The first time I can remember this thing having a hold on me was in the parking lot after school one day when I was in the sixth grade. A bunch of us were standing around in a loose circle with saucer eyes and our hands stuffed in our pockets. We were watching a couple of the older cooler guys give advice to one of our peers who was trying to fire up his new Cushman Eagle. They were pointing to and talking about things I knew little about but that wasn't important. What did matter was the machine, that marvelous device with the engine sticking right out there for all to see. Our buddy wasn't able to get his scooter started that afternoon before I had to leave, but one of the older instructive cool guys cranked up his Eagle and left. The wonderful sounds and smells that came from the chromed exhaust pipe running down the side of that machine that day took firm hold deep inside me and have been there since. I was so excited, I was literally shivering!
Up until that fateful afternoon my naive prayers all had to do with somehow gaining ownership of a horse, and the walls of my bedroom were covered with drawings and paintings of equine nature. That evening though, I spent several hours sketching what I could remember about the Cushmans. Mom pretty much gathered what I was up to when she saw the new object of my obsession and suggested that I would be more likely to get the horse... and that even that wasn't probable in the near term.
It's significant that up until that day my most vivid impression of a motorcycle was that of and old Indian (they said) that some drunken guy had ran off the highway on a curve, killing himself, in front of my Grandpa Buck's house. The motorcycle was big, smelly hot and mean looking, but very intriguing to me, a curious four year old then. I don't remember the rider. Standing there with the rest of us at the scene my father observed, in colorful terms, that to attempt to ride one of these killer machines was beyond insane. So much for that.... until the Cushman afternoon.
Despite Mom's best intentions, the horse renderings on the bedroom walls were soon being replaced by my interpretations of various motorized two-wheelers. I can distinctly remember studying a small pen and ink advertisement in the upper left corner of a magazine (Popular Mechanics or something like that), of a Triumph. "Forty miles per gallon," it said, and "40 cubic inches!" and depicted a smiling rider with a military cap merrily making his way. This was a TINY ad, but I remember it yet. Then one day in a dentist's waiting room I came across my first "You meet the nicest..." ad portraying an ecstatic couple astride a Cub 50 splashing through the surf. At the bottom of the page, in small print the address of American Honda was listed offering further info. Two long weeks later I received a large envelope in the mail with the most incredible contents! It seemed impossible that they were giving this stuff away. Not only were the little Cub and Sport 50 included, but right there in beautiful color on heavy gloss stock were the big ones. The Benly 150, the 305 Dream, and the ultimate 305 Super Hawk! That and another half dozen posters similar to it were worn out by my young yearning fingers over the next months. The Super Hawk was beyond any reasonable hope; I would probably have killed for the Sport 50.
On a family vacation to Florida's Gulf Coast that year we had stopped at a pharmacy to buy sun lotions and such. While Mom was shopping I gravitated to the magazine rack. There were at least three, count 'em, THREE publications about motorcycles! I didn't know this. No one had told me about this. Our little mountain drug store did not have bike magazines. My spending allowance for the trip from the money I'd made over the summer was fifteen dollars. My father was raised during the depression and had a really tight, so to speak, view of money. Well, I spent almost three of the fifteen on one each of those magazines and returned furtively (guiltily) to the sedan hoping to avoid any discussion of the contents of my bag. It didn't work. Dad told me that I might as well forget that motorcycle stuff and that I had just forfeited five dollars from the remainder of my allowance until our return home. However, I later realized he could have made me take the magazines back, and didn't. It's possible--even likely--that he said what he did for Mom's sake, as subsequent events seemed to bear out. I memorized those three rags cover to cover (and still have them today). There were so many makes and types that I had never heard of, and it was truly fascinating.
Many times, when I look around my garage now, or think of the many wonderful machines I've had the pleasure of riding, I remember those times and how much magic there was in those books. If someone had given me the choice back then of some of the bikes I've owned and ridden since, I would probably have simply croaked on the spot.
Eventually this single minded immersion gave me the capability of being able to spot and mane many various makes for anyone who would listen. On car trips with Dad I would suddenly shout, "Look, that's a Sportster!" or "Holy Moly, it's a BMW!" Mom found this whole thing disconcerting, at the least. She had begun to realize that her son had, in spite of bringing him up as best she could, was well on the way to becoming a raving motorcycle lunatic who would soon be wearing black leather and would die in a fiery crash somewhere in California. She got over it!
