Knucklehead. A Memoir.

(This piece ran in Stymie, a Journal of Sports and Literature a couple of years ago. I drug it out in a fit of nostalgia. Hope you dig it. No names are changed to protect the innocent.)

  I recall a beast like this waiting for me under the oaks after high school. I ran to it in slow-mo like that commercial. These days it would have been stolen.

I recall a beast like this waiting for me under the oaks after high school. I ran to it in slow-mo like that commercial. These days it would have been stolen.

            Maybe I inhaled too much model airplane fuel when I was building those free-flight gasoline-powered planes as a kid.  I know I loved the smell of garages and anything that ran on any kind of fuel at all.  I got to mow lawns in the 50's with a rope-start power mower that belonged to a neighbor--I got paid but I'd have eagerly done it for free.  I internalized internal combustion.  Those little airplane engines went from stone dead to snarling angry life with the help of a battery and a finger placed just right on the prop, then flipped.  You learned early how to do that after the propeller chewed up your index finger.  There was danger involved with all of this stuff.  Adrenaline.  Proximity of combustibles.  Heat.  Heady vapors.  A world of its own, and I loved it.  So, 1953.  Before Elvis.  Saturday.  We were hanging out, bored.  Levis, t-shirts, hoodlumesque enough to get a peek from a neighbor window, the curtain falling back into place as we looked.  I was barely fifteen. "Let's go to a show," said Maury.  He knew all the movies, what was showing.  "The Wild One' is on at the Plaza.  It's about gangs.  Motorcycles.  They take over this little town."

  Marlon, the master of mumbling, affected a whole generation of us, he and James Dean. Made our folks crazy people.

Marlon, the master of mumbling, affected a whole generation of us, he and James Dean. Made our folks crazy people.

            Motorcycles.  Yikes.  I had always wanted one.  I rented BSAs with a driver's license not my own.  I borrowed a Cushman Eagle from an older friend who was outgrowing it.  I borrowed a Zundapp from a rich kid who didn't care about it.  I borrowed a lowly Solex from another friend--it was a bicycle that you pedaled up to speed, then lowered a little kerosene-powered motor on a hinge down on the front wheel and it would keep you going for an hour.  Pretty dorky, but it had a motor.  I had lots of miles on bikes with playing card spoke-motors, and then motor-propelled scooters and motorcycles.  And here was a movie about people on such conveyances exercising undreamed-of powers.  A true must-see.  We saw it.  My God.  I can remember parts of it to this day.  I absorbed it like model airplane glo-fuel, inhaled it, lived it.  When that waitress asked Brando what he was rebelling against, and he said "Whaddya got?" it caused me to wait, in vain, for years for someone to ask me that, so I could answer, in a barely intelligible mumble, "Whaddya got?"  The question never came.

            An aside.  Never see a movie, over again, later in life that affected you deeply.  Just don't.  If you have, you know what I mean.  See it in your head, and it will retain its power.  See it on the screen, many years later, and it's WTF?  This movie was, is, an embarrassment.  It's, well, stupid.  Poorly directed.  Sucky dialogue.  Just dopey.  They didn't even ride Harleys, most of them.  What did I know?  I wanted a Velocette that I'd seen in Popular Mechanix.  A French motorcycle!  With a shaft drive!  Zut alors!

            But it wasn't dopey in 1953.  It was revelatory.  It was a religious experience.

            I emerged, slit-eyed, into the sunlight, barely listening to my friends.  It was a new world.  I was changed.   Within days I would own my first Harley-Davidson.  I would wear motorcycle boots.  I aspired to take over a small town with a newly-acquired band of friends, nascent criminals and mentally unbalanced pals.  We would mumble like Brando.  Roll our eyes.  Smirk.

            I had a small stash of paper route money that I had saved up due to my mom often declaring we were bankrupt.  She used that term whenever something like a new car or a move was out of reach.  Then she'd paint the living room.

            So, instead of saving the family I made a down payment on a well-worn Harley-Davidson knucklehead.  The knucklehead nickname derives from the fact that the rocker boxes atop the finned cylinder heads resembled two knuckles of a fist. I negotiated for $5 a week payments on this monster.  The older kid I bought it from fired it up for me and that whole gasoline/olfactory thing kicked in--plus the unmistakable sound effects of that big, chunky Harley-falling-apart sound.  I was in heaven.  I never knew the year of this hog, just the aura.  It had a tank shift and a scary clutch which was later to be my downfall.  I'm embarrassed to say I don't know if it was a 61 cubic inch, or a 74.  I'll say 74 because that's preferred these days.  I was never not scared on this thing.  And always delighted.

