Letter from Langdon: Harley ‘n’ Me

Riding two feet off the ground can make a man feel ten feet tall (and twenty again).

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At my age it’s easy to fall into that comfort zone where nothing new ever happens. Lots of people do. They like it that way. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, if the water’s smooth don’t ripple it. Stirring things just raises a stink and it might be risky, because if he’s not careful, a man can lose people’s respect.

For instance there was the one-horse sleigh I bought, pulled by Jinglebells the retired racehorse. Instead of Jolly Old St. Nick, I looked more like a luger: once around followed by a spectacular crash.

Over the years, to my family at least, I have become a legend on my own dime. In spite of it all, I hope I still have their respect.

There was a time once when I wanted to fly. Call it what you will: boredom, empty nest, or maybe just brain flatulence, but last year I had the urge again to do something I’d never done before. Several of my neighbors and friends have gotten pilots licenses. But airplanes are expensive. They require annual inspections, a hangar, and a landing strip. Aviation fuel costs about four bucks a gallon. Somehow I just couldn’t get myself to plunk down the change for instruction and a plane.

There’s also the fact I have a tendency to hit the ground hard when I leave my comfort zone.

If only I could find something more reasonable, affordable, and down to earth. Then I spotted the motorcycle section on EBay Motors. Eventually I bought a Harley Davidson where I only sit about two feet off the ground.

I’ve ridden bikes and motor bikes before, but never a Hog. Well, almost never. It wasn’t my idea, but I did ride Betsy the 600 pound sow once. I wear a 34 inch inseam; Betsy stood about 38 inches at the shoulders. When she ran between my legs, as they say in Houston, we had lift-off. About all I could do was hold on — once around followed by a spectacular crash.

Since then, I’ve learned that riding a Harley is a like riding a big porker on wheels. It’s powerful, somewhat unpredictable, and a little scary. You don’t steer a Harley with the handlebars so much as with your mind, just by thinking about turning and leaning a little to the left or right. Lean more, turn more, or just press down lightly on the handlebar in the direction you want to go. (None of that works with sleighs…or sows.)

Courtesy of Richard Oswald
The author on a straightaway, with his corn crop and his Superglide FXD Harley-Davidson bike.


When climbing a long hill, if you give her some gas, the torque of the engine makes it drift to the right. So you have to think it back to the left. The same is true with crosswinds caused by weather or big trucks. Thoughts can get pretty crowded when dodging chuckholes on hilly Missouri blacktops. What’s more, a Harley on back-road gravel is just like a hog on ice.

Unfortunately our house is connected to the main roads by 8000 feet of crushed rock. When I met the neighbor lady on the road awhile back, on her way home from work, I was trying to go as slow as I could because of the gravel. Handlebars were wobbling, first left, then right, as I quivered down a wheel track like a drunken swine without training wheels.

From the look on her face I think I made her day.

Once I got to the pavement I figured riding down the highway on a hot day would only be hotter. As it turns out all those guys on their chromed out bikes with a backwarmer (biker slang for “girl”) hugging them tight aren’t hot at all, they’re really pretty cool. That’s because at 60 mph there’s always a nice breeze. Add an unexpected rain shower and it gets even cooler.

Compromise solution? An inflatable “backwarmer” at the Sturgis, SD, rally. This year’s event is schedule for Aug. 9-15.

I have a leather jacket for chilly days, but backwarmers are strictly off-limits. At my age and marital status, that could lead to a fall.

Everyone who has a Harley has leather. It is impossible to earn people’s respect dressed in synthetics. Cowhide biker jackets cost upwards of $200. I found one made of Pakistani water buffalo for under 100 bucks. But I didn’t try to save money on a helmet. The one I bought has about 3 inches of foam inside and is DOT and Snell approved. It’s roughly the size of a bushel basket or, as hog lovers might prefer, a 30 gallon rendering kettle. I look a little like Marvin the Martian when I put it on.

If I’m gonna put all my eggs in one basket I don’t want the bottom falling out.

