a journal of modern society & culture

The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

In 1965, my sophomore year at Manchester College in Indiana, I bought my first car, a 1957 Chevy crème over rust four-door sedan in perfect condition. I paid $750 in cash, most of my savings, to a tall man with black hair whose used car lot was a green field on a sloping hill that was entered through a farm gate. There were no signs except on the car windows and no cute little sales shed, just four or five cars parked handsomely on the untrammeled grass.  My father, pastor of the Pipe Creek Church of the Brethren, had discovered the spot while visiting his parishioners. It was an easy exchange.  I drove away, the owner of a treasure.  It wasn’t the most desirable of ‘57s for a 19 year old.  Those were the two-doors, mine was the family model. The dealer said it had been owned by a widow who drove it mostly to church and the grocery store. From the looks of the car and my experience of rural Indiana, it was probably true.

By the fall of my senior year in college, only two years later, I’d run my beautiful car into the ground. When I sold it to the friend of a friend, the windshield had a serous spider crack from a falling limb and I had to use the emergency brake to stop the car at his front door. The buyer didn’t care.  He was offering a blue and chrome BSA 650cc motorcycle in an even trade, and I leaped at it.  Mostly I used the bike for fun rather than everyday transportation. A friend, Ted Studebaker, owned a Triumph, and we liked to go into the woods and skid around between the trees.  These were big road bikes, but we were using them for motocross. We liked to leap out of ditches and over little hills on the fly.  One of the best natural ramps was a ridge right next to a popular local restaurant.  At the peak of flight, our bikes would appear to the diners seated at a picture window.

BSA stands for Birmingham Small Arms, which also manufactured the Triumph.  The British company produced the famous Enfield rifle used in WWI, also the Sten machine gun, a range of air rifles, and motorcycles. There’s a town in Indonesia that still uses BSA motorcycles, with sidecars, as taxis. But the company has been out of business since 1973.  My BSA was probably produced in the 1950s.

I wasn’t scared of the obvious dangers of riding; sometimes, in fact, I was reckless.  But I had plenty of warning of those hazards when I was searching the want ads for a used Harley.  One seller, a middle-aged man in a black leather vest, explained that he was getting rid of his because his best friend had been killed while they were riding together. “Nobody sees you when you’re riding a bike, even one of these,” he said, patting his soon-to-be-long-lost hog.  “Cars pull out right in front of you.” The same thing nearly happened to me.  Thinking I was in the clear, I had just kicked it into third and had to swerve to miss a car backing out of parking space. Luckily no one was in the other lane.  They live in another world, the sleepwalkers who drive cars. They will open their doors without first checking out the street in their rearview.

Another seller, skinny and shirtless, showed me a bike with all the paint worn off and no electric starter. You had to kick start it by standing on a makeshift bicycle pedal he’d attached to the kick bar, then jump down on it with all your weight.  This explained why he had his right arm in a cast.  He’d been thrown over the handlebars when the high compression 1200 cc engine kicked back at him. Nevertheless, he took me for a high-speed ride on it down Indiana 31, between Peru and Kokomo. He kept turning his head around to talk, causing the Harley to drift this way and that. With a mouth full of 90 mph wind, it was hard to say much back to him. Neither of us wore helmets. They were controversial in those days, at least in Indiana.  It had to do with government control over the individual. Those against the helmet law believed you had the right to be a dumbass and not wear one.

The BSA was attractive to a pretty girl from the college and I gave her a scarily fast ride for three blocks and back again. An hour later, I got a phone call at Miller House, the family home where I lived off-campus with six other students.  It was her boyfriend, threatening to beat me up.  Fresh out of the shower, I was wearing only a towel when I said, “OK, big shot, come over right now!” But I was glad that he didn’t.  I’ve never been in a fight in my life. I think maybe I’m too tall to have one.  You never see tall people fighting, except on the basketball court.

When Bobby Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination in the spring of 1968, I rode the BSA down route 13 to a railroad crossing in Wabash where a train was supposed to stop and Bobby Kennedy would wave from the back of the caboose.  It was an old-fashioned whistle-stop campaign, with a bunting draped from the caboose railing. When he stepped from the caboose, he was shorter than I expected and very tanned. He also had a brilliant smile.  He waved and said a few words without a microphone. Then the train passed on to the next stop.  Just a couple of months later, on June 5, he was shot to death in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The same week, I rode the bike back to Wabash to see Senator Eugene McCarthy, the only candidate running strictly on an antiwar platform.  There was no train this time.  The meeting was at a high school, indoors. I was surprised that, upon entering, the senator walked straight across the room to shake my hand first, even though I was in a far corner.  My girlfriend Sharon had driven her car to the rally separately, so, on the way back, because the speedometer never worked, I asked her to keep up with me to see how fast it would go. We were at 95 mph when she decided to back off with the car.  Although it was a single cylinder engine and idled bumpily, it ran very well on the road.  One problem was that the housing bolts on the engine would shake loose and needed tightening. Also, the magneto would shake out of position and the bike wouldn’t start.  It became a regular practice to reset it before going on a ride.

