Update (6/18/17): The original post is from September 2008; the updates are at the end. The first update, added a couple of years ago, was about my daughter Polly’s Ducati Monster. Today’s update is about my son’s BMW. I also added a couple of photos that recently came to light.
Why include my kids’ bikes? Because it’s kind of a family thing. Because it’s Father’s Day, and my dad is the one who got me started on motorcycles. Here’s a Facebook post I put up a couple of hours ago:
Dad had an old Harley when we lived in Laramie. He taught me to ride it, sitting on the back with 14-year-old me at the controls. When I was a freshman in college he gave me a little Honda 50 Sport, which I later courted Donna on. For decades afterward he’d blame himself for turning me on to motorcycles. And here I am today with a son and daughter who both ride. Sure, I could blame myself for that, but Dad gave me an out and I blame him instead. Happy Father’s Day, Dad, and rest in peace.
Once in a while I write about motorcycling, but I ride—and think about riding—all the time. Today, riding the Goldwing up Mount Lemon to get out of the heat, I began mentally cataloging the motorcycles I’ve owned and ridden, and it occurred to me I ought to write about them before dementia sets in.
I learned to ride in 1959 in Laramie, Wyoming, on Dad’s 1948 Harley Panhead. It was solid red (where it wasn’t covered with oil) and had a great long dual saddle, black leather saddlebags with studs and fringe, and a windshield. You worked the throttle with your right hand, the clutch with your left foot, the rear brake with your right foot, and the front brake and gear shift with your left hand. You had to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time to ride a motorcycle in those days! I looked for a photo of that bike for years; my sister Cece found a box of slides taken by my grandfather during a visit to Laramie, and here it is:
You’d think a 14-year-old kid who’d been taught to ride a Harley would’ve had a fool for a father, but I was quite the straight arrow in those days and never did any joyriding. I only rode it with my Dad riding behind me. Dad taught Mom to ride it too. One day she dropped it in the driveway while Dad was at work. Mom, who weighed all of 98 pounds, picked it right up and put it back on the sidestand.
After I started college in Sacramento, California in late 1964, Dad got tired of paying for all the gas I was pouring into the family Ford and bought me a used Honda 50. Hondas were everywhere in those days, and you met the nicest people riding them. There were two models of the 50, and Cub and the Sport. I had a Sport, which was the cool one. It would have been cooler if it were red, but alas, mine was white. I was six foot four then, as I am now, and used to take Donna for rides on that tiny machine—we must have been a ludicrous sight.
Donna and I moved to Germany, got married, and had a child, and there were no motorcycles in our lives for a while. In 1967, back in California, we bought a new Honda CL90, mainly for me to ride to and from Sacramento State. I wanted a 160 twin but couldn’t afford it. Still, the Honda 90 was plenty powerful for our needs, and would get up to freeway speeds. Mine was blue. I rode it every day for two years, eventually putting a knobby on the back and using it as a trail bike.
In 1969 I finally got my twin, a Honda CB350. Today a 350 cc machine would be considered tiny, and even then, when British twins ran 650 to 750 cc, the Hondas were quite small in comparison. But to me it was a big, powerful bike, and I always rode it with respect. All the Honda 350s were two-tone; mine was green & white, and after a while I repainted it solid green and bobbed the rear fender with a hacksaw (I shudder to think of that now) to make it look cooler. My first long motorcycle trip was on the CB350, riding with two buddies on bigger bikes: Sacramento to Napa, over to the Pacific Coast, up Highway 1 to Mendocino. I got the thing up to 100 coming down the hill into Vallejo and nearly crapped my pants when the forks started to wobble.
We sold the 350 in 1972 when we moved from California to Montana, and I didn’t have another motorcycle until 1974, when I bought an old BSA Lightning. It was, I think, a ’65 or ’66, and had been used hard. But God was it fast—both the BSA and Triumph 650 twins of those days were faster than Harleys, and the BSA in particular was considered a real hot rod.
The Beezer was my pilot training bike. I rode it during T-37 and T-38 training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma, then started having second thoughts about motorcycling. Donna and I had a young son, and shortly after finishing pilot training and starting my flying career, we decided to have a second child. Risking life and limb on motorcycles while simultaneously risking same in fast jets seemed a bit much, so, in 1975, I sold the BSA and quit riding.
I didn’t get my next motorcycle until 1986, once our son was grown and our daughter was a young teenager. I should have waited longer, but just couldn’t. I’d always wanted a Harley; by this time I was a major, working for US Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, and I thought if I can’t afford a Harley now when will I ever be able to? So I bought a new 1986 Super Glide. I loved that bike and wish I still had it today. This is the actual machine in front of our house in Tampa:
I rode that bike all over Florida and loved every minute of it. Old softie that I’ve become, I wouldn’t last 25 miles in that low-slung saddle today. The USAF sent me to Okinawa to fly jets again in late 1988. Fellow officers who’d been there counseled me not to take the bike because the salt air would rust it away, so I sold my beloved scoot and shipped out for Japan, where of course there turned out to be a big Harley scene, both American and Japanese, and I kicked myself the whole time I was there.
I wanted to buy another motorcycle in Honolulu, Hawaii, our next duty station, but there weren’t many places to ride and I couldn’t justify the expense. So I waited until 1995, when we got to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I picked up a secondhand Honda Goldwing. This was a 1988 GL1500, the first year of the six-cylinder engine. Compared to the Super Glide it was incredibly sophisticated, but unlike the Harley, it didn’t sing to me. The handling was stodgy, it didn’t swoop into curves, it was top heavy. It also had some irritating features, like a cruise control that wouldn’t engage above 75 mph.
Since I never cottoned up to the Goldwing, I decided to replace it with another Harley, and in 1999, now out of the USAF and living in Tucson, I bought a new Electra Glide, the touring model. It was a great choice, and if it had been more reliable I’d have it still. But 1999 was the first year of a new engine design, and mine crapped out with just 13,000 miles on the clock. Harley paid to rebuild the engine but I could never trust it after that. Here I was with a long-distance tourer I was afraid to ride more than 50 miles from the nearest dealership lest it leave me in the lurch again, standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Very disappointing, and I’ve never quite forgiven Harley for it. Still, those first 13,000 miles were a blast.
After that experience, I decided bulletproof and perhaps a little less fun to ride wasn’t a bad way to go, and started thinking about Goldwings again. Then, in 2001, Honda came out with a totally new Wing, and everyone said the new model handled like a race bike. I test rode one, fell in love, and wound up buying it the same day. Fun to ride, powerful, comfortable—you talk about swoopy—and you can set the damned cruise control at 110 if you want to (not that I would ever do such a thing, Donna). Bulletproof and fun!
I expect I’m back with Hondas for good now, though I occasionally lust after BMWs, Moto Guzzis, and—oddly—Urals. But Donna has been far more patient with me than I have any right to expect, so I think I’ll be keeping my current ride for many years to come.
The kids and their rides:
A few years ago I inherited a project bike from a friend, a Ducati Monster. It was partially disassembled when I got it, though not by any means a basket case; I put it back together (adding new tires, battery, and brakes) and gave it to my daughter Polly. She rode it for a couple of years, not always safely, and to my great relief finally sold it.
For the past few years my son has been renting motorcycles and going on trips with me. We’ve been to Colorado, Utah, California, me on my Goldwing, Greg on Harleys, Indians, and lately BMWs, which he’s come to love. In May he found a slightly used, pristine BMW K1600GT, and I went with him to San Luis Obispo to trailer it home to Las Vegas. The very next day we took it for a spin to Zion National Park and the mountains of southwestern Utah.
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