SIDNEY UNDERWOOD - LEARNING TO RIDE AND OTHER MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURES

(02/21/2017)

By Sidney Underwood

I have always liked motorcycles. From my earliest memories, I was envious of the riders who could control those powerful machines with a flick of the wrist. What follows is a series of events that I remember that created my interest in motorcycling.

In the summer of 1949, my family accompanied by my Grandfather and Grandmother Williams set out for Washington, D.C., with the intention of spending some time there. We wanted to experience the US Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Washington’s Monument, Smithsonian Institute and the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. This would be the first time anyone in our family had visited Washington and we were excited about going there.

During a three day period, we were able to see everything we had planned for and other places of interest that we learned of while visiting that large metropolitan area. I remember that we did a lot of walking and everyone had tired feet at the end of each day. We stayed in a large downtown hotel and it was my first experience riding an elevator.

In the course of our sightseeing, we visited the Washington DC Zoo. We saw a Bengal Tiger asleep in his outdoor cage. As we approached, my Mom stopped to take its picture. Granddad said it would be a better photo if the big cat was awake. He stepped up close to the cage and pushed the tip of his cane between the bars and tapped the sleeping animal rather smartly on its nose. Instantly, it came alive with a fierce growl and leaped to its feet surprising and scaring everyone in our group.

It stared directly at Granddad and continued to make a growling noise. After she regained her composure, Mom got her picture. We started walking away and Grandad looked over his shoulder and remarked that the tiger was still watching him. He said he was glad that the tiger was in a secure cage. Dad said something about not awakening sleeping dogs and, in this case, tigers. My Granddad would remember that episode with the tiger for the rest of his life.

It was our plan to travel on to Lewistown Pa., after seeing the sights of Washington DC. My Mom’s sister and family lived there and we had not seen them in some time. Leaving Washington on the third day, Dad got hopelessly lost trying to find the correct route out of the city. A disagreement ensued between Mom and Dad as to where we actually were in this large metropolis and how best to find our way.

A Motorcycle Patrol Officer happened by and Dad flagged him down. The officer made a U turn and parked behind us and left a red strobe light flashing on his motorcycle while he approached our car on foot. Wearing a crisp blue police uniform and black leather boots, he tilted his motor patrol hat upward and removed his sunglasses. He inquired about our problem. Dad explained that we wanted to go to Lewistown Pa., but could not find our way out of DC. From the back seat, I was all eyes and ears as they conferred.

I saw the handle of his heavy revolver in a black leather holster and his Sam Browne belt that contained extra ammo pouches, handcuffs and what looked to be a leather covered “Black Jack.” He wore a large silver, gold and blue DC Metro Police Shield on his chest. I remember there was a motorcycle emblem on that shield. I was seriously impressed by what I was seeing and so was Mom, but for a different reason. She said afterward that he certainly was a good looking man with a nice tan and had a captivating smile.

The officer informed us that we were on the wrong side of the city and would need to travel about 14 miles northwest to find the correct route. He started giving directions to us, but stopped when he realized that we were from West Virginia. He smiled and said that he had relatives living there. He adjusted hat and put his sunglasses back on and said that he would show us the way and we just needed to follow him. I watched as he got on his motorcycle. He gave his machine a hard kick with his right foot and it roared to life. He had a red light and a blue light on the front of the motorcycle and both were now flashing as he pulled away in front of us.

We soon found it difficult to keep up with him as he was going much faster than we had anticipated. Mom told Dad to slow down because we might get a ticket for speeding. Dad gave Mom an incredulous look and said that he was just following orders even though we were running 40 miles an hour in downtown traffic. I remember we approached traffic lights at speed and it got real quiet in the car when we went through some that were turning yellow. As totally lost souls, we needed desperately to keep the Motor Patrol Officer in sight.

