No one in Ansel Head’s household rode motorcycles. Whenever the subject came up, Head’s mother would point to her adopted cousin, Delma, who was walking around on a wooden leg, his real one having been lost in a motorcycle accident in his teenage years. Far from the brightest child, Head failed to relate to Delma’s predicament based only upon his mother’s admonitions. Adding a motor to his hard to pedal bicycle seemed like a good thing.
But then one day at the movies, he saw Captain Ahab riding Moby Dick’s back with his wooden leg tangled in harpoon lines. The great white whale, which had on a previous voyage eaten Ahab’s real leg, now finished him off. The image of that wooden peg flailing about as the whale sounded for the last time seared his still developing neurons. Thereafter whenever the subject of motorcycles arose, Head’s synapses would explode spreading the grisly image throughout his conscientious mind. Motorcycles, wooden limbs, and ferocious death were inexorably linked. Head’s motorcycle education was effectively over, and he was only nine or ten.
That of course didn’t mean he never rode on a motorcycle. During the last month of his last year at the McCallie monastery, his friend Jack had secured a motorcycle which he kept hidden in a garage next to their Presbyterian friary. One night after all of the elders had given up their watchful vigil, Head and Jack stole away and went for a joy ride. Jack had never had a Delma to thwart his adventuresome nature and proceeded to show Head what 70 miles per hour was like on two wheels. Holding tight to Jack’s waist, Head acted unafraid, but that image of the wooden leg was there and became more piercing when he was finally back standing on his own two shaky legs. Head persuaded Jack to share the joy with other friends on subsequent night rides.
When Head was stationed in Key West, his housing was on a separate key from the Naval Air Station. The roads were too narrow and crowded for him to ride a bicycle back and forth. So when a colleague was transferred, he bought his built from a kit, four cycle, Montgomery Ward motorcycle. Head overcame his fears and justified his purchase: the vehicle was only slightly bigger than his bike, he wasn’t going far, and it really didn’t look or sound like a real motorcycle. As it turned out the only way to get it started was to push it half way to the base, popping the clutch along the way in the hopes it would start. It rarely did.
By the time Rolling Thunder came into his view, Head was too old and owed too much money to put aside his fears and expand his education in Harley Davidson camaraderie. He admired these men and women. Like the military where many had served, common uniforms hid their differing social status. Patches exhibited their journeys. They took real pride in the unique finish on their cycles. There was great fun to be had in riding, rallying, eating, and drinking together. Fearless, for there are no walk-aways from fender-benders in this transportation mode, and patriotic to the core, they roar down the Nation’s highways and byways with Old Glory flying behind them. “Don’t tread on me” is bred in their American bones.
Head took note of the three wheel trikes which except for the extra wheel looked and sounded like the real thing. Maybe that was an option for him; but upon closer observation, its riders looked like older and perhaps injured veterans whose presence in the pack was earned from years of service. It was not a vehicle for a newbie Hell’s Angel.
In the end, it wasn’t just the motorcycle that held Head back from joining the club. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t look good in a black leather skull cap, jacket with cutoff sleeves, and chaps. He lacked the portly physique and faded tattoos of most of its members; and his attempts at growing a beard had come up short in the past. More to the point, there was no way he could get Ms. Wolfe into similar togs and onto the back of a Harley Davidson with an engine bigger than the one in her first car.
All that was left for Head was to join the other admirers on Memorial Bridge and wave at the bikers as Rolling Thunder roared past in review on Memorial Day.