  They didn't always tell you what plates were in which box so I played Wheaties lottery, cheeks bulging with unwanted cereal, hoping the next box would make my Knuck less conspicuous to the cops.

They didn't always tell you what plates were in which box so I played Wheaties lottery, cheeks bulging with unwanted cereal, hoping the next box would make my Knuck less conspicuous to the cops.

            One small problem.  Well, about six small problems.  I didn't have a driver's license.  There was no way I could title the thing so I had no license plate.  And my folks were death on motorcycles.  A big NO.  End of discussion.  So I bypassed them, kept it at Ray C.'s house, a two-block walk from my own.  My paper route got me up at 5am--after throwing the route (from Mr. Ehlers' paper truck; I had the right side and a left-handed kid took the other.  We could lead a dog with these flat sailing Kansas City Times and bounce one right off his head.  We were good.) I had free time until school and it was still dark at that time of year.  I'd coast down Ray's driveway and jump-start the knucklehead halfway down the block.  And I'd cruise Brookside and all around mid-town, the wind in my face, the Harley thrumming a deep, dirty sound bubble all around me.  Dark, chilly freedom.  Citizens slept unaware of the grinning, budding menace in goggles invading their streets.

            I don't think any non-biker can know the...theosophy of this.  The zen.  Maybe a surfer would know.  A skier alone on an expert run with that once-in-a-season rhythm on the moguls.  Yeah there are parallels.  But, in the main, it's like the t-shirt says:  "It's a Harley thing.  You wouldn't understand."  I don't think the graying, paunchy baby-boomers, the Rolex Riders, understand, but I could be wrong.

            I was fifteen.  Elvis and James Dean and Catcher in the Rye would help mold my persona a bit later.  For now I was putty in the hands of William Harley and Walter Davidson. 

            Later in my life I would move my family to Milwaukee for the chance to work on Harley-Davidson advertising.  To this day I own a Harley.  There is no antidote.

            I digress.  There was, as I said, no license plate on the knucklehead.  Fortuitously, at that time, Wheaties cereal packaged small license plates in their boxes for a premium.  These plates were embossed metal and about the size of a motorcycle plate.  Missouri motorcycle plates were white with black letters back then, and the only ones that Wheaties offered in that color combination were Maine, Quebec, British Columbia and a couple of other oddball plates.  My memory tells me I got Alaska, even though they weren't a state until 1959 but I'll go with that.  I hung it on the back of the tractor-type saddle with hanger wire.  I was never stopped.  My folks were a bit puzzled at my accelerated appetite for Wheaties (until the plate showed up), but dismissed it; "He's a growing boy."

            Memory.  This is the strange part; I can't even remember the knucklehead's color although I think it may have been red.  I'm pretty sure it was.  What I recall in detail is the total and complete emancipation from the humdrum, the routine.   The liftoff.  I had no loyalty to brand or configuration or fine points back then.  I was in it for the fix, the release.  The Harley loyalty came later, and it was always tied to my first, albeit brief, ownership experience. 

            A few weeks and about thirty bucks more of payments into this adventure, Maury and I took the Knucklehead over to Loose Park with a stopwatch.  Loose Park had a paved sidewalk all around it in 1953, and we used it for lap timing runs.  He'd clock me and vice versa, and we'd try to beat one another's times.  That day, under a cloudless, sparkling blue sky, on my third or fourth attempt, I decided to wind out low gear much faster, and pop it into second, get up to speed early.  The clutch was referred to as a beartrap and it wasn't made for such shenanigans. Something sickening happened.  I missed the shift, the bike lurched as though I'd hit the brakes and the sound of gear parts and transmission crunches were evident.  Then it freewheeled.  We walked it home.

            Later that week I called the kid I'd bought it from.  Said my folks wouldn't let me keep it and something was broken in the transmission anyway.  He said no refunds, I agreed.   And he came and picked it up in a panel truck.  


            But I was hooked.  And beginning to figure out that Harleys had magical properties built into them at the factory, probably with incantations and ceremonies.  I wasn't far off. 

            I visited the factory back in the 60's having moved to Milwaukee and signed on to Harley-Davidson's advertising agency.  I'll never forget two things about that visit.  The first was, Walter Davidson, son, or maybe grandson to the original Davidson I believe, despised any changes to factory Harley-Davidsons so he made all the chopper owners park their machines outside the chain link fence to the parking lot.  This effectively advertised the choppers and called attention to their modifications and bizarre designs, propagating more of the same.

            The other thing that imprinted on me was what I call "The Skronk Effect."  On the tour I was led past a bearded and tattooed worker with a chain-drive pocketbook and a weathered leather jacket.  He would affix a two sided flyweel counterweight in a vise, then take a two-by-four, insert it in between the two pieces of iron and force the pieces apart with a noise that sounded like "skronk."  Then he would un-vise it and toss it atop a growing pile of these things.

