Friday, March 23, 2012

For those of you who missed this in The Horse Backstreet Choppers a while back...

By Buckshot

After Pop was killed, I always dreaded the weekend trips upstate to visit Uncle Ted. He looked so much like Pop it was almost unbearable, and I used to mope around for days after our return home. Sure, Uncle Ted lived in the mountains, and his back yard was always full of deer, raccoons, squirrels, and the occasional black bear or cougar, but tramping around in the woods just wasn’t the same without Pop. He taught me how to track a buck, how to build a shelter and survive in the wilderness in any kind of weather, and he taught me respect for guns, and how to handle them safely. My weeklong hunting trips with Pop had been my right of passage into what was to become an early and unwelcome manhood. I was twelve years old when Pop died.
          They’d ruled Pop’s death an accident, and no charges had been filed against the woman who killed him. She’d turned left in front of Pop, and he’d struck her big, white Ford station wagon square in the passenger door. He’d died at the scene from massive head and internal injuries. That was before the helmet law, but a helmet wouldn’t have saved his life anyway. My last memory of Pop was him riding away on his Shovelhead chopper, waving over his shoulder, his long, dark hair swirling in the slipstream behind him. Several hours later, Mom got the call that would change our lives forever.
          My room was right next to Mom’s. Sometimes when sleep wouldn’t come, I’d lie awake into the hours before dawn. At times, I could hear Mom call his name in her sleep, then hear her soft sobs as she awoke alone in their big empty bed. I guess her loneliness was as overwhelming as mine, because a couple of years later, she remarried.
          Roger, my step-dad was okay, I guess. He tried to be a pal, and I guess he was, but we had nothing at all in common, and we ended up politely ignoring each other most of the time.
By the time I was seventeen, I was restless, and headed for trouble with the law. Several of my friends got caught joy riding in a stolen car moments after they had dropped me off at my house. Naturally, Roger and Mom had a fit when they found out, and being the bull-headed little asshole I was in those days, I just packed a few clothes and left. Determined to make it on my own, I had numerous scrapes with the law, until finally a judge gave me the choice of enlisting in the military, or going to prison. I chose the military without a second’s hesitation.
The Marine Corps wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. They taught me self-respect, respect for others, and a fierce independence of spirit. I really thought about a re-up, but finally chose to do my four years, and get out.
I wandered around a while, doing odd jobs to earn traveling money, and finally ended up where I had begun. Mom and Roger were glad to see me, of course, but my homecoming was overshadowed by bad news.
“Son,” Mom took my arm and led me into the kitchen, pouring me a cup of steaming coffee. “Uncle Ted is dying. He has inoperable cancer. The doctors say he has maybe six months left, if that.”
Stunned, the coffee cup almost slipped from my fingers, the scalding coffee slopping onto my tennis shoes and the faded linoleum floor. “I’ve got to go see him, Mom,” I said finally. I could feel my eyes blur with unshed tears, and thought, What would my jarhead buddies think if they saw me cry?
She reached up and laid a hand on my shoulder. “He’d like that, Son. He always talks about how much you look like your dad in the pictures you’ve sent. Every time I talk to him, he never fails to ask how you’re doing.”
I reached down and took Mom gently by the shoulders and pulled her tightly to my chest. “I’ll leave first thing in the morning, Mom.”

Dawn found me rattling north in my old pickup, the rising sun almost painful as it streamed in through the dirty passenger side window. I had often thought about getting a bike; a big Harley Davidson like Pop’s, but the  months I had spent on the road had eaten up the few dollars I had managed to save while I was in the Corps, and the price of a new, or even used Harley now was staggering. Pop’s had gone to impound, and I sometimes felt the cold fingers of rage grip me when I thought about his beloved Shovelhead being stripped, with a piece going here, and a piece going there. Without thinking, I slammed my fist into the dashboard of the truck, adding another dent to the growing collection inside and out.
The road north stretched out like a black silk ribbon, and I continued to drive, the childhood feelings of dread returning more with each mile, but for a different reason now.

