Say what you want but choppers rule! ‘Twas a sad day in the history of motorcycling when
choppers succumbed to the bureaucratic tyranny of the legislature and it’s good to see them enjoying a full tilt come
back. The beauty of it all is that those of us who used to chop in the old days never stopped!
The chopper is an icon. A piece of Americana born of the sixties which embodied the attitude
and mindset of the early road warriors. They were everything people said about them - dangerous,loud and obnoxious but above
all else they stood out in a crowd and demanded respect. OK, maybe not respect but at least distance. You never messed with
a mans chopper. You gave it and him space. When you saw one parked at the curb you got an instant mental picture of the guy
who owned it and he wasn’t wearing a suit or Birkenstock sandals I’ll tell you that.
I remember my first official sighting. I had seen bob-jobs and stripped bikes before but never
an actual built to the hilt chopper except for in magazines. In my little town you didn’t see many motorcycles let alone
a chopper. But here it was parked right in front of the local diner. I figured that the guy had spent at least three grand
on that thing and I had to stop and get a closer look. It was 1966 and this was a big event for me because I was only 14 and
still more than a year away from owning my first Harley.
Just as I made my second lap around the bike he appeared. The leather helmet and goggles made
him look more like a deranged fighter pilot than a motorcycle rider. Right here in my midst was the apparition that parents
warned their kids to stay away from and I was dangerously close to it. This was the boogie man, the devil and the thing
in the closet all rolled up into one and he rode a lime green stretched and raked "murdersickle”. It had handlebars
that reached into the clouds and a front end so long that the wheel could disappear into the fog on a fall morning. What could
be more deadly? What could be more enticing?
“What are you gawkin’ at?” were the first words he uttered. All I could muster
was, “Cool bike - did you build it?” I stammered that I had already decided my first real motorcycle would be
a Harley and after seeing his in person, a chopper was the only kind of Harley to have. At the time my riding was relegated
to an old Jawa dirt bike that I had bought a few years before.
At that moment it was as if he saw the hunger in my eyes and he knew I was hooked. We spent
the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon sitting at the curb while he expounded upon the secrets of bike building.
Among them, how he had cut and welded three sets of bars to make one tall pair. That he had torched and raked the frame himself
because the guy at the dealership wanted fifty bucks to do the job and he couldn’t see wasting the money. “Ya’
just gotta remember to brace it up real good so the neck don’t crack and dump ya’ on your face.” He said
to always sandblast things to bare metal before each paint job. “Use coarse sand so your primer will have something
to bite into. That way your paint won’t peel or blister.” Only one time did I stray from that advice and guess
what happened - I got a big bubble around the gas filler neck! Front brake? “Hell, that’s just for gettin’
it past inspection. Law says ya gotta have one but it don’t say it’s gotta work!” His list of tips and tricks
seemed to go on forever.
He spoke of other bikes he’d built for his friends. “Whenever ya’ build sumpthin’
ya’ gotta put in things nobody else does. It makes your bikes different and unique from all the other trash. That’s
important.” He pointed out his trademarks but cautioned me about using them. After all, they belonged to him. “Think
up your own stuff and don’t rip off other people” was his warning. He shared his experience of carefully laying
on each coat of paint, how to pull the tape to avoid ruining the crisp, clean line between colors and what he’d learned
the hard way about just the right way to blend and fade colors from one shade to another. This guy was a true builder. He
did it all himself and farmed nothing out. Every now and then he’d stop and look me in the eye to be sure I was soaking
it all in and that he wasn’t wasting his time on me.
We talked - I should say he talked for over four hours that morning and I was transfixed for
all two hundred and forty plus minutes! Who knows why he chose me. Why he decided that I was the one who should be accorded
a peak at his life. Maybe he just felt like talking to somebody or maybe he thought that this fourteen year old kid was really
interested enough to carry on the tradition of building a few bikes that would catch a little attention without being obtrusive
and ostentatious. Something that showed a little style without being overbearing and insulting to the eye. Something that
came from within. After all everybody hopes to pass on some kind of legacy and perhaps he figured I was as good as anybody.
When he said all he had to say he primed the motor with a few kicks, flipped a switch and bike
came alive on the first kick. He goosed the throttle a few times and let the engine settle into an idle. Then he lit a half
smoked cigar and gazed down the road that headed out of town. Before he dropped it into gear he turned back to me and the
last thing he told me was to always ride a Panhead. “Them new Shovelheads are junk” he said. Well, I guess nobody’s
right all the time.
I stood in the road and watched him ride off until he was out of sight and I could no longer
hear the sound of his pipes. He was gone.
The man disseminated a lot of information that day and his time was well spent because I remember
every bit of it and I’ve thought about him during every build up I ever did. I have no idea what ever became of
him because I never saw him again and if he ever mentioned his name I’m sorry that I don’t recall it. But he lit
a spark that would always keep me from settling for the norm or being like everybody else in what I rode and what I liked
in a motorcycle. He gave me the urge to rage against the dominant paradigm and I wish he were here now so I could prove that
the legacy wasn’t wasted.