Howdy! Grab a chair an’ a beer! I was sittin’ in front of the wood stove here at the ol’ Buckshot Ranch last night, listening to the rain and thunder, an’ going through some old family pictures. Do ya remember that old picture called American Gothic, with the old farm couple an’ pitchfork? Well, I have one like that of my grandparents with my grandpa’s old Knucklehead that was taken in the late 40’s, about the time I was born. It got me thinkin’ about how time slips by, an’ how long ago that picture was taken. They’ve both been gone for decades now, but the picture of them and that old Harley remains, keepin’ their memory alive. I don’t remember my grandpa very well; I was only five or six when he died, but seeing him with that Knuck makes me feel a closer kinship to him because of a shared passion for life on two wheels. In his younger days, he was a bull rider on the rodeo circuit, but after he got trampled nearly to death, he settled for ridin’ that old Harley, along with Indians an’ Excelsiors that he had over the years. I guess it’s in our blood, because my dad an’ my uncles all rode, an’ dad used to race a flathead 80 on the long-forgotten Cotati (California) clay track back in the 40’s.
It made me stop an’ think about how I want to be remembered by someone looking at my picture 50 years from now. “Mom, who’s that fat guy with the beard standing by the motorcycle? Is that Santa?”
“No, dear,” she’d reply; “That was your great-great grandpa.”
“What did he do?”
“Uh… He rode motorcycles, dear.”
I also found a picture of my great grandpa, Ira Branson, who grew up in the Missouri breaks with Frank and Jesse James, and Cole Younger and his brothers. He traded horses with them when they were on the run, and sometimes rode as a decoy for a posse, leading them astray. One of my grandma’s (the one on the Knuck) fondest memories was meeting Frank James when she was a little girl, when he rode the train out to California to visit my great-grandpa on his ranch near Healdsburg.
Was I born into motorcycles? Yeah, I think I was. When I was young, my dad had a garage in Kenwood, in the California wine country, and I remember his buddies riding up on their motorcycles, filling their tanks at the old “visible” gas pump in front of the shop, and I remember the look on my dad’s face, the longing to be out there with them on those twisting wine country back roads, but being tied down to making a living back in the tight times of the early 50’s.
By the time I was about 10 years old, dad had sold the old flathead 80, and other than a few trips around the block on whatever two-wheeled deathtrap I dragged home in my teen years, he never rode again. It’s sad, because it would have been something we could have shared, but time and health wait for no man, and it just wasn’t to be.
My oldest son, Chris, raced motocross back in the 80’s, but he was into the crotch rockets and dirt bikes, although he used to ride my Harleys whenever he could. He was a very talented rider, and had a room full of trophies, but tragedy struck in 2004, and now he’s one of the bittersweet memories I get in times like these, when I dig out the old picture albums.
I think we all have a propensity to take for granted that our kids know about their ancestors, but that’s not always true. If ya read this column regularly, you may remember the story about my dad and my uncle Ed pushing the old belt drive Excelsior they’d found behind a barn uphill for more than a mile, then riding it down a logging flume. That’s the kind of memories we should share with our kids and our grandchildren, so the past, and their relatives in it, come alive in their imagination. My uncle Ed passed away last year, but he never failed to tell that story at family gatherings, and I’m glad he did, because through his story, my dad’s adventurous side came to life again.
I’ve been thinking about writing a chronicle of my life for the grandkids. There have been great times, and truly tragic times, and in between, some achievements that I’m pretty proud of. Over the last 50 or so years, I’ve built some beautiful custom bikes that have won trophies in the most prestigious shows in America, been featured in major magazines, and have been ridden the livin’ hell out of! I refuse to build trailer queens, or bikes that can’t be ridden an’ enjoyed.
The bottom line is, we’re all gearheads, and we love anything on wheels. When I’m fabricating a part, or finding a way to adapt something to a spot it was never designed to fit, I think of Dad, and over the years since he’s been gone, there have been a million questions I’ve wished I could ask him, and a million times I’ve wished he was here with me, and maybe… just maybe, he is.