I had lunch, after a Basic Rider class, with a guy who'd been reading my column for a few years and took the class, partially, on the recommendation he'd found in one of my articles. He couldn't remember which column it was, but he was sure that I'd said something, sometime, about practicing basic skills being a worthwhile activity. Somehow, he ended up in one of my Basic Rider classes and felt the need to let me know about it as we were packing away the bikes at the end of the course. Better yet, he offered to buy me lunch.
While we were waiting for service at a particularly mediocre restaurant, he asked how I'd managed to avoid all of the motorcycling pitfalls I've described in my Geezer columns. Wow! Had he ever read me wrong! I haven't avoided ANYTHING, ever, except education and training before I needed it, experienced advice when I was inexperienced, and wisdom and judgment when it was desperately necessary. If I have any claim to positive personal value, it's that I try hard to make each mistake no more than once and that, somehow, I have lived through doing everything wrong at least once. I've repeated a few mistakes, but I work at keeping the count low.
Take any one of my favorite rant topics and you'll find that I have first hand experience on the other side of the fence. I've never been a member of any motorcycle group more vicious than the AMA, MWTA, or MN-Sportbike.org, but that's about the only motorcycling fault I've avoided. Yeah, I've produced excessive noise (two and four-stroke noise), ridden without a helmet (pre-1969 racing and recreational riding), pissed off landowners and neighbors, ignored and disobeyed laws and common courtesy, and I've even failed to recognize that motorcycles should be a part of daily commuter traffic.
The most embarrassing thing about getting old is recollections of how dumb you were when you were young.
I was an exceptionally dumb kid, with absolutely no adults of similar interests as mentors. When I swung a leg over my first motorcycle, the only people riding in my end of Podunk, western Kansas were my age or younger. In fact, I was lucky to be young near the beginning of the Motorcycle Age. Not at the beginning of motorcycling, because motorcycles arrived a couple of decades before my father was born. Not at the origin of the American motorcycle boom, either, because a tiny fraction of the Greatest Generation invented and financed the slow beginning of American motorcycles after WWII.
Motorcycling took off in the United States when Europe and Japan discovered the vast New World economic utopia in the early 1960s and I was part of that nirvana. My first ride (belonging to my brother) was a 1962 Italian 250, relabeled "Harley Davidson." My second was a 1965 Honda 175. Third was a 185 (or 175) Suzuki that lasted such a short moment that I can't even remember the model or displacement. Fourth, was a 1971 Kawasaki 350 Bighorn. And the list has gone on for almost half a century.
My father was so set against his kids riding motorcycles that he didn't know my brother and I had one until five years later, when I was back in Kansas, married, and beginning something that never quite coalesced into a career. He still disapproves of everything about me and motorcycles. My wife has never tried to convince me that I should consider a more conservative transportation, because she knows it would be a waste of time and energy. I don't react well to guilt tactics and it is, after all, my life; regardless of what the chicken hawks in Washington and St. Paul think. Most of the folks who disapprove of my motorcycling habit are too timid for their opinions to matter much to me, so I roll-on WFO unencumbered by common sense or rational fear. I'm not yet old enough to be conservative.
That's not exactly true. I rode fairly liberally and fearlessly for a long time, until I started getting hurt. I always understood that broken bikes can be fixed, but a busted body might not repair as well and that saved me from a lot of injuries for a long time. About the time I turned 30, I began to get hurt worse than my bikes. I started by tearing a 3", 15-stitch gash in my leg, hooking it on a trials bike shock bolt on my way back down a pile of concrete. I followed that, a few weeks later, with a left foot full of broken toes. After a year of one tore-up thing after another, I broke a bunch of ribs and was out of work for three months. Afterwards, I was infected with a year of irrational fear and experienced a mild version of PTSD, which made me completely worthless on the race track. It didn't keep me off of motorcycles, but it kept me from being competitive or getting much air between my wheels and the ground. Think Will Farrell and NASCAR and you'll have an idea of what I looked like going around a motocross track. That ended my motorcycle racing phase.
Moto-politically, I have been marginally astute. I was in my early-20s when I figured out the link between motorcycle hooliganism and shrinking riding space. Before that, it seemed like we had an infinite area to ride and a right to be there. In Nebraska, for example, we had a thousand miles of "limited access roads" that tied together into an incredible, free, barely-occupied, and unadvertised motorcycle park. Kids on dirt bikes and ATVs managed to piss off the landowners and state park managers by tearing up fences and vandalizing unmonitored grassland until the people who made the rules changed them. Afterwards, the only way to play was to pay. When I moved to California in the early 1980's, I experienced how bad those restrictions could get.
I think it ought to be obvious that a tiny minority exists at the pleasure of the majority, but we humans are not that bright. We confuse rights with privileges and, when we lose our privileges, we whine like Paris Hilton when she pays taxes on her inheritance. It's easy to tell the difference between a privilege and a right, in case you're confused. A "right" is something that is necessary and a "privilege" is a luxury.
People often confuse the two; sort of like confusing "need" and "want." Freedom of expression, the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a trial, the banishment of cruel and unusual punishment, civil rights, and the rest are critical to civilization, progress, and the pursuit of happiness. The privilege of owning and operating a single-passenger vehicle is dependent on resources, necessity, and cultural convenience. Nobody needs a motorcycle. Nobody needs an SUV. People survived for thousands of years without them and, soon, we may have to figure out how to live without them again. Our society, the world, will roll past this inconvenience as if it were a small bump in a historic road, if these privileges are lost. It's worth keeping that in mind when you stretch your "Loud and Proud" tee-shirt over your belly.
Highway riders are taking the same low road with loud pipes, poor highway manners, and our high accident fatality rates and, I expect, we'll receive the same reward on-road that we earned off-road. If you can't contribute something positive, most likely you'll end up being obsolete in a world of diminishing resources. Evolve or vanish, those are the only choices an individual, a business, a culture, or a species has.
I like to think I've evolved a lot, in my 40-some years of motorcycling. I had a long way to travel and a lot has changed since the 1960s. Oddly, I think I've changed more in the last five years than I had in the previous twenty. Looking back through more than sixty Geezer columns, I can see a lot of my attitudes have shifted since I started publicly writing about motorcycling. In my career, I've suffered the mismanagement and collapse of two substantial companies and as many small businesses. I've learned to identify the signs of impending corporate death. I've watched a lot of personal rights and privileges disappear in my lifetime; it's been a rough sixty years for justice and human rights. All you can do is try to learn from the experiences and, if you care enough, share what you think you've learned with like-minded people. There is nothing positive to be gained in repeating history. Contrary to popular belief, mistakes are not even funny in repetition.
Lunch with the ex-student/new-rider holding a lot less respect for my personal brilliance and a better understanding of how my experience might fool an unsuspecting victim into believing I possess some kind of wisdom. However, he paid for lunch and, in my book, letting someone else grab the bill is always a wise decision.
MMM July 2007