First ride – first motorcycle

I figured the ride home from the dealer on my first motorcycle would be fun and uneventful, I figured. I could not have imagined what I was about to experience on that July day in 1973.

Owning a motorcycle occurred to me well prior to that day. A few friends who rode assured me I would enjoy riding as much as they did. Having only taken a friend’s 250 for a short ride by spring 1973, I decided to check out a few bikes to see what I might want to buy. Back then where I live, there was no formal training requirement to get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. You only had to have a motorcycle permit, good for 90 days, which you obtained by passing a motorcycle-specific written test. After getting a little practice (solo of course) you could take the road test before the 90 days was up. I did some reading, took the test, and got my motorcycle permit.

I asked a few acquaintances what they thought I should consider. An old neighborhood buddy had ridden a Norton and switched to BMW, but I had not seen him in a few years. Another thought Honda and Yamaha bikes were getting real good. A coworker who rode a Harley suggested one like his and gave me a number of reasons. He asked what I was going to use it for, what kind of riding would I be doing. He admitted that if reliability was really important, I should consider a BMW or maybe a Moto Guzzi. He told me they had shaft drives instead of a chain, the only ones that did. Because of my lack of experience, he suggested I should stay away from high performance, heavy machines with larger engines for my first motorcycle. Besides, he said, a lower powered bike would be fine for commuting to work, which was one use I mentioned.

I spent the next few weeks checking out different bikes. The vibration levels of some, like my friend’s Harley, discouraged me, but I was impressed with Hondas and BMWs. With no experience, I didn’t ride any of them except for a few hundred feet in a parking lot on a Yamaha. The salespeople let me sit on them with the engine running.

During a weekend car trip in July, I stumbled upon Poor Denny’s Cat House, a small shop in Dodge Center, Minnesota, about an hour and a half from my home. Denny, the owner, sold snowmobiles and BMW and Moto Guzzi motorcycles, and he showed me both brands of bikes, providing lots of details. I looked at them carefully. The BMW, a 600cc with the small gas tank, was the only one he had. The horizontally-opposed twin made the BMW unique and at least one of my friends thought they were a bit ugly because as a result. I had some familiarity with the advantages of this type of engine from my several years’ experience with the power plants of light airplanes.

Denny repeated what my friend had said about the BMW having a reputation for being reliable. He continued and pointed out some maintainability advantages and some other design features that were not in common with other motorcycle brands. The dry clutch and separate lubricant for the transmission were features that got my attention. With a relatively light weight and a moderate 46 horsepower, the R 60/5 seemed to fit my needs and met my friend’s suggestions regarding a first motorcycle. I liked it and I told Denny he had pretty much sold me on it, but I wanted to think about it. Since it was the only one he had, I told him I would let him know soon one way or the other. It was getting late in the day and I headed home. He probably thought that was the last that he would see of me.

During the drive home, I decided to buy it. The next day I called Denny and asked if he still had the blue BMW. I asked if I could send some money down to hold it for me for a week until I could pick it up. He said that he’d hold it for me for a week on my word.

Over the next few days, I obtained a bank check, notified my insurance company, got myself a helmet and queried friends to see if one of them could ride with me down to Dodge Center in my car and drive the car back while I rode the motorcycle. I was getting excited about my pending purchase. I called Denny and said I’d be there right after lunchtime Saturday and verified the amount of the check. Everything was all set, but things were about to go awry.

Late Friday evening, my friend Pete called; he’d forgotten about an obligation on Saturday. We rescheduled for the following Saturday. It was too late to call Denny, so I would do that first thing in the morning. I probably should have left it there, but I really wanted to get the deal done and besides, I was a bit afraid to ask Denny for another week delay. I couldn’t reasonably arrange for another person to help me the next day, so I considered driving down by myself, closing the deal and leaving the bike at the shop until the following Saturday. Then it occurred to me I could just take the bus down to pick up the bike. I checked with Greyhound, found they had one going through Dodge Center and had my solution.

Departure time of the Greyhound wasn’t until after noon. I called Denny and said I would be a little later arriving if that was OK. I got a cab and soon was on my way to the bus depot carrying only my helmet. It was a nice July morning, but it was going to get hot—over 95. I had no proper riding gear. Jeans and a T-shirt were my apparel for the day. Leather boots were one appropriate item I did have, so I wore them knowing I would not be comfortable riding a motorcycle wearing tennis shoes. While waiting for departure time at the depot, I grabbed a sandwich. The Greyhound rolled out of downtown on schedule.

