Memories of a Bike, Straight Whiskey, and Father’s Day

Parts of the following Riepe’s Rampage were first run on my former blog — Twisted Roads — in 2008. This has become my standard Father’s Day message, as it evokes powerful memories of my dad, who was a husband, fireman, father, and friend. He was also a driving instructor, a mechanic, a plumber, a philosopher, a cook, and a carpenter. He died when he was 58, some 31 years ago.

The most challenging moments I have ever had behind the wheel were when driving with a super critical driving instructor — my father. I’d been driving for two years and now heard a sound that was neither a compliment nor a criticism. Nor was it a function of the motorcycle. The 1975 Kawasaki H2 “yingggggged” its way through curves like it was in a tractor beam. My starts were smooth. The Kawasaki didn’t stall. Stopped at a light, I heard the distinctive click of a Zippo lighter opening, and smiled when I realized my pillion rider was using this lull in the action to kindle a cigarette.

The guy on the back was my father.

Many kids have wonderful memories of unique moments with their dads. The most common of these take place at ballparks, where little league games were played and cheered, and at major league stadiums, where legendary players whacked ‘em out of the park. Fishing is another great Norman Rockwell type activity shared by fathers and sons. Who doesn’t remember the first bass or trout taken in the company of your dad? And working on the engine of the family car with your Dad is yet another source of prime memories for others.

I hated baseball almost as much as my father did. I assume he hated baseball because he never once mentioned it in conversation, nor watched it on television, nor ever gave any sign that he had heard of it. Fish came from Russo’s Fish Market on West Side Avenue (Jersey City). I never knew my dad to walk by a stream, nor to express the slightest interest if anything lived in one. He hated bugs, the sun, and the heat. As for working on the car, my dad had a great collection of tools. He would let me use any one of them provided I did so without his knowledge and concealed such activity while he was alive.

He was a classic example of the World War II veteran who could do anything. Basic carpentry, general plumbing, and rudimentary wiring were all in his repertoire. While his mechanical ability greatly exceeded mine, it was not something he attempted to hand down. In fact, he once told me that it was his greatest hope that I would one day make enough money to always pay somebody to do the things on my car that he had to do on his. This advice was lost on me at the time because I was four years old and had just dropped one of his tools down a sewer grate.

I learned to drive when I was seventeen. This was the same age at which my dad learned how to assemble, maintain, and fire a .50 caliber machine gun at unpleasant Nazis, who were shooting at the B-17, in which he was the tail gunner. (Despite the fact this position required frequent filling, my dad asked for it as the B-17G had a separate door for the tail gunner, facilitating exit. He had started out as a ball turret gunner, but did not trust to the good intentions of his fellow crew members to crank the damn thing up in the event the aircraft became disabled, as the majority of them might already be dead.)

He told me the most amazing stories about the war, a few of which did not put him in the best light. This because I was 15-years-old at the time, and the light in which I saw everything was rose-colored. As a man, I now think my father showed great restraint in certain circumstances. I freely admit I will never be half the man he was on his worst day.

I found some of these stories to incredibly sad. My dad lived in a tent for a bit between missions, which must have aggravated him no end. But he explained to me that living in a tent far behind falling artillery fire (plus eating hot food and getting to take a dump in a facility that also had hot water) was much better than spending months in mud-lined foxholes, like my Uncle Bill was doing. My father flew to Italy and Germany a number of times. He never got out of the plane (but always left a little something).

My father never once spoke of the tents that went vacant when B-17s blew up in mid-air, or wildly spiraled to the ground in gyrations that prevented the crews from bailing out. He showed me a picture of a kid, about eighteen years old, dressed in tired fatigues, in front of a depressingly fatigued tent — playing with a little white dog. It was difficult for me to envision my father as an adolescent, but he was the kid in the picture. The dog was a stray that latched onto my dad. Pop had named the mutt “Flash.”

My father loved dogs and we always had one in the house. I can imagine what it meant to him after returning from a ten-hour flight, in an unheated bomber with open windows, with the roar of four deafening Wright “Cyclone” engines still in his ears, to have a dog lick his hand with a tail wagging.

“What happened to the dog?” I asked, expecting to hear how my Dad smuggled him home from Italy, or gave him to an orphaned Italian kid, or that the dog lived out his years growling at the mention of Mussolini.

“The army shot him,” my dad said. “We got back from a mission to discover that military MPs went through the camp, rounded up all the dogs, and shot them.” The risk of rabies and fleas in a camp where every trained man was a critical asset meant no dogs. It was just one more aspect of my farther’s war that I never considered.