About the time I got that first set of material from Honda one of the earlier noted older/cooler people got a 500cc Triumph. That was just too much. Here were people getting Triumphs and I've yet to experience the thrill of a ride on a 50! Soon everyone (Around 1964 here) in my rural neighborhood began getting all sorts of motorcycles and motorbikes like Sears "Twingle" 250s, Ward's Riversides, Honda 90s, 150s. There were Vespas and lots of more obscure stuff: Gileras, Guzzis and the like. Most of the European bikes were salvaged from barns or from leaning against the sides of sheds where they'd been abandoned long before the Honda invasion by an older brother or father or uncle who'd been in the army or college. One of our gang found a Ducati 250 Desmo somewhere and got it operational with my help - the points, I think. None of us knew what the hell "Desmo" meant at the time, but that didn't really matter.
What with just everybody getting at least some form of motorcycle I was quickly becoming insanely desperate, but my parents remained impregnable pillars of sanity. Then one day a buddy showed up at school with a shiny new Honda 90, with a swoopy front fender and acres of slick black painted sheet metal. That's all fine and dandy but the important thing was that his clapped out Cushman Eagle was for sale, and for the incredibly reasonable price of $25! That did it, it was enough. Then I just KNEW in my soul that I could talk my father into it. The ride home in the car with Mom from school was interminable. When we finally got there and I spilled my earnest wishes all over the house Dad admitted that, "Well, I guess we could go look at it." Hot damn! I took it for the obligatory test ride as if I wouldn't buy it regardless of whatever ever might be amiss. Discovering that it blew enough hot oil from the right side of the engine to soak my leg made exactly no difference. Just because attempted shifts into second were accompanied by horrible metallic grinding noises, just because it was necessary to pull on one side of the bars to keep it on the road, these were hardly reasons to forgo the purchase of this beauty. And that it had been painted black with a brush right over the grease and dirt - humph. It was wonderful.
Every spare moment of the next eight or so months of my life were occupied with either riding that beast or trying to make it go. I loved it all, the whole business. Starting was via the time-testing and decidedly continental "Run and Bump" method, something that is particularly difficult with a foot clutch. Fortunately, we lived on a hill with a descending and long driveway out to the country road. My allowed riding course consisted of going down the hill, and if internal combustion was achieved, out to the end of the drive. Then a turn-around in the pasture there, back up around the circular drive around the house and out into the fields and woods on paths made in earlier years by my now forsaken bicycle. Over and over, day in, day out.
Power was supplied (using the term loosely) to the separate two speed transmission via a fan belt that was tensioned or loosened by an idler pulley that was activated by the "clutch" pedal on the left floorboard. This direct after-market design approach left quite a bit to be desired as shifts into second could only be accomplished about half the time. Beyond that, if second could be engaged, the belt would start slipping and the machine would slowly come to a stop, engine chuffing busily away, whenever an unplanned incline was encountered. Expected ones I could attack with all possible speed, the momentum carrying us up and over. (When I finally got a machine with a proper clutch there were two hills that I went back to specifically, and upon which I stopped and actually accelerated away uphill just to show them it could be done.) This shifting into second thing could be done in an alternate method that had to do with poking a stick into the tranny pulley spokes. This was however somewhat difficult and was usually not worth the excitement involved. After all this effort to get and stay going had more or less succeeded, the issue of stopping on purpose would eventually come to mind.
There were no parts in the rear drum, which was okay since there was no rear brake pedal. The actuation of the front brake caused a great deal of bad metal type noises, overall shaking of an intensity that would cause temporary vision loss, and very little deceleration. There was atmosphere where the steering head bearings should have been. Actually, the best way to stop, something I tried to do only at the very end of a ride, was to gauge my speed at the bottom of the aforementioned driveway hill so that I would crest it and bounce the front tire lightly into the rock wall beyond. This almost always worked, although sometimes I bounced a bit harder than I would have preferred. Once, however, I was obliged to use the garage door because the speed really just seemed too high to use the wall. Very shortly later I was allowed to repaint both garage doors. Following a few other and similar incidents, Dad asked me one day whether I preferred the Allstate Mo-Ped, the one on the dog-eared page in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, or the Honda 50. I sort of went into shock, and in so doing made a error in haste. Attempting to appear responsible and show that I could really act properly in case he's really thinking of something like this, I said, "Mo-Ped," since he was a great believer in Sears value. And after all, the Honda was Japanese wasn't it? Sears, an American company, sold the Mo-Ped - we had no idea at the time that it was Austrian. I thought of that little tactical error many times over the next few years. That Christmas morning there was a bright new red and cream Mo-Ped under the tree.
The arrival of the Mo-Ped put me in the enviable position of being able to announce that I had a ride for sale. By this time pretty much everybody who wanted one had one, so it took a while for someone to finally come up with the $25 bucks needed to relieve me of the scooter. Watching the old thing leave was eerily sad, because I really had loved riding it when it worked. The fellow who bought it wasn't mechanically inclined so it disappeared from the roads shortly thereafter. (It should be noted here that judging by the prices Cushmans seem to be exchanging hands for these days, it may well be that that old scooter is back on the road and in a more glorious state that I could ever have imagined back then.)