Intrastate bus routes typically pass through several towns along the way to the ultimate destination and this one was no different. It would take nearly double the time it would take for me to drive directly, as the bus had four stops on an indirect route before getting to my destination, the last stop before the bus’s final destination. After a trip of perhaps two and a half hours, the bus reached my stop; I was the only one who got off and no one was there to board. The town was pretty quiet on a Saturday afternoon. The bus came into town from the west and made some turns, so I looked around to get my bearings before deciding which way to walk. I knew the shop was on the northeast edge of town. It turned out to be almost a mile away.

Paperwork took a little time. Denny gave me a briefing on all the features of the bike. He had it fueled and ready to go and asked that I come back after 500 miles for a required check. He asked how experienced a rider I was, something which hadn’t come up when I was there the week before. I stated I had ridden one small cycle several years earlier and not very many miles on it at that. He expressed more than a little concern about my setting off on a 75-mile ride down the highway and into the city.

Wondering what I understood about handling a motorcycle, he asked several questions about brake usage and about steering, specifically if I understood “reverse steering” to initiate the lean required to turn. I had discussed these things with my rider friends. Saying “Practice them,” Denny had me demonstrate repeated use of the clutch and both brakes and then suggested I get familiarized in town before setting out down the highway. I agreed and said I would ride the side streets of town for a while before heading for home.

One of the first turns beyond the driveway was on a gravel road and I found myself so tentative in leaning the bike on the gravel that I nearly rode off into the grassy ditch. Fortunately, I reacted correctly. I made quite a few turns, starts and stops over the next 45 minutes while riding around town. The weather forecasters had been correct; it was very hot. The town was still pretty quiet so there was little interaction with other vehicles. Feeling pretty comfortable on the bike now, I made my way over to the highway heading north, pausing at a place to get some water.

Most of my route would be on a rural state highway through farmland, with a couple of tiny towns. Closer to the city, I would take less traveled but familiar roads and streets to get home. I figured it would surely take me more than an hour and a half because I would probably be stopping for a break or two.

About 20 minutes north of town, I observed a thunderstorm building off to the west and ahead of me. I thought I’d be able to get by the storm before it crossed the highway, but the storm built quickly, moving rapidly northeastward and soon raindrops were hitting me. Since it was hot, the rain felt good and I kept going. Not a big deal. Here I was, on my first ride on a new motorcycle and I was riding through a rainstorm. I slowed a bit. A little rain wouldn’t bother me and I would soon be through it. The storm was evidently large and began blackening the late afternoon sky. It rained harder and I was quickly soaked. The temperature dropped significantly, the wind picked up and there was an ominous greenish cast in parts of the sky.

Nature jolted my sense of well-being with a bang. Lightning hit a field no more than a half mile ahead and a few hundred yards left of the highway on the higher terrain north of me. This was open country with no roadside power poles or tall trees. I knew better than to be out in the open in the middle of a thunderstorm, so I left the highway at the next farmhouse driveway. As I did, I saw another flash out of the corner of my eye and heard a tremendous bang. I pulled up slightly past the farmhouse, shut bike off and dismounted. The lightning-streaked sky was dark and threatening.

The house seemed to be dark, but a short distance away was the barn and a big shed. The shed door was open. I didn’t see a car anywhere nor any farm implements or a tractor. A nearby windmill or the house would likely draw lightning. I realized if someone were home, they would be wondering what I was up to, so I went to the house with my helmet under my arm to ask if I could wait in the barn or the shed. If no one was home, I would just wait in the driveway a little longer.

I knocked on the door of the small screen porch on the house. Almost immediately, a woman in her late 60s came to the door and before I could say three words, she said, “Come on in out of that rain for Heaven’s sake’s! You’re getting soaked!” Before I moved for the door she held open, her husband appeared behind her. I said I would be fine outside or in the shed if it was OK with them. “Nonsense!” she said. “You get in here out of the rain and the lightning.”

I stepped into the porch, dripping wet, and said I’d be grateful if I could just stand on the porch. I said it wouldn’t be long before I’d be on my way again and I told them that. “No, no,” she said. “You come in the house where it’s warmer. A little water won’t bother anything.” I put my helmet on the porch floor and stepped into the kitchen, still dripping from head to toe.

