Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We Were Here First...

There is nothing that suggests order and tranquility in the world like a properly loaded motorcycle. The perfect balance of panniers and tightly lashed gear hint at competence, drive, and strong organizational ability. My first bike always looked like the delivery vehicle from hell’s flea market. There was crap lashed all over it whenever I had someplace to go and stuff to carry.

This early Saturday morning in April, 1977 was no exception. I was out for a day trip and wasn’t carrying much, but the backpacks I had to put it in were either too small or way too large.

The day’s objective was to ride my bike to a pretty little lake about 70 miles distant, where I would meet one of my closest friends (Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko) and spend five or six hours fishing for perch or small-mouth bass. Fishing is equal parts philosophy, natural science, personal reflection, and rehabilitation for the soul. It is the pursuit of thinking men that occasionally results in a fabulous dinner derived from the most rewarding techniques of the hunter/gatherer. Fishing is the ability to overcome the sensory perception of an adversary that has been more than 500 million years in evolution — relying on nothing more than $800 or $900 worth of highly specialized gear.

I had condensed the gear I wanted into a little pile of odd-sized plastic boxes, which in turn fit neatly into the confines of a battered pack. The vest was a different story. It had a dozen pockets on it, each bulging with stuff deemed “essential.” Folded, the garment became an irregular lump of material that resisted being shoved into the pack. It was slightly less so rolled, but the pack took on a shape that could only be described as “haphazard,” which was not the image I wanted to convey.

“Screw the image,” I thought to myself. “I am what I am.” The sissy bar on the back of the 1975 Kawasaki H2 now held a beat up pack that looked like a pillowcase sporting straps and buckles, a three-foot-long canister that contained two lengths of a fishing rod, and a trout net. At the last minute, I bungeed my old fishing hat to the rig as well.

It was 4 am when I left the house, an apartment on Boulevard East, in Guttenberg, NJ. Looking down from the cliffs that ring Manhattan on the west, it was like someone had pressed the “mute” button on “The City.” New York may be the “city that never sleeps,” but it gets a little drowsy about an hour before first light.

The H2 started like a velociraptor clearing its throat. A reassuring cloud of blue smoke issued from all three pipes, hanging in the cool morning air about a foot above the ground. I snicked the bike into gear, and headed off on the twisty, three-mile stretch at the top of the cliffs, before picking up the highway at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, and heading north.

Route 17 in New Jersey is a meat-grinder of a highway lined with strip malls and abrupt feeder lanes which can make for an interesting ride, but one devoid of any visual stimulation worth a damn. I had covered this stretch hundreds of times, and it was traffic free at this hour of the day. The sky was just starting to lighten as I passed through Paramus. I was tempted to twist the throttle wide open, but I kept coming across police cruisers (looking for the last of the Friday night drunks), and changed my mind.

Crossing the state line at Suffern, NY was like stepping through a trap door. Little mountains popped out of the terrain, creating valleys lined with villages that still held their colonial charm. Thin, tilted headstones in churchyards offered mute recommendation to sermons delivered under stone steeples still straight and true. Route 17 is the main street in places like Sloatsburg and Tuxedo Park, but it had real personality 30 years ago.

I would be on time for meeting Ihor, who came from another direction, driving a 1948 Willy’s Overland Station Wagon.

(Above) Here is a beautifully restored Willys Overland Station Wagon that was like Ihors. This one is definitely not his (which was yellow and black). This car is owned by C. Stevens. Picture taken from the Internet.

Sixty or seventy miles north of New York City lies a chain of lakes and forests strung together in a beautiful necklace of state parks, that stretch west from the majestic Hudson to the bucolic and creek-like Ramapo River. It is a cathedral of woodland repose for three seasons out of the year. Deer, fox, turkey, and bear ghost through these hardwood-covered foothills of the Catskills, and from anyplace high, you can see ridge-top fold into misty ridge-top.

This heaven becomes hell in the summer though.

Thousands of folks (and I do mean thousands) from the Big Apple converge on this place every summer afternoon, with boom boxes, tons of litter, and absolutely no respect for the setting nor anything else. The noise level alone is frightening.

At the time of this story, Ihor (pronounced EEE-whore) and I were still city boys. Though avid campers, we had just discovered the true religion of fishing and thought nothing of the two-hour pre-dawn drive (ride) to spend the day casting in comparative solitude.

The solitude was temporarily guaranteed by the cool, rainy nature of spring, and New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation, which declared these lakes could only be used for fishing. This guarantee was upheld by two rangers responsible for about 1200 square miles of park. Remarkably, they could hold the crowd at bay, when they were there. Their job was easy on chilly spring days. Ihor and I were determined to squeeze every last hour out of the solitude season.

Yet the weather turned unseasonably warm on this particular day and the crowd arrived weeks ahead of schedule.

The lake we favored covered about 50 acres. There was a walk of just under a mile to reach the far end of it, which offered a huge boulder to sit on and to cast from, within the shade of the trees, but without the interference of their branches.

We were in mid-cast on this boulder when an apparent Mardi Gras burst from the trees. At least twenty people equipped for a major party set up bar and churned into the water not 50 feet from our lines -- barely separated from us by a stand of birches. Their boom box was rippling the coffee in my thermos cup.

Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko —archaeologist, sportsman, man of letters — my friend and dietician for 35 years. To quote P.G. Wodehouse, "We were boys at school together." Here we see Ihor with a beautiful trout he seduced from the AuSable River using a light rod.

My friend is the classic sportsman in every respect. I've never known him to swear nor to even raise his voice. Rolling his eyes and reeling in his line, Sypko's expression conveyed heartfelt disgust. There were seven big lakes within a few miles of each other. The crowd could have gone anyplace. Instead they came straight to us.

About this time I glanced to the side of our rock, and noticed a sinister-looking copper shape coiled in the shallows.

"Look at this snake," I said. "I think it's a deadly swamp adder."

"It's probably a stick," said Sypko.

"Well the stick just flicked its tongue at me."

"What kind of head does it have?" asked Sypko.

"What do you mean what kind of head does it have? Do I look like a hat salesman to snakes? It has the flicking kind of head common to the deadly swamp adder."

