An ode to motorcycling from someone who is still not recovered enough from crash injuries to ride and misses a chance to be on his Harley.
Archive for Musings
As regular readers know, I have been off motorcycles this year because of a prolonged recovery from last fall’s accident in Roanoke County. While I can’t ride, I can still edit footage from shoots and look forward to the day when I am cleared to ride again.
The Roanoke Valley Harley Owners Group, which includes members from Floyd County — including Stayce Eller, this year’s chapter director — won the Virginia Championship Chili Cook-off today.
The group can represent Virginia in the national cook-off in Palm Springs, California, later this year.
The rumble of motorcycles has become a regular part of weekends in Floyd as poker runs, benefit rides and gatherings just for fun ride through the town on just about every Saturday and many Sundays.
A benefit ride for Floyd County’s Volunteer Fire Department Station 1 came through town Saturday on a loop ride that took them from the Auto Fair at Chantilly Farms into Floyd, up Rte. 8 to Riner and along other country roads before arriving back at Chantilly to enjoy food from vendors, take in the Auto Fair and hand out door prizes.
A good ride for a good cause. Theatening weather may have held the crowd down but those who attended contributed to a good cause.
At 45 miles per hour, of course, that ride must be done in segments so I set our Saturday for segment one: Riding up through the Shenandoah Valley to Waynesboro to start the journey at mile post 0.
At the north end, I found construction that closed several of the overlooks, bad pavement from a road that is deteriorating and a lot of damage from the massive wind storm that swept through the state on June 29.
The Park Service must have worked overtime to clear trees and debris from the road but the sides remained littered with fallen trees, branches and other remnants of the winds that roared through the area at speeds as high as 80 miles per hour. A Park Ranger stopped while I was taking pictures of the carnage and said it would take the service most of the year to clear out all the downed trees.
Very little traffic for a Saturday afternoon. Many visitors may have thought the Parkway was closed. Many others may still be struggling with the after effects of the storm.
While those in lower elevations struggled with temperatures near 100 degrees, cooler weather prevailed at the Parkway’s higher elevations and a breeze kept things comfortable as I traversed the crest of the Blue Ridge on the Harley.
At Peaks of Otter, cones blocked the entrance. No power for the lodge or the restaurant. The gift shop and snack bar across the street was also closed. No electricity.
Less damage as I passed near Roanoke and started up Bent Mountain. My pilgrimage for segment one ended at Route 8 near mile post 165 for a quick hop back home.
Sometime before the year is out, I will finish the trip. Maybe in the fall when things have calmed down.
Of the two, J.P. Richardson — aka The Big Bopper — was all leer, from the opening “Hello Baby!” to the closing “Oh Baby That’s What I Like!”
And it gave me an excuse to produce one more video out of the recent T&A bikini contest at Black Bear Harley-Davidson in Wytheville.
Why? Why not. Let’s just say the shindig deserved more exposure. Maybe I needed to prove there was more than one way to skin a video. Or maybe I’m just a dirty old man.
Or maybe all of the above.
I suppose I could offer a bunch of rationalizations for shooting, editing and posting this video but why bother. The reasons are obvious.
For the record, this was a bikini and “Daisy Duke” contest at Black Bear Harley-Davidson in Wytheville, featuring the young ladies of the International Bikini Bike Wash Team. Yes, there is such a thing.
(WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this for a magazine and a political news web site in 1998. It became my most requested column for reprinting in other publications and for other web sites. It is reprinted here as a reminder that we must always remember to honor those who wear the uniform and serve our nation. A video about the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial appears at the end of this article.)
He snapped awake at 0500, a full 30 minutes before the alarm was set to go off.
For more than 30 years, he had been waking up at 5 a.m. It didn’t matter which time zone he was in or even if it was daylight savings time. When the big hand was on the 12 and the little one on the five, he was awake.
He crawled into the shower and lay there for 30 minutes, letting the hot water loosen up his muscles and numb the throbbing pain of too many arthritic bones.
But the water limbered him up enough to pull on some faded blue jeans, t-shirt and leather vest. It took some effort to pull on the boots, but he managed. Then he strapped on the leather chaps. Three cups of coffee and several accompanying groans later, he headed into the garage where she was waiting.
