By Tim McGrath
“…And no one could change my mind, but mama tried…” from Mama Tried by Merle Haggard
My brother and I were fortunate to have grown up in a house without a massive list of rules and regulations. The Golden Rule was sufficient for most occasions, so I guess mom (rule maker and enforcer) figured we’d sort it all out and, in the end, would probably turn out OK. Which, by all accounts both of us did. And, yet, there were a couple things that required our attention.
There may have been a few more, but these items formed the canon of respectability in our house. And, for the most part, were faithfully followed.
Except the bit about motorcycles.
As a six-year-old I fell in love with motorcycle hats. This was in the time before helmets became the norm, and all the guys riding cycles wore motorcycle hats. Sleek, black, with the shiny black patent leather brim, silver chain and winged wheel insignia. Cocked at a jaunty angle, they gave the rider a rakish, daring look. But, whenever I’d spot one at the Atlantic Mills department store and give it a try, I was reminded those were only worn by hoods, and I was not getting one, so put it back.
Same thing applied when I came breathlessly crashing through the back door one summer afternoon. Neighbor Gary had just gotten a Bonanza five horsepower mini-bike. We’d spent the last couple hours roaring round the field behind our houses, and I was hopeful mom would see the need for one as clearly as I did. Nope, no dice. One more childhood dream now officially ruined.
A few years later, though, when mom wasn’t looking, Cheryl and I did get a shiny black motorcycle. In fact, we got two: one for her, and one for me. It wasn’t really a planned thing, mind you, it just sort of happened.
“Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot for all of us to get motorcycles and tour the country?” Marv the mastermind commented one evening as he regaled us with the adventures he’d had on bikes back when, and how he thought we were all ready for a little action, too.
“Yeah, sure, let’s do it!” all chirped in. Yet, in the back of my mind, a little bell tinkled its warning. The thought of throwing my leg over the saddle of a powerful machine like that and tooling down the highway scared the willies out of me. I’d seen those driver’s education films of motorcycles crashing into cars, deer, horses, trees, or skidding down the road, its rider bouncing along after it. And, watching Evel Knievel flopping around in slow motion on the ground after a failed world record jump attempt confirmed motorcycles and me weren’t a good combination. I was hopeful this was one of those Happy Hour group-think things that, once exposed to the light of day and reasonable thinking, would be laughed off as another “Yeah, right!” moment. My, oh my, how things had changed since childhood.
That is, until Marv showed up at the front door a couple weeks later donning a motorcycle helmet and leather jacket.
“Where’s your bike?” he laughed. And, with a flourish of his hand, pointed to his new bike with wife, Kathy, happily planted on the back. “Well, what do you think? We all said we were going to get them, so I thought I’d be the first. You do remember what we said a while back, right?”
Fast forward several months: cycles purchased, gear bought, motorcycle safety class taken and passed, lots of short practice rides around the area. Now, the big ride at hand.
The plan was for our group of three couples to ride north, cross The Bridge, wander west through the UP and Wisconsin discovering cheese curds, Poutine, Leinenkugel’s beer, and really tasty brats. When we hit Duluth, turn right and head up the North Shore winding up at the Canadian border. Turn around, repeat, arrive home in one piece.
So, in spite of my quaking knees, and mom’s wagging finger warning me not to do it, I pulled on my big boy pants and in my manliest inside voice exclaimed: “Can’t tell me…”, hopped in the saddle and got ready to ride. Visions of the bikers in the motorcycle hats of my childhood bolstered my courage.
It was a beautifully bright, sunny June morning as we took off: the six of us on four big road bikes rumbling through the West Michigan countryside happy as clams. The wet-my-pants jitters I would get at the beginning of a big ride melted away as the panoramic views unfolded around us, and the rich smells of roadside wildflowers and overly ripe roadkill only added to the adventure of the ride. Honestly, these are the things that are best appreciated from the seat of a motorcycle.
Ha, Ha, I thought to myself. This is the life, nothing to worry about here….
Somewhere on US131 near Big Rapids our group got split up: the two hotshot bikers in the lead, and about a quarter mile behind came Cheryl and I on our bikes. We were cruising along with traffic when, in the next instant, Cheryl frantically motioned for me to hit the shoulder. In that tiny moment, I glanced in my rearview mirror to see the blue oval Ford emblem on the hood of a car barreling down on us. The front bumper whistled by my bike, missing me by less than a foot. As we swooped over and pulled off and stopped on the shoulder, the car roared on, swerving from lane to lane, disappearing over the crest of the hill.
Taking a breath and pants check, we pulled back out into traffic determined to catch the lead bikes, who by now were out of sight. Cresting the hill, there, unbelievably, were one of the other bikes pulled over on the shoulder with the Ford death machine pulled in behind. We coasted in behind the car, got off and ran up to the group. After hugs and the “oh my gosh, you’re alive; Praise the Lord!” had been exchanged, I wandered back to the car. Opening the door and sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle that moments earlier had very nearly created orphans of our two kids, I spotted a large open bottle of painkillers next to a Monster Gulp cup filled with booze and ice. A drunk driver.
Steve, on the other lead bike, pulled in behind us. He had gone back around to see if we had been hit by the drunk who was now lying incoherent and sobbing in the grass of the shoulder. “Boy, am I glad to see you two. I thought for sure she’d run you both right over, especially when you didn’t show up. Man, oh, man, I can’t believe it. I watched the whole thing in my mirror.”
The police arrived shortly thereafter, gathering our information and arresting the driver.
“Your guardian angels were watching out for you today; have a nice day.” the officer commented before sending us on our way. Oh, we will, we will: it’s already been quite nice, thank you.
In spite of the excitement at the outset, the rest of that trip was simply wonderful. So many interesting things we saw and experienced, curious and welcoming people we crossed paths with. And, we arrived home in one piece.
Our group rode together for about ten years. We travelled a large swath of this beautiful country, experiencing life on the road for weeks at a time. We got to see and do things that are best done on the seat of a motorcycle. But, as is too often the case when motorcycling, we also had more close calls. Deer, slips off the road onto the shoulder, and way too many distracted drivers, cell phones in hand. Thankfully, we always made it home shiny side up….
And, yes, mom did find out. One day after the beans had been spilled, the air cleared, and the dust settled, she looked at me, wagged her finger and simply asked: “When do I get a ride?”
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