They say you never forget your first love, which is an odd thing to say, suggesting, as it does, that you probably forget your second and third and so on. What kind of a jerk forgets stuff like that?
At any rate, that basic adapt is just as easily and meaningfully applied to motorcycling, to wit: You never forget your first run; and for me that occurred over Memorial Day weekend in 1972. I lived in Michigan at the time, and as anyone who lives there can attest, Michigan is where winter and spring meet to settle their differences in a pitched battle waged over the better part of three months without a decisive victor.
In 1972, for example, the state was slammed with a blizzard in late April that dumped a foot and a half of snow—on me (I was on an overnight bike trip at the time). And spring struck back with heavy showers that melted the snow and flooded the rivers. And then just like that, winter bounced back and froze the floodwaters.
On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, though, the weather turned abruptly into high summer, and by the time we hit the highway the temperature was topping 80 degrees. Spring fever gripped the state with that rare ecstasy that only the truly winter-weary can appreciate.
There were three of us riding out from Lansing that day, heading to Grand Haven, which was where Michigan bikers just sort of showed up annually in an impromptu rally without publicity or any formal organizing; there were no vendors or bands playing, just a crowd of bikes and bikers and bedrolls spread across a grassy field near the beach.
Every brand and style of motorcycle was there, and back in those days nobody cared what you rode. Just the fact that you rode at all made you one of the tribe, and it was downright idyllic the way all the marques coexisted, the lion laying down with the lamb, the FX Super Glide laying down with the X-6 Hustler.
I was 18 then, and the times were good. The draft had pretty much petered out and most ground troops had returned from Vietnam. Nobody was familiar with the words “Watergate” or “oil embargo.” You could fill your bike tank for about a buck.
Michigan was still the greatest industrial powerhouse in the world, still turning out unabashed muscle. In Lansing alone we had Oldsmobile, Motor Wheel and Diamond REO, and good jobs were easy to come by. You could get a degree at a good state school without going into hock.
Best of all—and the only good thing to result from the Vietnam War—the drinking age had fallen from 21 to 18 as of 1/1/72. The logic behind the legislation was that there was something just plain wrong about conscripting a teenager, shipping him overseas and expecting him to lay down his life for his country if it came to that while simultaneously telling him he was too immature to legally have a drink.
And so with our bota bags brimming with Pagan Pink we were in the wind and eager to turn Pagan ourselves.
We were riding what we called our Poboy choppers—my Triumph 500, Dan’s BSA 650 and John’s Honda 450, all tricked out with cheapo custom parts from the shelves of discount department stores or the pages of the J.C Whitney catalogue. Apehangers and sissy bars and shorty mufflers and Bombay taxi horns and Maltese cross mirrors. My Triumph even had a custom paint job consisting of a base coat of rattle-can flat black adorned with a lovely graphic achieved by laying a doily over the top of the tank and misting it with rattle-can gold. Breathtaking.
The sissy bar I had was a tall affair with a chrome-button, diamond-tufted pad, and it was made of the cheapest tube steel imaginable. It attached to the bike’s fender rails with hose clamps.
There was a pizza and beer joint at the beach in Grand Haven that fed and watered the troops, and we went there the first night after we arrived. We ate the prodigious amount of pizza that only 18 year olds can eat, and washed it down with pitchers of Stroh’s, and when the time came to settle the bill we came to the realization that we’d all just assumed one or the other of us had enough money to cover it. We didn’t. We had enough for gas to get home and maybe another couple bottles of Pagan Pink, but that was the extent of it.
We did the only thing we could under the circumstances—we made a run for it.
We strolled casually out the door and then desperately mounted our machines for a quick exit. Dan and John fired on the first kick and roared off. I kicked my Triumph and got nothing. I kicked again, and then again and then again, and again, and again, and just as I caught a glimpse in my mirror of the bouncer barreling out the door and heading directly for me, it finally fired and I fled—just as the bouncer got his paw on my sissy bar. It didn’t even slow me down, and as I sped off I left him standing in my dust clutching my awesome sissy bar, which had simply snapped off. So I figured we were even.
Come 1973 Watergate was roiling the political system and the oil embargo was putting the hurt on everyone, especially the auto industry which went into the first swoons of the long, slow death spiral, which brought my beloved Michigan to the low state it’s endured for a generation or more.
But for one weekend in May of 1972, life was a stone groove and anything seemed possible. It also set me on the lifestyle course from which I’ve rarely wavered in the last 40 years. I had become a biker. And a pizza thief.
It’s all right here in the diaries.