In the Beginning…

I’m 71 years old. I’ve owned more than 30 motorcycles and have ridden them, on and off road, more than a half million miles, by my own rough calculation. I have raced them on the streets, on drag strips, motocross tracks and competed in Observed Trials in several states and twice at the national level. I’ve ridden them in all but two of the continental US states and in 16 foreign countries, in both northern and southern hemispheres on both sides of the world. They have in many ways defined my life over six decades.

I first was exposed to such things by an accident of fate, by a whim of my brother Fred, eleven years older. I was a tow-headed kid in shorts and canvas tennis shoes, playing in the front yard when he pulled up on the black bike with the huge white seat. He had borrowed the British 500cc single from a friend as a lark and had come by the house to show Mom & Dad, but encountered me instead. He took me for a short ride and I can to this day, 60 years later, recall where on that brief trip I felt the change in me that would last a lifetime. It was like the tumblers of a lock finally receiving the correct key to turn them to their pre-set positions.

It would be several years before I could actually throw a leg over the saddle and operate the thing myself, but for those ensuing years I was motorcycle crazed, a pint-sized fanatic haunting the magazine stands in my little eastern Kentucky town for anything related to two wheeled motorized transport. I swiveled my head so often to follow a bike’s progress that I probably started then the neck arthritis that plagues me today. I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on, which wasn’t much in 1950’s eastern Kentucky. By accident of fate, the local newsstand in Ashland, a narrow corridor between two stores by the old Mayo Arcade, had in the back, near the magazines a kid my age wasn’t supposed to see, some issues of foreign motorcycle papers, the newsprint type things that were intended for local news in England among motorcyclists. I devoured those on the rare occasions they were available and began reading Floyd Clymer’s Cycle magazine. This one was a thin slick paper publication that reflected the interests (and prejudices) of its publisher, whom I later learned was a giant among the early US motorcycling scene. It featured mainly paeans to American brands, chiefly Harley Davidson, but also dabbled in some foreign makes as well. There seemed to be a requirement that ever so often a photo appear with Clymer performing his signature “riding while sitting backwards on the seat ” trick.

Then in 1962, a new publication appeared, Cycle World, published by Joe Parkhurst, and the horizon truly opened in front of me. This magazine covered everything related to motorcycles, everywhere in the world it was happening, or at least so it seemed to me at the time. There were articles about GP racing in Europe, bringing me names like Hailwood, Agostini, Read and Surtees, and about ice racing in Finland and speedway where alcohol-burning 500cc singles went round in circles with the back end passing the front, and about flat tracks and even road racing in my own country. There was something called Observed Trials that interested me from the first time I saw it in the magazine, though I wasn’t to experience it in the flesh for another 12 years.

The summer of my 14th year, Sears mo-peds began to appear in the ranks of people I knew. These were Puch 50cc motorcycles with bicycle-like pedals to start them and to assist when the little shot-glass sized piston just wasn’t enough to get it up the hill. In Europe, I’m sure these were used for family transportation and were taken somewhat seriously. Here, though, they were considered toys, sold by Sears through the catalog for boys like me to lust after. And lust I did. Steve McComas had one, a used-and-abused model his father had picked up somewhere. Then others appeared as if by magic and the teens who had one drew instant status and respect. I wanted the bike more than the status (though I’m sure the latter wasn’t entirely absent from my thinking…those girl creatures were beginning to become interesting, after all..) I pestered my parents as only a 14 year old boy can do and soon, they (well, my father mostly) relented. My dad was older than the parents of my peers, born not long after the beginning of the 20th century and 43 when I came along, closer to a grandfather’s age than a father’s in that era. He was the product of an eastern Kentucky family, a culture where boys operating machinery wasn’t a matter of when the law allowed, but when they were big enough to reach the controls. I found a used model appropriately cheap and then, simple as that, I arrived. I was a motorcyclist for real, not just in my fantasy-filled magazine reverie.

The little Puch served me well, introducing me to the principles of mechanics when the shifter cable mechanism required constant repair, the benefits of teamwork (getting 4 guys downtown with one moped) and to the law….since I didn’t have a driver’s license. I made my first court appearance, foreshadowing my later career, on driving without a license charges, and learned about the obligation of candor to the tribunal when the Police Court Judge asked me how long it was until my birthday. I told him it would be in just a few weeks, at which point he seemed inclined to cut me a break….then I added, “I’ll be 15″. Since this was still a year shy of the requirement for legal driving, he fined me and told me not to drive, but complimented me on my honesty.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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