When the officer encountered heavy traffic, he hit his siren and it was like Moses parting the Red Sea because all those cars seemed to disappear as we flew by. Everyone in the car was concentrating so hard on following the officer that we didn’t even notice the tall stately buildings that we were passing. It was so intense with Granddad shouting instructions such as, “He just made a right hand turn at the second light!” After many miles of dizzying travel and managing to barely keep him in sight, we saw the officer pull over to the curb at what appeared to be the outskirts of the city. We pulled in behind him having absolutely no idea where we were. Trying to lighten the moment, Granddad said that President Truman with his Secret Service escort probably never crossed the city as quickly as we had.

We watched as the officer walked back to our car and pointed at a sign that indicated the correct route north to the Pennsylvania line. He gave us further instructions concerning York and Harrisburg Pa. Beyond Harrisburg, he said we should just follow the signs to Lewistown. We all thanked him for helping us. We must have sounded like dummies with everyone talking at once because we were so relieved. He just smiled at us and told us to have a nice day. We watched him walk over and fire up the biggest motorcycle that I had ever seen and with a wave of his hand, he was gone. He was really cool and I never forgot him. It was at that moment that I made a promise to myself that someday I too would ride a motorcycle.

Sometime in the early 1950’s when my family was living on Hardman Alley in Grantsville another event occurred that renewed my interest in motorcycles. Sonny Wilson came down the alley one day to visit my Dad. Sonny had played football at Calhoun High and had already graduated. He had grown up on Broomstick Ridge and was now working somewhere. He showed up that afternoon on a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I remember it was orange and brown, the traditional colors of that brand. Dad and I looked it over and Sonny offered to take us for a ride, but Dad declined. I offered to go with him, but Dad said no. Boy, was I disappointed!

I remember Bill Heffner owned a motorcycle. He worked in a poolroom down the street from Poe Gunn’s store during the early 1950’s. Bill’s motorcycle would usually be parked on the sidewalk outside the entrance. Walking home from the grade school in the afternoon, I would sometimes stop to look at his machine.

Charley Booher was another individual who rode motorcycles and I would occasionally see him riding through Grantsville.

In March of 1966, I bought my first motorcycle. I had a job at the DuPont Plant and had my own money and was 24 years old. Mom tried to discourage me, but Dad was neutral about it. Mom said there were two groups of people who rode motorcycles. The first group was composed of law enforcement people who maintained the law and the second group was composed of “Ruffians” who broke the law, to quote her exact words.

Dad came to my rescue. He said that if I bought one, he would help me learn how to ride the thing. That was all the encouragement I needed and soon a Harley-Davidson Sprint was delivered to our house at Cabot Station and my wallet was lightened by almost $800.00. I originally wanted a Harley-Davidson Sportster like the one ridden by Michael Parks in the 1969 TV series THEN CAME BRONSON, but the $1600.00 price was financially out of reach for me. My Sprint was a single cylinder 250cc kick-start bike otherwise known as a “One lung Harley’” in black and white. The same color combination as that long ago DC police motorcycle that I never forgot. What a coincidence!

Although my bike was labelled a Harley-Davidson, it was actually manufactured by Aermacchi of Italy. At that time, Honda was shipping boatloads of their Honda Dream 305’s to America. The Honda motorcycles were well equipped and had electric start and offered at a reasonable price. There were many of them buzzing around Grantsville at the time. I remember that Glen Fowler’s son, Terry, had one of those bikes.

1966 Harley-Davidson Sprint. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

With all the Japanese bikes coming ashore, Harley-Davidson did not have anything small enough to compete with the small displacement Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha motorcycles. So, they made arrangements with the Italian company to produce a smaller motorcycle hoping it would be competitive in the American market. But, it was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Japanese bikes with newer technology available at a lower price. Production of the Aermacchi Harleys lasted only a few years. Ai present, there is some collector interest in those Italian made Harleys.

