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Southern Rail: Sticky memories

By Robert Filla

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I was headed to the Mexican border. The South Texas Motorcycle Museum in Edinburgh was holding an anniversary party and, after spending an El Supremo time at their last one two years ago, I sure didn’t want to miss this one. The museum is a private collection of vintage motorcycles housing more than 40 pristine specimens of early motorcycle history. But since the museum remains somewhat unknown, is nonprofit and run totally by volunteers, this weekend event would hopefully aid in needed funding. Last time I made the 400-mile trip I was on my Road King. This time I’d be aboard my own antique flying machine, a 1967 Harley Shovelhead.

The Shovel is now a rigid bobber that I’ve owned for a very long time. The style of build has mutated over the years and ranged between full vintage bagger to full vintage rat depending on what mood I was in — and how much cash was lying around. This current bobber incarnation was completed two years ago and, although it is far from being a show bike, is the best it’s looked in probably 40 years. Part of that is due to the fact that I’ve somewhat settled down now, no longer living on the road and have what I consider to be pretty damn decent employment. Which means I have money, time and space to actually repair and replace stuff before it falls apart without the need for the classic baling wire and duct-tape triage. So the Shovel was in prime shape for the ride south… or so I thought.

I figured on taking a couple of days since these old bones start complaining when they have to spend more than a few hundred miles in the saddle in a 24-hour timeframe aboard a rigid. So with only 200 miles scheduled for the first day, I screwed around like is typical and didn’t leave until after noon. I headed out through the last of this year’s bluebonnet fields, found a deserted stretch of dirt road and shot a few rounds at a tin-can target to check the accuracy of a new six-pistol and stopped for a burger and beer at one of my favorite road houses. The day was damn near perfect, with the Shovel loping along at an easy 60 miles an hour, a beautiful spring day being shared by two old friends. And then the sleet hit the fan.

Texas has been plagued with unusual and erratic weather patterns this year. Tornadoes, hail storms, high winds and torrential downpours have peppered the state for months, mostly springing to life in the heat of the afternoon. So how does one gauge how bad today’s weather was? I stopped and put on a helmet, that’s how bad it was. Seeking immediate shelter, I headed to my nearby sister and brother-in-law’s. By the time I got off the bike (soaking wet) and threw my helmet to the ground, the entire family including my young niece were on the front porch. “I hate the freakin’ rain!” I shouted. They shuffled me inside to dry out, stifling their laughter in fear of rain-induced retaliation.

The next morning I went out to survey any damage and continue my border run. And the Shovel wouldn’t start—nothing, nada, kaput, fini, es todo. Bro-in-law Butch is a longtime rider so together we launched into repair mode and soon determined there was no spark to the plugs. A quick check of the magneto and we discovered that the entire thing was grounded as if the kill switch was stuck. Hours ticked by. Removing the magneto cap, I found a stripped screw that held the cover in place, keeping it waterproof or, as in this case, almost waterproof. More time passed and it was decided that a beer was probably the next tool needing to be brought into play. The condenser was soon suspected of being at fault and I had a spare (it is a Shovelhead, after all, and to not carry a few extra parts is to court disaster). No success with the condenser so more beer along with a substantial amount of head scratching ensued. Next we removed the coil and came to the realization that it was swimming in about 1 1/2” of rainwater that had seeped past the faulty cap screw. After some towel applications, the liberal use of a heat gun — and some more beer—we reassembled. Damn girl fired right up. Cool ’cept it was kinda late and I’d already gone through a six-pack—no heading south for me today.

The next day dawned with 200 miles of predicted thunderstorms, multiple lightning strikes and the threat of hail between me and my destination. And a scooter with a magneto that still leaked. So I wussed out and headed home. After packing up, Butch noted, “That’s a nice bike; can’t believe you still have it after all these years. But…” and then ducked into the recesses of his garage emerging soon with a roll of duct tape. “There… now she looks like the Shovelhead I remember.”

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