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Spare Parts: Hot summer nights

By Ernie Copper

I grew up in an old-fashioned neighborhood in the ’60s. By old-fashioned, I mean I could walk to school, walk to church, my choice of seven gas stations, two independent markets and one shoe repair shop. Our house was sandwiched between two proper ladies who took their gardening very seriously. Mrs. Winter, a Georgia native, kept a watchful eye on her rose bushes as stray baseballs from our yard seemed to frequently find themselves in that direction. The streets had curbs and sidewalks and maple trees.

As wonderful as all that sounds, the one thing we didn’t have in those heady days of yore was air conditioning. It’s not that we were poor, or deprived, it just wasn’t something commonly found in the large turn-of-the-last-century homes that lined our streets. The $79 window units of today didn’t exist yet, at least not in our neighborhood.

The result of our ice-cold a/c deficiency was lots of sleeping with the windows open on hot summer nights. With our house being situated just a block off the main thoroughfare, this lead to hearing a lot of traffic. Things sounded different back then. The light, almost annoying sound of air cooled VWs and Corvairs mixed with the heavier rumble of big blocks through Cherry Bomb mufflers and R Model Mack trucks to create the true sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. There was a distinct lack of tuned diesel pickup trucks and crotch rockets.

This nightly aural smorgasbord was occasionally punctured by a sound that wasn’t like the rest. It started as a low, syncopated rumble waiting impatiently at the red light a block south of our house. When the light changed to green, that low rumble exploded into the most wonderful sound I’ve ever heard and if I was lucky, the light one block north would change to red and I would get to hear it all again. Except this time, it would go through all the gears and I’d hear that rise and fall again and again as it quickly disappeared into the night, returning the neighborhood to its default nighttime sound track of crickets chirping in Mrs. Winter’s prized rose bushes.

Now, keep in mind I was just a kid, maybe eight or nine years old. And from my vantage point 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine that I didn’t know that wonderful sound was a Shovelhead, but I didn’t. My cousin had an Electra Glide and it sure didn’t sound like that, so that possibility never crossed my mind. I had to find out what made that intoxicating sound in the night. It was so distinctive and unruly. Maybe it was a Corvette or one of those new Hemis we’d heard so much about.

There’s no doubt this was the summer I first used a spring-loaded clothes pin to hold a baseball card (probably Clemente!) to my forks to create a sound. I say “a sound” because it sounded nothing like an internal combustion engine even if you stuck them on the front and back. The only real similarity was that the sound did rise and fall with the rpm of the wheel.

As time passed, the rider must have eventually stopped in daylight hours for gas at one of those seven gas stations while we were hangin’ out, jumping on the air hose that rang the bell and helping ourselves to road maps we didn’t need, generally driving the owner nuts. All of that would have stopped as we looked on in awe and listened to the bike. That sound was a Harley! The world was different after that.

One of those two markets I mentioned earlier had a magazine rack. On that rack, mixed in with Hot Rod and MAD Magazine was a brand-new magazine featuring choppers called Easyriders. Imagine four nine-year-old boys, clad in cut-off jean shorts, T-shirts and Red Ball Jets, thumbing through Easyriders innocently as only kids can. It’s a Norman Rockwell moment. We immediately devised a plan to buy one. Back then you could turn in used glass pop bottles to the store owner and get a nickel or a dime for them. They called it a deposit. Pop bottles were almost everywhere then, unless you were trying to raise money by finding them. Then you had to look in bushes and sometimes down at the creek, because that’s where people threw them. Eventually, our gang of four had collected enough to buy our copy. For some reason, I was the one who took it home and when it was discovered by my parents that motorcycles weren’t the only thing interesting in Easyriders, we walked back to the market for a conversation with the owner and a refund. The store kept it on a higher shelf after that.

It’s fun to remember those days of discovery as we rush headlong in to another summer. They made us the people we are today. And hopefully, there’s a kid out there with the window open one night listening eagerly when I leave a stop light.

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