Sypko leaned over edge, studied the reptile below, and announced: "Common is right. It's a common water snake. Round eyes and a slim head that's nearly under water. Poisonous snakes hold their heads high in the water."

The northern watersnake... This one is destined for Congress. Photo by the University of North Carolina, via the internet.

"I once read that deadly swamp adders are often identified as common water snakes," I said authoritatively, still attempting to compete with Sypko’s wealth of wood lore.

"There is no such thing as a deadly swamp adder, certainly not here. That's a common water snake. It will swim away with its head nearly underwater."

To prove his point, my friend drizzled a few twigs down the side of the boulder, which started the snake (head practically submerged), out into the lake.

"See," noted Sypko. And then he got an odd look in his eyes. It was the sort of look I imagine Jack the Ripper got when shaving.

Adjusting the trajectory of several more twigs and little pine cones to hit the water just right, Sypko steered the swimming snake around the spit of trees and into the adjacent festivities as if by remote control.

Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then the Mardi Gras exploded into a stampede. Twenty people came screaming out of the water -- many in various stages of undress -- barely pausing to grab chairs, towels, and shoulder-mounted stereo equipment in their flight to the road.

The following silence was both immediate and stark, like suddenly being thrust under a bell jar.

"Suppose that snake had been a deadly swamp adder," I asked.

"We were here first," said Sypko.

"Actually, the snake was here first."

"Then remind me to bring a mouse for our host next week," said Sypko, casting a line into the lake.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2003
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (The Mac Pac)
AKA The Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain — PS (With A Shrug)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My First Motorcycle Crash...

The argument had been especially vicious, and she left in a huff. Her parting words to me had been, “You really are a stupid fuck,” then she bounded down the stairs and bolted out into the street. I was pretty pissed myself, and my response to this logic was to step out onto the terrace, with a drink in my hand, and watch her pull away as she flipped me the bird. Looking back on these events now, there were three utterly amazing circumstances as they applied to me. The first was that I was 21-years-old, and had a townhouse apartment on Boulevard East, with a terrace and an accompanying view that ran from the George Washington Bridge to Mid-town Manhattan. The second was that I was holding a “rocks glass” from the ‘40s in my hand, filled with Irish whiskey. And the third was that any woman who was as hot as this one could ever have been my girlfriend. (This phenomenon has since reoccurred.)

Boulevard East is the only street in Hudson County, NJ that has romance, charm, history and which can be said to be unbelievably elegant. I have been to Paris (ten times) and I can assure you that aside from the views of Notre Dame, Boulevard East can hold its own with the City of LIght. That I came to live here at such a young age is typical of the bizarre developments in my life.

Boulevard East at 60th Street in West New York, NJ. One of the most beautiful stretches of pavement in the United States. Photo by Wikipedia.

I was introduced to Irish whiskey by a bartender in Jersey City when I was 19. (The legal drinking age was lowered to 18 that same year.) I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the start of my “practical” education. It is the appreciation of Irish whiskey that elevates man above the savages. And not only did I appreciate it, but I knew enough to savor it from a glass that did justice to the contents.

The woman who had just stormed out was two years older than me. We’d met in college where she was the captain of the equestrian team and I was directing on the school’s television station. In the first really personal conversation we’d ever had, she called me an “asshole.” Two years later, the occasional conflict would still cause her to drag out the original assessment. I watched her cross the street and get into her car. Her straight, waist-length black hair led one’s eye to her perfect ass, which could have starred in any jeans advertisement or commercial. (I would be 42 before I met another woman who would erase that image. Oddly enough, she was good with horses too, coming from New Mexico and Nebraska. But she raced them around barrels as opposed to jumping rails.)

I went back inside and finished the bottle of whiskey.

Come morning, my anger had been replaced by a hangover that had the characteristics of carpet bombing in WWII. The hollow sense of emptiness that follows a raging drunk was accentuated by the void in the bed next to me. The scent of her honey-gold Mediterranean skin was conspicuous by its absence, as was the opportunity to watch her get up and run naked to the bathroom as the first light of day filtered into the room. I vaguely remembered her parting words, and thought:

“You stupid asshole. What did you do? She’s gone.”

There wasn’t a moment to lose. I still had my fencing team physique in those days, and recovery from alcohol poisoning wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it is now. Four aspirin, two or three full-sized cups of espresso, and twenty minutes in a hot shower raised my status from “cadaver” to “intensive care” levels. My plan was simple... I had to grovel with verve, style and panache. And I had to do it quickly, before she concluded I was a real asshole.

Throwing on a fatigue jacket (that had been my father’s in WWII and which now served as my riding gear), I kicked my 1975 Kawasaki H2 into life. Technically, it was parked on the street — except it wasn’t. The bike sat on its center stand, just outside the front door on the sidewalk. It roared into life on the first kick — except it didn’t do that either. One of the last great 2-stroke street bikes of its time, the H2 started up like an outboard motor that had just gotten kicked in the balls. On this particular occasion, the bike must have sensed my urgency, as all three cylinders fired in the right order, producing equally dense volumes of smoke from their individual pipes.

The first stop was the florist around the corner. It was owned by a little Italian gentleman, who, at 8:am on this Saturday morning, was carrying boxes of fresh flowers from an old station wagon into the shop.

“Hey Gesippi,” I yelled from the curb. “I need a dozen fresh roses, wrapped nice.”

The old man paused for a second, broke into a grin and replied: “Hiya Jack. Your bigga’ mouth issa’ my best customer. Your pretty little Amica tell you to fuck off again?”

My reputation catches up with me everywhere.

Gesippi knew a good thing when he saw one. He gave me 15 roses for the price of twelve, and double-wrapped them for their trip on the motorcycle. (This was becoming routine for him.) I lashed them onto the sissy bar using bungee cords, careful not to crush the stems. Once again, the H2 coughed itself to life in a cloud of blue exhaust, and I was off.

