Megaphone: Introduction–Neil Young’s “Old Man” edition

Megaphone is the place for guest columnists to put out their thoughts. This month features Managing Editor Kali Kotoski

I was 21 when my old man had his midlife crisis and he bought me a 1985 Suzuki GS750 and my brother a 1980 Honda CB650—both in need of a complete overhaul. Although I totally effed up the top end rebuild of the Suzuki (tried to break it in too fast and it seized, locking up the rear at pretty a good clip). 

But, my history with motorcycles dates back to circa 1969, roughly 15 years before I was born.  

It was in November of that year, on his 21st birthday, that my old man was discharged from the Navy, having falsified documents and enlisted at the age of 17. It was a revelatory experience to be set loose on the wild, free and LSD-colored streets of San Francisco after a four-year stint on a cramped minesweeper. 

Despite LBJ drastically escalating the war in Vietnam as college campuses chanted “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, Nixon’s Navy didn’t need my old man’s electrical skills in the dense jungles of Indochina. 

So, he stowed away his service uniform, grew his hair long and bought a Honda Scrambler 305. 

“I’d never tried hill climbing before and that was the first thing I did. That was kinda a mistake,” my old man once told me.  

After that, he made his way back to his home state of Minnesota, met a girl…and married—although not to my caring and endlessly-supportive mother. (That first marriage lasted only a couple years and until 1983, my father remained celibate, I imagine.) 

But in 1970, they bought one-way tickets to London and used his G.I. Bill to purchase a single carb 1970 BSA A65 Thunderbolt with a chrome-plated tank and fenders. The next 14 or so months they zigzagged across Europe until they were deported. 

The Kotoski men ripping e-bikes around Bagan, Myanmar.

There were mountain passes through the Alps, gear stolen off the bike, and night after night slumming it on the ground, wrapped in a warm, blue, down-filled sleeping bag. My old man scaled the Iron Curtain and saw the poor Bosniaks in Yugoslavia, the even poorer Greeks along the Macedonian Gulf and made it as far east as Istanbul.

After being arrested in Rome along with another American biker couple from New York, his European affair came to an abrupt end. While some people have that supernatural, almost magnetic, ability to attract trouble, I don’t think that was one of my old man’s abilities.  

As the story goes, it is not good to camp in a public park known to be frequented by prostitutes and needle users. However, it is more likely that the Polizia were looking for the New Yorker who punched out the sideview mirror on a car the day before.

Either way, my father was forced to ship the BSA to the States before being deported. When they returned, the marriage quickly failed. 

The next seven or eight years of the ‘70s cannot be fully accounted for. My brother and I often joke that was when he joined the Manson family. But I do know my old man hitchhiked back and forth across America, exploring that hippy life and all it had to offer, naked communes and rose-tinted glasses included. Pensacola, San Diego, San Francisco (which had changed and was less livable since Janis was gone), Oregon, Seattle, Spokane, etc. Then returning to Minnesota in the early ‘80s because of family. 

So, what does this all have to do with me and motorcycles? Imagine growing up to those stories while cocooned in a midwestern bubble; realizing that rug on the wall was authentically Turkish and understanding why a dusty blue sleeping bag in the basement was never allowed to be thrown away; or looking at his Naval uniform in my parents’ closet, which survived my grandparents’ housefire. I looked up to my old man and was both afraid and curious about adulthood—feeling as if the experience bar was set pretty damn high. 

At some point, when looking at these artifacts, I accepted the fact that the only way to make old man proud was to conquer his legacy, like any good myth-addicted junky son would. 

He did Europe on two wheels. My brother and I rode 23,000 miles across America, living out of a tent for nine months. We had no jobs, no plans, but we had savings. Then there was Asia. A motorcycle trip in southern Cambodia where I fell in love with my wife. A year in San Francisco where I also learned it was unlivable without Janis. And a return home to be close to family.   

Thankfully, my 73-year-old old man is going strong and gets to watch me continue to earn my stripes. One day I hope I can pass on that cosmic thread of motorcycling adventures and, with a bit of luck, storytelling abilities.

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