From the Night Factory
5. Motorcycling and Eschatology
In the autumn of 2010 I bought a motorcycle. Yeah, I know, I am sixty and my reaction time is not as quick. There is also more traffic containing an even higher ratio of bad drivers. In addition to the aforementioned, the night is blinding and my old pupils are slower to recover from the headlights of oncoming cars.
My friend, Bill Campbell, asked me why would I want to ride a motorcycle? Bill is my oldest friend, not that I’ve known him the longest, but at ninety-five years I know no one older than him that I can properly call a friend. I knew what bothered him was the same thing that bothered my sister, my mother, and Ms Keogh, my more significant other; motorcycles are dangerous. It is true.
A motorcycle is dangerous because it doesn’t carry a protective barrier against even the mildest collisions. In contrast to this defenselessness is the motorcycle’s ability to perform at speeds to which humans have not evolved a matching reaction time. When you exceed your abilities with a motorcycle, there is no soft landing. So the saying goes among riders, “Whether the rock hits the bird or the bird hits the rock, the bird is the worse for it.”
A motorcycle does not stay upright by itself. I have never spilled. Close. Forty years ago I was heading south on Interstate 95 en route to Virginia when, at a very high speed, my rear tire blew. The bike started to fall on its side. It was slow motion for me. The traffic formed a pocket about me to give me room. Rather than let the bike slide on its side with my leg beneath, I used my weight to swing the bike upright and it began to lie down on its opposite side. Only then did an idea formulate that if I kept throwing my weight first one way and then the other, I could keep the bike up. The bike, with a rim of flapping rubber, fought against me, first one way and then the other. In this manner I was able to bring the bike to a halt on the shoulder of the road, still upright.
My answer to Bill Campbell about why I ride was that the rewards of the experience outweigh the risks. People take unnecessary risks to ski, to fly, to sail, to climb, and to ride horses. “Do you wear a helmet?” Bill asked. “Most of the time,” I told him.
This last Saturday was an ideal day for the motorcycle, with islands of cumulus clouds overhead and plenty of sun. It was hot and I didn’t bother wearing my usual leather jacket, since I planned to mostly putter around country roads at slow speeds. There was mention in the weather report of the “possibility” of scattered thunderstorms, but it wasn’t enough to dissuade me.
Usually, I like to ride the motorcycle to remote locations, preferably museums, and there seek inspiration, but I woke too late in the day. Such was my afternoon, a contented excursion through forests and between farms, along familiar routes not far from home, yet fresh visions. It was relaxing.
Then came the enveloping darkness, a rogue storm. It began with a light sprinkle that speckled my facemask with drops and tickled my chest through the thin shirt. It was not unpleasant. But I could see the blackening cloud harboring worse. I rode away from the bad cloud, but it spread overhead to include me. I could not get away, so I sought refuge in Newtown, a town founded in 1684 by William Penn (a very distant relative of the editor of Snakeskin). There I found shelter.
The roof of a branch bank, in this case Bank of America, extended over two lanes to permit customers to drive up and do their banking without getting out of their cars. This being Saturday, the bank was closed. The drive-thru served as a port for my motorcycle. The rain came and the motorcycle and I stayed dry.
While I was parked and sheltered, resting on a cement island that served to separate the lanes for drive-thru customers, I thought back to the last time I rode the motorcycle. That was the day I visited with Bill Campbell, who wanted to see my motorcycle. Bill had invited me to join him at the Woodmere Art Museum.
Woodmere is a stone mansion that was once the Victorian home of Charles Knox Smith, an oil and mining magnate who started from poor beginnings. He left his house, richly decorated and full of art, to the community, and thus a museum was born. Despite the museum being reasonably local, I had never visited it. Bill was eager for me to see it; after all, the museum collected his art work. On the day he visited the museum with friends, I showed up on the motorcycle.
It was a fine, little museum. I had arrived early and strolled through every room before Bill came. Busloads of school children were being given tours, lectures, and workshops. They were even presented with a living artist working on a portrait at his easel. The museum was doing an excellent job of fulfilling Smith's mandate "for the use and benefit of the community..." When Bill and two friends arrived, I was sitting at a table on the porch writing a letter. I then toured the museum again, pushing Bill about in a wheelchair, not that he couldn’t walk. Bill lives in a modern four-story townhouse in Philadelphia. Just to get off street level to his home proper, which sits atop his garage, he must first climb the long staircase. Still, he tires and I was glad to make his museum visit easier.
Bill, his friends, and I were the last to leave. As they waited on the porch, I went to the far end of the parking lot, where I left my motorcycle safely distant from any careless parker. I rode the bike to the front of the museum for Bill and the others to see. As old as I am, they were all more than a score of years older, and they looked at me on my bike with vicarious delight. In a recent letter from Bill, he wrote: “I enjoyed the one-man parade of you as a biker. You fit the role well, and I felt like Woodmere’s porch was the reviewing stand. Good show. Thanks.”
It’s this then, these are the last few years when I will be able to enjoy motorcycling. Old as I am, these older people reflect on my panache and think back to when they were younger, my age. Ms Keogh is right, buying the motorcycle was just a last fling at youth. But am I defying age or am I extending youth? Will I know when to quit a thing? Sitting out the rain at Bank of America, I grew pensive thinking about the end of motorcycling, next about the end of life. Then came the end of the rain.
After a short spell, the black clouds had moved on and the sun was again revealed. The streets started steaming and the air smelled fresh and clean.
A grand rainbow arced across the sky. It brought to mind Harold Egbert Camping’s prediction that the world was supposed to end last week. Mr Camping, a Christian Radio host, wrongly predicted Judgment Day for 21st May 1988, was wrong again for 7th September 1994, and most recently wrong for 21st May 2011. Unhampered by experience, Mr Camping is now predicting a new end of the world on the 21st October 2011. Notwithstanding Mr Camping’s prediction, there was God’s reassuring bow in the clouds. For God had said, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you [Noah] and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.” My ancestors, and apparently some Biblical literalist today, believed the rainbow was our Lord’s weapon, from which he shot thunderbolts. He had put his weapon on display to reassure us, he would not end the world.
I climbed aboard my motorcycle and drove home using Interstate 95, so as to have a continuous view of broad horizons and a clear sight of God’s composite bow.
Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and
concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he
would be pleased to hear from you.