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Free Range: Securing the future

I like old stuff. No matter what it is, old stuff has a sort of soul to it and, basically, old is cool in my book. Old machinery, furniture, bikes, literature… stuff. Even people. I like things with age, with a patina and history. A past. Antiques have a story to tell and I’m especially excited when I get to know the particular yarn that goes with anything that has managed to survive the generations. I could listen for hours to Dale Walksler, from the Wheels Through Time Museum, tell his tales as he describes the details of a particular machine’s past and I especially love it when he knows the backstory of the human counterparts that owned the pieces before him. Dale is a true historian and delights in sharing his knowledge with visitors to his personal homage to the motorcycling culture of the past. If you’re going through North Carolina, make it a point to swing by the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley and poke around. If you’re lucky, you might catch Dale puttering around, tinkering with the bikes and he might share some of his expertise and wisdom with you. Cherish the experience, if you do. It’s magic.

I enjoy several other museums, too, but particularly like hanging out at the Harley-Davidson Museum since Bill Rodencal, head restorer there, is happy to share some little tidbit of history or Americana that he knows will light my lights. There’s always something going on with a nod to the past and it’s fun to meet folks from all corners of the globe while there. As a matter of fact, it was there that I recently met an average Joe who has his own version of a museum in the form of just one motorcycle, an absolute time capsule on wheels, and the pristine example of a first-year 1948 Panhead absolutely made my heart skip a beat.

So just imagine my excitement when I got to see a first-year Panhead in its original condition, unrestored. Stan “Sonny” Acton had entered his beloved Pan in the bike show during the Wild Ones Weekend and ended up taking two awards, including the Best of Show. We spent some time chatting about his beautiful beast and I found myself caught up in the tale of the young man who, quite literally, camped on a man’s doorstep in the effort to prove himself qualified to own the immaculate machine. Sonny had heard there was guy with a Panhead in his small Missouri town and he set out to track him down. In his youthful exuberance, he’d neglected to factor in that the man seriously did not want to sell his motorcycle. Even though his wife came out onto the porch and explained that her husband, Bill, would never sell his bike, Sonny was undaunted and continued to hang around and press the issue. After two years, Bill finally gave the kid what he thought was an outrageous number, telling Helen, “There, that ought to get rid of him.” Instead, Sonny immediately marched into the bank and withdrew the funds.

“It was back in the early ’70s, you know, when everybody was chopping up stuff. I think that’s what he was afraid of, really, that I’d make a chopper out of it and I just had to prove to him that I’d never do that. I love that bike, and I knew he did too. I consider myself its keeper, to tend to it and keep it intact. I have a lot of respect for Bill and Helen Bowen and they put up with me for a long time, bugging them about the bike, but I didn’t just buy it then disappear. So in the process of getting the bike, we became friends. It’s not something guys would talk about, but I found out later that when Bill and Helen first got married, that was the only transportation they had and she rode with him everywhere, but when she got pregnant, Helen told him that if she couldn’t ride, neither could he. The year of the tags on it when I bought it was the same year their daughter was born, 1952. So it got parked for a long time. It’s still got the original paint and it had 30,000 on the odometer when I got it, and 40,000 on it now. I rode the Pan to Bill’s funeral, and later, to Helen’s services, too. He gave me everything about that bike, all the manuals and everything. I’ve got it all. As a matter of fact, after he passed, his daughter told me he considered me the son he never had. Again, not something guys would talk about, but I wish he’d told me he felt like that. His family gave me artifacts he was allowed to bring back from his time in the service. He captured a Japanese officer and I have his sword, and all the weapons he captured and the paperwork that came with all that. They said he wanted me to have it all, since he knew I’d appreciate the history of it all, and I’ve made my own son promise to keep it together and take care of the bike, so he’ll be the next caretaker.” What an incredible responsibility, and honor, to hand down as a legacy for the next generation of motorcyclists.

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