Buying the bike was an adventure in itself. Every Californian should know before the fall election that Meg Whitman may not be completely infallible. Even though bid rigging on EBay is forbidden, every time I thought I had a Harley bought at my price, there was a flurry of activity as the final price shot up (equal to or greater than retail) before the bidding closed. After watching eight or nine bikes owned by dealers, and seeing bids rise during the final minutes like cream in a bucket of Jersey milk, I began to feel that not everything was on the up and up with some of EBay’s customers.

Now Meg’s getting out of her comfort zone, but Governor Schwarzenegger rides a bike. Maybe he could offer her some pointers.

During my forays into EBay, one bike, a Superglide FXD in Iowa, caught my attention because the bidding there was going a little slower. What I really wanted was an Electraglide in Blue, but with a happier ending than Robert Blake had. But the Iowa FXD in black caught my attention when a friend told me that Superglides churn out more hogpower per pound than any other Harley made. Add hydraulic disk brakes and the FXD has more whoa power, too.

With Betsy and Jinglebells in mind, I placed a bid.

To make a long story short, I didn’t get the bike, but I kept the owner’s contact information and gave him a call a few weeks later to see if he still had the bike and if it were for sale.

Meg, wherever you are in California, listen up. This is a story you’ll never forget.

Joe lived in a small Iowa town. He had developed serious health problems. Like a lot of self-employed people, he had no health insurance. The prognosis wasn’t good, so he and his wife were selling everything they had and closing out their small business to go back East and be with family. They put all their stuff on EBay.

One buyer bid and bought about $20,000 worth of Joe’s things. The people seemed nice, so when they showed up with ID he let them pay with a personal check.

Joe could have called the bank just to play it safe, but they came to get the things on a Sunday. When Joe went to the bank on Monday the check turned out not only to be bad, but stolen right along with the buyers’ ID.

Joe and his wife never got a dime for any of it. Then another guy who won the bid on Joe’s motorcycle backed out. EBay didn’t believe that he’d been scammed twice, and claimed it was all just a con to keep from paying them their commission. Joe was banned from the site. That’s why the Harley dropped off EBay without selling.

So I drove up to Iowa to take a look.

Dressing a Harley (adding accessories) goes right along with owning one. The aftermarket for Harley add-ons is almost as big as the Harley market itself. When I got to his house Joe showed me the chrome he’d added, exhaust pipes, handlebars, grips, foot pegs and all the rest, and told me about having the brand new motorcycle overhauled to give it more power even before he’d ridden it the first time. He’d bought one piece at a time when he had the money, and pointed out the few spots he’d never gotten around to dressing up.

“Look,” Joe said, “all I want is what I paid for it. I’ve added a lot of extra stuff. All I’m asking for is the price of the bike.”

Courtesy of Richard Oswald
Check out that chrome! Dressing a Harley can cost almost as much as the motorcycle itself.

Before I agreed I asked Joe to take the bike up the street just so I’d know it ran OK. Joe seemed surprised I didn’t want to ride it myself. “You do it,” I said.

My self-esteem couldn’t have taken the hit if I wrecked the bike this soon after the “Fore” incident. (Did I mention I tried golf once?) Anyway, the guy had enough problems without calling 911 for me and a wrecker for the Harley.

With his ball cap turned around backwards, Joe straddled the hog and without a wobble or a weave glided out onto the street, opened the throttle, and sailed off down the block. He made a fast boulevard U-turn, came back past me and U-turned again before heading back into the driveway of his house.

We both knew this might be his last ride.                       

In view of past experience, the deal was cash only. I wouldn’t have it any other way. As I handed him the bills, I told Joe I was sorry for his problems. He just waved me off like any good road warrior, and in his smoky voice said, “It’s not your fault man. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is.”

Now when I ride my Superglide in black and make a nice smooth turn or hit the gears just right and wrap it out real tight, I think about Joe. I remember the way he rode his Harley, my Harley, on a chilly gray Iowa spring day as he tried to bring order to his life even as man and nature had turned it all inside out. He did what I would do, giving up material things one by one just to hold on a little longer to what was most important of all: life and family.

In biker terms, Joe was rippin’ it up, doing his best to keep the rubberside down. For what it’s worth, he has my respect.

 

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