(originally published on May 10, 2017)
“Pity the sons of great men, forever in the shadows they dwell.” Pseudo-Lucretius, first century AD.
This is the story of a motorcycle, a father, and a son.
He was a Dust Bowl Okie, being part of the great ecologically disastrous diaspora that scattered our people to the winds like dust in the 1930s and 40s. Hailing from Sallisaw, Okla., yes indeed that Sallisaw of Joads and “Grapes of Wrath” fame, Dad dropped out of school at eighth grade never to return and worked full-time on the family homestead where they eked out a meager life. He was fast friends with poverty, their shack of a house had dirt floors, no running water, no electricity, no car. A well out back sourced the water, and an outhouse returned it to the Earth from whence it came. Mules, wagons, a walk-behind Oliver cultivator and monthly trips into town for supplies was how that barefoot boy passed his formative years, a life that seems as remote to me now as cavemen discovering fire.
I was the son of a Dust Bowl Okie and I never knew want. My childhood homes were modern, my bedrooms air-conditioned, my TV connected to cable, a Mac SE on my desk. My feet were never bare except by choice, my father paid for my college education. I lived a life that must have seemed as remote to my father’s upbringing as a caveman watching men walk on the moon.
After Dad’s folks lost the place in Oklahoma in the late 30’s they washed up in the Great Central Valley of California, picking cotton and working the fields where he met mom. Their first home in the Golden State was a chicken coop in Wasco, after they shooed out the fowl. When Dad got home from Korea, where the USMC had generously sent him on an all-expense paid trip in 1951, (15 months as a front line machine gunner) he married mom, got into construction work and two-wheeled wonders.
Some of my earliest pictures are of me on motorcycles. Dad was crazy for them. Curiously his bikes of choice were always Hondas. You’d a thought my old man, given his All-American credentials, would have been a Harley man, but nope, it was Soichiro’s little motorbikes that won his heart.
There was the CL77 aka the dual-purpose Scrambler 305, an original ’65 model which was as sweet a machine as mankind has ever crafted. Racy upswept pipes, little “peanut” gas tank with knee pads, knobbies for off roading, able to cook at 9,000 rpms. Sa-lutte!
Dad converted that one to a hill climber, which was his preferred mode of self-immolation. On Any Sunday™ you could find him and his posse out near Shark Tooth Hills on the East side, munching pork rinds, drinking beer and attempting to scale vertical heights in glory, but, like Icarus, finding that their reach exceeded their grasp, ending in debacles of broken bones and bent wheels.
Which brings us back to the lecture at hand, a ’72 CB175, a type of the old Universal Japanese Motorcycle. Among his many colorful extracurricular activities the old man was a Shriner. You know, funny hats, secret handshakes, free hospitals for crippled children. Those guys. To this day I’m convinced he signed on for the Shriner tour of duty because they got to ride motorcycles in parades, the legendary “Iron Camels” and wear cool costumes. Dad joined up in ’73 and needed a bike.
The Iron Camel Corps of the Bakersfield Shriners flew Honda CB175s exclusively at that time. And why not? Big bike looks, a manageable dry weight of only 264 pounds, kick and electric start, overhead cams, five-speed gearbox, dual low chrome pipes and another of Honda’s illegally smooth running twins pumping out 20 horsepower. The Shriners bolted on a ramrod upright windshield, CB radio to hear the maneuver order call outs, and twin flag mounts to fly Old Glory.
My pop and his krewe (Silent and Greatest Generation guys, blue-collar, and most had combat experience in their respective wars) were all quite happy in 1973 to ride little Hondas with engines not much bigger than sewing machines while wearing funny hats. These guys survived the Dust Bowl and Depression, WW2, Korea, and built the entire infrastructure of the modern world we inhabit. Interesting eh?
Dad bought his CB175 from a fellow who was bailing on the Iron Camels, it was but a year old but had all the proper accoutrements already mounted and was parade ready. Red, black and chrome. It also had the 1970 gas tank mounted, which all their bikes had for uniformity, everything had to match exactly. Under the classic Honda wing on the tank it still bears the enigmatic label “AAONMS”. Any idea what that means?
“Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine”
And you didn’t think you’d learn anything new today.
As the old man never could do anything half way, he bought a trailer to haul it and a couple more buddies bikes to events, proudly painted in Shriner colors, heraldic badges emblazoned, along with spare gear and ice chests brimming with beer. (can, domestic)
And thus began a decade or so of spending many weekends at every podunk Central Valley town’s summer festival of raisins, pears, roses, almonds, garlic, old-timers, and fiesta days. The Steel Camel-riding Shriners would gather in force, and always had pride of place in the local parade, doing figure eights, Immelmanns, skeins and finger-fours. It was all very military, (of course) with super tight precision, full uniforms (jackets with aiguillettes, neckties, no matter that it was 105 degrees in July) called out commands and dripping esprit de corps. (Iron Camel Corps) I, of course, loved it!
Once, in 1976 at the Frazer Park Fiesta Days (slogan: “since 1968!”) I had followed the Camels all the way down the parade route and ended up far from our base camp. I figured I’d have a long walk back now, and resigned myself to the trudge, when suddenly dad roared up to me, his CB175 gleaming as usual, Ray Bans on, fez bolt upright, and that ever so slight hint of a smile he’d get on his normally emotionless face. “Hop on” was the order called out, and his booted foot expertly kicked the passenger pegs down. I clambered aboard, arms around his waist to hold on, smelled his signature scent of Old Spice combined with tobacco, and we zoomed off. Dad was never shy about speed, and as we sped backwards down the parade route on that beautiful sunny day, now lined with milling crowds looking bemusedly at us, I was overcome with a sense of pride to be his son.
My own motorcycles followed, including another of dad’s signature oddball Honda moments when he got me a NA50 when I turned 14. That, uh, moped I guess, turned out to be a metric ton of fun in the hands of us country boyz and Flash is worthy of his own writeup someday. My early riding daze are filled with epic crashes of a young man overwhelmed with stupidity and a sense of misguided glory.
I never joined the Shriners, and thus was never an Iron Camel like Dad. My own young life was one of disorder, ragged around the edges, and groups like the Shriners of my fathers era, with their parade ground pomp and US Marine Corps levels of spit and polish would have found me an ill fit. While Dad had become a living legend in his chosen field, eventually owning an underground utility company that employed as many as 40 men at its peak, I was bumbling about from odd job to odd job, school to school, unable to find my way, rudderless. Dad was strong, sure and expert in his craft, but he wasn’t much of a hands on father, and I was left to my own devices a lot. Lest this grow too hagiographic, it needs to be said that Dad had a legion of demons that plagued him, and us as a result. Mom said it all started after he got back from Korea and it never really ended. My predictable angry teen years came along, bah, how stupid was that, and into my 20’s my anchor dragged. I needed to, in his words, get my shit together.
The years came and went. Dad got old and his health took a serious downward turn. A lifetime of hard construction work, two to three packs of smokes a day, all coupled with daily red meat dinners washed down with lots and lots of Coors was starting to demand it’s payback. Someplace in the late-80’s, after I’d moved out, he quit riding with the Iron Camels and the 175 got parked in the barn’s tack room. He gave away all the other motorcycles he still had, even the old Scrambler, rats, but the 175 lingered out in the barn.
Once, in early 1991, we were out for a visit with the folks having come from our at that time home in Texas. The old man had deteriorated in shocking ways to me, he’d been a goddamn bull moose of a man, John Henry levels of strong, always trim and fit regardless of what he ate and working before sun up to past it’s setting. But now he was weaker, with a ponch, and suddenly seemed human in a way I’d never imagined him to be, frail like the rest of us. As we were in the tack room looking at the 175 one day he out of the blue said,
“You want it?”
“Uh, sure!” trying to hide my shock. It wasn’t a good sign that dad was giving away his beloved motorcycles.
And so begins its chapter with me. We hauled it out and cleaned it up. The carbs had gummed up something fierce, but after pullin’ them and a good boilin’ out we were ready to try to start it. Of course it fired right up, it was a Honda made when they were top of their game, led by a man not unlike my father in his exacting demands to perfection. Maybe that’s why dad liked Honda motorcycles so much, kindred spirits.
