Motorcycling offers some of the best stories ever told around a campfire or a dinner table. Most of the best stories are the ones that literally fall in your lap. This one happened to me in July during one of the hottest summers on record.
I had left that morning just as the fog began to clear and was homeward bound from North Carolina to Indiana. I managed to lay down a click over two hundred miles in less than three hours before arriving in Williamsburg, Kentucky.
Even at 8:00 a.m. the heat was relentless so I pulled into an interstate-side McDonald’s and snagged a parking spot along the side hallway, next to the restrooms and back door. An empty table was just on the other side of the window. It was the perfect place to cool off, refuel, re-hydrate, and keep an eye on the bike at the same time.
I claimed the empty table with my jacket and helmet and took a lap through the men’s room to clean my hands and wipe the sweat from my brow. There was no line at the counter so I got my order quickly and proceeded to the condiment counter for coffee and necessities.
With tray in hand I rounded the corner and observed several small groups of people coming and going through the cubical shaped, multi-door entrance. A hunched over elderly man tried to grab one of the doors as it was quickly sucked shut by the vacuum of another door opening. He nearly fell as the door yanked his hand and pulled him off balance.
The incident left him feeling the surface for a handle and when he detected none he hobbled towards the other door. I thought to myself that door must have been an “exit only”; maybe that’s why no one offered to hold it for him.
I sat the tray on the table and started to seat myself when I noticed the same old man at the back door feeling the surface for a handle. A huge grin crossed his face when I made eye contact with him and got back up to open the door.
In a clean southern accent he said, “Thank you very kindly sir!”
“They don’t make it easy to get into these places anymore, do they?” I asked. Not to patronize him, but rather thinking I might get to be an old man one of these days too and it’d be nice to have someone on my side.
“No, they don’t,” he said. He repeated his huge grin and walked on.
Being old ain’t easy and I knew that for sure. I’d just been to see my dying grandfather who would be 91 soon if he made it. The doctors had exhausted all possibilities and released him from the hospital so that he could die at home. I had spent several hours over the past few days holding hands and talking with the eldest family patriarch. We took turns sitting in the chair next to his bed with a group of family members who had gathered there to fill his last days with good times and stories.
As I was stuffing my face with the first bite of breakfast I was thinking about the similarities of this old man and my own granddad who was still hanging on, fighting to the very end. With those thoughts in mind he reappeared.
“Hey! Is that your motorcycle?” he asked while pointing out the window to the Honda I was riding.
With a mouthful I replied, “Mmmm hmmm, sure is.”
“Man that thing is beautiful! You guys really got it made these days with the bikes the way they make ’em and the roads. We didn’t have roads like you’ve got today.”
At first I wanted to tell him about the Honda but his grin had doubled in size and his arms flailed as he began to tell a story. His bloodshot eyes opened wide and were glazed yellow with age but that did not hide their gleam as an ear bent to hear his tale.
“You know the new BMW plant over there?” he asked pointing in an unfamiliar direction. I nod as my only reply because the old man starts talking again as soon as he’s asked the question.
“They got my bike. I had a BMW. A big old single cylinder sucker. They came and picked me up and gave me a tour of the plant. Showed me where they were keeping it. They got it on display you know? Man that thing was hard to start!”
Again I tried to find an opening to join in the conversation but chose not to deny the old man his recreation of the starting procedure. His frame would literally unwind from its contorted state as he air-started the old single for me.
“I began parking it on a hill and rolling it down to start it. But when it was running… boy, did I have a time!”
“See that mountain there,” he asked while pointing again with his crooked finger out the window of the Williamsburg McDonald’s to a distant peak, “that one there?”
I nodded with my mouth full again and kept blowing the opportunity to get a word in edgewise.
He went on to tell about he and his friends racing up the road to the top of the mountain and back down just for fun, painting pictures with words and animation.
“We never went as fast as you guys can go today. I was behind a Harley-Davidson the other day in my car, going up the mountain, and this guy was leaning the thing way over this away and then back over this away. Almost touching on every corner!”
Again I tried to speak but was cut off once more. I couldn’t overlook the way his crumpled body would unwind as he would do a recounting lean in one direction and sustain the proper amount of time for a decent sweeper and then smoothly transfer his lean to other side going around the next curve; holding his hands out to grasp an imaginary set of pullback handlebars. It may have looked like an old man air-biking to anyone else but I was convinced for those few seconds he was riding that Harley himself. He was the real deal; a genuine forefather of the ride.
Grinning and talking still he asked, “I bet you can really lean that thing over, can’t you?”
Again the nods when the question is posed during a slurp of coffee. “Mmmm hmmm,” I hummed.
“Man, you guys are really lucky today! We never had anything like that.”
I was hurriedly trying to finish my meal so I could take a seat with him. I wanted to tell him how much I enjoy old folks and the stories they tell. But just as quickly as the old rider swept me up with his story he clasped his hands together and said, “Hey, I’ve got to get something to eat too you know.”
He stepped closer and squeezed my shoulder with his frail hand. His yellow eyes were welled with tears as he said, “Thank you so very much son, for listening.” He darted off toward the counter quicker than he had reappeared.
I fought back a huge lump in my throat and gulped down the last slug of coffee. I gathered myself from the moment, catching the tears before they rolled down my cheek and grabbed my gear. I looked through the restaurant but he was gone. He had disappeared, seemingly into thin air.
I mounted up and slipped back into the blazing heat and the 85 mph grind of I-75. I couldn’t quit thinking about the old man, replaying the events of the last week and trying to rationalize why things happen the way they do. How did I let him slip away? Was it meant to go down like this? I was torn between kicking myself for letting him get away and thanking God for opportunity to open the door and hear his tale.
“Thank God,” I said to myself, “for old motorcycles, old riders and the tales they tell.”
Ride Safe and lend an ear to old folks,
Godspeed Grandpa Joe (1914-2005.)