She didn’t get much use these days, but she didn’t complain. Instead, she waited patiently under the tarp, waited for Memorial Day weekend to come around, knowing he would polish her up and head out onto the open road.
He worked for the better part of two hours, polishing the chrome, checking the oil level and the tire pressures. Then he kicked loose the stand, fired her up and headed into the morning air.
Not much traffic on Arlington’s Washington Boulevard on a Sunday morning. A few cars. Some slowed to take a look at the gleaming Harley Road King. Few noticed the gray-haired, middle-aged rider. He nosed into the parking lot of Bob & Edith’s Diner on Columbia Pike and parked besides a half-dozen other Harleys. He noticed two he expected to be here were not.
“Afternoon chief, did we sleep in this morning?” After 30 years and they still called him by the rank they knew him by then.
“You know me. Just couldn’t get up.”
“We weren’t sure you would make it. Heard you were hard down.”
“Will be in about two weeks. Go under the knife on 12 June.”
He looked around.
“VA Hospital in Albuquerque. He’s fading.”
Damn. Each year, the list of those who don’t make it got longer. He’d hauled Crowder on his back through more than 10 clicks of jungle. The citation for the medal he received for the action cited “extraordinary bravery above and beyond the call of duty.” He laughed when he thought of that citation. Bravery had nothing to do with it. Fear, driven by adrenaline, did.
“What about Horsely?”
“Laid the bike down on 50 in Indiana three months ago. DOA.”
Well, at least it wasn’t age. Or maybe it was. A younger man might have survived.
For the next 90 minutes, they ignored the ravages of age and worries about cholesterol and hardened arteries, wolfing down pork chops, bacon, eggs and hash browns, talking about days that have long since passed.
“They say we will have a quarter million out today. Maybe more than a hundred thousand bikes. Kinda miss the old days when there only a few hundred of us.”
“Yeah, at this rate, there will be more out there than who actually served. Getting hard to tell the wannabes from those who were in the shit.”
“I can tell. Always could.”
“Hey, remember the guy who showed up last year with the Vulcan? Thought he was gonna get killed. Bringing a Jap bike to Thunder. Ain’t right.”
“Saw some Jap bikes on the way in this morning. Some German ones too.”
“Yeah, times change.”
They finished and headed up Columbia Pike to the Pentagon, joining a mass of bikes and the thunder of unmuffled exhausts in the parking lot. He opened the saddlebag and pulled out the same American flag and black POW-MIA flag he had used for the past 11 years. Along with his Boonie hat. At least it still fit.
A few hours later, they were in line, pulling out, headed for the Memorial Bridge and the Mall in Washington. Rolling Thunder was under way.
He’d been on the first one, a decade earlier, a much smaller group of Vietnam vets riding their bikes into Washington to protest the U.S. government’s inaction on resolving the nagging issue of what happened to too many American servicemen who were unaccounted for Prisoners of War or still listed as Missing in Action.
Back then, the local law refused to cooperate and the veterans groups looked askance as the mostly long-haired group of motorcyclists who looked more like Hell’s Angels than veterans of a forgotten war.
But Thunder had grown through the years, along with the awareness that Uncle Sam had not done right by those left behind in Southeast Asia. The longhairs were still there, the heart of the movement, but Thunder now included bank clerks, accountants and the widows and children of men who were left behind. Now they got police escorts and the Vets groups were more tolerant.
As he crossed Memorial Bridge, a number of those in the crowd stepped out to slap the hands of those coming in. A young woman handed him a small American flag. He stuck the flag in his handbrake.
They circled the Mall before parking and heading to the Wall. Officially, it is called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But those who were there just called it the Wall. It takes a while before some Vietnam vets can go there. Some never get up the nerve.
It took Rolling Thunder 1 to get him to the Wall. Afterwards, he was sorry he had waited so long to go.
He walked the length, scanning the dark service for names he knew. He always found them, even when he didn’t want to. One who died next to him. A young man who had one day to go when a mortar round took him out. Another who was already dead when they arrived to extract him. Names and faces that were still clear in his memory after 30 years.