The weather is an issue when your only transportation is a motorcycle. I had taken it with me to the college that fall.  But I didn’t think ahead about the coming of winter, and then Mr. Miller said the bike was taking up too much room in his garage. I wound up riding it to my parents’ home during Christmas break, on a freezing mid-December day.  I had to ask my Dad to uncurl my fingers from the handlebars when I arrived at the house.  Mr. Miller was a nice man, retired and working part-time for the college maintenance crew.  When Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, he came upstairs in the residence house to alert the rest of us.  Students didn’t have TVs in those days, so he invited us to watch the report in his living room. A lot of buildings burned at 63rd and Stony Island in Chicago, an area I later got to know as a rider of public transit.

When friends asked to take a spin on my bike, I would instruct them on the basics and hope they wouldn’t kill themselves. Joel Eikenberry took a spill just a few feet after taking off and got a nasty scrape on the side of his hip. Thirty years later, having remained in the community of North Manchester as a doctor, he served as one of the pallbearers when we carried my father’s casket from the nursing home to the hearse.  A Nigerian exchange student took off too fast, and we could hear but not see him crash on the other side of a restaurant.   He was OK but had broken a weld that held the muffler to the main frame, which cost me $5 to fix at a local welding shop.  This was not a small amount of money in those days.  My savings from summer work were around $750, and that got me through the entire school year including the $150 I spent on new clothes in the fall.  For weekend spending, I would take $15 out of my account at the college bank.  Gasoline was $.35 a gallon.

Just before graduation, I sold the motorcycle to a college classmate, Ed Carroll, who paid me $150, half of what he owed.  He then took it with him to the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, the inexpensive entry point for students, Native Americans, and especially Appalachians.   After I moved there, too, I met him and his girlfriend at a party.  He said his plan was to drive the motorcycle over the Canadian border, where he would live in resistance to the Vietnam War.   I asked him to pay the balance he owed, and his girlfriend loaned him the money.  I never saw him again after the money passed hands.  Someone later reported that a couple days before he was scheduled to leave Chicago, the motorcycle was stolen from its parking space behind the apartment building.  The Canadian draft exiles were offered amnesty by Gerald Ford following the resignation of Nixon. I assumed that Ed returned to the U.S. at that time, but I can’t say for sure.  My friend Terry Pettit and I worked during the war as Conscientious Objectors in Chicago hospitals. I worked nights and often took bodies to the morgue because that was job reserved for men. There was a fire at Terry’s hospital and he carried some of the frightened psychiatric patients down the stairs. Someone two years younger, a recent arrival from our college, was assigned to work in a hospital laundry in Evanston. One night I heard on my car radio that someone with the same name had leaped from a tall building in the Chicago Loop, and I knew immediately it was Randy, an outspoken enthusiast of the dark philosophy of Schopenhauer. Those were the times of the Weatherman Underground and Patty Hearst kidnapping.  A nursing assistant’s husband kept piranha and tried to clean the tank without removing the fish. One of them bit a nasty hole in the palm of his hand that seemed never to heal. These things were all connected somehow. It was a dark time, but not as Jacobean as our own.  Now it’s a normal state of affairs if we fight two wars at a time. Michael Moore says it’s actually seven.

Ted Studebaker, my motorcycle buddy from college, did some kind of social service in a Vietnam village. I believe the agency was BVS (Brethren Volunteer Service), and his role was similar to that of a Peace Corps volunteer. He married a girl of the village, and one day, learning that Viet Cong soldiers were entering the village aggressively, he helped his wife and others find hiding places underground, before poorly concealing himself beneath a bed. There he was shot to death, on suspicion of being a U.S. spy. The story made the national television news, because he was living there as a non-combatant and pacifist.

The most memorable time I rode with Ted was a late afternoon, toward what they call magic hour in the movies, on a narrow road north of town. It had nothing to do with riding fast or swerving around trees. We stopped to watch some deer grazing in a field, and it was just a beautiful and peaceful scene.

That’s all I can report about my brief experience as a motorcyclist. The novelist John Gardner died on one. It’s a romantic way to die, because we consider motorcyclists stronger and more heroic than we are. Resolute and straightforward, they thrust calmly into what buffets them. A woman riding a large motorcycle is a glory to behold, even when riding to her job at the bank. The angels in Wim Wenders’ great film Wings of Desire would disdain to ride anything but a shining black motorcycle.  No four-door sedan for the truly spiritual. It has to be the comforting growl of a Harley-Davidson.  Nothing less than 650 cubic centimeters of engine displacement will do for those high fliers.

 

Paul Hoover is a poet and novelist. He teaches at San Francisco State University.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

1 comment

1 Jack Darrow { 08.31.11 at 4:28 pm }

riding back then was rehearsal for days, soon to come, when we would grow wings and learn the art of the stall – the pause in flight where the airborne come to land.