I really appreciate the enthusiasm for my stories here. Encouraged by that, here is another.
When I left New Haven (did I mention that it was raining?), I took the old highway running up from Hartford towards the Massachusetts Turnpike. I was on my way to Newburyport to visit two of my old motorcycling friends. I was familair with this particular road because it was the highway I would take the infrequent times I would head north to visit my parents in New Hampshire. Since I had gone away to school, I had grown apart from them and my buying a motorcycle had further strained relations. A visit home was not an unalloyed pleasure.
Ten days ago, as I drove across the Connecticut Valley where there had once been mile after mile of shade-grown tobacco fields, I remembered an adventure that had started there. I had seen a biker standing next to his Triumph. He had a small pack and a sleeping bag on the luggage rack. I slowed down to see if he needed any help. I pulled up in front of him and turned in the bike's saddle to call back, "Everything OK?"
"No problem". He waved a half finished cigarette in the air and said, "I was just taking a break." He looked at my New Hampshire license plate and added a question, "Are you going to New Hampshire?"
I answered yes and was about to add that I lived in Nashua when he interrupted with another question. "Do you mind if I ride with you? I'm going to the Gypsy Tour but I don't know the way."
I tried to explain that Nashua was in Southern New Hampshire and the Gypsy Tour was taking place about seventy or eighty miles further north, near Lake Winnipesauki.
I had never been to the Gypsy Tour even though I remembered when I was a kid walking down to the State Highway and watching the bikes go by on their way to this annual event that had started back in the 1920s. Even then, the Tour had drawn people from all over the Northeast. Thousands of bikes showed up every year for this
I told my new riding partner that I would be happy to lead him up to New Hampshire but I wouldn't be going all the way to Gilford. "That's cool with me", he said, and we were off.
He was on a Bonneville and I was riding a 250cc BMW. THe Bonneville was one of the premier bikes of the time. Triumphs proudly wore a decal placed on it at the factory, "Triumph: WOrld's Fastest Motocycle". It was not an empty boast. On the other hand, my little motorcycle had s small motor on a full-size frame. The bike had a certain dignity about it that other bikes did not. My sister said when she saw the shiny black bike with the white pin stripes, "It looks like a metal tuxedo." And she was right. It did sort of have a formal, classy look. On theother hand, as a friend of mine said, "It doesn't go fast enough to give you a good cold.
In those days, BMWs were unusual bikes and few people were familiar with them. Harleys, Triumpshs and BSAs ruled the road. The Hondsa were still ugly, underpowered machines that pleaded for understanding. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." The implication was that the rest of us were some sort of scum. Anyway, because this was a full sized bike, most people assumed it was a full-powered bike. As we headed up the highway, I was running wide open and the Bonneville, in order to stay with me, throttled back a little. We rode along at 60-65 mph up the Connecticut road and into Massachusetts.
Somewhere along the way, other bikes started catching up to us. For a while, when the bikes overtook us, they would ride up alongside the Bonneville and he would tell them that we were en route to the Gypsy Tour. Since they were too, the bikes would drop back into the growing pack behind me and we all continued north and east. When we passed a rest area, the group of riders in the parking area waved and a moment later they'd started up their bikes and were joining up with us.
When I looked into my rear view mirror, I saw a column of motorcycle strung out behind me for perhaps a quarter of a mile. With the exception of a large motor scooter that had the same size engine as my own, all of the bikes in this group were considerably larger and faster than mine.
To really understand the situation, you have to realize that I was a 19 or 20 year old college student leading what was growing into a forty-bike pack. With passengers there were probably about sixty or seventy people in our group. Not only that, I was getting off on situation and certainly didn't want to give up my pride of place. To stay in front, I was running wide-open. When I came to a hill, I would run down as fast as possible building up enough momentum to overcome the next hill. That little motor scooter scooter couldn't keep up and when we went through the toll booth at the beginning of the Mass Pike, he dropped out. Even so, the numbers continued to grow.
Each time I looked in my rear view mirror, there was a surprise. Once it was just someone passing a beer from one bike to another. Then they started passing around a six pack. At one point, I looked back and discovered two people each trying to outdo the other doing tricks standing on the seats of a bikes traveling 65 miles an hour. How did I feel? Proud. After all, this was MY group.
The tension of trying to stay in front of this traveling circus and just the effort that goes into a hundred miles of motorcycle traveling had tired me a bit and I started thinking of a coffee break. By the time we got to Route 128 around Boston, I was ready but I just didn't know how to communicate that I was going to be stopping for a cup of coffee to the sixty or seventy, and now perhaps even more, people behind me. Not having any real alternative, I put on my turn signal and headed into the parking lot of a Howard Johnson on the highway.
