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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Last Refuge, Part One

A few months ago I read an article in the Free Press about a handful of protesters dispatched to Michigan by the quite deranged Reverend Fred Phelps. He is the leader of some mutant strain of Christianity that has Christ himself threatening to come back just to file an injunction banning their further use of his name and seeking unpaid back royalties stemming from use of his likeness and trademarked tag lines.

I won't waste time ridiculing Phelps, the person or the premise, because it presents no challenge. What is left to be said about a chronic failure who attempted to shoot himself with a 12 gauge shotgun and missed? That Kurt Cobain was a better marksman? That he should be hanged for tainting the image of the cowboy hat?

In any event, the mission of said protesters was to get as close to military funerals as possible, not to protest the war, but to wave Day-Glo signs reading "God Hates Fags," "Thank God For Dead Soldiers," "America is Doomed," and other charming leaps of logic. AS SEEN ON TV.

Enter the Patriot Guard Riders, a loosely-knit conglomeration of existing biker clubs and, generally speaking, extremely pissed off veterans with Harleys. Their mission--to provide funeral escort and form a formidable human barrier between the protesters and the grieving family.

I had to check it out. It appealed to my Forrest Gump instincts. The instinct to be in the arena, intentionally or by happenstance. The instinct to hear and understand and humor all sides. And the instinct to thump the living crap out of anyone who crosses the boundaries of basic human decency.

I rode in the formation honoring Army Spc Andrew K. Waits of Waterford on April 22d. Another casualty of a HUMVEE strike. That these vehicles need to be adequately reinforced goes without saying. Sadly, I think there is currently more American brainpower directed at the problem of reinforcing Kotex pads.

A word about the sheer drama of 300+ motorcycles, most of which fall into the earthshaker category, firing up simultaneously and deploying in waves. It's a solemn adrenaline rush. It's an exercise in total 360 degree situational awareness. There's no playbook, no manual, no guru, no method, no teacher. You find your slot, roll into it, establish a rhythm, and in the name of all that is holy, you make no sudden moves. Somehow I knew that marching for hours in the San Antonio sun would prove useful someday.

We arrived at the church and parked our bikes along both sides of Airport Road. I remember women who were there to welcome us literally falling apart, overcome by the enormity of what they'd conjured up. Tears everywhere. Really, really contagious tears. A sea of American flags. And lucklily, no protesters to siphon off the magic.

Most were simply there to line the street for the eventual funeral procession; a handful were selected to be in it. One of the more imposing PGR leads took command of the traffic situation, allowing mourners unimpeded access into the church parking lot. This was no small task. I lost count of the number of GuzzaloExpeditioTrucksters that couldn't be bothered with the delay and tried blasting right on through. Consider my irony meter pegged.

Thankfully, there were considerably more passers-by who put two and two together, leaned out and blew kisses, honked, waved, cried, and in a few cases, slowed to an absolute crawl while holding a rock solid salute, traffic be damned.

Pealing bells signified the start of the procession. I must have seen every level of government and law enforcement represented. A squadron of Oakland County Sheriff's Dept Harleys. Various cars containing Army personnel. Rumor had it Andrew's commanding officer was among them, which struck me as a class move.

And finally, the hearse. The plan was to have it get to a certain point on the route and stop so that those lining the street could, on command, pay respects. I was wholly unprepared for it stopping directly in front of me. And I don't mean the front parking light. I mean the rear window. Time stood still. Sound and peripheral vision got sucked into the ether. Nothing but the low metallic hum of a Cadillac engine at idle. Somewhere off to the right, as if I'm listening from the bottom of a swimming pool, I hear "PRESENT....ARMS."

My arm reflexively flips to the precise angle, as if it's been 15 minutes since my last salute and not 15 years. I am thinking of John-John on that cold November day in 1963. I am thinking of the motorcycle rides that Andrew Waits will never go on. I am thinking of kids like him who are driven to do the right thing and don't need or expect a textbook, universal acceptance, or gratitude.

I am thinking of a mother's soul in shards.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

If You Are Flammable and Have a Bike...

I'm beginning to wonder if I have some power that's a cross between Drew Barrymore in Firestarter and Aunt Clara from Bewitched.

Cars on fire. It's happened twice in the last few months--2 times 2 many, and far 2 close 2 be comfor2bale.

The latest unannounced barbecue occurred this morning as I was rolling up to an intersection off of South Boulevard. From 100 yards or so away, I could make out a small pool of orange underneath a UAW masterpiece that had seen better days. I saw a large figure walking away from the general area. Ambling. Moseying. In my youth, we called it pimping.

I knew I was headed toward a small fire that would soon be a very large one, but couldn't quite square it with the absolutely stunning lack of urgency shown by the owner/occupant. At least I hope he was. If this was arson, then the lack of urgency would have been off the charts.