After my motorcycle was delivered, Dad and I pushed in into the field behind our house while Mom looked on apprehensively. We knew it had a full tank of gas and a new battery. The bike had been purchased from a dealer in Vienna, WV and the employee who delivered it had given us few instructions. He suggested that we review the owner’s manual before attempting to start it. That would have been the prudent thing to do, but in our haste, we failed to do that. What follows is a remembered account of our attempt to figure everything out: I located the off/on switch and inserted the key. I turned the key and a red light on the headlight housing indicated the battery was ready.

Dad asked if the thing was in neutral. I said that it should be since I could move the wheels back and forth. I knew enough to leave the clutch lever alone during startup. I found the kick-start lever on the LEFT side of the bike. Dad found the choke lever located on the carburetor and pushed it to the ON position. He asked me again if the thing was in neutral. I replied that it was. I got on the bike and kicked it three times. Nothing. Dad said we might have flooded the engine. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

Neither of us had any prior experience with a motorcycle. We decided to take a look at the owner’s manual. It stated that a cold engine needed to have the choke “Applied.” We had done that already. What next? Dad pulled the choke lever OFF and told me to kick some more. I kicked it one more time and it started. It must have been in neutral because it didn’t go anywhere and we were happy about that. It settled into a thump, thump, thump idle and the red battery light had turned green. Next, we tried to locate the shifter which we eventually found on the RIGHT side of the bike and that seemed wrong to me. The rear brake pedal obviously had to be on the LEFT side.

I looked down at those pedals and hoped we had guessed correctly. I pulled in the clutch lever and nudged what I thought was the shift lever UP until I heard a clanging sound that made the bike jerk. Dad said for me to give it some gas and slowly let out the clutch to see what gear I might be in. When I slowly released the clutch the bike started forward with me dragging both feet. Dad yelled for me to put my feet on the pegs and I did. I was running along in first gear and going maybe 3 miles per hour and making a lot of noise on that first lap.

When I got back to Dad, he said I needed to find second gear on my next round. I started again and got moving with more throttle and engaged the clutch and pushed Down with my right foot and heard another clang and now was in second gear and making a faster lap. It was evident now that first gear was up and the remaining gears down and neutral was between first and second. This was hard work and a lot for me to remember! By now several of the neighborhood kids had gathered and were watching my progress. Dad suggested that I ride up RT#5 to Leaf Bank and turn around and come back. He said that was the only way I could get the machine into third and fourth gears.

Following his orders I rode up our driveway spinning gravel in first gear. I looked both ways, and headed toward Grantsville. I started shifting and was in fourth [High] gear by the time I entered Cabot Yard turn and going 45 MPH. It would have been nice to have had goggles and a jacket because a bug or something smacked me between my eyes and the wind made me shiver. Luckily for me, there was no traffic and I seemed to be doing ok with my first riding experience. As to being in control of the situation, I don’t really know if I had the bike or the bike had me, but there was no turning back now. I liked the feeling of freedom and the sound the engine was making. I concentrated on maintaining my lane and tried to process all the needed information about throttle speed, gear selection and location of the brakes, but It was information overload.

Soon, I was approaching Leaf Bank. Since the bike did not have turn signals, I stuck out my left arm and pointed toward Leaf Bank Road. There was no one around, but I needed the practice even if it looked like I was flagging helicopters or something. On Leaf Bank road I was kind of jerky on my downshifts and it took a half mile to get the thing stopped. I learned that when downshifting, each gear had to be engaged and disengaged on the way down to neutral.

The down shifting took a lot of concentration. I headed back toward RT#5 determined to do better. Going home, I was smoother on my upshifts. I remember I saw Mom go back in the house when she saw me turning into our driveway. I was glad she did because I nearly wrecked and almost hit the garage door when I applied the brakes in the gravel driveway. There is a reason motorcyclists hate gravel and I found that out quickly.

Lady Luck was with me on that first trip. If I had needed to make an emergency move to save myself from harm, I could not have done it. My first trip was completed and I had only travelled 4 miles. I was really tired from all that concentrating. You could write a book about everything I did wrong, but I knew I was on my way.