“It’s good to see you, Son.”  Uncle Ted held out a frail hand to squeeze mine with a surprisingly strong grip.
 “Come in… Come in!” he said, ushering me inside the familiar confines of the native log home where I had spent so much time in my youth. We sat, sipping Jack Daniel’s and talking until the wee hours of the morning. Most of the conversation was about Pop, and the good times he and Uncle Ted had shared as children, and the times after I was born, when Pop and Uncle Ted had gone hunting and fishing in the surrounding forests, sometimes taking me along. 
“We sure had some times, didn’t we Danny,” he asked, swirling the amber whisky in his glass, making the ice tinkle merrily.
“We sure as Hell did, Uncle Ted,” I assured him.
“Just Ted, Son.” He held his glass out, pointing with the index finger near its rim. “No reason to be so damn formal at this stage of the game.” 
I didn’t know quite what to say, so I just nodded, and he continued talking as he poured us both another drink. “I guess you know by now that I don’t have much time left. A few months from now, I’ll be sharing a drink with your Pop somewhere,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “Although I shudder to think where we might be.”  He sat down in his recliner again, his face showing the strain of standing. “And there’s one thing I want to be able to tell him I’ve passed along when I do.”
I waited silently for an explanation. My curiosity must’ve shown on my face, because he painfully started to raise himself up from the chair again. I stood quickly and extended my hand, which he gripped to help pull him to his feet. He walked slowly toward the door, motioning for me to follow, and we walked down the steps from the porch into the inky blackness, him gripping my arm for support.
Keys rattled in the lock that secured the doors of the barn. With no livestock to tend in several years, the old barn had sat unused, and untended. The hinges squeaked from lack of oil as he swung the doors wide, and felt along the inside wall for the light switch.
The glare of fluorescent tubes made me squint until my eyes adjusted to the light. Dust covered everything in sight, clinging to the tack and tools that hung where they had been left and forgotten years before. Rats had chewed the skirts and stirrups on the saddles, and the halters and reins were hanging in tatters. Ted never spared the moldering leather a glance as he made his way to the rear stall, where he wrestled momentarily with the slatted gate until the rusted latch opened, and the gate swung wide.
He gently swept a dust covered tarp from the contents of the stall, and as I stepped cautiously around the gate, I stopped dead in my tracks, stunned speechless. There in the gloom sat Pop’s Shovelhead. The chrome had a fine patina of rust, and the brown scum that seems to always collect on vegetative metal. The front wheel was bent into a figure eight, and smashed against the front legs of the frame, still secured to the sliders of the twisted wide glide front end.
“Pop’s Shovel!” I felt the words catch in my throat as I stared at the wreckage of my father’s prized possession. I dropped to one knee beside it and gently ran my fingers over the Sportster tank, the black paint still slick and glossy under the dirt. The image of Pop, waving back to us on his last night on earth came flooding back, and I leaned my forehead against the big Harley and cried for the second time in the ten years since his death.

Ted laid a hand on my shoulder as we stood next to my old pickup, Pop’s chopper tied down in the bed, and covered with a blue plastic tarp to protect it from the rain that threatened to fall from the scudding clouds overhead, and from prying eyes as well.
“Well, Son,” he said, his hand shaking. “I knew your dad would have wanted you to have it, so I picked it up from impound the day after he died. I brought his personal effects home from the hospital, and your mother told me to let them keep it. She never wanted to see another motorcycle as long as she lived.”  He patted the tarp lovingly, the bulk of the Harley causing the springs on my pickup to sag under its weight. “I knew your dad better than anyone but her, and I knew he’d never want anyone to get their hands on it but you, and now it’s yours. I’m glad I can tell him that when I meet up with him again.”
Having already said my goodbyes to Aunt Terri, I stood, looking into the eyes of Pop’s only brother, still clear and bright despite the ravages of the disease that was slowly taking his life. “I don’t know how to thank you,” I told him, gently taking his extended hand.
“Just put her back like she was, Son… And,” he chuckled, “Watch out for assholes!”

For weeks on end, I worked with single-minded obsession, the hazy winter sun many times finding me still at work when it rose from the darkness. Bolt by bolt, I carefully disassembled the Shovelhead’s twisted remains, spending hours cleaning, polishing, and setting each part aside. I thought about replacing and updating some of the old technology parts, but decided to keep it just as Pop had left it. After all, it’s still his in a way. I’m just its caretaker.
The folks at the chrome shop took their own sweet time stripping and replating the rust pitted pieces, and I shot the plain, black urethane myself.
It was early spring when I finished double-checking the last bolt, and stood back to admire the finished chopper.
I swung my leg over it and settled onto the seat. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror on the door leading into the house, and was stunned by the visage staring back at me.
My hair had grown long over the winter, and hung down past my shoulders. My dark beard was full, but trimmed neatly. There, looking back at me in the mirror was Pop. Had I subconsciously tried to recreate him as well as his Harley?  I shook my head. No. This is who I was born to be, and though I resemble Pop, it’s more by coincidence than design.
I stepped off the bike and opened a Corona, the skunky yellow brew washing the cobwebs in my mind away. When I finished the beer, I walked over and turned the petcock under the glistening Sporty tank, watching the gas fill the clear filter between the black cylinders.
Two kicks through with the ignition off, just as I’d watched Pop do so many times, then turn the brass key until the headlight came to life.
The next kick brought the Shovel to life, the rumble of the big twin engine filling my ears for the first time in nearly eleven years. I sat astride the throbbing beast, the engine now idling with the staccato rhythm that only the Harley Davidson can produce.
I dropped it into first gear and slowly rolled out into the morning sunshine. As I gathered speed, my hair billowing out behind me, I whispered, unheard, into the rush of wind that filled my ears. “Here we are, Pop. Your Harley. Your son. Your legacy.”   

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