He knelt and prayed with his buddies before leaving. Then they rode back across the Potomac and visited Arlington Cemetery to say hello to some others who didn’t make it.
People looked at the small group of gray-haired men in their motorcycle leathers and gave them a wide berth, not sure of what brought such a dangerous-looking group out to a place of honor on Memorial Day weekend. But it didn’t take long for the rough-looking crowd to quickly outnumber those in their Sunday best.
Later, they sat at Hard Times Cafe in Arlington and wondered how many more Rolling Thunders it would take before the federal government finally did something.
“How much longer we gonna keep doing this?”
“Until we get some answers.”
Then they parted, promising — as always — to keep in touch during the year but knowing — as always — that they probably would nott see or talk to each again until next year’s Memorial Day weekend.
He wheeled the Harley back into the garage, listened to it idle for a few minutes, and shut her down, covering her with the tarp.
Once inside, he unstrapped the leather chaps, took off the boots, and put them away.
Until next year.
The Vietnam Veterans Moving Wall is a documentary that my wife and I shot in 2003 to tell the story of a the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial during a visit of one of the memorials to Fairview Heights, Illinois, near Scott Air Force Base and St. Louis. It features Adrian Cronauer, the former armed forces DJ portrayed by Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam.” After his Vietnam service, Adrian managed Channel 27 in Roanoke, Virginia, during the late 60s and we became friends during my tenure at The Roanoke Times. Adrian later served in the POW and Missing in Action office at the Pentagon and retired two years ago. He and his wife, Jean, now live in Troutville, Virginia.
An outpouring of support and expressions of relief descended on our lives following my close call Wednesday when a pickup truck sideswiped my motorcycle on Meadow Creek Road (Pig Path) between Riner and Radford.
Dozens of emails and comments on Facebook warmed both Amy’s and my hearts. All are very appreciated. Many friends, casual acquaintances and folks we haven’t met before have come up in restaurants, sporting events and on the street to offer their expressions of relief that I walked away from the accident that resulted in just bruises and slight damage to my Harley-Davidson.
And nearly everyone followed up with two questions:
- “How did you and the bike not go down?”
- “How did you walk away from a collision between a Chevy Silverado and a motorcycle?”
I could try laughing it off by saying something smug like “superior riding skill,” but the truth is it was more blind luck than anything else.
Friends and readers have suggested divine intervention, which I’m sure played a strong role. I believe everyone has a time to die and Wednesday, May 16 at 12:05 p.m. just wasn’t my time.
I’ve replayed those brief, jarring seconds over many times and also believe a number of factors came into play that prevented both my motorcycle going down and me ending up in the hospital or on a coroner’s slab.
Those factors include:
- The only part of the bike that actually came into contact with the pickup was the clutch lever on the left-hand side of the Harley. It made initial contact with the truck at the leading edge of the Silverado’s left-front fender and left a three-foot long gouge in the paint and bodywork. The impact pushed the clutch lever back against my left hand, mashing three fingers hard enough to leave deep bruises and embed some of the leather from those gloves into the back of the lever but the few inches of give in the lever were enough to avoid wrenching the handlebars from my hands and sending the bike down;
- When my left shoulder and the left side of my helmet crashed into the truck’s drivers side mirror, the “breakaway” mirror folded in towards the truck, cushioning the blow and providing just enough “give” to avoid knocking me off the bike. The force of the impact shattered the covering of the mirror;
- I was wearing a leather riding jacket with body armor in the shoulders and a leather vest underneath the jacket. Both cushioned the impact enough to avoid breaking a shoulder that has been broken too often in the past;
- My helmet was a full model with protection on the sides of my face and a face shield. That prevented the mirror from literally ripping off the side of my face. It also cushioned the blow and prevented any head trauma. The helmet did its job and will be retired with honors;
- Finally, the fact that I was riding a motorcycle and not driving a much wider and less maneuverable car most likely saved my life. If I had been in my Jeep Wrangler, I could not have swerved enough to avoid a head-on collision. The result would have been two cars, moving at 45-50 miles per hour, crashing head-on into each other for a combined impact speed of 90 to 100 mph. The Wrangler would have come out on the losing end of a headlong crash into a much larger, heavier Chevy Silverado pickup.