Boulevard East snakes around the tops of the cliffs just opposite Manhattan and the Hudson River. At its end, I turned west, coasting down “Dan Kelly’s Hill,” where I would pick up I-80. Like many places in Hudson County, NJ, Dan Kelly’s hill was named for a Irish teamster who had huge sets of draft horses, which he’d use to help pull heavy wagons to the top for a small charge, just short of extortion.

I was a man on a mission and went like bloody hell on the slab. (I was probably pushing 85 mph, which seemed like bloody hell to me in those lost days of youth.) The H2 was in a good form and ran like a Swiss watch that left a smoke screen as bonus. My destination was Elmwood Park, NJ, where my hot patootie was holed up at her parents’ house. Thankfully, the mater and pater were away for the weekend, and I’d be spared the indignity of groveling in front of a larger audience. (They really hated me.)

Traffic was surprisingly heavy that morning. The Elmwood Park exit of I-80 was somewhat abrupt and entailed a full stop at a “T” intersection, before turning left over railroad tracks. Anticipating these little challenges, I had no trouble navigating around them. The real difficulty began at my final destination. My girl's car was parked out front, but she wouldn’t answer the door.

“Come on, Sweetie,” I yelled. "I'm really fuckin' sorry and my head is splitting." (In all honesty, I probably could have been a lot more contrite than that but I was a kid, you know.)

Muffled by the locked door, I could hear her say, “Eat shit and die.”

This was not going according to plan, and I thought it best to hang back a bit and have coffee at the nearest diner. I was in the process of retracing my steps, and closing in on the same “T” intersection I had passed through earlier. This time I was moving along the cross-bar of the “T,” with a solid line of opposing traffic on my left, running bumper-to-bumper right through the intersection. In other words, there was no gap for any left turning traffic to even enter the intersection.

I had just given the H2 a hit of gas, speeding up to about 45 mph, when the unthinkable happened.

Some old son of a bitch who was tired of waiting for a gap in traffic to appear decided to make one. I was about 30 feet away when he pulled straight into the intersection and stopped, blocking my lane with the entire left side of his car. There was no place to go. I clamped on the brakes as my bike hit the damn train tracks just before the intersection, and that was all she wrote.

The H2 was one of the world’s worst handling motorcycles and it didn’t hesitate to live up to its reputation. The machine went into a major wobble and the rear wheel flew out from under me on the tracks. The Kawasaki went down on its left side like a sack of shit, sliding about 15 feet before slamming into the car. I slid along on the ground behind it. The good news was that the car behind me was a police cruiser.

The old bastard blocking the intersection claimed he had been driving since the fall of Rome and had never had an accident. It was from my vantage point on the ground that I suggested he may have caused 50 of them. Despite my well-intentioned statement, he started foaming at the mouth yelling that he was the one who was hit. The cop pointed to the “stop” sign and informed “Pops” that it was illegal to proceed into a blocked intersection. I was now up and standing, and about to recommend to the officer that he use his night stick on the elderly gentleman, when the ambulance arrived. The cop suggested I go for an x-ray, as I appeared to be limping a bit and the sleeves of the fatigue jacket were shredded.

This sounded like good advice to me, and I did so, but not before removing the roses from the sissy bar. The folks at the hospital were very efficient and understanding. They even called my girlfriend while I was being poked and prodded in the emergency room. Everything was roses, metaphorically speaking. Yet I went through each phase of examination carrying those damn flowers. It was in x-ray that one of the most attractive nurses I have ever seen asked me about them.

“These are standard equipment on motorcycles,” I said. “If the rider is killed, they are simply laid on his chest.” This struck her as hardcore gallows humor, but she shot me a smile like a laser when I gave her a rose. Some hospitals have this rule that patients being discharged must be carted out the front door in a wheel chair. An orderly was assigned as my driver and he pushed me through the discharge process. I gave another rose to a lady who was getting released after a long bout with some illness, and a third to a candy-striper in the elevator.

“Oh, Jack,” sighed a voice dripping with sympathy and compassion. There my girlfriend stood in the main hall of the hospital, simmering in those jeans and a football jersey from some varsity hero I replaced two years earlier. “Does it hurt much?”

There I sat in the damned wheelchair — my shoes in my lap, a scuffed helmet on one arm and a dozen roses on the other. Loose gravel had scratched my cheek, which the emergency room doctor had cleaned and covered with a cool-looking bandage. The general tone of the scene was that I was lucky to be alive, which was an exaggeration of the highest order.

“These are for you,” I said, handing her the battered cone of roses.

I could taste the tears on her face as she pulled her lips over mine.

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” she asked.

“The doctor said I should spend the rest of the day in bed, with a warm sponge bath in the afternoon,” I replied, exhausting the last expression of sincerity I would be able to muster for the next 48 hours. I then asked the orderly if he could help me into the car, concealing a $10 bill in my handshake.

I never again met the old bastard who pulled out in front of me... But his insurance company replaced my green Kawasaki H2 with a red one.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (The Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Talisman...

“This is your Christmas present,” Stiffie said with a laugh. “I hope you’re surprised.”

“Thank you,” I replied, laughing back. Our Christmas gift exchange is an old joke, but one that never fails to make us both laugh.

Ten years ago, Stiffie (Leslie) introduced me to a rather pragmatic approach to Christmas gift-giving that that eliminates any disappointment and the necessity to return stuff. It also puts a dent in the “surprise” factor. But when it comes to Christmas gifts, “no surprise” is better than “having to act pleasantly surprised.” Stiffie’s approach calls for agreeing on the amount to be mutually spent, and then submitting a “wish list” of items, one or several of which will fall within the pre-agreed purchasing parameters. The trick is to submit enough suggestions — about 30 — so you’re not exactly sure what you are going to end up with.

You might think this process is a trifle mercenary. I did at first. But then it just makes perfect sense. An old friend of mine’s wife successfully lowers the bar on Christmas gift expectations from year to year by getting him some of the most useless things a man could pretend to want. We are not speaking about grabbing one of the highly discounted, pre-wrapped, last minute gift suggestions kept close by the cash register at the door. Nor are we talking about the homespun variety of gift (which can be incredibly exquisite) mandated by financial necessity. (She has a good job.)

There is substantial evidence that my friend’s wife puts a great deal of thought into his gift and still comes up with three lemons whenever she pulls the lever. Last year, she gave him a selection of scented bath powders. (I shit you not.) The year before, it was a collection of 1940’s dance music. (He is not a fan of 1940’s dance music, nor do they go out dancing.) I have no idea what she gave him this year as no amount of persuasion would get him to tell me. (I’m thinking it was a book titled, “A Detailed Explanation of Women’s Studies.”)

I had trouble giving Leslie (Stiffie) my wish list this year. As preposterous as this sounds, I realized that I had everything I could possible want. Throughout the ten-year tenure of this relationship, Stiffie has given me the most extraordinary gifts I have ever received. When I was building my model railroad empire, she found me some exclusive pieces that defied easy collection. When I needed a watch, she got me the best. And when I began my career as a re-entry rider, she delighted me with exquisite gear. (The heated Russell Day-Long Saddle on the K75 was her combined Christmas, Valentines Day, and Birthday gift for me in 2009.)

This year there were only a few things that I could think of on the list — but only one that I secretly coveted. And now, I accepted the box with reverence and awe. The package was exceptionally light for its size. Shaking it produced a soft rustling noise.

“Open it,” said Leslie. “I’m curious to see what this looks like.

“It looks like the talisman it is,” I replied. In truth, the contents of the box were nothing short of technological magic. They could extend the comfort of the summer motorcycle riding season into the dead of winter, while eliminating a creeping kind of fatigue that has lured countless riders into making bad decisions.

Leslie’s christmas gift to me was a Gerbing’s heated jacket liner, and the required thermostat controller.

(Above) This is the new micro-wire Gerbing's jacket liner that Leslie got me for Christmas. It looks a little different on me, but does have a remarkable slimming effect. Photo taken from the Gerbing's site.

The jacket came with a fused connector to the battery, and a temperature controller that has to be purchased separately. I may also opt to get a coiled connector extender to give myself some additional squirm room on the bike. Despite the fact that my K75 has two power outlets (one on the dash and another on the left side cover), it is necessary to make the primary connection directly to the battery. Neither of the two power outlets is rated (nor fused) to match the 77 watts of the Gerbing's jacket liner.

I wore the jacket around the house for a bit to get the feel of the wires hanging down against my leg. I also practiced saying things like, "Is it really that cold? It's hard to tell with these electrics and a heated seat." You have no idea how encouraging statements like these are to riders who are freezing their respective asses off. I decided to quit when the dogs took an interest in the hanging wires, and offered a playful pursuit.

Since my debut as a re-entry rider in 2005, I have ridden my bike into the cold until the streets were choked with the detritus of winter (sand, gravel, and salt). Layered gear, much the same for heavy winter backpacking, kept the cold in check as Dick Bregstein and I routinely rode in temperatures as low as 22º (F). Below freezing temperatures take a bit of the spontaneity out of the ride, as frostbite awareness calls for gloves, pants and footgear with better insulation. Exposed skin freezes and turns gray within a minute or two at speeds above 60 miles per hour and some care must be taken.

My experience with getting cold on a motorcycle is limited, but poignant. I have an awesome pair of Lee Parks insulated riding gauntlets (also a present from Leslie) that are the warmest gloves I have ever owned. (They are a trifle on the bulky side and not my first choice for dealing with stop and go traffic.) I was concluding an eight-hour run late one November day (2008) when the temperature dropped to 25º as the sun went down. The Lee Parks gloves were in my top case, but with only 30 miles to go before I hit the garage, I decided to continue on with lighter weight winter gloves.

There was a peculiar throbbing in my hands about two miles from the house, and I started to shiver. Coming off the local expressway, I found the light at the top of the exit (where I must make a left turn) in my favor. Pulling in the clutch to downshift, the bike went into a wobble and nearly went over. I was amazed. Under normal circumstances, I would have pissed myself. And then I realized I hadn’t pulled in the clutch, but clamped down on the front brakes instead.

I did the same thing at another traffic light less than a half mile and a minute away.

It was then I realized I was in no shape to be riding the bike. Pulling off my gloves in the garage, my hands seemed a pale blue. The normal skin-tone returned an hour later, but they continued to throb for a good deal longer.

But now I have entered the realm of serious BMW riders who spit in the eye of cold weather adversity. Between my Lee Parks gauntlets, my Gerbing’s jacket liner, and my heated Russell Day-Long seat, the winter will be my oyster — as soon as I get over the fear of wading my bike through piles of sand and gravel, seasoned by little mountains of salt.

I showed my latest gear acquisition to Dick Bregstein, whose electrics include a jacket, gloves, pants, socks, and a codpiece -- all wired in sequence. Yet Dick had the nerve to imply that heating my jacket liner would take the same amount of energy to raise all the houses of Fargo, North Dakota, two degrees on a winter day. Those readers who follow my adventures and my example will remember that I had a voltmeter installed on my 1996 BMW K75 last winter to monitor the impact of my accessories on the battery. Running a pair of Motolights and a set of PIA HID lights makes no difference to the 50-amp alternator, which cranks out 600 watts, at 1000 rpm. The Motolights are 50 watts each. The PIA’s are 60 watts total, and the heated seat is 18 watts. Adding 80 watts for the headlight, and 77 for the Gerbing’s jacket at it’s maximum setting, comes to a total of 335 watts, leaving 265 for the engine and recharging the battery. Should it appear that the alternator is struggling, it will be a simple matter to switch off the Motolights or turn down the Gerbing’s gear.

Riding in the winter is a bit of an acquired taste and one that certainly separates the men from the boys. I was out running errands this Sunday (yesterday), and had stopped for lunch. Suddenly, the frigid air (temps in the twenties) was filled with the sound of summer, and 14 Harley Davidson cruisers roared by in tight formation. I was ready to stand up and salute these guys. They were certainly showing everyone (including me) how to ride. If I hadn’t had to be someplace, I would have chased them to take a picture.

Today, Stiffie and I stepped out to lunch and passed a vintage red BMW K100, that I think belonged to my friend Jim Robinson. And then down in Downington, Pa, we saw another superman roar by on a Harley. The time was you never saw the chrome and leather guys out in the cold. Now they are setting a new trend.

