this was one of the rare days when every cylinder on that 1975 Kawasaki Triple 750 (S2) fired at the right moment, and I managed to do everything perfectly. The bike “yingggggged” its way through curves like it was on a track. I dodged traffic, and probably touched 70mph on at least one straight-away. Stopped at a light, I heard the distinctive click of Zippo lighter opening, and smiled when I realized my pillion rider was using this lull in the activity to kindle a cigarette.

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)

24 comments:

MackBeemer said...

Great read, Jack.

A couple of years ago my youngest grandson's social studies class invited me, along with several other geezer types, to talk about our experiences in war and peace in the U.S.A. I don't know how I got in on it, but it was an honor to hear from another old guy - he must have been in his late eighties - who served as a belly gunner on a B-17 in WW II and had survived 50 missions. He said when his first 25 were up, he just signed on for more. Why? "Just 'cuz," was his answer. "It seemed the right thing to do at the time," he said.

My mind? He was the hero of that day, no question. And I got to shake the man's hand. The thing about it that has stuck with me, though, is this: he didn't know he was a hero, and probably would have turned red in the face at the suggestion.

But I guess that's sort of how it is with heroes. Sounds like your dad was one of those too.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Mack:

My dad's entire generation was the original "We can do it" boys. And they did do it... In the Pacific... In Europe... In Korea... And in rebuilding the peace. That's for taking the time to respond to my post today.

Your name has been added to the monthly readers meals contest.

Fondest regards,
Jack

BreakfastVP said...

This is a great story Jack. Takes me back too. Brings to mind the First Lieutenant's shoulder board that hangs on the wall near my desk. And that submariner's outlook "I never killed anyone in the war. I just sunk ships."

thanks Jack.

Todd Trumbore said...

Jack,
Thanks for sharing your personal story relating to Veteran's Day. It brings back thoughts and memories of my dad and the war.

It seems to me that our fathers were similiar in some ways.
My day was also a WWII veteran and a survivior of the Invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach, but was very quiet about the war and never spoke of it at all, but he did also have a box of metals hidden in a night table drawer.

He had very good mechanical skills as well and did all his own repairs no matter what the project and built the house I grew up in.

Dad did enjoy riding motorbikes and owned a couple of surplus Harleys after returning from the war. He would ride with fellow friends and war veterans who owned Harleys too. I really cherish the photos I have of my father on his Harleys with the guys because that's all I have. I regret never having the chance to ride with my father because he sold his bikes when we were young.

How I wish he would have held onto one of those bikes! I miss you dad.
Thanks again for the terrific story Jack that brought some fond memories of my father who passed some 27 years ago.

Todd Trumbore

John said...

My father was also a veteran of WWII he served in the Coast Guard. As did his older brother, but before you guffaw Uncle Carl had three ships blown out from under him. The Coast Guard opperated landing ships. That meant a lot of action in the Pacific. Dad's oldest brother was killed serving under Gen. Patton. That was the only war movie that my father would ever let me watch when he was in the house. I remember sitting on the couch and looking over at him during one of the scenes during the fight after Normandy, and Dad was weeping. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

After WWII Dad and his brother both bought bikes. They had a pair of Triumph T-110 Tigers that had sequential serial numbers. They picked them up at the docks in crates and assembled them themselves. They replaced wrist pins in the parking lot of a Harley Davidson dealership once on the middle of a long trip. Try doing that on you K75. Later as they met and married their wives they had matching Steib side cars. My cousin still has his father's and he restored it. My Dad's is long gone.

Dad never rode on my bike, but he rode along with me on many trips. It meant a lot when he told me that I was a good rider. Dad never dropped a bike. Until he was in his late 60's and his foot slipped on wet grass. He broke a couple ribs and that really got him upset.

A few months later he was recovering from heart surgury that he would not come home from. But he was doing well and in good spirits and he told me that he had just placed an order for a new Ural sidecar rig. One of the most painful things I ever had to do was cancel that order. My father and motorcycles were connected in a way that few things are. He made his living selling parts for motorcycles. He was the go to guy for parts knowledge wherever he worked. He had metals too, and he had his bother's purple heart and the burial flag.

Anonymous said...

MR. Riepe
All I can say is Bravo. Your story
made my morning.

Best
Ed Ferguson
Las Vegas Nv.

John said...

Great tale, as usual! My Dad flew 100 missions over Europe in B-17's. Never talked about it, and kept the box of medals hidden. Mom said he came back from the war "different". He never had a bike, but was flying by the time he was 21. Never flew after the war. I think of him when I ride, because I imagine him thinking how crazy it is. He was very risk-averse. I miss him. THanks for memories it brought back.

Charlie6 said...

Thanks for another great narrative Jack, your dad and his generation truly were something special.

I hope someday to take my sons for motorcycle rides and perhaps create a "bonding moment" with them.

dom

Will W said...

Jack,

This is a great story. Although my Dad has never owned a motorcycle, I have, and will continue to have many great memories of activities with him.

A gentleman that I think of on Veteran's day is one I met a few years back while in Hawaii. His name is Everett Hyland and he is a volunteer at the Arizona Memorial. He is a survivor from the USS Pennsylvania. When I met him, he kept me completely captivated by his stories and his experiences. I nearly missed the bus back to the hotel.

