An Aging Father Shares Tales From His Early Riding Years
My father turned 80 years old in the past year, and though his eyesight has dimmed and his pace has slowed, his mind is still sharp, and his hands are still skilled. He and my mother had to give up riding in 2018 due to health reasons, but he has continued to offer help and encouragement with my various and sundry motorcycle projects. In recent days, I’ve taken on a new project with his assistance, that of chronicling his many stories of motorcycling across the span of his life. And he certainly has some entertaining stories to tell. I’ll endeavor to share a few of them here, hopefully doing them justice in the process.
My brothers and I grew up in the house of a master mechanic. In the garage behind our home, there was always an automobile up on jacks, a motorcycle or two to the side, and enough extra bike parts hanging from pegs on the wall to practically build another. Accompanying all the machinery, there were stories in abundance. One would never know it by observing this stooped, white haired, soft-spoken senior chap, but in his younger years, Dad was a hooligan, a 50s greaser (think “Fonz” from the old “Happy Days” sitcom. I am not exaggerating), even a bit of a renegade during his overseas stint in the USAF. Even now as he recounts these stories to me, some I’m hearing for the first time, I can see that glint of mischief in his eyes, as memory carries him back to those heady days of his youth and young adulthood. Here’s a few of my favorites, in his own words-
Photos: Dad the little hooligan, Dad grad photo, Mom grad photo, Christmas goodbyes
I was probably about 14, and I worked at a local gas station. It was up on a hill, by a dirt road that went down the hill to some buildings at the bottom. This guy had an old Harley ’74, and I used to sit on it. He parked the bike over by the top of the hill one day, and like every other day, I wanted to go sit on it. I had it upright, sitting on it with the kickstand up. All of a sudden, he came up behind the bike and gave it a shove down the hill! So my first motorcycle ride was with the motor off, just coasting down the hill on this dirt road, getting the feel for balancing such a big bike. At the bottom, I was wondering what the heck I was going to do next, and he shouted down, “Start it up, and ride it back up here!” I knew how to start it, sitting and pretending on it so many times. This was back when you had to retard the spark, choke it, and kick it over. It started right up, and I rode that bike back up the hill. The gas station was on U.S. Route 1 in Dedham (Massachusetts), so he said, “Ok, now take it down to the rotary and back.” Of course, there were no helmets back then, so I headed out on to Route 1, rode it down to the Dedham rotary, circled it and headed back. There was a mile straightaway on that part of Route 1, and I throttled it up to 80 miles per hour. This was really my second powered motorcycle ride, after just riding it back up that hill. I was 14 years old, no helmet, riding hard at 80+, and I was hooked. I pulled back into that gas station, parked the ’74 in the garage, stepped off, and my life changed forever. I wanted to ride motorcycles.
The first motorcycle I ever owned was a 1954 Triumph Tiger 500. I don’t remember how I found it, but I paid about $600 for it. The bike was a very unusual one- whoever originally owned it, as I understand it, stripped the bike down to the bare frame, had it sand blasted, and every piece that would take chrome, was. The entire frame, front forks, engine parts, you name it. I’d never seen a bike with that much chrome on it. End to end. It was a single carb, 500cc, but it would run like a scalded dog! It had an oil pressure indicator down on the side of the engine, and when you started up, this little indicator popped out, told you there was oil pressure. It had a little aftermarket two and half gallon teardrop tank, painted a dull pink, almost red, and I had it black pinstriped on both sides. No front fender, the rear fender was bobbed, with just room for a small seat on the rear fender, basically enough for about one butt cheek! It ran megaphone exhaust pipes with removable baffles, and when I took those out, it was incredibly loud, enough to drive the neighbors crazy. Times I came home late at night, after running without the baffles, I’d ride real fast to the end of my street, kill the engine, and coast the rest of the way down the street into our driveway and garage. I loved that bike.