I the meantime, I am dying to give my new gear a whirl. In fact, I may get over my fear of the gravel and sand, and ride to the Mac Pac breakfast this Sunday.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010

AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)

AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)

AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

I once promised my gentle readers that I would occasionally run guest blog episodes by credible authors. It was my intention to solicit well-written stories by riders who had accrued valuable experiences through thousands of miles of challenging rides. That was the plan. I have since discovered that my colleagues have no problem sharing their harrowing adventures with me (provided I’m buying the drinks), and doing the writing. This tale was told to me by one of the more colorful members of the Mac Pac -- DucDude. It is true to the details as he explained them to me. (The Mac Pac is the premier chartered BMW riding club serving southeast Pennsylvania.)

The minute hand seemed to move slower and slower as the day progressed, until finally, in the last hour of toil before the official start of the weekend, it seemed glued to the face of the clock. The man known to his friends as DucDude (acknowledging his preference for exotic Italian motorcycles) was immersed in the data on his computer screen. To the casual viewer, it appeared as if he was lost in some complex scientific text. In reality, the man was reading some internet tripe on telekinesis, and attempting to focus his mind on the clock’s minute hand, in an effort to make it skip. DucDude wanted out of the office and onto his bike pronto. He was a man with a primal mission.

Friday night was date night... It was DucDude’s opportunity to shine in the candle-light of an intimate dinner... To glow in the cleverness of a well-delivered line... To see his true self reflected in the eyes of a beautiful woman... And just possibly, to con that same women into throwing him a tumble, which would make all the preliminary stuff a smart investment in carnal satisfaction. The fact that he’d recently missed a couple of Fridays only added to his sense of urgency. With forty-five minutes left to go in the workday, DucDude sat in his cubicle, pounding away at his keyboard — while wearing his helmet, gloves, and Aerostitch leathers.

(Above) DucDude puts his 1997 Ducati 748 Desmo Quattro through its paces on track day. He named the bike "Mio Limone" after a small town in southern Italy. Photo provided by DucDude.

The stroke of five launched him through corporate corridors and lobbies like Cupid’s torpedo. He mounted the 1997 Ducati 748 Desmo Quattro, fired it up, and roared into traffic in one practiced, fluid movement. Enhanced by a muffler the size of an industrial oxygen canister, the Ducati’s exhaust screamed in defiance as DucDude twisted the throttle with a vengeance. The seemingly seamless yellow bodywork gave the bike a golden aura, as it darted through traffic like a predatory burst of sunlight. The bike’s engine started out as a 748cc powerhouse, but the rider had it bored out to an exacting 855cc nuclear reactor. The slight buzzing sensation in the grips belied the fact there was power in reserve long before the tach needle would goose the red line.

(Above) DucDude demonstrates the classic riding position he assumed throughout most of this story. DucDude is a loyal customer of Duct Tape, which is often used as an external fastener on his Ducati. The last time I saw this bike, it was on a trailer behind my Suburban. Photo supplied by DucDude.

There were three traffic lights separating DucDude from the relative freedom of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He got stuck at all of them. Nevertheless, he kept the revs up to leap forward when the signals turned green, and to keep the Ducati from sounding like marbles rattling around in a coffee can at the bike’s standard idle. (Once before, when stopped at a long light, cage drivers all around him craned their necks to try and determine whose car was eating its valves. Another biker once advised him that adding a quart of oil might reduce the valve and cam clatter.)

Snatching his turnpike ticket from a machine, “Ducky” (as he is known to his few friends) worked the throttle like it was the bow to the violin from hell. His goal was to surf the surge of rush hour traffic, keeping slightly ahead of the snarling masses building behind him. He had eight high-speed miles to go. He covered them in 5 minutes. With visions of quimm dancing like sugar plums in his head, he skidded the bike to a stop at a toll booth under a grimy green light.

The booth’s occupant was a woman who was so fat, her body had taken on the shape and proportions of her container.

“It was both amazing and terrifying,” said DucDude, his voice expressing both shock and awe. “Here was a woman who would have been hard on the eyes under normal circumstances, confined in a vertical aquarium, with her face pressed flat against the glass. The enormous pressures outlined her ferret-like facial features with jowls flattened to the diameter of a round garbage can cover.”

“Eighty-five cents,” mouthed the ghastly maw, after DucDude passed her the toll ticket, making sure his hand remained full inserted in the armored riding glove.

He dutifully opened the back pocket of his tank bag (a male Ducati rider’s substitute for a change purse) and counted out two quarters, three dimes, and a nickel. Yet in handing them over to the toll beast, a dime rolled off the glove and disappeared under the bike.

“I said eighty-five cents,” said the creature.

“I gave you eighty-five cents,” said DucDude, who was beginning to wonder if her saliva would dissolve the glass just like the monster spit burned through metal in the movie classic “Alien.”

“You gave me seventy-five cents,” insisted the talking flesh bag.

“You want me to get off the bike and get you a dime,” asked our hero, surmising the ten-cent piece was on the ground.

The woman replied with a gesture that was half nod and half hiss, making her face look like a sucker on the tentacle of a giant squid. Scared shitless, DucDude jumped off the bike and rummaged around on the ground, where he collected an unspecified amount of loose change, far in excess of a dime.

“Here, take this,” he said, tossing the collection into the toll booth.

“You’re paying me with my money,” she shrieked. “You owe me a dime!”

Despite the fact that every inch of the toll booth’s interior was filled with seething flesh, DucDude was afraid the little door would open and he too would be sucked inside. He realized the Ghastlyville Horror never saw the dime drop, and would only be satisfied with another one from his tank bag. Accordingly, he started to count out ten pennies, which only served to infuriate the woman/thing even more.

Meanwhile, the rush hour traffic that had been far behind him had now caught up. The line of cars stretched from the toll booth to the rings of Saturn. It was when they all started to blow their horns that the toll operator waved him on.

