Goodbye, Uncle Jerry

My favorite uncle passed away last Monday. He leaves a marvelous legacy of five children, 21 grandchildren, and 27 great grandchildren. But his legacy with me will be forever linked with cars and motorcycles.

My father was a good man. Please don’t get me wrong. There are many things my Dad taught me that are so vital to who I am today. But he was a businessman. He did not like camping, guns, or motorcycles. Things that every growing young man is fascinated with. That’s where Uncle Jerry came in.

He was the cool uncle everyone wanted to have. There was always something he was doing. He taught me how to shoot, starting with a .22 rifle, and then expanding up to shotguns, revolvers and pistols. Camping trips were legendary. Putting the camper in the back of his 1968 Ford Camper Special and riding in the space above the cab with my cousins and their friends, we would head out to parts unknown, set up tents, build a campfire, and enjoy nature. Hikes were part of Uncle Jerry’s trips. He insisted that all his children and anyone else that happened to tag along be in good physical shape and ready to take on any challenge.

My cousin had a minibike I enjoyed riding around the neighborhood. Uncle Jerry noticed I enjoyed riding it, and brought out a red Honda Trail 90, and told me to give that a try. I demurred. You had to shift it! He patiently explained the shifting pattern and how to do it. 4 speeds. Shift up, tap toe. Shift down, tap heel. Centrifugal clutch. “All you have to do,” I can hear him say, “is let off the gas, tap your foot down on the shifter, and give it gas again.” I told him that for now, I would just ride it in first gear.

That lasted all of 45 seconds. Driving down the street with the little 89CC engine roaring its fool head off, I remember thinking “This is dumb!” I let off the gas, tapped my left foot on the shifter, and HOLY CRAP the bike took off! Shifting into third and then to fourth, I looked down at the small speedometer and was horrified to find out I was doing 45MPH in a residential zone! And I was 12 years old! I slowed down real quick.

I rode that little bike every time I’d visit. So much that my aunt told me that I had to come in and eat something before I passed out. But you bet that after I ate, I was back out on the bike. Uncle Jerry taught me how to check the fluids, the gas, the tires, and how to do basic maintenance.

Age 14. Uncle Jerry invites me to come out and spend the weekend at his place. My sister and Jerry’s daughter were and still are great friends, so my folks swapped kids for the weekend. Uncle Jerry took me out in the garage and proudly showed off his newest acquisition, a Honda 350Four! Asked me if I wanted to ride it. Again, I hesitated. After all, this bike had a real clutch! I have no idea how to handle a clutch! And five speeds! WAY beyond my capabilities.

He was patient. Took me for a ride. Told me to watch very closely how he operated the clutch and shifter. 1 down, four up. That is burned into my brain. When we got back to the house, he got off the bike, and told me it was my turn. All by myself. I stalled it four or five times trying to get it going. But finally it lurched into life and I was off. Squeeze the clutch, let off the gas. Hook your foot under the shifter and lift. Smoothly let the clutch out and give it gas! Hey! This is easy!

From there it was driving his truck with a 5 speed transmission. I had driven my folks’ 1968 Pontiac Bonneville wagon with an automatic. But this was different. I actually had to think about shifting and coordinate my feet a bit more. It soon became second nature. Uncle Jerry had taught me how to drive stick. A skill that has come in handy over the years, as I drove school buses for many years. And my current F-150 has a five-speed manual. I can still hear Uncle Jerry in my mind.

“Good job! Now, clutch in and gas off. Shift. Come on, it’s just like the bike! Smooth. Think smooth! I know you can do this!”

I can, Uncle Jerry. I’m still doing it. Thank you for being a big part of my life and teaching me about cars and motorcycles. There is so much more you’ve done for me. More than I could ever express in an article like this. You will be missed. Thank you for your good example and your good life. Your influence will forever be felt.