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Southern Rail: Skin-deep memories

By Robert Filla

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At the end of April, I had to drag the Shovelhead down to the inspection station for its yearly checkup. I never used to worry about an inspection until TX DOT changed the rules last year and mandated your vehicle receiving a equipment inspection within 60 days of your registration renewal. It’s all handled by computers now and no actual inspection sticker is even issued, none required to be displayed on car or bike—you show up to get your registration tags, and they already know whether or not the vehicle has passed inspection.

The inspector was walking around the bike, recording my plate number and asking a few questions.

“What year is it?”

“A ’67”, I answered.

“And the mileage?” he asked while looking for the non-existent speedometer. When he realized it didn’t have a speedo, he surmised, “They didn’t even come with speedometers back in 1967, did they?”

“Nope, they did not. I guess the mileage around 300 thousand, give or take a few thousand,” I replied matter-of-factly. He was a little shocked at the figure.

After taking my proof of insurance in hand, he went over to his corner computer and began talking to Department of Public Safety in Austin through his keyboard. While trying to read the tiny print VIN number on my insurance card, he stated, “Don’t want to get this wrong. Punch in the wrong vehicle I.D. and it causes all kinds of problems.”

I responded, “67-FLH-94**”.

“What? You memorized your bike’s VIN number?” he asked in disbelief.

“Why not?” I responded as I rolled up my shirt sleeve, “It’s tattooed right here.”

I remember when I got that tattoo. I was 19 and visiting some knothead friends in Houston. After a late night of carousing, somehow we ended up downtown and in a tatt shop. It was my first time in a tattoo parlor and I was mesmerized. The sights, the smells, the people, the utter foreign atmosphere was overwhelming. I had a 3-D Bar & Shield design in mind but wanted it personalized and reasoned the perfect way was to add my Shovelhead engine VIN underneath. It was the coolest Harley tattoo in the world and aided in my quest to be the coolest teenage Harley owner in my small hometown. My collection of sleeveless T-shirts tripled overnight.

Years later after moving to Houston, I was at a biker party when my beloved FLH Shovel was stolen. One week later, someone called after seeing a wanted poster I had distributed offering a reward. He told me to bring the bike title as proof and he would take me to the punk that had stolen it. I figured it was a ploy to nab my title since he already had the bike so instead, I merely presented the VIN tattoo as evidence. It was still easy to read back then and obviously not new so he acknowledged me as the rightful owner and took me to the thief. He collected a $100 reward and I collected my bike and exacted some revenge.

My next trip under the needle was 10 years later in some dusty, forgotten desert town in New Mexico when I had the phrase “LIVE to RIDE * RIDE to LIVE” added above that same Bar & Shield. Later that night in town, in some dusty, forgotten desert bar, a local pulled the bandage off the tattoo and called me a pussy. A shoving match ensued, the law was called and my immediate departure requested.

And then on my way to my first Sturgis rally, I stopped at a party being thrown by a friend. One of his partners was trying to make some quick cash to make a run to the Black Hills and had set up a makeshift tattoo shop in the garage and was offering discounted ink. I decided to get a flying wheel to cap all off the Harley Shield. He was almost finished when he needed a cigarette break outside. Unfortunately his ol’ lady had been getting sloshed and selected me as her new ol’ man for the evening. Discount tattoo guy came back in, saw her sitting on my lap, whispering in my ear and shouted that I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for that flying wheel, he was gonna repossess it. As he headed for the kitchen to grab a knife, I headed to my life-saving, one-kick Shovelhead.

Still years later I had a set of classic wings with the word “FREEDOM” etched into my other arm when I lost a good riding buddy. And then 30 years ago when my daughter was born, her name on my left wrist was the ultimate way to celebrate my joy and became a point of pride for her when bragging to her friends. And then finally during my ride to Harley’s 100th anniversary in Milwaukee, I added a tribal bracelet encircling that same wrist to honor my mom and father who both died earlier that year. That was my last tattoo. I never notice them anymore and seldom think of their history

I was brought back to present day when the inspector at the station chuckled, shaking his head at the thought of a VIN tattoo. He continued to log in my info as he asked, “So… any interesting stories behind those tattoos?”

“A few. Just a few.”

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