I did not love my first motorcycle, though I was often delighted by it... And it was kind of cool. But once I realized it was never going to be anything special (at least for 36 years), the wonder began to leach out of it. For the first year (1975), the bike got washed every other week and I went after grease and dirt through every nook and cranny with a rag. Then money got tight in the second and third years and I let a few things go. This included a pronounced scratch on the tank. The battery vent hose popped off one day, dripping acid on the pipes, which instantly dissolved the chrome, revealing a shiny brass-colored base metal. There is nothing more pronounced on a bike than the gas tank and the exhaust pipes. A ding or a dent in the tank is like a broken front tooth, and scratched or scarred pipes are like walking around with duct tape on your boot.
Touch-up paint on the gas tank gave the bike a touched-up look, but there was nothing that could be done about the pipes. There was never a question of getting them replaced or redone. From that point on, the Kawasaki H-2 became less of a quarter horse and more of a mule, albeit a fast one. I moved a couple of times and the machine became a full-fledged street bike, in the sense that it was parked on the street. I found it knocked over a couple of times, the victim of some idiot trying to parallel park in a space that was just too tight by an inch or so. This necessitated replacing a couple of mirrors and turn signal lenses, but after a bit, the turn signal stems acquired a bit of a droop.
As a young writer, money flowed in trickles, and tune-ups at the shop became something of a luxury. There wasn’t much to tuning up an an H-2. You replaced the plugs and the points, and then synchronized the three carburetors. I replaced the plugs fairly often. That was easy and I carried a spare set under the seat. The spares were new for a long time. Then they were the previous set, cleaned with emory paper (or carbon tetrachloride) and re-gapped. I never did master the secret of changing the points. I could get the new ones in, but could never get them set right. The manual said something about “when the points start to close...” What the hell does that mean? Do points start to close when the distributor cam makes them quiver or do they start to close when they move a good deal? I tried changing points twice, then had to push the bike to a Harley shop where a mechanic could do the job right in about 15 minutes — for $60.
Synchronizing the carbs was black magic. This called for a gauge that measured how each carb breathed, using columns of mercury, a centrifuge, a pressure regulator, and a barometer. (This was my understanding of it.) Each cylinder was an individual motor joined to the other two in a hellish trinity. None of the cylinders liked each other and would whisper “fuck you two” in a language common to lawn mowers of the era. They would stay synchronized for about ten days, when the vibration of the motor would have successfully started re-adjusting tiny screws held in place by 2¢ springs. Then the odd backfire would occur, or more likely, an internal engine fart where the power would hesitate for a minute as the bike made a noise like firing off a round with insufficient powder.
In tune, the Kawasaki H-2 would start on one cylinder. Friends of mine would kick their Harley’s and their Norton’s to the point where if the bikes had had balls, they’d have kicked those too. I got more respect from these guys as the bike got older, and rattier looking, but they just wouldn’t forgive the noise that bike made. Their bikes growled and mine went “Ying... Ying... Ying...Yinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng, emitting clouds of blue smoke that matched the color of my eyes.
Toward the end of the last summer I owned this bike, our destination was a gin mill on a dirt road tucked away in rural Pennsylvania. Rumor had it that this watering hole was the preferred location of ladies who were unburdened by extraordinary expectations of men. My companions and I (at the time) were utterly expectationless sperm donors with a few bucks in our pockets. I was anxious to arrive at the bar first. Even women unburdened by expectations know enough to pass on the purple Jap bike if something better is in the offing.
I was well in the lead when I came upon the turn-off for the three-mile long dirt road headed to the bar. But that lead would quickly evaporate when the other guys figured out what I was up to. So I did what any other male would have done under the circumstances — I dragged one foot in the dirt. This created huge clouds of dust that threatened to coat both riders and bikes behind me, unless they pulled over and waited it out.
My bike came to a long, sliding stop right in front of the joint, where a woman tricked out in cut-off jeans and an over-taxed halter top viewed me from the porch. Her hair was as black as a lawyer’s heart and she looked at me like I might be the next life guard in her gene pool. This was cool as I was looking at her pretty much the same way the former Soviet Union used to look at Poland. I put my sunglasses in my shirt pocket and grinned. Then I swung my leg over the saddle, caught it on the sissy bar, and pulled the whole damn bike over on top of me.
The boys showed up about this time, covered with dirt, and found me pinned under my bike with the red hot motor burning my leg through old jeans. They all took a second to spit in my direction before going into the bar. A few seconds later, a woman three times my size and an apparent stranger to teeth, rolled out of the door with a much gummed stump of a cigar protruding from her maw. This woman had to sneak up on her lunch if she were to get the benefit of nourishment.
“Where’s the guy who wants to make out with a real woman,” she cackled.
I screamed and struggled against the bike.
She came off the porch like an avalanche of ugly and caught my head in a vice-lock death grip. Swallowing the cigar, she thrust seven feet of tongue between my lips. It was like having a live turkey’s head moving around in my mouth, but not nearly as appetizing.
The incident left me scarred for life. It would be months before I could smoke a cigar without envisioning that woman, holding my face in hands that could knead baked hams. But more tragic was the thought that my riding buddies could so casually throw me to the wolves.
I pulled myself out from under the Kawasaki, gave it a kick, and left it laying in the dirt. Then I went into the bar and tossed back a couple of doubles of Irish penance (or absolution, depending on your viewpoint). Through cunning and stealth (plus the fact that my riding buddies were hard to take even by women who had no expectations), I managed to get close to the halter top beauty who was out on the porch when I arrived in style.
“That was some entrance,” she said to me over a rum and Coke.
“You mean the part where I pulled the bike over on myself, or the finale, where I got attacked by a savage bar floozie?” I replied.
“That was no savage bar floozie... That’s my mamma,” she said, wide-eyed. “Hey Maaaaaaaa...”
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011