I didn't panic, but post-King verdict Los Angeles sprang to mind. If Reginald Denny could be pulled from the fortress-like confines of a tractor trailer cab, complete with its Easy Rider Rifle Rack and collection of truck stop switchblades and throwing stars, did I stand a chance armed with nothing but a throttle and one guess at an exit route? My helmet might have deflected two or three of those famous fire extinguisher shots to the head, but that's about it.

Here on South Boulevard, no one was using a fire extinguisher, for evil or good. As I downshifted and rolled up to the intersection, the car had become completely engulfed in flames. It was just across the street, directly ahead. I paused for a second or two, unsure of the etiquette and rules of engagement regarding cars turned bonfire. There is simply nothing heroic to do. If there were occupants left behind, there's nothing left to save and everything to lose; if there weren't, well, better Allstate's hands than mine.

I rolled right and hurried on to work. Where was the fire? About a mile back thataway.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Confessions Of A Harley Virgin

Motorcycling. If there's an endeavor with more spectator expertise and wrongheaded pop wisdom, I'm not aware of it. Child rearing, maybe. Within motorcycling, Harley-Davidson has more than its fair share of both, and in a lot of cases, they bring it upon themselves. Small wonder, when the company lends its branding to everything from margarita pitchers to chew toys. Discretion took the last train out of town a decade ago. Whatever it takes to keep an American company in the black and Fido from gnawing at the Harley(TM) drapes, I suppose.

I've peered through the windows of various HD dealerships for about two years now. Always after business hours, usually in the wee hours passing through Anytown, Michigan. Even this requires a degree of gumption. They're imposing places. Museums where the artifacts happen to be for sale. It's like watching my father's Zapruderesque Super 8 films of whitewalled America with the sparkly screen and the lighting that threatened to fry the unwilling subjects to a crisp if the shot were held another four seconds.

It was only a few weeks ago that I walked through the doors in broad daylight with the intention of forging ahead. I think I feigned nonchalance by looking at souvenir Christmas ornaments or something, then playing it off like, "Wow, in addition to fine holiday decorations, you have actual motorcycles too!"

There was no question that I wanted some flavor of Sportster. I like 'em lean and unadorned. More dance partner than conveyance. La-Z Boy recliners belong in the living room, and the plastic spaceship cowlings belong to the Power Rangers. That's my motophilosphy. This week.

I'm a sucker for nostalgia--phony Beatlemania, whether it's bitten the dust or not. Sportsters have been in continuous production since Christ was a corporal. Or at least since Elvis was a private first class. He rode an 883. This was prior to fried peanut butter sandwiches and Sans-A-Belt pants. It doesn't help that there are thirty-one flavors of Sportster. I chose vanilla, and then it rained for eight straight days, precluding a pickup. Eight agonizing days of rethinking, reconfiguring, spec comparison, forum diving, advice seeking, and teeth gnashing.

In the end, a black 1200 Custom got the nod. The upgrades I would have bought eventually were already there. It's a bike with multiple personality disorder. From one angle, it looks like any innocuous standard issue cruiser. From another, you can see Coventry, England. From another, Memphis, Tennessee. When you fire it up, it's all Milwaukee, with the signature "potato potato potato" rumble at idle. They know that the potato triggers an uncontrollable goofball grin. It's the knockout punch they deliver when you're still on the fence clinging to the remnants of your sanity.

They introduced me to everyone. They welcomed me to the family. What family, I wondered? A legion of middle-aged guys named Fred who look like Kenny Rogers, discarded by their real families once the cash and mojo ran out? Well, no. My aversion to Harley(TM)-branded dudes and dudettes notwithstanding, this is a highly organized phenomenon with a world-class support structure and customer service that is the stuff of legend. Entree is expensive, no question, but no other motorcycle company can touch them in this regard. And it's too late to try. Their detractors can all suck it, with the exception of the 2% who have actually ridden one.

So what was it like from the perspective of a Harley virgin? I've packed a lot of riding into a short span, and have plugged away through some frightening scenarios. Highway 90 through Chicago just in time for Saturday Night Methamphetamine Dance Party USA leaps to mind. Well, I was scared, as all virgins have a right to be. There's being scared, then there's the associated pressure of not LOOKING scared while you're very much on display in front of the dealership during sales primetime.

So, Hugh, did you get all that? Is there anything else you need? Nope, fine, ready to roll. Only I have no idea what's been said for the last half an hour as I'm in a chrome-induced coma, and I don't know what the hell I'm doing with this thing that packs twice the fandango power of my current ride.

Any activity where you effectively lose a sense (hearing, in this case) has a heightened sense of drama. So you go by feel and leave the rest to whatever it is you leave these things to and try not to die. Thing #1 I learned is that a cold Harley is to be caressed into motion. Once warm, you only need to point it in a safe direction. No, I did not steal this from a lewd bumpersticker.