The woman’s husband brought me a towel and asked if I wanted to put the cycle in the shed. “Thanks, but water won’t harm it at all,” I said. “But I sure am getting your floor wet.”

I must have been a sight, a perfect stranger dripping on their kitchen floor. The woman turned and took a coffee pot off the stove, got out a cup, filled it and handed it to me saying, “This will take the chill out of you.” Twenty minutes earlier, I was sweating. I don’t even drink coffee but I couldn’t imagine turning her down.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels.

Her husband got out a mop, and she said, “Frank, go get some overalls.” To me she said, “When he gets back, you go into the bathroom there and take off those wet clothes and put on the overalls and I’ll put your wet things in the dryer while you drink your coffee. Take off everything! No sense in wearing anything wet.” I reacted as though she were my own mother and removed my boots, took the overalls and went into the bathroom. As I began removing my clothes, I thought to myself, “What am I doing? What is happening here?” I had no fear and felt surprisingly relaxed in the unusual situation.

I wrung most of the water from my clothes into the tub as I took them off. Frank was about the same height and weight as me so the overalls fit fine. I brought out the clothes wrapped in the towel. She took them and began putting them in the dryer in a room just off the kitchen while I put my belt and soaked wallet on the floor by the door near my boots. Then we all sat down at the kitchen table. Feeling quite silly sitting there wearing only the bib overalls, I thanked them again. I already knew Frank’s name; she introduced herself as Clara.

At their bidding, I related the story about riding on the bus by myself and buying the cycle in the town south of their farm. They wondered where I lived. Did I have a family? Where did I work? What did I do for work? How long had I been riding motorcycles? What were my interests? I had some questions too. Did they still farm? Did they have kids? Yes, a daughter and a son but he had passed away.

Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned that, among other interests, I owned a small old airplane. Clara looked at her husband. They then began to tell me more about their son. He had been a pilot in the Air Force and had lost his life in a training accident a few years earlier in California. I told Clara I was 30, she paused and said that their son would have been 30 also. Frank said that, like me, he too had ridden a motorcycle. They talked more about him for a while. They told me their daughter was married and lived not far away. She might be a little upset at them about having invited a stranger into their house, but we continued drinking coffee and Clara brought out some cookies as we continued to talk.

The storm was more than one large cell passing through; it was a line of cells and it was near sunset before it started to clear. My clothes had been dry for some time and I had put them back on. I asked if I could have their address and Clara wrote it down for me as I gathered my things and put on my boots. They joined me outside in the fading light and Frank brought the towel I had dried myself with earlier, saying I could wipe the water off the cycle with it. I thanked them one more time and shook their hands, then rolled down the gravel driveway to the highway.

Although most of my attention now was focused on the road and the operation of my new machine, for fleeting moments I reflected on the experience of the last few hours. The sky was dark when I reached a small town where the highway jogs west briefly and I saw some lightning in the clouds some distance to the west. I stopped along the side of the road in town to watch the sky for a bit.

I gazed back to the south wondering why my farm hosts had been so quick to invite me in and do what they did. I guess they had seen and heard me ride up their driveway in the wind and rain and that they were just the sort of folks who are always willing to help a stranger. There are many people like that around here, but I knew that there was more to it for Clara and Frank.

A few days after I got home, I wrote those folks a note, thanking them for their graciousness to a stranger on a motorcycle out in a storm. Once in a while, I still think of how fortunate I was to have encountered them that day.

I still ride the R 60. I have ridden it regularly every year since then even though I own an R 1200 RT. My friend and Denny were correct about the reliability. In 31 years of riding it to work, it never failed me even once. It always got me where I wanted to go and back again, rain or shine, even if I had to use the kick starter on a few occasions when I let the battery get too old. Distance to work varied over the years but it was never a long ride. There was the occasional errand and leisure day ride of 375 miles or so, but nothing longer so the R 60 doesn’t have huge miles on it. In my part of the country, winter has kept it in the garage for four or five months each year.

After I retired—and when the bike was 33 years old—I set off on a 3,200-mile trip with some friends. I did no special preparation and had no problems. The following year, we did it again. One more testament to its reliability is the fact it has never been in the shop in all that time—except in my own garage, of course, where it received diligent maintenance and some seal and soft part replacements.