DucDude loaded the clutch with a farewell message of torque and let it out with a smile that elegantly said, “Shove it up your ass.” The Ducati launched itself with another mighty roar, and all might have been well, except that the rider felt something graze his left knee. Looking down, he realized that the back pocket of his tank bag was open, and that all his cash for the night, and his identification badge from work, had blown out onto the pavement.

“Fuccccccccckkkkkkkkkkkk,” he screamed into his helmet.

With the reflexes of a puma, DucDude guided the bike through two lanes of traffic, parked it on the stiletto of a sidestand (for what passed as the shoulder), and threw himself into the automotive melee in pursuit of his cash. The wind, aided by the turbulence of passing cars, unraveled his bank roll into individual tens and twenties, before flying them like little green kites.

(Above) DucDude unveiled... He wanted a picture of his bike with the legendary "Fireballs" in the background. Photo by Tom Byrum.

DucDude is a great rider, but above all, he is a man. Therefore, he had calculated the exact minimum amount of cash it would take to precipitate the sex act that evening (two entrees, the cheap dessert, and an even cheaper bottle of wine), and was watching his chances of copulation success diminish with each passing breeze. It was literally “going with the wind.” With a ferocity that no one would have suspected, he rounded up all but twenty or so dollars, and was just in time to see the fiftieth car run over his identification badge from work. He grabbed this too, but his picture looked like it had been given the rubber stamp of approval from Goodyear.

The last straw, or so he thought, was the mocking face of the hag under glass, who had witnessed the whole thing.

DucDude was about halfway back to the bike, when he noticed that it appeared to be leaning at a very aggressive angle. The Ducati seemed to shiver, as its sidestand pierced the hot, softened asphalt, and the stately machine crashed to the ground.

“Fuccccccccckkkkkkkkkkkk,” screamed DucDude for the second time in ten minutes.

Fortunately, the bike’s fall was broken by the seamless yellow fairing, which fractured in three dozen places. Yet the last sound my friend heard was the hard crack of his helmet, striking the pavement next to his bike. I told him he should have saved the dime. In the long run, it was worth about $1,100.

I’d been invited to a party at the home of another Mac Pac member, that was held poolside in a yard that had been carved out of a little hillside. When it came time to leave, my arthritis refused to cooperate. I had to climb a flight of uneven stone stairs, sans handrail. As ever, my fear was of falling in the company of savage close friends, who would rush to my aid, before tormenting me forever. I began my upward climb, convinced that I’d be pitched into the crowd in two seconds flat, when a voice said, “I’m right behind you, Lard Ass. Lean on my shoulder if you want to. I won't let you won’t fall.”

That was DucDude.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

My First Motorcycle...

The motorcycles stood in orderly chrome lines before the plate glass widows at the dealership. I stood on the sidewalk outside, without a clue as to the one I wanted. They all looked sort of the same, like the hookers in the Reeperbahn (the famous St.Pauli District in Hamburg). Just like those ladies, who either sat in storefronts or walked the quaint street, each of these was a beauty with a unique allure all their own. And just like those ladies, it was easy to imagine myself on all of them. There was a sense of heat in my groin, where all the money I had in the world was burning a hole in my pocket.

(Above) The locked barricade to the Reeperbahn (red light district of Hamburg) warns against the entry of males under eighteen or any women. Spring-loaded doors (concealed by advertising) are to the right and left of the locked center portal (for use by emergency vehicles). Photo by Wikipedia.

It is possible to draw any number of parallels between the time I purchased my first motorcycle and my first evening on the Reeperbahn, especially the part where I had no idea what I was doing. In both cases, I was looking for the ride and the thrill of my life. And in both situations I would end up spending a lot more money than I had initially planned. I could have asked my friends for some assistance in setting up the transactions, or I could have read what literature there was on both at the time.

But I did neither.

That is not my style. For better or worse, I generally just jump into something with high expectations and an abject resignation to limp through the consequences. There was one big difference though: I was 19 when I stood outside the motorcycle dealer on Kennedy Boulevard in Union City. The year was 1975. The Reeperbahn would wait until I was 26.

I had only had one ride on the back of a bike before before. A friend from high school -- Ricky Matz -- could ride a motorcycle like an Apache can ride a horse. His family dabbled in bikes and had Moto Guzzis, Ducatis, and Hondas in their stable. I rode the pillion while Ricky put a stately Moto Guzzi through some rather sedate paces one day in rural Pennsylvania, and I found it kind of fun. That was it. There was no sudden electrical connection between my soul and the bike, no call from the road, and no sense of flight at four feet above the ground. I didn’t lay in bed that night imagining that the Moto Guzzi was mine.

The absence of the cosmic connection may have been because I was ridding bitch. But the seed to ride had been planted nevertheless, and the final push came from a most unusual source.

My father.

He was a fireman with a sense of adventure. A rescue captain first and then a battalion chief in Jersey City, New Jersey’s second largest city (a place that knew how to burn), my dad choose careers that had an edge to them. He came to the fire department fresh from WWII combat as viewed from the tail gunner’s seat in a B-17, after managing to live through 36 missions. I used to love rummaging through my dad’s dresser, but this had to be done when he wasn’t around. He kept a broken pistol there, a box of pictures from Egypt (WWII), a Nazi bayonette, and a torn flag with a swastika on it. Nevertheless, the day came when I got caught, examining the contents of a small box, the sort of thing a ring might have come in. But there was no ring, just a jagged stone. When I asked my dad what it was, he replied, “Flack.”

My prized possession that used to belong to my dad is a classic fireman’s helmet, known as the “New Yorker” style with the eagle on the front of it. It is white, designating a chief in Jersey City, and has a hole burned through it. (These helmets were made of heavy duty leather.) I had to wonder what kind of shit my father had gotten into someplace where it was hot enough to burn through more than a quarter inch of leather.)

(Above) Traditional "New Yorker" style fireman's helmet, shown with yellow ear and neck protector extended. Neither of my father's two helmets had the clear plastic visors. Photo from the internet.

There were three things my dad always wanted: a sailboat, an airplane, and a motorcycle. He got four kids instead, and put three of them through private schools. Had my father known me prior to my birth, I would have been the load shot into the sink. His pet name for me was “Shitbird,” inspired by the fact that I had inherited all of the shortcomings of two ancient bloodlines, and none of the virtues. Years later, my dad would confess he thought I’d rewrite our family motto to be, “They said it couldn’t be done... So we said, ‘Okay, the hell with it.’”

