On the list of dangerous and stupid things I’ve done, the following story might get close to top billing.
All of us look back on some situations and say to ourselves, “Why in the world did I do that.” Then the other response is, “How in the world did I survive doing that?”
The fall of 1978 I was living in the north end of Philadelphia sharing the top apartment with another ex-seminarian. Our apartment was at the end of a typical Philadelphia row house. It was a far stretch from the wide open space that separated neighbors back at 1804 Morton. Picture the neighborhood from the first Rocky movie and then take it down a couple of notches. It was one of a few places that I am happy Mom never had a chance to visit.
Every work day morning I hiked through Fairmont Park to the opposite side, caught the underground to the Broad Street station, then walked up to Samson Street to Holt’s Tobacco Shop. The good men at Holts were kind enough to give me a job right out of the seminary. The only qualification was the ability to smoke cigars without gagging and know a little bit about pipes and tobacco.
I fit right in.
Holts was an old Philadelphia family run business with ties deep in the downtown culture of Philly. The store serviced many of the elite of Philly. This included the mayor, celebrities when they came to town, church officials, as well as regulars stopping by for handfuls of cigars and to pass time with Morey in the walk in humidor.
Morey was Mr. Cigar of downtown Philly. Morey worked at the store from the day it opened and like the rest of the inventory, was passed down to the next generation when the store changed hands.
Morey was a stubby little man who always wore dark pants held up with suspenders. Most of the time he sported a narrow black tie that cinched a yellowing white shirt loose around his neck. Over all of this he wore a black wool sweater year round. The front of the sweater always hung a couple of inches longer than the back. This draping only contributed to his hunched posture and shuffling stride. His black wire framed glasses rested on a prominent nose while the temple pieces disappeared under grey curls around his ears.
In his mouth was a cigar, most of the time, just the stump of one that he started early in the workday. Morey carried the cigar tucked on the right side of his face between his cheek and teeth. He could talk all day with the cigar never leaving its position with the exception of a few times when he would pull it out and use the chewed end as a pointer to an imaginary suggestion floating somewhere in front of him. Morey was small enough that looked up to most customers but no one ever looked down at Morey.
To this day Holt’s Tobacco proved to be one of my favorite jobs. Working with Morey all day, enjoying any cigar I wanted, and helping others find the perfect cigar was not a bad gig at all. But, the winds of change always seemed to blow in my ears in those days. It was time to move on from Philadelphia and start a new foundation in Connellsville, PA.
By this time I had sold my ’72 Pinto to purchase a brand new Yamaha 400 Special motorcycle. When I bought the bike I had three small obstacles to overcome.
I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, I didn’t have a motorcycle license and I had very little money to finance a bike.
Not real obstacles, just a few challenges.
On my days off and after work I would push the bike to a nearby football field to practice riding. Once I felt brave enough, I ventured out to the city streets and from there, I started taking longer bike rides to build my courage and skill.
The day finally came to leave Morey and the gang at Holt’s behind and head west.
Living the life of a seminarian for the past six years did not leave me with too many worldly possessions. What I owned fit in an army surplus duffle bag, and a few backpacks all of which were tied to the handlebars, gas tank and rear of the bike. I looked like a refugee fleeing across the country.
When I left Philadelphia the sun was hot on the back of my neck and a slight head wind kept me cool. Once out on the PA Turnpike, the wind picked up a little but not a real problem, nothing I couldn’t handle,
the first eighteen wheeler passed.
That was when I realized I was like a sparrow trying to fly west with a flock of geese. The duffle bag tied to the back of the bike worked like the rudder on a boat, steering me closer to the massive wheels of my brother road warriors. My only protection was kissing the pack tied to my gas tank to relieve some of the wind resistance. In this position, I was no taller than the semi wheels themselves and was actually in a perfect position to be sucked under as if I was tempting the mouth of a whale.
The wind from the west continued to pick up speed and worked hard to push me back. I felt like I lost a mile of progress with each wind gust and tractor-trailer passing. The sunny blue sky day that I left behind me in Philly was now spitting at me and making sure what little distance vision I had left would be clouded by the spray from every passing vehicle. To date, no one has invented a wiper blade for the face shield of a motorcycle helmet. I needed that feature.
And then it was night! I was supposed to be in Connellsville before nightfall.
You know how you wrestle with yourself, “should I take the short cut or go the long way around?” “Is it better to take the tried and true or see if you can improve your lot with a different approach?” I had an opportunity fast approaching of either getting off the Turnpike and away from the traffic or staying on the pike and taking my chances with a good road but poor conditions. This whole conversation was going on in my head while I was working to keep the bike,
on the road,
and moving forward.
I finally made the move to get off the Turnpike and take my chances on a road I thought was running parallel to the turnpike. If you have ever traveled across Pennsylvania you soon realize nothing runs side-by-side. Of course this whole trip was before the friendly GPS lady that politely tells you that you are going the wrong direction.