Photos: Sadly, no pictures remain of Dad’s stripped, bobbed, and chromed Triumph Tiger. These ads depict the bike in its original configuration. Now picture his with no fenders, a solo saddle, red peanut tank, and chrome everything. I can almost envision it.
I was hanging out with a friend of mine, “Junior” we called him, and he had an old Harley ’74 like that first one I rode, except his was a former police bike. We were out riding on Route 128, and there was a long straight. He pointed forward with his finger, and started accelerating. So I accelerated up and stayed with him. We kept going faster and faster, and finally he gave a “that’s it for me” wave. He reached down on top of his speedometer, and ran his finger all the way over to the right, indicating on that Harley speedo 110 mph. I had no gauges, so couldn’t tell our speed. But I still had throttle left, so I cranked it wide open and slowly pulled away from him. I never believed that little Triumph could go that fast, but it certainly did. We got up a little further and both backed off to about 55. When we finally got to where we were going, we talked about it, and agreed we’d never do that again! That was just crazy. If anything had gone wrong with either of us, at that speed, (remember, no helmets) we’d have just been a red blotch on the road. It was really quite an experience.
I was riding the Triumph through West Roxbury (outside Boston), my hometown, and I saw three or four pretty girls walking along on the opposite side of the street. I was gawking at the girls, not paying attention, and when I glanced back forward real quick, traffic had stopped. I was right up on the bumper of the car in front of me, and knew I couldn’t stop in the time and space, so I threw it hard left, crossing oncoming traffic, and bounced up into the exit of a supermarket, with fortunately no one coming out, then back out the entrance, again with fortunately no one coming in! I rode back across the street, between oncoming cars, to my side again. It shook me up so bad I pulled over up the road and stopped, and just sat there for awhile, trying to relax. It scared the hell out of me. I thought for sure that would be the end of my motorcycling. A miracle I didn’t get hit by anybody.
Photos: Though he has no photos of the old Tiger, he found this bike on a Brit sale site, and sent them to me. Again, his was highly modded. “Never seen one like it, before or since,” he mused.
I was riding the Triumph one day with the end baffles off the megaphones, and it was very loud. I came up on this car on a side road going through a town, and the car was full of young girls, with an older lady driver. I was following them for awhile, and those girls were all waving at me out the back window. I thought I’d put on a little show, so I downshifted and gunned it around that car, flat out, throttle wide open. That women shook her fist at me, furious. That Tiger 500 was deafening without the baffles, and it shook that car as I rolled by. Of course, I took off after getting past them, cut down a couple of side streets to make sure she didn’t try to follow me to get my plate number.
Race to the Bypass
The road your mother lived down winded between Dedham and Millis. We had a buddy named Gus who lived over in Millis. Another guy had an old 1950 panel truck with rugs inside, all fixed up, and he’d get a few of our friends to pile into the back of that truck, and they’d drive out to Millis to pick up Gus. On the way out there, Route 109 went by that side road your mother lived down. It would curve off Route 109, wind about three miles around, kind of a half-loop, then merge back into 109. It went right by her house. On occasion I would ride my motorcycle out, and they’d all be in the panel truck. This one day, we decided to race and see who could reach the point where that side road merged back with 109. As we rode down Route 109, they went straight, and I peeled off down that 3-mile bypass that went by her house. I flat out howled on that Triumph! In fact, she heard me coming down that road, and I roared past, probably close to if not over 100 mph, and beat my buddies to the merger! I didn’t have the baffles in, of course, so she claimed she heard me the entire length, from when I turned off 109, to when I reached it on the other end.
*As Dad and Mom both age, I love how they light up when recounting stories from their younger years. Dad’s eyes flash with memory when retelling stories like these, remembering the thrills of speed, the terrors of close calls, the humor of mishaps, and the wiles of mischief. I could write a book of stories from both of them, a window into the working class America of the late 1940s to the 2000s. Maybe I’ll do that at some point. In the meantime, I’ll share a few more of his tales in the next week, so stay tuned. More to come.