A Sunday ride, a stack of pancakes, and a new friend
Editor’s note: We love a good story, well-told. And Ken “Hawkeye” Glassman is a fantastic storyteller. He recently shared this short story with us, and we just had to share it with you. If you love tales of legendary motorcycles and those who rode them back in the day, we think you’ll love this yarn as much as we do. This is part one, and we’ll publish the conclusion next week.
“What’ll ya have, Hon?” asked the large, round, 70-something waitress behind the counter as I placed my helmet on the open stool next to me. Her name tag said “Gertie”, and I think that was the name on the door above the large Diner sign. It was about 10:30 AM on a warmish sun-drenched summer Sunday morning, and I’d been motorcycle riding for about 2 hours on the Great River Road somewhere in Illinois, and was building up a hunger in my empty stomach when I asked,
“Well, Gertie, tell me what’s good.”
“Emil back there, makes the best pancakes in the county,“ she replied.
“Well, that sounds great, BUT only if you serve it with real maple syrup, not that Aunt Jemima or Mrs. Butterworth junk that just tastes like sugar syrup. If that’s all you have, I’d rather eat eggs,” I commented.
I heard a chuckle from the craggy faced old codger sitting at the counter one stool over from my helmet. He wore a pair of well-worn bib overalls, and a faded plaid flannel shirt.
“Gertie, looks like this young feller is a syrup ‘connisoor’. And any man so particular about his syrup deserves to sample Emil’s flapjacks with the real stuff. Break out my bottle of Vermont’s finest, and serve the young man.”
I looked quizzically at the old man, and he said, “I got a niece up in Vermont. Every Christmas since I can remember, she sends me a couple bottles of her home made maple syrup. I keep them here, since I don’t make pancakes for myself at home, and it’s the best stuff you ever tasted. And it reminds me of a winter I spent up there ‘bout 60 years ago. You’ll like it.”
“Well thank you sir, for sharing some of your personal stock with me,” I replied. “I appreciate it very much, Mister- er . . . “
“You can just call me Rusty. Used to be because it was the color of my hair. These days it’s because of the way my joints creak,” he said with a smile.
“And you can call me Hawkeye,” I said, extending my right hand.
“You from Iowa?” he asked.
“No, but I went to college there, and that became a nickname with my buddies,” I responded.
“That yer motorcycle out there?” he asked, knowing the answer. “Nice looking machine. Is it a Harley?”
I felt a little twinge in my stomach, fearing that when I told him it was Japanese, I would make him regret his syrup offer.
“No, sir, it’s a Yamaha,” I said hesitantly.
“GOOD!” he said forcefully. “Never did like Harleys . . . I was an Indian man, myself.” And then he proceeded to pour forth:
“Got my first one when I was in high school, around 1938. Ole Man Feeney,… shoot, he probably wasn’t more than 55, but we was high school kids, so we all called him Ole Man Feeney. Anyway, he had a rusty old 1928 Indian Scout 101 in his barn. Didn’t run any more, so he give it to me in exchange for helping out around the farm with chores and such. Took some work, but I got it runnin’ in tip top shape. Another boy in town, LeMarr Johnston, was a bit older than me, and he’d got a brand new 1937 Harley Knucklehead. His daddy was a judge up in the County, so even in the hard times, they always had plenty of money to throw around. “
“We wasn’t friends, and we wasn’t enemies,” Rusty continued. “We were kind of like kindly rivals. “Me ‘n him, we’d tear around the country roads on them motorcycles to beat the band. Now his new Harley had my old Scout beat in horsepower, and he’d lord that over me pretty good. But I’d done a few tricks to that little ole Indian motor, and lopped off most of the fenders and anything else I could cut off of it, so I had a big weight advantage on LeMarr. But I also had something LeMarr couldn’t match,” (he leaned closer to me and chuckled) “the balls to ride it like I stole it! We’d race from the High School out to the old mill, ‘bout 12 miles, mostly on dirt and gravel roads, and 8 times out of 10, I was waiting for him. Sometimes, I’d lay back a little and let him stay close when we was nearing the gravel turn ‘bout 6 miles out of town, so I could spit up some pebbles at him. He was always frettin’ over the paint chips on the fender and gas tank, so I just made sure to put a few more of ‘em on that Harley. I never cared much for what my Indian looked like – just how it ran!”
