I watched the tornado cross the Interstate less than a half mile from where I sat under an overpass. It was early May of 1982 and this was just another moment in a trip, by the time it was completed, that included, a trip on Braniff airlines last flight during a thunderstorm, hot sex in a wet tent, good times with old friends, a flood, a night spent in a bathroom of a turnpike rest area and running out of gas less than 20 miles from home. We won't even mention the loss of my headlight, the loss of oil due to an over-enthusiastic service station attendant and dining on gnats washed down with a tasty glass of Texas ground water. No, we won't mention those things because they are another story entirely and will reveal themselves as a chapter in my upcoming book. The story that I am going to relate here today deals with the tornado, (previously mentioned), lost keys, a fried generator and a long overdo debt repaid.
I tossed my cigarette and headed for my early model 1972 XLH. For those of you that don't ride that is a pre (just barely) AMF Harley Davidson Sportster. Sigh, let me clarify that further because it makes a difference in the telling of this tale. In 1970 Harley Davidson was in severe financial trouble. By 1971 a Japanese firm famous for their bowling balls and sports equipment made a takeover offer for the troubled motorcycle company and by 1972 full acquisition had been made by AMF. My model, though now part of AMF, was built with pre AMF parts (thank God because AMF parts were junk), and because of that fact certain idiosyncrasies were prevalent in my model that had to be addressed when any service was performed. By the late 1980s Harley Davidson (much to the relief of true Harley enthusiasts), was back in the hands of Harley Davidson but that has no bearing on this story so, where was I?! Oh yeah, I tossed my cigarette and headed for my early model 1972 XLH.
The starter just sat silent, no click, no tick and no sound as I pressed the button. "Fuck," I shouted, "You mother fucking piece of no good shit." I screamed, "What the fuck now you fucking red headed bitch! Fuck we are in the middle of a fucking tornado and you choose to act your cunt ass up now you piece of fucking shit." I just sat on the bike, wet, mad and dumbfounded. I dismounted and started kicking gravel around as if that would help. "Just like a fucking woman," I yelled at my bike, "just like a red headed fucking bitch." Without knowing it at the time the bike had just acquired the name I would call it for the rest of it's life, "The Red Headed Bitch."
I lit a cigarette and took a long hard drag. As the acrid smoke filled my lungs I weighed my options;
1. I could push the bike uphill, turn it around coast it down the hill and hope that I get enough momentum going to hard start the engine. Once running I could then ride it into Emporia, Kansas just 20 miles away on I-35 and maybe find a Harley shop and some help.
2. I could put a "For Sale" sign on the bike and sit along side of the road waiting for any takers. Once I sold the bike for the cost of a bus ticket I could then hitch hike into Emporia, catch a bus and head back to my home in Abilene, Texas. Once there I could take a twelve step program to break me of this nasty motorcycle habit I had. Soon I would be wearing cowboy hats, driving a beat up Ford pick-up and swilling Lone Star beer.
3. I could use the bike to start a bond fire to keep me warm as I slowly wasted away waiting for rescue.
I opted for option number one. As I was pushing the "Red Headed Bitch" up the hill I spied a rider on the other side of the road heading north. Lucky Bastard, I thought to myself. "See," I said to my bike, "That's what you are suppose to do." My uphill trek was interrupted by the sound of a bike pulling up behind me. I turned to see the rider that had just passed stopping his bike and dismounting. "Hey bro," he called out, "need a hand?" I quickly explained what was happening and what my plan was. "Man, there is a Harley shop in Lebo." The rider said. "I'll help you push her off and then follow me." I looked at the guy to see if he was joking, he wasn't! Lebo, Kansas had a population of 1,500 people, two dogs, a cat and a hand full of chickens. "A Harley shop in Lebo?" I asked with a fair amount of skepticism. "Yep," he laughed, "hard to believe, huh?" That was putting it mildly. At that point in my life I was very wary of strangers. I was only a year out of retiring my patch and I wasn't real trusting of anyone I didn't know. But I was desperate for help so I threw caution to the wind and decided to follow this good Samaritan.
Sarge, the owner of the combination service station and bike shop, came out of the garage wiping his hands on a greasy red rag. "Looks like your generator and battery are fried who put that kill switch on your bike? He asked. I explained that while coming through Kansas City during a down pour that I had lost my keys from the ignition switch. I didn't discover it until I stopped for gas and found that I couldn't shut off the scooter. The closest bike shop was a Kawasaki dealer a mile a way and I asked them to install the kill switch to hold me until I got home. "Well" Sarge said, "they didn't polarize your system after they re-hooked the battery." I shook my head in disbelief. I had specifically told them to polarize the system and they had assured me they had done it. Remember when I stated earlier that; "certain idiosyncrasies were prevalent in my model that had to be addressed when any service was performed." Well this was one of those idiosyncrasies. Whenever the battery was disconnected the whole system had to be re-polarized before you started your bike again. This was accomplished by jumping the hot lead and negative lead, (usually with a screw driver), on your voltage regulator. Failing to do this could and often did fry your whole electrical system which is what happened to me.