There were many evenings when still living at home with my folks, I’d get in around midnight, to find my dad sitting in a dimly lit kitchen, sipping incredibly cheap Scotch (Fleischmanns), or drinking Yuban instant coffee. (I used to think he was in training to be a hostage.) We’d sit and talk, sometimes for two or three hours. One night, the conversation turned to motorcycles. My dad was of the impression that I should buy one of the city’s old Harley Davidson trikes, as they were being taken out of service. He thought a Harley trike would be a great thing for camping, for the open road, for a young guy whose borders were the horizon.

Quite frankly, I thought the aging black and white trikes were perfect for old geezers who wanted to sell melting ice cream out of the back to kids in the park. I had once watched a Jersey City traffic cop attempt to jump start one of these machines by rolling it down a hill. The engine remained as dead as Kelsey’s nuts. (Because I was a fireman’s kid, I offered to give him a push start with the rear bumper of my Volkswagen Beetle. The engine remained DOA after pushing the trike three blocks.)

My dad’s trike talk of the open road meant nothing to me. I’d had a VW Beetle since I was 17, and used it to go camping in the Adirondacks, drinking in New York City, and cruising for the passion peach since day one. Having a car opened roads and brassieres previously beyond reach. But the Beetle lacked panache, verve, and style. It required me to develop these characteristics. Then the old man happened to mention he’d watched a bunch of guys ride their bikes through Journal Square one day with the most extraordinary women attached to them, buffered by sleeping bags and all kinds of stuff lashed to the sissy bars and frames. He said these guys appeared to be out for the kind of good time known only to Vikings.

(Above) Journal Square, the epicenter of Jersey City, NJ — the Paris of the New World. Photo from Wikipedia.

Now I was getting my share of the ladies, but I had had to really work at it. And my dry spells had a tendency to last for six months. The thought occurred to me that having a motorcycle might provide crucial back-up in the romance department with the kind of women whose priorities in life matched my own. (At the time, these were cruising around, drinking and getting laid, with the emphasis on the last one.)

Such was the seed that lead to my interest in motorcycles.

Actually, it was more like a grain of sand under the shell of the oyster. I suddenly became conscious of motorcycles parked on the street, passing by in a fusillade of straight pipe thunder, and leaning through the curves -- -- with red hot patooties (a lá Meatloaf) clinging to the riders in a manner that suggested intimacy rubbed raw and made more intense by the elements. These bikes fell into four categories: Harley’s, Triumphs, Nortons, and Beeza’s (BSA). The Harleys were by far the most popular. But the others had a classic upright style that were more appealing to me. (I had once seen a BMW, but the rider appeared to be constipated and garbed like a character out of a Sherlock Holmes story.) Yet I couldn’t help but notice that the riders of all of these bikes had grease-stained hands. Even at the tender age of 19, it was widely recognized that I had absolutely no mechanical aptitude. I would need a machine that was as close to maintenance-free as the technology in 1975 allowed. This meant going "Japanese."

(Above) The standard gypsy caravan. Think twice about buying a motorcycle from a place that has one or more of these parked out back. Photo from the internet.

One month after having this conversation with my father, I sold the VW, and found myself looking through the plate glass window of a Honda/Kawasaki/Yamaha dealership in Union City, NJ, where the motorcycles stood in orderly chrome lines. A need for transportation was now adding itself to my mating urges. From the street, I could see some of the price tags on these bikes which seemed rather reasonable. I decided to step inside and present myself to the proprietor as the average guy on the street with $1600 in his pocket. At the time, I was unaware that there were certain rules to life, especially when it came to motorcycles, which cannot be questioned nor broken.

Rule #1:
Do not buy a motorcycle from a man who looks like he is the King of the Gypsies.

“Fabulous Sam” stood in the center of his dealership, with a closely cropped beard and mustache, an earring in one ear (long before this was fashionable), and a gravelly voice reminiscent of Wolfman Jack. He looked exactly like a Gypsy king. I looked around, half expecting to see fortune tellers and violin players wearing bandanas. The dealership could have been in a tent, surrounded by gaily painted wagons.

He welcomed me like I was a dumb cousin from the country who had just inherited a lot of money. In fact, he’d probably sized me up standing outside, counted the cash while it was still in my pocket, and cut another notch in his Gypsy king belt, all before I had walked in the door.

“I waited all day for you,” he said, with a little bow, sporting the kind of grin known only to alligators and lawyers. “My name is “Fabulous Sam. What can I do for you?” (I kid you not. That was his real name.)

He had my absolute trust and confidence in 30 seconds. I explained that I wanted a motorcycle but that I had a couple of questions. The first was, “What is the difference between a two-stroke and a four-stroke engine?” (This is the absolute truth. I went into a dealer and asked this question, thereby proclaiming that I was dumbest asshole on the face of the earth. )

Sam smiled again, paused for effect, and fucked me like a grand master. Having asked that question, I gave him no choice but to screw me in the most savage manner possible. There was nothing personal about it. He was a dealer and I was a dope.

“Some men prefer blondes, and some men prefer brunettes. There really isn’t much difference,” he explained. “What do you like?”


“Well let me show you a little blonde right here that you are going to love,” said Sam.

And with that, he showed me a Kawasaki H-2, a 750 known as the “Widow-maker.” Sam explained that this model had a whopping 71 horsepower and was the fastest production motorcycle of the year. I remember looking down at the speedometer and seeing that it went to 160 miles per hour. That was faster than any Corvette.

“Will it go that fast?” I asked.

“That’s up to you to find out,” said Sam, in the throes of orgasm.

I sat on the bike and was surprised at how easily it moved around. Both of my feet set squarely on the ground and the machine balanced easily between my legs. The gentle reader may need to be reminded that all of my prior two-wheeled experience was at the helm of French-built 10-speed bicycles, with the kind of seats that paralleled prison romance for comfort. And it was there I learned about the second truism of life:

Rule #2:
All motorcycle seats feel comfortable in the showroom. All of them. Even if you have been riding for 40 years.