            I asked my guide about this operation and he said, "Well, ol' Ernie is adjusting counterweights so they don't wobble and shake the bike too much."  My next question was, "Are they adjusted further somewhere down the line?

            "Naw.  Ernie's got a purty good feel for this."

            I only vaguely recall their museum.  In my memory it was a big, dark unheated room with broken factory windows and old motorcycles parked along the walls, then above these, was a shelf-like rack where more were jammed in together.  I believe there was one for each year since their inception but it was such an agglomeration of frames, pipes and motors that the initial visual effect was that of a parking lot at a biker bar at night.

  They didn't let these things into the Harley parking lot back then. They were missing the whole point, trying to sanitize the image. Even the suits wanted to be weekend outlaws.

They didn't let these things into the Harley parking lot back then. They were missing the whole point, trying to sanitize the image. Even the suits wanted to be weekend outlaws.

 "Easy Rider" came out that year, and outlaw bikes took on longer front forks and higher handlebars than ever before.  I had bought a Harley-Davidson police bike from precinct #5 in Milwaukee at about the same time.  The main bearings were fried and it was otherwise in disrepair.  I hauled it home and began tearing it down, but I borrowed so many tools from my mechanic neighbor that he wordlessly wheeled the hulk over to his barn and that's where it was transformed.

 I took the v-twin motor to the factory where it was rebuilt and bored out.  I had admired the front tube forks of Fonda's Harley in Easy Rider (they were 8" over stock length) so I ordered a pair from Cheetah Motorcycle Parts in California. I waited for that box with the same anticipation and impatience that, in boyhood, I'd exhibited while awaiting a Lone Ranger Atom Bomb ring (really, there was such a thing, though it makes no sense whatsoever) from Battle Creek, Michigan.

            There had been a mistake and these were not 8" over stock length, they were 18" over stock length!  We re-raked the gooseneck on the frame, and installed them.  I was on the way to owning a chopper that would never be allowed within miles of the Harley-Davidson plant.  No front fender.  Curlycue handlebars.  Camel hump seat.  Bored out "eighty over."

            The tank...we cut the fatbob double tank in half lengthways, so it had the same profile from the side, but looking down at it, it was long and skinny.  It was a tank shift motorcycle with first, second, third...and reverse!  It had been set up for use with a sidecar for some reason that was never satisfactorily explained to me, but the reverse now came in handy.  With the super-long fork, it was a bear to turn around in tight spaces, but a reverse gear would make it more manageable.

            My mechanic friend declared it unsafe at any speed or standing still, wiped his hands and turned to more conservative endeavors.  Like installing a huge hemi engine in a small hatchback, mid-engine so the driver was inches from it.

            This perversion of the Harley-Davidson ideals would have had a longer story but economic realities cut it short.  The deep well pump failed at the house we had bought on the rural outskirts of Milwaukee, and the first item up for sale was this chopper.  My wife and kids weren't going to give up showers.  A member of the Milwaukee Outlaws club bought it, paid cash in $100 bills, slapping them down on my kitchen table.  The motorcycle was unfinished, frame apart from engine, but savvy eyes could surely see the possibilities.  I like to think it is bellowing somewhere on the Wisconsin streets and highways, emitting menace, exacting awe. 

            It would have narrowed the eyes of the older Mr. Davidson to Clint Eastwood gun turrets.  I think Willie G. Davidson, a progressive sort, and designer of the wildly successful machines to come after the buyback from AMF, might have grinned.  He might have withheld enthusisatic approval however, just on the basis of engineering principles, if not aesthetics.

            I have owned Harleys since then.  And Triumphs, and BSAs, and a BMW.  But Harleys have been the stalwarts over the years.  I still own one.  Chopped, raked, lowered.  It sits in back of a 1949 Ford in the metal building where I weld steel sculpture.  It's a beauty.  But it's no knucklehead.

            A drug addict once told me that his whole life until rehab had been an unrelenting search for the euphoria of his first original high.  I know my first cup of Kona coffee in the morning on a Saturday is the best.  The subsequent cups are really good, don't get me wrong, but the first sip of the first cup is nirvana.  And, sometimes, as I'm sipping that, I'm looking at email and wasting that effect on some level.  Like the knucklehead I surely am after all these years. 

            I didn't have any such sidebars or distractions when I first straddled that Harley.  I was into it.  I twisted that throttle and the sound went from the distinctive "potato, potato" idle to a ragged elk holler.  It went through me.  I was that sound.  I was that knucklehead.  Like the t-shirt says, "It's a Harley thing.  You wouldn't understand."  I'm not sure I do either.