The first few months of Allstate Mo-Ped ownership were happy ones. On that magical Christmas morning I had no idea that Dad had actually been trying to find out what I wanted to ride on the fateful Question Day. Expecting merely to get the soup bowl helmet that I figured would help me look more serious on the Cushman, I moseyed down stairs late. Spotting the helmet there on the piano bench where it had been left for me to see first, I walked to it, picked it up and sat down. While starting to say how much I really did appreciate the helmet I noticed how my siblings and Mom and Dad were all looking at me. Casting my eyes up across the room I saw the Mo-Ped. Expressing what happened to me then is difficult, but I believe it bordered on a religious experience. It was sitting right there, all shiny, in the very same room I was in. Choking out a delirious inquiry as to whether it was mine while bolting across the room I slung the helmet to the side and was at the machine immediately. I could hardly even see it with the mist in my eyes. My rapture was so extreme I wasn't embarrassed by the snotty-nose tears even at the very sensitive age of thirteen. Then, with heartfelt thanks to everyone and with their help I managed to get the bike out to the back porch off which I promptly fell attempting to pedal the little motor to life. That the temperature outside was 25º was no issue. Before the day was out I had ventured several various opinions on how well the little bike would probably work on the road. This pretty much directly conflicted with the promises I had squandered, swearing never to ride on the street if only I could get a new motorbike of any description. That resolve didn't last, obviously.
Remarkably, I collected almost seven thousand miles on that itty-bitty odometer. Let me say here that that takes a lot of time in the saddle when top velocity WFO is maybe 32 mph. This motorbike carried me to my summer job at my grandfather's service station for two years, 20 miles each way. This trip was just fine going out, as it took me down the mountain road, but coming home was another story. The two speed twist-the-left-grip tranny ratios were oddly matched, so that full on starts sounded something like, "OHHHHHHHHAHHHAAHHEEEEEE..click click OHHHHHHHAAAAAAAHHH" (never getting that final "EEEE" in top). Climbing back up the mountain involved mostly first gear . . . "EEEEEEEE" all the way home. But of course eventually replacing the little black exhaust stingers with a set of stainless hand-made megaphones changed all that. It made it louder!
By the time this Mo-Ped had become a familiar sight screaming about the back roads of the mountain, with me hunched over the bars at my terrifying 32 mph, I had become a very long and skinny kid. I never thought much about how this might have appeared to the casual observer, something I did finally appreciate when a friend made an observation. He said that it all looked and sounded like a big red and white bug with very short vocal chords attempting to escape an even larger spider. And that it looked as if the spider was winning. My Mo-Ped was becoming way too small, or something.
Whenever I could I copped rides on larger and faster machines, not a difficult item to find. One day I rode the aforementioned Ducati 250 and what a revelation that was. Starting off from a gravel parking lot the rear wheel actually spun with my weight on it. How, I wondered, could anyone ever possibly use that much power. Then there was the time at Granddad's Union 76 station one spring Saturday when the station mechanic and a friend showed up back from town with two spanking new 305 Dreams, one red, one black. The image of him polishing a bit of dust from that shiny deep black paint in the curl of the front fender right below the wierd chrome suspension arm is still clear in my mind. The mechanic was my buddy and so took me for a ride on the back of his black Dream. He suggested on the way back that I hold on tight and then really punched it. It was incredible. By the time the short ride was over I was shaking so badly from excitement I could hardly speak. I knew then that it was time to start a new bug into Dad's ear.
Finally admitting that I did make the little Allstate look sort of sad and abused, Dad began to read the ads I pointed out to him in the classifieds. One day a Honda 90 was listed for $150 and was located in a town about 50 miles away. We, again, went to, "Have a look at it." Dad asked if the owner would take $125, he would, and we drove away with the black beauty in the bed of the pickup. I stared at it through the rear window all the way home, observing, among other things, the splendid jewel like badges on the chrome fuel tank sides. Having much earlier gotten my freedom to ride the roads over and about the mountain top I took the 90 to the gathering spot in our little town that afternoon. Everyone was standing around, hands in their pockets, spitting and scratching, and observing my new bike. It was heaven on earth. When it came time to go home I rode out with a buddy who had just recently gotten an S90 (OHC). Naturally we had to have a roll-on contest and he blew me away. This affected me in a way that led to my eventually stepping through Kawasaki Avengers , then triples, all the way up to the mighty metallic orange tank Z-1 before I finally was able to get my need for ever more power under some control. I knew then and there that the pushrod 90 was not going to do it for long. But that's another story.
Originally published in Motorcycle Shopper Online.