“Did your plane ever crash?” I once asked him.

“We had a couple of hard landings, after which the aircraft was used for parts,” said my dad. I wish I had asked him more about that, but he made it seem so commonplace. My first BMW K75 was sold for parts, after a car ran over it and me. I know what the bike looked like that day. I wonder what my dad’s plane must have looked like. He was a “no bullshit” kind of person, which made him one of my more articulate critics. His name for me in my adolescence was, “Shitbird,” and I often lived up to it.

In the summer that followed my successful completion of the eighth grade, I was presented with a reading list for high school. Atop the list was “Northwest Passage,” by Kenneth Roberts. I was out of class about two days, when my father wanted to know what I thought about the book. (What I thought was that I intended to read it about 30 seconds before I’d get quizzed on it in September, but I was reluctant to share this strategy with him.)

My dad suggested that I should pull my head out of my ass and attempt to read a great book that I might enjoy. I looked at the book with suspicion. It was a paperback with 1,000 pages. By page 30 I was hooked as if the book had been printed with narcotic ink. I have since read it at least 20 times.

My dad and I spent thousands of hours in late night conversations on the most incredible topics. These spanned Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness,” the Six Day Israeli War, injuries to the soul, the great works of men and their undoing, the perfection of whiskey, sailboats, float planes, the flaws of politicians, and whether or not I would ever pull my head out of my ass long enough to amount to something. My dad was stoic about the reality of this last topic, though he remained an optimist.

It was during one of those conversations, he asked if I had ever considered getting a motorcycle. My answer was, “No.” The explanation, which I did not share at the time, was that you could have sex in a car, even if it was a Volkswagen Beetle, like mine. (This was purely conjecture as I wasn’t getting laid anyplace.) Dad spoke about how much fun a motorcycle might be and what adventures lay waiting for the guy who had one. (The details of this discussion, and their ultimate effect, are covered in my book: Conversations With A Motorcycle.)

It never occurred to me that this could have been the passing daydream of a fireman (albeit a Battalion Chief), with a mortgage and three kids in private schools. But the seed was planted. I wandered into a dealership (another story covered in the book), paid my money, and became the proud owner of a Kawasaki Triple. (The “Sucker” light burned so brightly in the dealership that I rode out with a tan.)

Months later, I found my dad in the driveway admiring the bike. I showed him how it worked, the tool kit under the seat, and some other neat aspects of that otherwise primitive machine. And before I knew it, I said, “Want to take a ride with me?”

The man who walked through burning buildings and stared down the steely gaze of the Luftwaffe never hesitated.

Wearing only a light zip up jacket and my spare open-faced helmet, he climbed on the back and we took off. It was a weekday afternoon and there was plenty of traffic. I chose random roads, riding north and west to the town of Greenwood Lake, New York. Among the cars my dad once owned was a 1957 Chevy Belair (silver and white with red seats). One of my fondest memories was sitting on the front seat as he hit the impossible speed of 70 miles per hour. I found a straight stretch on Route 17 and opened up the H2.

“This is 75 miles per hour,” I shouted over my shoulder. I heard him laugh.

We crossed the state line and I pulled into the parking lot of a bar. The drinking age in New York State was 18. For the first time in my life, I went into a bar with my dad. (It would only happen one more time.) We each ordered the specialty of the house, a beer and a ball. This was a glass of whatever they had on tap, probably Budweiser, and a shot of whiskey. I had Jamesons. He had Fleischman’s, a kind of scotch that you would use to clean paint brushes. He bought a round, and I bought one.

I remember telling him about an idea I had for a story. It was about inner city life. He didn’t think much of it and told me if I gave it some thought, I wouldn’t either. He was right. I never wrote the story. We were on the bike again an hour later. The ride home was fun, and took about 70 minutes. The expression “Shitbird” didn’t come up the whole day. My Dad was one of a handful of folks to ride on the back of my Kawasaki.

Now some of you will raise your eyebrows and say nothing. Others may feel compelled to lecture me on the message this sort of story carries about drinking and riding, and how it will impact the nation’s youth. And some may feel that my father exercised really poor judgment.

But if you are going to set me straight about what I did wrong in my youth, I must advise you that this episode doesn’t even make the needle flicker on the “regret gauge.” As for my father, he was the bravest man I ever met. The emphysema that eventually claimed his life was just taking a toehold, and prevented him from getting a decent night’s sleep in the firehouse. He was a captain then, and volunteered to work “rescue.” Rescue rolled on every call. Since my dad couldn’t sleep, he walked through smoke-filled buildings in the dark. He never spoke about that either.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

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