I took the 175 back to Texas with me loaded in the back of my ’73 Chevy C10. Got stopped once by a Texas Highway patrolman on the way for doing some absurd speed near El Paso. When he spotted the 175 in the pickup bed he grew interested, and we chatted a bit about it before he let me go with a warning to “keep it down.” Moral of the story, keep an old Honda CB in the bed of your whip when you speed in Texas.
For the next few years I merely putted about on it, off roading the whole time as we didn’t have the money to register it. Our abode was a single-wide nestled deep in the oaks and cedars of the Central Texas Hill Country. Surrounded as we were by some 500 acres of hill, creek and foresty land, which was filled with cattle and rabbit tracks, what better use for a street Honda than riding those trails? It was fun, it was harmless, it kept me out of trouble with the law.
Had a son born unto us in Texas.
Early in 96′ mom called one morning. The old man had woke up a few days earlier and had no voice to speak of, they’d gone to his doc and he pronounced it cancer and bad. Test results were pending. Damn. I scurried to a plane and jetted to the folks place. In the later part of their lives, like salmon, they had returned to Sallisaw, and the next day I sat with mom and dad in the doctor’s office as he laid out the verdict. Small cell carcinoma. Metastases. Extensive Stage.
“How long?” dad asked.
“If we do chemo, 6-8 months. But you’ll be very sick the whole time.” replied the doc, who looked like the type of guy casting would send over if you ordered a “reliable, solid, middle-aged Midwestern male doctor” for your mini-series on your life.
“And if we don’t do anything?”
Stoically, dad looked at mom and me and said, “Well it’s up to you two, what do you want me to do?” Now mom and I both knew what that meant, he’d hang around longer for us, and the grandkids, if we wanted, but we knew Dad, and knew that he wanted to do nothing and let nature take the short course with him and get it over with.
My father died six weeks and two days later in his living room. He was situated looking out over the back pasture, and surrounded by friends and family. He was 65. His dog, old Petey, refused to come near him those last weeks after the cancer became very obvious, dogs can be funny that way.
In the mid 90’s, lacking direction, I washed up in the Great Central Valley of California. The 175 became my commute bike for a time in the later ’90s. I never used the electric start, bah-that’s the plinker way, when one good solid kick of the starter lever would bring it to life and was so much more satisfying. Left all the Shriner gear on it, the CB, the flag mounts, for a time, but gradually started pulling them off. I clearly recall the first time I gave my son a ride on the back, kicking the foot pegs down with my boots, telling him to hold on to me, noting how the bike settled, and roaring off down the street with the surety that comes from decades of relationship with a machine.
I’d ride it for a time, then non-op it for a few years, then pull it out, wash it, fill it with fresh fuel and it’d fire right up again. Over time I noticed that the gasoline stopped gumming up the carbs when I parked it, California, that state over at the coast that controls the Great Central Valley, changed to different fuel formulas which seem to have removed that clogging carb problem quite nicely. Always and faithfully the little Honda answered the call to duty again and again.
Around 2011 I reluctantly took it down to the motorcycle shop and had them change the tires out for new. Riding on 40-year-old rubber was probably kinda dumb, but I’m such a sappy, hapless, sentimentalist that it took me forever to get used to the idea of tossing the originals. The shop was amazed at the condition of the bike, and yeah it frankly still looks new. At some point I realized I became fastidious with my stuff like Dad was, and the 175 looks as good as it ever did when called up for parade duty for the Iron Camel Corps in the ’70s.
Haven’t ridden it for a couple of years now, it’s on another non-op hiatus for a biblical time, times and half-time. Riding my 49cc Honda Metropolitan for my 2-wheel junkie fix these days, bikes are in the blood. Harleys hold no interest for me, nor do crotch-rockets, but Soichiro’s velvety smooth modest mechanical phenomenons snap me to attention. Funny that.
I’ll not part with it. It’s a living vestige of my Dad and clearly shows the man he was, and it’s easily portable, tangible, practical and beautiful. Could a father leave his son anything better to remember him by?