Shortly after moving to Arizona, my motorcycle broke. Two of the four valves stuck open. I have no idea why and neither did the motorcycle mechanic who told me it would cost $2,000 to fix. I’m 62 years old and the thought crossed my mind, maybe it’s time to give it up. The service department is part of a motorcycle dealership and to get to it you have to walk through the showroom past all of the shiny new motorcycles. I’ve owned 5 motorcycles over the years and as I dejectedly left the service manager’s office and before I made it to the exit door of the showroom to the parking lot where Katie patiently waited in the car to drive me home, I saw number 6, a silver metal flake, 1100cc Honda Shadow Spirit.
Like so many guys of my generation, I blame Steve McQueen for initially igniting my motorcycle passion, specifically in his performance in the movie, The Great Escape and more specifically, one particular scene. I was 15 years old, sitting in a dark theater with a friend, totally transported to the WWII Nazi prison camp where the story takes place. Steve plays Captain Virgil Hilts, a captured Air Force pilot who had been shot down. The other prisoners, from various allied countries, have been digging an elaborate tunnel, but Captain Hilts wants no part of it. He escapes several times on his own by cutting the fence wire and slipping under it, but is always caught and put in the cooler, where he spends his time bouncing a baseball against the wall. The tunnelers see an opportunity in Captain Hilts and ask him to escape again, only this time, map out the area, allow himself to be caught and then bring back the important information that the tunnelers need for the escape. Captain Hilts reluctantly agrees. Steve’s character exemplified what’s good about the American spirit. He was highly independent, but when asked to sacrifice himself for the good of the others, he did so.
The night of the tunnel escape, only a small percentage of the prisoners make it out before being discovered by the guards. Captain Hilts made it and true to his character, continues on alone. Stringing a wire across a road, he successfully knocks a German soldier off his motorcycle. After killing the soldier, Captain Hilts puts on the German uniform and continues his flight on the motorcycle. When passing through a village, German soldiers stop him to ask him questions. Captain Hilts doesn’t speak German, so instead, makes a run for it on the road leading out of the town. The Germans chase after him.
The movie’s director cuts back and forth between various escapees, all attempting to get out of the country. Two of the escapees steal an airplane, several take a train, one rides on a bicycle. When the movie gets back to the motorcycle chase scene, we see the rolling green hills of the countryside. Then over the crest of one of the hills, Captain Hilts roars onto the screen. He has gotten rid of the German uniform and is now wearing a cut off sweat shirt and khakis. He stops the bike, looks in both directions trying to decide which way to go, then guns the motorcycle spinning it around to check out the other side. He does this several times until choosing a direction then takes off across the hills with the German Army in hot pursuit.
I was transfixed watching Steve handle the big German motorcycle like it was an extension of his body. Sometimes he raised himself up on the foot-pegs to negotiate a dip or bump. Spinning the bike around, he placed his foot on the ground just at the right time and in the right place to maintain control. His confidence was obvious. That was it for me. I didn’t just want to be like Steve McQueen, I wanted to be Steve McQueen. Since that wasn’t an option, I settled for some day getting a motorcycle and learning how to ride like that.
My first experience actually riding on a motorcycle was on the back of my friend Pettie’s Honda 90. We rode to an airport where his Dad ran an airline business. It was at least 50 miles outside of Ferguson where we lived. I remember being quite uncomfortable putting down the highway at a slower pace than the rest of the traffic. I’m sure the little Honda 90 was doing its best with its double load. It wasn’t quite a Steve McQueen moment, but the feeling of being on two wheels with my friend, tearing down the highway on a warm summer’s day was exhilarating.
Our friend Funnyboy owned 3 different motorcycles around this time. The smallest was a Honda 250cc Scrambler, his off road bike, a 500cc Triumph single cylinder, we called Thumper and his biggest bike and the most beautiful motorcycle I’d ever seen, a 650cc BSA Lightning, we called Beeza. It had a red and chrome tank with the signature gold sunburst on the sides and the letters BSA through the middle. One evening Funnyboy let me ride it. I felt he was making a big mistake, but wanted to ride it so badly, I didn’t let on. He coached me on how to shift gears and I took it out onto the highway. I clumsily went through each gear, and when I reached the highest one, I opened up the throttle and totally scared the shit out of myself. I had the frightening realization that the only reason I didn’t fly off the backend was because I had a death hold on both hand grips. If I had opened my fingers even slightly, the bike would have shot out from under me and I’d have been left behind, bouncing down the highway.
I didn’t buy a bike of my own until I got out of the Army. It was a Honda 500 twin. I’ve been slowly upgrading to larger bikes ever since. And now I own the shiny silver Honda Shadow and live in a part of the country where I can ride most of the year on well maintained two lane roads that lead across expanses of land and into the mountains and all sorts of other interesting places. I’m happy to report my ageless, inner Steve McQueen is alive and well. And I’m following the advice of an old crusty Harley guy I once knew, “Remember, keep the shiny side up.”