I suppose just about everyone remembers their first time on a motorcycle – I’m certainly no exception. It was the late 1970’s and I was a kid visiting my relatives in Connecticut. There were some other kids in the neighborhood and during my stay I became friendly with a boy my age who lived a few doors down. One day while playing together he looked at me with a surreptitious smile and asked, “Wanna see something really cool?” Well, yeah. What kid doesn’t wanna see something really cool?
He led me down the street and we stopped in front of his house. He looked up and down the street several times to make sure no one was around. Then he ducked covertly into the hedge that lined his property and popped out the other side heading for his garage. I stayed on his heels feeling the anticipation build. What could he possibly have that required secrecy? Maybe it was a pinball machine. Or a dead cat. No, those are fairly ordinary things. Maybe it was a flamethrower. How cool would that be?! A flamethrower!
We approached the garage door and he glanced over each shoulder as if he were about to unlock a secret vault that concealed a hidden treasure. He slowly pulled open the door, revealing a garage packed with piles of miscellaneous sporting goods, random tools, old patio furniture, and rusty bicycles. In the middle of the garage all alone in a carefully cleared area sat a shiny motorcycle. Not just a motorcycle – a kid sized dirt bike. I was impressed. This was way cooler than anything I had imagined. Even cooler that a flamethrower.
“Whoa!” I said in amazement.
“It’s mine!” said my new best friend proudly.
Now, keep in mind that in the ’70s most kids my age didn’t have any idea who The President was. But just about every kid in America knew who Evel Knievel was. And if they didn’t know who Evel was, they damn sure knew who Arthur Fonzarelli was. The Fonz wore a leather jacket and rode a motorcycle. That made him cool. He was so cool his catch phrase consisted of a single vowel.
“Wanna sit on it?” the kid asked me.
“Sure!” I slipped my leg over the seat and began leaning the bike slightly side to side, feeling its weight. I made motor sounds in my head and imagined my self one of the Grand Prix racers I had seen on an episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I was riding into the wind, a look of stoic determination etched upon my face, people cheering for me – I felt really bad ass.
“Wanna hear the engine?” he asked.
“YEAH!” I replied, instantly hopping off the bike.
He pulled a little knob thing and then unfolded what looked like a bent lever. “OK, this is real important.” He warned, “It’s kinda broke right now – stuck in first gear – so you have to hold the clutch in which is this lever right here. This thing over here is the throttle. You turn it to make the engine rev up. Just don’t let go of the clutch lever.”
“COOL!” I blurted.
He kicked the bike over. Once. Twice. Three times and it fired up. At this point I was so excited I might have peed in my pants a little. He revved the engine a bit; reached down and fiddled with a knob. The garage began to fill with a sweet-smelling blue smoke. My friend started trying to talk loudly over the engine, giving me the finer points of how to operate a motorcycle. I didn’t hear any of it, I was long gone. As he lectured, he stepped back from the bike and I carefully took the handlebars from him, making sure to keep the clutch lever squeezed tight. I swung my leg over and was suddenly straddling a running motorcycle for the first time.
My parents would kill me, I thought absently. I turned the throttle a bit and the thought evaporated. I could sense the power beneath me. I revved the engine higher and higher and the noise became deafening. I felt as though I was in control of a mechanical beast belching smoke and shuddering with kinetic energy begging to be unleashed. My imagination convulsed with the possibilities. Sitting atop this wondrous machine, I could rule the world…
As my grasp on reality began to slip, so too did my grasp on the clutch lever. One moment I was master of the universe, the next I felt the bike lunge forward and up, its front wheel shooting skyward. I later learned this was called a ‘wheelie’ and I was able to maintain it for a few feet before I crashed into an old Schwinn and a barbeque grill with badminton rackets piled on top. My first experience with a motorcycle came to an abrupt end. So did my new friendship – that kid never wanted to play with me again.