Gertie returned and placed a large plate with three fluffy pancakes, nearly as big as the plate itself, stacked up with a huge ball of butter dripping off the top one. Then she placed a warm metal creamer filled with golden brown syrup next to it, and said, “Enjoy your breakfast, Hon.”
So I took that lump of butter and divided into 3 pieces, so I could spread a little of it between each pancake, and slathered the maple syrup all over the top. Gertie and the old man watched with anticipation as I took my first bite and swallowed. “Well,” I declared with a flourish, “Gertie, you were right- Emil does make a great pancake, and Aunt Jemima just wouldn’t have done them justice. I’m gonna really enjoy this. I thank you all.”
Rusty winked at me as Gertie poured more hot coffee into his cup and refilled mine. Now the old boy really warmed up to me, and continued his story:
“Yep, raised a lot of hell on that little Scout, till I crashed it one day and broke my leg. Damn near killed myself, and my Daddy said no more motorcycles for me. He died a year or so later, but I honored his request. Then in 1942 I joined the Navy and they shipped me off to Hawaii to work in the shipyards since I was good with machinery. I worked on fixing the ships that were damaged by the Japs in the attack. Now that was a time, I tell you- even with the war on, it was like livin’ in paradise.” He drifted off silently for a few moments of reflection and memories.
I was about halfway through my pancakes when he started up again:
“After the war, I came back and worked in the mill for a while. But it didn’t suit me. So I went to work at the fillin’ station, workin’ on cars and some bikes, too. Then my Momma died in the winter of ’47 from pneumonia. That spring, I decided that nothing special was keeping me here, and I heard that a man up near in Davenport, Iowa was sellin’ a 1947 Indian Chief with only a few hundred miles on it. So I packed up a duffle bag, got on a train, and bought that Chief with cash money on the spot. She was a beaut: 74 cubic inch V-Twin, with a three speed gearbox. Made 40 horsepower. Drum brakes were a little sketchy, but they was good for the times. It was red, with those big beautiful sweeping fenders, and that Indian Chief on the front fender that lit up. Had the gear shift lever right up near the left side of the tank. It had the saddlebags with the fringes hangin’ on ‘em. . . Boy, I tell ya, it was the King of the Road back then. So I got me some rope, tied my duffle bag to the rear end, and just headed east, with no particular place in mind to get to. I just wanted to see some sights.”
“I went and saw Chicago,” Rusty mused. “Man, that was incredible for a country boy to see a really big city like that. I’d seen San Francisco, going and coming back from Hawaii, and it was beautiful, but nothing like Chicago. So many tall buildings, and fancy looking girls. But I could never live there. Too busy. Then I went through Indiana and Ohio, down to Kentucky and Tennessee, and into the Carolinas. Sometimes I slept out under the stars if it was warm, and sometimes I’d stay in a motel. But in them days you could roll up to a farmhouse, and ask the farmer if you could spend the night in his barn. Most times they said yes, and some times, they even offered to have you sleep in the house- and you got a good hot meal, too! I still wore my old sailor hat, (they didn’t have those fancy helmets in those days like yours) and most of the folks I’d meet had a son, brother, or cousin who was in the service (some of ‘em didn’t come home) so they was kindly to servicemen, even though the war was over for some time. Once or twice I stayed with a Gold Star family- you know, somebody who lost a son in the war- and I’d feel mighty sheepish telling them how I was stationed in Hawaii, after Pearl Harbor, and didn’t see no action. Sometimes I’d stay around for a few days or even a week, helping out fixin’ fences or other chores for a dollar or two and a soft bed, before movin’ on.”