I adopted my standard short-range (50 mi) flight plan as follows: DCX->Squirrel->Dutton->Adams->Orion->Rochester->Dryden->Capac. Dryden Road between M-53 and Capac Road has the power to turn me into a 20-year old for the few minutes it lasts. I couldn't resist pushing it, just once, warranty be damned.

I was unprepared for and pleasantly surprised by the slingshot effect that came with the thunk of a gear change. Doubly so when I hit the sweet spot. It is the hand of God at your back. It's your sadistic older brother pushing you on the swingset, secretly wondering what would happen if he could make you do a complete revolution. By the time I hit Capac, I was doing my best Charlton Heston "from my cold dead hands." The way it drops into a turn and hugs the pavement is like nothing I've experienced. Make a bad line, gear, or speed decision, and you're easily forgiven. I know, I make all three, sometimes all at once.

Let me make it plain that I'm not comparing the Sporty with this or that bike. I hesitate to compare it to anything, really. My universe is small, my access to production bikes even smaller. You just let the poetry sort of exist where and when it was created and leave it at that. I suppose it's like those copies of "The Watchtower" sitting in the laundromat. Eventually, everyone's gonna get tired of studying the ""Not Responsable for Lost Artacles - THE MANAGEMENT!!!!"" sign and read those sumbitches cover to cover.

A note on the apocryphal Harley effect on women. In my brief time in the saddle, I've been stopped twice, neither of which counts. One was a cop and I'm reasonably certain it was in the line of duty. Alas, asking for a number in this particular situation requires a larger pair than I currently own. Besides, it's all on camera, so I didn't want to jeopardize her career. Yep, that's it. The second was a parking lot drive-by vulture who I'm completely certain was pretending to be lost, flashing her Google map, Googlier eyes, and...Googliest...whatnots. Ewwwwwww!!!!! Can I get a Napoleon Dynamite GuhROS!

Halfway through the break-in period and counting.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness

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Saturday.

Sleep in the meantime will be hard-won. The selection process and arrangements over the last few weeks, not to mention re-selection and rearrangements, have forced me to flip my sanity valve into reserve. I have to credit the folks at HD for having buckets of patience, applying zero pressure, and cleaning my noseprints from the store window on several occasions. I won't spell out the calculus that helped me arrive here...well, not the boring specs and financials anyway.

An unbroken line back to Elvis Presley's Model K, style cues lifted from the British bikes it was designed to compete with, a smoothing of the historically rough edges. The first few choices were fine, but quite simply didn't scare me enough.

The prospect of finding the bottom of the throttle in, say, Memphis (Michigan) does.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Joni Is A Punk

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Save the bombs for later -- I'm not that bad, ya dig? Quit pitchin' shit up here.

It's a minor point, but I occasionally see references to Joni Mitchell being pelted with a water bottle at Live Aid. This might have been the same jungle telegraph that placed Pete Townsend's boot squarely in Abbie Hoffman's ass at Woodstock. Or it might have just been sloppy research and dulled memory. The fact is, she wasn't there.

She was, however, at the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope show a year later, placed in the suicide slot just prior to a Police reunion that was much ado about nothing and a U2 finale that was much ado about quite a lot. Here there were cups and plastic UFOs galore. I was no fan at the time, but I knew enough to be puzzled. This wasn't the communal vibe one associates with a U2 show (which is really all AICOH amounted to). U2 fans would listen in hushed awe to Slim Whitman if Bono ever dug him out of obscurity. Equally baffling was that many in the restless mob were fans of The Police, whose leader had by then recorded with Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis. Hell, I was there in '82 when Sting trotted out a stand-up bass for "Invisible Sun," with its time signature of, I dunno, pi?

What was most compelling was that she just...kept...going, almost antagonistically slowing her delivery. It was a punk rock moment that'll never make a VH1 countdown. This was Elvis Costello meets SNL in reverse, and maybe it had a little to do with him adding "Edith And The Kingpin" to his set years later. The songs were complex, painted in colors devised on the spot, and wildly out of context in a New Jersey football stadium. She needed no picture of the Pope, no sleight of hand to challenge and beguile when the music failed to do so. And she didn't break down and exit stage left when things got ugly.*

It's a streak common to the creative people I've had the good fortune to know. They come to terms with an inaccessibility often mistaken for arrogance. The best aren't trying to be that way, they're just square pegs that won't be round no matter how many times you walk them over to the belt sander. The fun part is watching them do the math--calculating a time lag that comes with relaying human experiences that are not necessarily universal. That one over there will get this lyric on July 14, 2011. That guy over there might take longer, unless he marries up. Only when you have walked in Memphis can you make sense of feet being ten feet off of Beale. Only when you've strayed outside the line can you understand why Mr. Cash preferred to walk it.

I'm not quite sure what brought this on, beyond having "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" and "Hejira" rotating like plates in an Italian circus act. Maybe I'll get it next year.

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* See Sinead O'Connor during the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert.