My first motorcycle was a two-cycle 1975 Honda 250cc Elsinore. One cylinder. One carburetor. No cams. No valves to adjust. No oil or filter to change. It didn’t need a charge in the battery to start. One kick and it was ring ding ding ding, click into gear, then raaaaaaaaw raaaaaaw raaaaaw through the gears like a chainsaw-driven semi. I didn’t even need a road. It had enough power to pull me along on the street and keep up. It was great on the trails and good for hopping through parks to get around the main roads. I didn’t have a motorcycle license back then. I even rode it to traffic school every week.
I had to go to traffic school because I got too many speeding tickets with my car. My license was restricted so that I could only drive to and from work. So, I rode the dirt bike to traffic school, where I sat around a table watching movies about terrible car crashes and the science of drunk driving with about twenty other people, most of which were there because they had DUI, reckless driving and fatal accident offenses of various kinds. When I told the rest of my classmates that I was there because I got three speeding tickets in a year, they all stared at me like I was a punk, even the women, until I added that all three tickets were over one hundred miles per hour, then they all sat back and sort of smirked.
That was when I first noticed that my life was getting more complex. I had to lie to make people think I did something worse than I did so we could all feel like I was as bad as they were. I realized that I would probably have to remember the lie I told to those people. I had to see them every Wednesday at the community center. The fact that I was riding the little Honda without a license never bothered me because I wasn’t speeding, and I stayed off the roads if I could avoid them. Then, a little at a time, I started riding it more often, then mostly on the streets because nobody seemed to notice, and I felt comfortable. When I flaunt the law or other social rules and get away with it a few times, I get comfortable with it. I don’t forget that it’s wrong, but when there are no consequences for more than three episodes in a row, it seems like it’s wrong but safe.
The only problem I had with riding the Elsinore to get around was that it didn’t seem to be as fast on the street as it did on the trails which made it not quite as much fun. I thought about getting a street bike, but I couldn’t afford to just go out and buy one. I was married at the time and I wasn’t completely in charge of the money, which it turned out much later was probably for the best. What I was in charge of was what I did in my garage after work and on weekends, which at that time was body work and painting cars.
I did a complete paint job on a silver Buick Regal T-Type, which was going to pay for our new kitchen table and chairs and pay off a few bills, small personal loans and fines. The guy who owned the Buick was going to Sturgis on the Electra Glide he just bought and wondered if we could make a deal that didn’t involve cash for the paint job since he was a little short. He had a ’76 Triumph Bonneville that only had a few thousand miles on it. He offered the bike and a hundred dollars to cover paint and materials in trade for the paint job.
I told my wife that the guy just found out that he was going to have a kid and asked if I’d take the bike instead of cash for the paint job. She said we could eat off the card table for a few more months because, you know, it was for a baby, but that I had better get cash on the next job, etcetera. That turned out to be a little white lie that I would regret not remembering. I rode the Triumph around for a week while I finished the paint job and decided that I just had to have it. I took the deal.
The Bonneville was much faster and smoother than the Elsinore and any of the cars I ever owned. My wife liked the Cherokee Red fuel tank and the fact that she could go where I went on the bike because it had a long seat and rear foot pegs. but it was more complicated than the little Honda.
It was a four-cycle engine with two cylinders, two carburetors, two cam shafts, adjustable valves a crankcase full of oil and all the other things a car engine has but smaller. And less forgiving when it came to maintenance. At the same time, I started to realize that being married and having a bike was not as simple as it seemed like it should have been either. I’ve formulated a theory that goes: The difficulty in maintaining happiness in life increases in direct proportion to the complexity of the things that bring happiness.