“Yep, times were sure different. I’ll bet you couldn’t do that today,” Rusty opined. “I’ll bet if you pulled into most farms today on a motorcycle, you’re likely as not to get shot at as get a bed and a meal. In those days, folks had known what hard times were about, and were more likely to want to help you if they could. And it didn’t hurt to pull up riding that big old Indian Chief. She always started up a friendly conversation. I named her “Wampum”, ‘cause she was worth more than gold to me. She was my iron horse that took me around to see this beautiful country. And except for a few flat tires along the way- tires was fairly poor back then- that Indian didn’t give me a bit of trouble. “
After a pause, he continued, “Long about September, I was somewheres in the Carolinas when I decided to ride up to visit my older brother in Vermont. He was 12 years older than me, so he left home when I was just a little kid, and went to work at a lumber company up there. In fact, it’s his youngest daughter, Margret, who sends me the syrup you’re soaking up right now.”
I raised my coffee cup and said, “To Margaret,” and he raised his and returned the salute.
“Anyways, I rode up north, makin’ my usual stops along the way for a few days or so. The further north I got, it was startin’ to get colder, so I couldn’t get started as early in the morning, or ride as late in the afternoons. I arrived in Vermont sometime in early October, and I’d never seen anything like it. It was just beautiful country, with all the bright colored leaves on the trees. I’d be ridin’ on Wampum and going down the two lane roads just surrounded by reds, oranges and yellows shining in the sun. The leaves were thick on the ground too, and the bike would just blow up a storm of them as I rode past. And I learned you had to be careful not to get too close behind another car or truck, or you’d be eatin’ them leaves, too”, he said with a laugh.
“It’s funny, but I’d only planned on staying a few weeks. Figured I’d stay for the maple syrup season to see what that was all about, and get started back home before the weather got too bad. As it turned out, I come to learn that maple syrup season is in the spring, not the fall like I thought, so I decided to stay the winter. My brother got me a temporary job driving a truck for a local dairy, and that’s where I met the most beautiful gal in the world- Marjorie. Everybody called her Margie. She was a bookkeeper at the dairy, and the first time I met her I asked her out on a date. Took me a full week of badgering her before she finally said yes. That night, I decided that this was the girl for me,” Rusty reflected.
“There was an upholsterer in town that was good with his hands, and he rode a motorcycle himself, so he helped me rig up a seat for the back of Wampum. I remember riding over to the house where Margie rented a room the next Sunday afternoon, after church, to take her for a ride. She was pretty surprised to see that bike, said she’s never been on one of “those things”, and had no desire to try it. But I convinced her she’d be safe, so she run upstairs and put on a pair of old dungarees and a warm coat and scarf and gloves, and we took off. “
“She held on to me real tight, which I considered a double benefit,” Rusty smiled, “and we rode off into the country. By the time we got back two hours later, her cheeks were as rosy as little apples and she was just laughing and smiling. Boy, she was beautiful. She’d always tell folks afterwards that she wasn’t sure if she fell in love with me or that motorcycle. But we came as a pair, so she was stuck with the both of us.”
“Well, I stayed through the winter, and boy was it cold up there, and it seemed like it snowed every day. Had to put ole Wampum up in the garage. I’d have to walk about a mile to see Margie most nights, would’ve walked 10 miles if I had to. Come March, I finally got to see how they made their maple syrup. My brother took the whole family traipsing out in the woods to tap the trees to collect the sap. I had my little niece, Margaret, up on my shoulders ‘cuz the snow was so deep. Margie came with us too. Then after a while, we’d go back and set some big kettles to boil down the sap, and had us a grand time. I’ll never forget those sweet smells in them woods.”