"I put on a rebuilt generator and installed a new battery. I also installed a new key switch, here's the key," Sarge said as he handed me the key." I took the key and asked how much I owed him. Seventy five dollars was his response. "Do you have a Western Union here in town?" I asked him. "I'll have to call my wife and have her wire me some money, I only have enough on me for gas home." This was before ATM's, Debit cards or my credit being good enough for a credit card. Sarge eyed me and turned back to the garage, "I'll be right back," he said.
He reappeared a moment later, my bell horn in his hand. "This should be worth seventy five dollars," he grinned. "When you get home send me seventy five dollars," he said. I just looked at him, "Are you serious?" He said yes he was and that he trusted me to send him the money. He said that when I sent him the cash he would send me back my horn. He also offered me a place to stay for the night but I had to hit the road because I was already way behind my schedule. "Well here then," he said, handing me an old ratty army coat, "this should help keep you warm." I had forgot to pack my leather and all I had between me and the elements was my very wet sweat shirt. I gladly took the coat. Thanking Sarge for his kindness I hit the road to continue my trip back home.
Over the years I would tell this story of the kindness of this stranger. Many was the time that I traveled I-35 after that and thought that I should take a side trip to Lebo and see if Sarge was still there. See, I never did send the seventy five dollars. It wasn't that I didn't want to it was just that life kept getting in the way of repaying my debt. But fate has a way of taking care of debts owed and this past weekend what was long over due was paid back in full.
As I waited to set up for the "Spring Fling Bike Show" in Emporia, Kansas I was cussing the weather. "Whoever heard of fucking snow in April? This shit is for Alaska, not Kansas." I told the biker I was talking to. He laughed and agreed that it was indeed, "Fucked Up." I asked him if he knew where I would be setting up. He told me that he wasn't sure but that Sarge would be here soon and could show me. "Sarge?" I asked. "Yeah," the biker said, "he lives about 20 miles from here in Lebo." I smiled, "Does he own a bike shop?" I asked. "He used to back in the eighties," he said. My smile got bigger, "I owe him a debt of gratitude," I said. While we were waiting I related the story of the "Red Headed Bitch and the Bell Horn" to the biker. I told him that I wanted to give Sarge a proper Thank You for what he had done for me twenty five years ago.
A black Chevy Blazer came down the road in the driving snow. Over the past few minutes the snow had started falling harder and the flakes were wet and quarter sized. A middle aged biker got out of the Blazer and headed for the exhibition hall. "Excuse me," I said, "are you Sarge?" He said he was indeed Sarge as I took his hand and shook it. I said, "I just want to thank you for what you did for me in May of 1982." He, of course, looked puzzled so for the second time that day I related the story of how he had helped me out all those years ago. Sarge said, "I'm sorry, I really don't remember it." I told him that was OK because I did. "I understand that a lot of years had passed," I reassured him. "I just wanted you to know that I remember and have never forgot your kindness, thank you."
In his walk in life Sarge had once helped a stranger. It was such a natural thing for him to do that it had been just another day for him. Not a moment worth remembering just business as usual. I had a plan and before this bike show was over I would see my plan through.
All through the night the snow fell at times creating a white out. I have never, in my fifty years upon this planet, seen it snow in April in this part of Kansas. Damn global warming. I knew that this would be a lousy show cash flow wise but a success in a whole different way. By morning the snow had ceased, the temperature had risen to fifty degrees and slush covered every inch of ground. I set about getting ready for the day.
Around 10:00 AM the mobile unit was ready to operate and I had wrote a check for seventy five dollars. I entered the exhibition hall and located Sarge. As I approached he apologized for the weather, "I'm sorry," he said, "I know this probably sucks for you." I waved off his apology. "It's not your fault," I said, "Shit happens! By the way, what is your real name?" He answered, "Steve Sargent." I took out my check book and filled in his name. "You see Sarge," I began, "Yesterday when I told you how you had helped me on that rainy day twenty five years ago the one thing I didn't tell you was about the money I owe you." I pulled off the check and handed it to him. "When you took my bell horn you told me that when I got the seventy five dollars that I should send it to you." Sarge looked at the check. "Today I got the seventy five dollars, keep the horn for interest." Sarge looked at me speechless. "Bet you never thought that someone would be giving you seventy five dollars today, did you," I laughed.
Sarge shook my hand and thanked me. I told him that he didn't need to thank me, "I owed you and now my debt is paid. Thank you for what you did for me all those years ago. You gave me a great story to tell for the past twenty five years," I told him. Sarge laughed, "Well now you can add a blizzard in April to your story," he said.
Sarge sold his bike shop in 1984 so that he could help his ailing Father work the family farm. Sarge still works that farm to this day but has never lost his love of motorcycles. He is actively involved in ABATE of Kansas and works diligently to keep our roads free and our rights intact. The bike show was a wash for me, I didn't even break even but that's OK, because what I gained was more valuable than any monetary income I may have earned.
Thank You Sarge for the help and kindness you showed a stranger on a cold, stormy day in May of 1982. It has never been forgotten and I can now say that I have repaid my debt. If there is anything that I can ever do for you just let me know. Ride free brother, ride free!