I had some trouble keeping the Triumph reliable. It nearly always started with one kick if I tickled the carbs just right and didn’t use the choke. I had to charge the battery every few weeks for some reason which nobody was ever able to figure out. I got to know Dave, the guy who traded it to me, pretty well because he seemed to know a lot about bikes in general and it turned out that he worked on my bike a lot before he bought his Harley. We got to be friends. We went to swap meets together to find parts to improve our bikes, which is where most of my side money went for about a year. Which is how the more complicated bike and the complicated way I came to own it caused my marriage to become too complicated to maintain. Things began to fall apart seriously all in one afternoon.
My wife was on the back of the bike and we were headed to the Corn Festival in Union, Illinois. I passed an old Jeep on Route 20 at about seventy five miles per hour. When I backed off the throttle, the engine acted like it was having a fit. The slide in the right carburetor jammed in the sleeve causing that throttle to be stuck wide-open which caused a lot of coughing, revving and backfiring at the same time because the other cylinder was trying to idle. I hit the kill switch and pulled over.
Luckily, the guy in the Jeep recognized the bike as a Triumph when I roared past him and decided to pull over and see if he could help. In retrospect, I think he pulled over to get a better look at my wife. He didn’t know shit about bikes. After standing around and pointing at things on the Triumph and talking about what a classic is was, mostly to her, and that it was the first year for a left hand shifted Triumph and making observations and conjectures about Amal carbs and on and on, we decided that it couldn’t be fixed on the road. So, Billy, the Jeep guy, offered to give us a ride to someplace where we could call for help.
We all agreed that it would be best if I wait with the bike and Billy would take Esther, my wife, to the nearest pay phone to call Dave. Esther talked to Dave from a bar up the road and he agreed to bring his trailer to pick us and the bike up. Which he did. And because he thought he had a carb laying around we all went to his house where we took off the old carb while Esther drank beer with Billy and watched us until Dave’s wife, Trixie came home. In her Silver T-Type Regal.
Introductions were made and the girls got a long great. Trixie brought Esther in the house to show her around like women do. Dave had just bought Trixie a new kitchen table and chairs. I still hadn’t been able to scrape up the money for ours. Esther was admiring the smooth finish and the comfortable chairs when she looked out the window and realized that the silver Regal Trixie drove up in was the Buick I painted when I got the bike in trade about a year earlier. Everything was fine until Esther asked to see the baby, like women always do. Trixie said: “What baby?”
I’ve been divorced twice since that day. And I can’t help but see that every time I get involved with things that give me greater joy, my life gets more complicated. There’s a clear pattern. Esther eventually married Billy, the Jeep guy. After Esther and I split up, I married Holly. Holly had a good job at a big trucking company. She was smart and she earned good money and owned a house. I had got a job working on a fleet of gasoline tankers, which was also good job that paid pretty well. I also bought a bigger bike to replace the Triumph which, by that time, I had been lugging around from garages to storage and back to garages in crates over the course of five years as my residence changed.
The newest bike, like the newest marriage I was in, was bigger, better, cooler and more complex than the triumph. It was a Harley Davidson Dyna Wide-Glide. It’s more reliable than the Triumph generally, but it shakes more when it idles and needs more attention to keep things tight. And because its designed for all the stock parts to be replaced by aftermarket parts to make it run as good as everybody else’s bike, there’s always something that needs to be done to it. Holly was like that too. The only way I could keep her happy was to complete one home improvement project after another until her house was in good shape.
That marriage ended when Holly kicked me out without warning or much discussion when I had finished the second bath remodel, making me number five in what is probably an increasingly long list of her ex-husbands. If she lives long enough, she’ll probably set a world record. She sold the house a month later. I got the bike and most of our friends. She bought a newer, nicer house. I still have the Harley.
Now I’m single and I have a better motorcycle yet. It’s a six-cylinder Honda which is bigger, much faster, smoother and cooler than any bike I’ve ever had. But it has twelve valves to adjust, two cam shafts, two timing belts, three sets of brakes to maintain and six carburetors to keep synchronized. There’s a more moving parts to pay attention to and more to balance. I love the bike. But now I’m almost afraid to think about dating.