When I started seeing signs for Maryland that was a suggestion I was not in Kansas anymore.
Somewhere on a dark Maryland highway, I turned around and retraced my path.
It would have been helpful at this point to have a stronger headlight on the bike. There are few conditions more unnerving than driving into a wall of blackness. I believe my light was being sucked up and absorbed by a light eating monster that was only steps ahead of me. My world was the pack on my handlebars and the few feet of highway in front of me. I was too nervous to see what was behind me.
When I finally found the right path west, the rain was coming down harder, it was colder than I was dressed for and the old bike needed some fuel (and, so did I)
The only thing I accomplished on the new path was solitude. There were no vehicles passing me. I had the road to myself which was a good thing because when I crested the top of a long climbing mountain, what I found on the downhill side was snow. The Lord Himself had to be on my handlebars. Anyone who has been on a bike knows that ice and snow are two enemies of motorcycles. That blend is even worse for an inexperienced biker like myself.
The front of the bike felt like I plowed into a bowl of Jell-O. Something grabbed my break hand and foot and kept the panic that was inside the helmet from reaching my extremities. I geared down the best I could, thankful that I was already going slow. I pointed the bike, not steered it off the road just hoping there were no close fence posts or ditches that my flashlight strength headlight was missing.
My heart was pounding in my ears to the point that it felt like someone was slapping the sides of my helmet. All around me it was white and quiet. The instruments on the bike glowed faint and something told me to flip the flashers on the bike just in case another vehicle should crest the hill. The consistent flashes reflected back off the snow gave the area around me an alien landing look. I am sure it was my imagination, but the flashes seemed to be sending a coded message; idiot-idiot-idiot.
I walked the bike down the rest of the mountain all the while talking to it as if it was a horse gone lame and needed it’s rider to take it easy. It was just the bike and I alone on the mountain, we had to support each other although he wasn’t contributing much to the solution. Probably half way down the mountain the snow turned back to rain. Not dressed for this changeable weather, I was soaked, cold and tired from a ride that should have taken six to seven hours and was now stretching into ten.
I started looking for a friendly farm yard that might allow me to sleep on the porch or in the barn but each one I past that looked at all inviting also had a big dog guarding the family. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have opened the door to me. Here is a guy at your door that looked more like a left over hippie, soaking wet and probably smelling more like their barnyard dog. Not a real inviting picture. I finally found a bar stacked with four wheel drive trucks and I figured I could at least get a cup of coffee and get out of the weather.
When I walked in, it was one of those scenes where everyone turned to the door to see the stranger. I was, at that point, the only one in the bar that did not have a buzz cut hairstyle, was not wearing some form of camouflage and was not clean shaven. I made my way to the bar, ordered coffee, which tasted like the road I had been on for hours and left without out ever making eye contact with any of the natives. I truly believed I would go out and find my bike under one of the monster trucks but they spared both of us. Thinking back now, they might have been more afraid of me, a crazy guy out on a night like this, than I was of them.
The bike cooperated and started up with the first kick. I think he was as anxious to get out of there as I was. We motored farther down the road and finally ended up in a motel outside of Somerset, PA. It was now after 10:00 PM and I had been on the road for over twelve hours. A bed and sleep was all I wanted, but sleep kept running away from me. The motel was so close to the highway all I could hear through the night was the road noise which made me feel like I was still fighting the battle. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see were the massive wheels and spray from the tractor trailers.
The next morning didn’t bring any relief from the rain, but it did let me start with dry clothes and a good breakfast. Across from the motel was diner with an Army/Navy store next to it. I purchased a new bright yellow rain suit and waterproof gloves. With my gear re-secured I continued west.
Riding down the road with my new suit and white helmet I looked like a yellow stemmed Q-tip sliding on the road.
The last challenge was Three Mile Hill on Rt. 31, a long downhill roll that would bring me to a level where the quarter size snowflakes at the top of the mountain turned to rain by the bottom. I could finally stop wiping the accumulating snow from my visor and concentrate more on the road.
About noon, a day after I left Philadelphia, I pulled into Connellsville.
For a week my hands were bent in a position mimicking the shape of the handlebar grips. My rain suit was black in the front from the road spray while the back was bright yellow. The gear mounted on the front and back weighed an extra twenty pounds from the rain and snow absorbed on the trip but that was okay, because I think I lost twenty pounds from fear and nerves between Philly and Connellsville.
The bike and I went on to travel around Connellsville for another year until the time came when Tina and I needed a refrigerator for our new apartment. The bike gave himself up to make sure we had cold milk and frozen vegetables. The fridge is still going strong in our basement thirty-five years later. I think in some way it is paying quiet homage to its ancestor that brought me to Tina and my new home in Connellsville.
In the end it was a dangerous (stupid adventure) but after all, aren’t those all just part of growing up?