Thursday, July 07, 2005

anarchs of the highway

by tom nowak

when i started riding bikes
you didn't need a license
you didn't need a helmet
you needed balls
my grandmother bless her soul
asked me when i spoke about it
what are you gonna buy, jr?
an indian or a harley?
i laughed
what do you know about bikes?
she smiled
well i used to get rides out to the ocean
on the back of both kinds, but i like indians best
i laughed
when was that? i asked
1915, she answered

so i guess you might say bikes
were in my blood
the first ride i remember
was with a favorite uncle
a marlon brando type
fresh home from a long war
itching to ride
he was an ex-paratrooper
and rode like a madman
which i suspect he was

after the first ride
i was hooked permanently
i hung with the bad boys
the people who had little
book learning but had lots of smarts
that went beyond the typical
they could fix anything
with some wire
and some bolts
they made parts they didn't have
and they shared their knowledge
with anyone who could hang with them
they drank a lot
they smoked reefer
they raised hell
they had honor
they had pride
their word or handshake was as bonding
as any written contract
they were the last real americans
they had incredible ideals and
they believed in codes of conduct
that went beyond the normal citizen's
they loved this country
even as they were being taken
to jail for minor infractions

they still believed in the system
they worked under it
it never really worked in their favor
sociologists call the biker life a counter-culture
we called it a band of brothers
a society of warriors existing and thriving
beside the dominant straight culture

i remember taking my motor apart
and hauling it into the kitchen
i put the engine on the table
disassembled it
and did a valve job
i took the heads off
threw them into the oven
heated them up
pounded the bastards out
put the new guides in
put the springs back on and
re-assembled the whole thing in about four hours
i took a head to a machine shop
to have an engineer mic it up
he laughed
he said the clearances were perfect
and the porting and polishing
was on the mark
what machine shop did this? he asked
i smiled
i did it i said
he shook his head in disbelief
come on where'd you get it done?
i swear man i did it on the kitchen table
he laughed and said, well keep up the good work

keeping the bike up and ready
took little time if you did it right the first time
you only needed
basic maintenance to keep it running
running like a stolen horse
most often points would need to be reset
and anyone who had a matchbook could do it
the perfect gap was the thickness of the matchbook cover
go figure

i loved the bikes
i loved the feeling at 5 a.m. when prospects
pulled up out front of my place
they all wanted to ride with me
i have no idea why
we would stop at a gas station
before we got on the freeway
i had filled my tank up the night before
i remember what being a prospect was all about
depending on gas tank size
we could be rolling without stop
for at least a couple of hours or
longer if the machines were running well

sometimes we could ride for hours
stopping only for a piss stop
i remember being in the saddle for 450
miles before we stopped except for refueling
450 miles and then maybe we would pull over
smoke a joint or drink some brandy
and just bullshit

when 80 bikes pulled up outside
a restaurant many heads looked
but when we left several hundred dollars in tips
many more heads looked
and we were always
welcome to come back

the feeling of riding in a pack
was incredible
it reverted to the basic herd instinct
the pack
was an entity of its own
you gave up your individuality
to the pack
it must be a long forgotten
memory of our mounted
hunter past
when the road slipped
underneath you at 70mph
and the air temperature
changed as you rode
you melted into one with the bike and the pack
you felt safe
you felt invulnerable
you felt the pack's strength
you felt the earth
you were one with it all
when you finally stopped
your body tingled
with the vibration of the engine
your ears still roared with the sound
of the wind rushing by
and the noise of the engines
the sound of straight pipes
like thunder reverberating
off the road
off each other
off the walls
off the bodies of cars
you passed

passengers in the car would look
all except for the kids
they would smile and
wave and look all big-eyed
as we passed them
they knew the score
they knew
who and what we were
we were what they wanted to be
in their heart of hearts
we were free and they knew it

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