That chilly day in March was the beginning of a long term relationship with that motorcycle. I would own it for the next 19 years. Over time I became a better rider more skilled in shifting and braking as well as accident avoidance. Among other things, I learned that the true stopping power of a motorcycle is with the front brake, and I learned to always watch the front wheels of approaching cars. I also learned to not trust anyone at intersections.

That bike was great for travelling the backroads of Calhoun and Wirt Counties. Travelling along in second and third gears, I especially enjoyed Sanoma Road with its sharp turns and hills and valleys. Sometimes, I would ride down Munday Road to Brohard to McFarland and return by Beatrice and Smithville looping back to Grantsville. Although it was rated at only 21 horse power, that bike would touch 70 but was more comfortable cruising at 50 MPH.

I was really surprised driving home from Parkersburg one afternoon that summer. On RT#5 at Burning Springs, a motorcycle that looked like mine was approaching. As it passed by, I realized that it was my Dad riding my bike! What in the world? I quickly pulled over and waited. In my rearview mirror, I saw him turn around and ease back toward me. He got off the bike and walked up to my car. He said that he had been looking at the bike in the garage and decided to see if he could ride it. The big grin on his face said it all. When we got home, Mom read the riot act to both of us. Dad just looked at me and winked.

Over the years, kick starting would occasionally be a problem for me. It was like the bike had a dual personality, usually starting on the third kick, but sometimes refusing to do so. I suppose I learned motorcycling by the seat of my pants and what I learned stayed with me. I had a few close calls and was forced off the road twice by inattentive drivers, but never had an accident while riding it.

There were times when I was tempted to trade that bike away for something with electric start. For example, when I was dating my wife during the summer of 1970, I rode up to her trailer that she was renting from Madelyn Hathaway. We sat on her porch and talked for a short time and I offered to take her for a ride. I had thoughtfully brought along an extra helmet. Trying to act like “Jack Cool” with Judy watching me, I attempted to kick start the bike and managed only to flood the engine.

After repeated kicks with nothing to show for it except sweat dripping off my nose, I realized that if I had bought a Honda Dream none of this humiliation would have occurred. Judy said it was alright, we could ride together some other time. So we sat there on her porch and talked while I absolutely smoldered inside. I was still angry with the bike when I left to go home. Wouldn’t you know it, the damn thing started on the first kick!

Another time when I had ridden the bike to work, a summer storm swept through Grantsville. When I exited the building later known as Pursley’s Furniture that afternoon, it had stopped raining but was still overcast. I had hoped to get home before the rain returned. Everyone else left in their cars when I attempted to start my bike. I knew that if it didn’t start on the third kick, I was in trouble. After maybe 23 kicks my leg was getting tired and I was becoming angry.

It had started raining again and I was getting soaked. Finally giving up in disgust, I pushed it up near the entrance to the old bridge, turned around, put it in first gear and let it roll downhill, popped the clutch and it started. The thing was, once it started it ran perfectly. When I got home there was not a dry place on my body. I sat down on the garage floor and removed my shoes and poured water out of them. At times, I swear that bike seemed to be toying with me.

In 1985 I sold the Harley to an individual and purchased a new Yamaha 920 Sport Bike. It was a V-Twin that had electric start which is a wonderful invention. The Yamaha had its shifter on the left and the rear brake on the right, but I adapted to it quickly. There is an old motorcycle saying that goes something like this: IF YOU HAVE A KICK START BIKE, IT MIGHT RUN; IF YOU HAVE AN ELECTRIC START BIKE, YOU KNOW IT WILL RUN!

The real lesson from that old Harley was the fact that a dose of humility every now and then is good for the soul. Subsequently, I owned a Suzuki and a Kawasaki. All were good bikes, but none had the temperament of that old “One lung” Harley.

I don’t ride anymore, but still get “Motorcycle Fever” every spring. My wife has a solution for that fever. She always tells me to take an aspirin and go lie down for a while. I must admit, that does seem to work for me.


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