Do you know what happens when forty or so bikes pull into the parking lot of a highway restaurant? First, a lot of white faces appear at the window. Customers attracted by the noise look out and when they see all the bikes, their faces pale.
I was the first into the restaurant and took a seat at the counter. Before I could even sit down, a series of noises that told a story started up.
First there was the sound of forks and spoons on crockery. That was everyone trying to finish up the food in their bowls and plates. That was followed by people slurping down the last of their coffees as fast as possible and the scraping of chairs as people headed for the cashier. Then the cash register started its "click", "click", "click", "ker-ching!", "click", "click", "click", "ker- ching!" , "click", "click", "click", "ker-ching!".... . As soon as the bill was paid, each headed as fast as possible for the exit to get away from the Howard Johnson Invaders.
If you have ever been kept waiting for service at a lunch counter you'll appreciate what happened next.
As far as anyone in the Howard Johnson's could tell, since I had been the first into the parking lot, first into the restaurant they figured I was the leader of this group. Not only that, they could see that I was so cool that no one in my own group even dared sit next to me. Of course, that was because no one knew me. I don't even know whether that biker on the Bonneville was still with the group. I don't think I could have recognized him anyway. The waitress could not get to my order fast enough and since it was just coffee and a piece of apple pie, my order was sitting in front of me while the rest of the bikers were still walking in. As a result, I was done before anyone else.
I lit a cigarette and smoked it slowly and luxuriously. Then I made a quick trip to the Men's Room, had another cup of coffee and another cigarette. When these were finished I started to get antsy. I wanted to get going. After waiting a bit longer, I left a tip, got up and paid my bill.
That started the earlier sequence all over again.
The motorcyclists scraped the last bit of food from their plates, drank their last drops of coffee, pushed back from their tables and as I walked out the door into the parking lot I heard the familiar "click", "click", "click", "ker-ching!", "click", "click", "click", "ker-ching!" behind me. However, I still had an organizational problem. It would take a while for the last of the riders to get through the cashier's line and the ones outside were getting ready to leave. If I wanted to lead, I would have to get going.
As soon as I kicked over my little BMW, the others started their bikes too. Soon twenty or thirty bikes were idling in the parking lot with more starting up all the time. The ground was shaking and I couldn't even tell if my bike was running until I twisted the throttle way up and got the motor screaming. Once I was sure that it was running, though, I mounted and started towards the highway. As I pulled onto 128, I could hear the other bikes pulling up behind me. It sounded like a World War Two when fighter planes peel off for the attack.
The next hour riding towards Nashua was uneventful if you can call such things as someone standing in the saddle and holding hands with the passenger on the bike running alongside uneventful. I still managed to stay in front but this was actually creating up another problem. Soon it would be time to turn off towards home and unless I found some way to prevent it, I would pull into the driveway of my parents' house on a quiet street in Nashua with 50 or perhaps by now 60 motorcycles in line behind me. Seeing no other alternative, I signaled that I was pulling over to the shoulder of the highway. In a column that went as far back as I could see, all the bikes pulled over to the side of the road. I waved for the bike behind me, a BSA, to come up alongside.
"I'm not going all the way to the Gypsy Tour, I live here in Nashua. What you do is stay on this road until you get to the toll booth at Thornton's Ferry. There are directional signs there for the Belknap Recreation Area. Follow those signs. You'll be there is an hour and a half."
The motorcyclist thanked me and then reached out and shook my hand. Surprised, I took it and wished him good luck. Then his passenger reached forward and offered her hand. I twisted in the saddle a bit and took it and we wished each other a happy weekend. Then they were off. The next bike pulled up in their place. I pointed to the BSA disappearing up the road and said, "Follow him." The driver thanked me and he, too, reached for my hand. Again, I shook it and then shook the hand of his passenger. This went on, one by one until every bike had come up, been told to follow the bikes ahead and each rider had shaken my hand. Slowly the noise of idling motors lessened as the bikers having finished the handshaking ritual had continued northward.
Finally I was alone. The last bikes were already specks against the concrete highway and were getting smaller. I took a deep breath, shook out my bruised hand and stretched my back which had become tired from having been twisted as I'd said goodby to everyone.
I took the exit and drove the familiar streets until I was in front of my parents' home. As I rolled up the driveway, I smiled thinking what their reaction would have been if fifty or sixty motorcycles had been behind me. Then I saw my father's face at the window. By the time I reached the steps he was at the door.
"Did you come all the way from New Haven on that damned thing?", he asked not really expecting an answer. "How was the trip?"
With his attitude, I knew that telling him about the last few hours would not give him any amusement so I just said non-committaly, "It was fine", and headed upstairs to my room.
To this day, when I talk to my own boys, I always try to keep an open mind about their activities so that they will never feel as though they can't tell me a story about something that happened to them. In a way, that is a legacy, an inheritance from my father and I'm grateful for it.