I have not done any investigation to see if he is still alive, but I will always remember him and what he stood for.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to all of the veterans for their service to this country.

Big Willie

Will W said...

http://www.arizonamemorial.org/locations/arizona-memorial-everett-hyland.html

Dave said...

Great story Jack, I enjoyed reading it.

My dad served in the Navy in the Pacific during the war. One of my great regrets is that I didn't get smart enough to want to talk to him about such things until after he was gone.

Thanks,
Dave Misevich

DC said...

Dear Jack,

I love this story of you and your father. My father is a man of few words, and while I do enjoy his company, I envy your long conversations you had with your dad.

Your opening evoked a lot of imagery. The simple sound of the zippo, to me, would signal a father's contentment and comfort in riding skills. For a son like me, with a father who doesn't say much, pure gold.

Thanks for another gem.

Dave Case

Anonymous said...

Dear BreakfastVP (Todd Byram):

I once found myself watching the great film classic "Twelve O'clock High," starring Gregory Peck, with my dad. I found it amazing how the B-17 gunners bantered as they fired and called their targets out like they were making shots in billiards.

My dad said, "Bullshit. They shot at anything that moved because Messerschmidts moveed and fired faster. His adolescence and mine were very different.

Thanks for sending me rthis note.

Fondest regards,
Jack

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Todd Trumbore:

Thanks for your kind note. I'm glad you got a kick out of the story. It's funny how each of us has so many different memories of our dads, and yet how many of these are similar in some regard.

Thanks Todd -- Great ride ww had last week too.

Fondest regards,
Jack

Jack Riepe said...

Dear John:

Thank you for sharing the story about your dad. I am amazed by the fact that so many of our fathers chose not to talk about their experiences nor the decorations they won. It is also amazing at how you have to beat the bushes to get the real details.

Thanks fort your kind note.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Ed Ferguson:

Thank you sir! Your note made my morning!

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

Jack Riepe said...

Dear John:

I think war changes everyone. It brings out both the best and the worst in people -- sometimes even in the same person. My dad did tell me a few stories, and I was horrified. It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood what was at stake.

Thank you for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Charlie6 (Dom):

I think about that ride with my dad every now and again. It still makes my laugh. My father was a pisser and the kind of guy who could always be relied upon when the chips were down.

Thanks for writing in today. It's always a pleasure to
hear from you.

Fondest regards,
Jack

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Will:

Thank you for writing in about your Dad and about your experience with a veteran from Pearl Harbor. It is not well-known but I was a Major during the Vietnam conflict. Unfortunately, I was an English Major, without distinction.

Always a pleasure Willie.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Dave Case:

Thank you for your kind letter. Not all of those conversations I had with my dad were pleasant. The ones that started out with, "I should have shot that load into the sink," were usually about my shortcomings as a teenager.

Fondest regards,
The Lindbergh Baby
West Chester, Pa

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Dave Misevich:

In going through the basket of pictures that I had found, the most fascinating was one of the Sphinx, in Egypt. The picture was taken at eye-level... The Sphinx's eye level.

It seems my dad's crew wanted to take pictures of this landmark, and the pilot said, "Okay." He then proceeded to buzz the stature in a bomber. The pilot, a captain, was 21. Hmmmmmmmm.

Thanks for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack Riepe

Grandad 43 said...

Jack, many emotions are evoked at a read such as the one you just offered us.
I lost my dad to ALS {lou Gehrig's Disease} 16 yeras ago. I still recall my years of growing up hunting and fishing with him.
I caught my first fish, a smallmouth bass when I was about four or five years old. My dad's fishing equipment was off limits to me due to my age versus cost of good equipment.
I wandered along the creek bank and soon located a tangle of fishing line in a bush, which I preceded to unravel. Someone had left it due to the effort required for recovery. Another fisherman there, donated a rusty old hook from his tackle box, add a tree branch and a worm from the bait can and I was ready to go.
As you probably guessed I shortly thereafter caught that first fish, was I proud or what ? So was my dad and a few times over the years we visited that special moment in conversation.
I was with dad on his last deer hunt and he dragged in that six pointer on his own, prior to the ALS, he was a bull of a man even if short in stature.
I recall also, hanging over the fender to help dad with the engine repairs. They called him Jack and he was a "jack of all trades".
My dad did not go overseas to fight in WW2, he was needed here in the USA as he was a locomotive engineer and his job was essential to move war materials by rail to support the war effort.
Tanks,ammo,artillery pieces or whatever neccessary, he hauled it.
Thanks again Jack, from all of us here who gather to read your blog and have been reminded of of good times with our dads.
Grandad 43
PS 14

kpgraphix said...

Great story Jack! The way you write creates wonderful visuals. Thank you.

Kenn

Anonymous said...

Jack,

Your Dad and my Dad were cut out of the same cloth. He was just a kid from the streets of Jersey City, Newark, and Lyndhurst and fought the war in Hawaii, never quite seeing action because of his young age when he was finally able to enlist in 1945. There has not yet been any person on this earth that I revere more. He was the most honest, hardworking, devoted man I ever met, bar none, and I did really a good thing in arranging for him to be my Dad.

Big Jim