“When the weather broke, I took Wampum out of the garage, and Margie and me would take it out every chance we could. And little Margaret, my niece, would love to see me ride off on that Chief. One time I put her up on the gas tank and fired up the motor, and she just laughed and giggled at how the bike shook. She squealed every time I’d gas the throttle. Got a picture at home of me and her on Wampum. That’s probably why she still has a soft spot for her old Uncle Rusty.”
“So how’d you come to get back here?” I asked.
Rusty replied, “Well that April, my brother got a telegram from Mrs. Weems, and she was lookin’ for me. Her husband owned the filling station where I’d worked, and he passed away kind of sudden, so she was fixin’ to sell the place. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in buying it. Shoot, I only had a few hundred dollars to my name, and couldn’t afford it. But she said that I could just take over, and pay her out over time, if I wanted. In those days you could make a good living sellin’ gas and fixing cars, so I said I’d do it. That night, I asked Margie to marry me, and come back here to live. I nearly did cartwheels when she said yes.”
“So I rode straightaways back here, and she took the train out a few weeks later. Got married two days after she got here, on May 25, 1949. You couldn’t’ find two happier people anywhere on the planet. Margie worked at the station with me most days, handling the books and such. She had a head for business. I’d fix cars and motorcycles, but NO Harleys! Oh, I’d fix a flat, or help out a stranded Harley rider if I had to, just because it was the right thing to do, but the locals knew better than to bring one of ‘em here for service. Fixed quite a few Triumphs and English bikes, had nothin’ against them. But NO Harleys. I helped some of the local dirt track racers soup up their race bikes in my spare time. One time we even had an Indian race in the Springfield Mile, and beat all them Harleys that was winnin’ all the races back then. Kept that trophy right on the counter next to the cash register.”
Rusty paused, then continued. “Margie and me never were blessed with children. But all the kids in town knew Margie and they all seemed to kind of adopt each other. Whenever the kids came by needing air in their bicycle tires, or with a broken chain, Margie always would slip them a piece of bubblegum or candy from the station. Pretty soon they began calling her Aunt Margie, and she just loved them all to death. “
“We’d ride old Wampum around town and into the country on Sundays, and Margie never got tired of it. One summer, we even rode out to South Dakota to see Mt. Rushmore. ‘Course, on that trip we stayed in motels along the way, instead of farmer’s barns. But we had a grand time.”
“Yep, Margie and me was together for over 40 years, until the cancer took her in 1989. And some of those little kids from town that had grown up with her and got married, came back, some with their own families, to pay their respects to Aunt Margie. She’d have liked to have seen that. Day after we buried her, I closed the station and took a ride on old Wampum. Stayed out for hours before I got back and parked her in a corner. I put a tarp over her. Never rode her again. Just wasn’t the same without Margie, and just the sight of it would make me sad.”
And then he drifted off again until he perked up and continued:
“Some of the locals asked to buy her, but I didn’t want to have to see it riding around town by somebody else. Few years later, a young feller from Iowa stops in the station with a blown radiator hose on his truck and sees the tarp in the corner, and asks what’s under it. I tell him and he asks if it’s for sale. He takes a look and says, ‘I can give you five hundred dollars for it.’ It needed some work to get it running and looking good, but I knew that these things were becoming ‘collectibles’ as they say. So I says, ‘You got a pretty little girl back home who would ride with you on the back of it?’ He says, ‘Yes sir, and come October, we’re getting married.’ So I says, ‘Well, let’s load her up on your truck.’ ‘I don’t have the money on me,’ he says, ‘but I can drive back next week with it.’ So I say, ‘that’s OK, you can take her now, and send me a check. You just promise me that you and your gal will have as much fun with it as me and mine did.’”
“The next week I got that check, and donated the money to the church. Margie would have liked that.” And again the old man stared straight up from his coffee and got lost in his reverie.
Next Week: The Old Man Rides Again
Ken “Hawkeye” Glassman
*1947 Indian Chief photo by Darin Schnabel, RM Sotheby’s