Many factors saved my life that day and the bottom line is that somebody upstairs was watching out for me and decided it’s not my time to come home just yet.
By any reasonable measurement, I should be dead. A few centimeters made the difference between sitting here writing this account of today’s near-death experience and a story in Thursday’s Roanoke Times that could have read:
A head-on collision between a pickup and a motorcycle left a 64-year-old Floyd County man dead Wednesday.
Police say Douglas Thompson Jr. of Floyd died after his Harley-Davidson Super Glide slammed into a Chevy Silverado driven by Dublin businessman Arthur Cox’s Chevy Silverado on Meadow Creek Road near Riner shortly after noon.
Meadow Creek Road, also known to locals as “Pig Path.” That rural highway has too many bad memories for Floyd Countians. Robert Pauley died after his motorcycle struck a dear in the post-midnight hours of Oct. 3, 2007. The twisty two-lane road that runs from Rte. 8 just north of Riner to Tyler Road near Carilion New River Valley Medical Center has claimed too many lives.
I take that road nearly every day on visits to my mother at her assisted living facility. At approximately 12:05 p.m. today I leaned the Harley into a sweeping left-hander just as the Silverado came around the curve well over the center line, right in my path.
Instinct and adrenaline took over and I veered sharply to the right. The Silverado, however, continued to encroach further and further into my lane. The maneuver saved my life as I avoided a head-on crash by centimeters, but the trailing edge of the clutch lever on the left handlebar of the Harley caught the edge of the truck’s front fender, gouging a groove that ran from the signal lamp halfway to the driver’s side door.
The impact drove the clutch level down onto my hand that on the left handlebar grip as my head and shoulder slammed into the driver’s side outside mirror of the pickup, shattering both it and the side of my helmet. Pain shot through my shoulder but — somehow — I managed to keep the bike veering to the right and did not lose control.
The Harley, staggered by the impact, wobbled towards the edge of the turn but I managed to avoid going off the road and brought the bike back under control, made it through the left-hander and stopped about 100 yards or so down the road.
Cox, as too many drivers who cause an accident do, could have fled the scene. He didn’t. He doubled back and found me still sitting on the bike.
“Are you OK? Are you hurt?”
“I’m not sure. You do realize you were on my side of the road.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It was my fault.”
I got off the bike as Cox called 911. I inspected the bike, expecting to find major damage but only the left-side mirror was bent along with the clutch lever and housing on the handlebars.
“They want to know if you need the rescue squad,” Cox said while on the phone with 911.
“No,” I responded. My shoulder and left arm throbbed but nothing seemed broken. I could move my arm and feel my fingers, which ached. I took off my riding gloves and found some scrapes on my fingers. Leather from the the glove lined the inside of the clutch lever.
The Cardo Rider intercom transmitter on the left side of my helmet dangled from a wire and part of the lower side of the helmet was missing. The helmet did its job. My face was scratched and a welt appeared on my left cheek. My shoulder and left arm ached but my leather riding jacket did its job as well, cushioning the force of the impact.
Cox appeared visibly shaken.
“I don’t believe you didn’t go down,” he said. “How did you stay upright on the bike?”
“I have no idea.”
Deputy B. K. Davis from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office arrived on the scene. Cox immediately admitted fault. He took statements, examined our paperwork, and ticketed Cox for the accident.
“You were lucky,” he said. “Make sure to have that shoulder checked out. Are you OK to ride?”
“Yes,” I said. Cox and I exchanged insurance information and I climbed on the Harley and continued the trip to visit my mother. She was asleep when I arrived so I kissed her on the forehead, asked the nurses to tell her I was there and stopped off at the clinic for a medical exam. They found soft tissue damage in my left shoulder and arm, abrasions on my cheek and fingers but no broken bones or apparent head trauma.
“Expect to be sore in the morning,” the doctor said. “You are a very lucky man. If I were you’d I’d buy a lottery ticket tonight.”
On the way home, I bought a Powerball ticket at Floyd Express Mart.
I didn’t win the lottery. Didn’t even come close but I didn’t need a win at Powerball. I had all the luck I needed on Meadow Creek Road at 12:05 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, 2012.