Sam offered to show me a 1975 Honda 750 4-stroke that cost more money and didn’t go quite as fast. He equated it to a brunette. As it was, a brunette had just dumped me so I took the blonde. That was the fastest $1600 I had ever spent in my life. I’d had it for a total of an hour and a half. It took "Fabulous Sam" less than 18 minutes to cull one of the last but most notorious two-stroke street bikes from his inventory.

(Above) The legendary 1975 Kawasaki H2 "Widow-Maker." Photo from the internet.

Sam was far from through with me yet, however. He explained the need for a good helmet, asking if I wanted to go the whole deluxe route and get one in a shade that complimented my bike. Come to think of it, he didn’t really ask this but more or less insinuated that a man of my discerning taste could only go the deluxe route. The H2 was green (but not for long), and Sam showed me a metallic-green helmet, with a vertical black racing stripe. He threw in a flexible, snap-on face shield.

Rule #3:
A metallic green helmet with a black vertical racing stripe will only be worn by a douche... And a stupid douche at that.

Sam sold me two.

It is with chagrin that I admit to the gentle reader that the first time I had heard this motorcycle running was after I had signed all the paperwork. My anticipation of the snarling roar of the three cylinder engine faded to abrupt disappointment, which could easily be read on my face. The damn thing sounded like an outboard motor. And it smoked like a campfire.

“Listen to that brute power,” shouted Sam, trying to be heard over a sound that closely resembled a lawn mower that had been kicked in the balls. “Nobody’ll ever catch you.”

I was amazed at how easily the machine fired with the kicker. (You could even get it to fire up by just kicking one cylinder!) Stories were common at the time of Harley riders getting thrown over the handlebars by their kick starters. That would not be the case with this bike. And while this is a small thing, the choke lever was on the handlebars, not hidden among the cylinder heads. The two-stroke engine demanded oil in the gas, but this was automatically injected and required no mixing. A porthole in the right side-cover gave a visual status of the oil tank.

Sam motioned to a guy in the shop who jumped on the machine, and gestured for me to mount the pillion. This was easy for me to do as I weighed all of 165 pounds. He took me to one of the greatest expanses of open asphalt in Hudson County, New Jersey at the time — the parking lot of the Shop Rite on 32nd Street and Kennedy Boulevard in North Bergen. It was there I received all of 20 or 30 minutes instruction on the operation of a motorcycle. This guy confirmed I could walk the bike. Shift gears. Turn it in first and second gear. Find neutral. And stop. I offered to run him back to the shop. He paled at my offer, smiled, and claimed he needed to stretch his legs. He then wished me luck, and waved.

With that, I rode out onto Kennedy Boulevard (one of the busiest thoroughfares in Hudson County, on the fastest street bike then available, at 5:30pm on a weekday afternoon, in Lincoln Tunnel traffic to and from Manhattan, which was one mile away). The bike was registered and insured, even though I had no endorsement nor permit to ride a motorcycle. Protected by the utter stupidity of youth, I didn’t give a shit either. And you know what happened on the way home? You guessed it...


I didn’t even stall the bike. Having ridden long distance bicycle (up to 120 miles per day) in congested city and highway traffic, I had no fear of riding out among the cars, trucks, and buses. The helmet was an unusual sensation, but not an unpleasant one. I was amazed at how easily the bike stopped, in a smooth positive braking action (on pavement as dry as snake skin). The brakes on that machine, a disk on the front and a drum on the back, seemed like power brakes compared to the center-pull binders on the stupid bicycle. And the Kawasaki felt a lot more stable than the bicycle too. Now here’s an important factor: When I discuss rush hour/Lincoln Tunnel traffic on Kennedy Boulevard, I am deliberately leading the reader to imagine a rampant Sausage Monster of solid steel cages, slamming around at high speeds, creating the perfect environment to consume a dilettante on a new bike.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If I got that bike into third gear on the 40-block ride to my dad’s house, it was for 30 feet. Rush hour traffic in that part of Union City or North Bergen crawls. With a traffic light on each corner, I got plenty of practice with the clutch and the brakes. It may have saved my life. The total distance traveled on that first ride may have been 2.5 miles, and it probably took 20 minutes to cover it.

My mom was still at work when I pulled up, but the Chief was home. He came out to the curb fighting envy, amazement, and horror. “Out of all the suggestions I have ever given you,” he said, “I can’t believe this is the one you took me up on. And I distinctly remember saying you should get a Harley trike. Does this look like a Harley trike to you?"

It would be two years of constant riding before I dropped that bike for the first time. And that was prompted by some old bastard at an intersection, who crawled through a stop sign to squirm into stalled traffic. But that’s another story.

Author's Note:

Let me make this perfectly clear... Any new rider needs professional instruction. There is no substitute for good training and proper education (classroom discussion) regarding the basics of sound motorcycle operation. Curbside consensus and conventional wisdom have no place in motorcycle training. And while you can occasionally find some good information online (such as Musings of an Intrepid Commuter, written by certified riding instructor Dan Bateman), the internet is a source of some of the most outrageously stupid bullshit you’ll ever find regarding motorcycle operation.

God looks after Irishmen, drunks, and writers. I rode trouble-free for two years. Then I crashed three times, getting hit by cars twice. (It was never my fault and I was never ticketed, but that is poor consolation when you are sliding on your ass in the road.) Looking back, I survived my first motorcycle by pure luck. I should have been killed 50 times over. I never did learn to turn correctly (during that period) and that particular bike was a total bitch for blowing through turns. It had the suspension of overcooked broccoli, the cornering ability of an ocean liner, and the unpredictable nature of a snake with PMS.

In a rare revelation of the truth, I never took that Kawasaki over 90 miles per hour — even on the slab. And that may have saved my life too. I have pushed both of my K75s (1986 and 1995) a lot harder than I ever rode that H2. This is because I know a lot more about riding now and because the K75 has ten times the sophistication and handling capabilities of that old Kawasaki.

© Copyright Jack Riepe 2010
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain -- PS (With A Shrug)