This is about why I recently attached a side car, known to riders as a “chair,” to my antique Triumph motorcycle; but, first, I have to tell you the back story.
When I was a little boy, a middling size traveling carnival would come to Lumberton most every fall and set up on what is now the football field. Many years before, during the great cutting of the virgin timber, this field had been the mill pond for one of the largest sawmills in the south, holding thousands of logs before they were floated into the saws of the mill.
I was just a “looker,” a face in the crowd, a poseur, attracted by the noise, the flashing lights, the smell of fried onions and cotton candy, and the energy of the paying customers. Unlike most children, I never paid much attention to the Ferris wheel, the bumper cars, the merry-go-round, or even the bearded lady; I was always intrigued by something much more exciting: the “Drome of Death.” By way of definition, a “drome” is a place for running or racing, as in “velodrome” for bicycle racing, or “hippodrome,” an oval stadium for horse and chariot races in ancient Greece. In this case, the drome was for motorcycles.
Although not every carnival had one, I can still see it in my mind: a silo or barrel shaped structure, constructed of wooden planks, about 36 feet in diameter and about 25 feet tall. It usually came in halves, on two trailer trucks, like the double-wide house trailers you see going down the interstate; and they would join them together to make the cycle drome. The spectators would climb to a viewing stand circling the top via outside stairs, and the cyclist would enter from a door at the bottom of the structure. Rapidly gaining speed at the bottom of the silo, the rider would then mount the near vertical walls of the structure at speed for the duration of the show, riding around and around, often coming within inches of the spectators at the top.
While it would be a long time before I went inside one as a paying customer, which happened to be the one at Coney Island amusement park in New York City, I figured out right away that the only real danger to the “daredevil” rider was initially climbing the wall - centrifugal force would hold them up until they ran out of gas. To be honest, the “Drome of Death” is somewhat of a misnomer. It was probably one of the safest operations in the entire carnival. The rider could literally lean over on the handlebars and take a nap. Once he got going, it was like a dog chasing its tail.
My 10 or 12-year-old interest quickly focused on the riders and their machines. Before each show, while the tout rounded up a crowd, the rider would sit on his cycle in front of the ticket booth; dressed in jeans, white t-shirt, leather jacket, motorcycle boots; unlit cigarette dangling from his lips; disinterested scowl on his face; his sense of “joie de vivre” obvious; projecting what I later came to recognize as the “James Dean” look, although this was well before that actor’s time. Was it any wonder that Elvis Presley portrayed such a rider in his 1964 movie, “Roustabout?”
When it came time for the show, the carnival rider would throw away the cigarette, stand on the Triumph’s kick starter a couple times (and it was always a Triumph Bonneville); there would be a roar and a puff of smoke; then he would push the bike off its police stand, and launch into the open door of the death drome. I desperately wanted to be like him: brave, confident, secure, answering to no one. And talk about pure “theater”- to me it was Shakespeare; it was Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera; it was Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” (1931); shoot, it was a seat behind that little blonde girl in the fourth grade who never bothered to speak to me.
I grew up wanting a Triumph of my own – they had panache, an old world, European charm that Harleys never achieved in my book. The very name, “Triumph,” meant the same thing in several Romantic languages. It’s no wonder that they were the ride of choice for Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape” (1963), where he jumped one over the stalag fence; Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones” (1951), where his motorcycle gang took over the sleepy California town; Elvis, in “Stay Away Joe,” (1968), arguably his worst movie; and even more recently Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008). I don’t know what Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was driving when he had his fatal crash on the English roadside in 1935, but, even money, it was a Triumph. On the downside, they run those problematic Lucas electronics, which mechanics know as the “Prince of Darkness.” As with most everything British I’ve ever owned, they also “weep” or leak various vital fluids.
Like the rest of the British motorcycle industry, Triumph went out of business in the late 1980s. In addition to labor unrest in England, British cycles like Triumph, Norton, and BSA (British Small Arms) were killed by the lack of an electric starter which were common on Japanese bikes such as Honda Nighthawks in the early 1960s. I once laid a Nighthawk 305 down on the street right in front of a girl’s dormitory at Mississippi College in 1964 which, I admit, was not a very good place to attempt a moving handstand for the first time. But I did get a lot of attention and sympathy.
The British Labor Party’s experiment with socialism in the 1970s not only wiped out the motorcycle industry, but automobiles as well. All the old famous, iconic British marques are either out of business or sold: MG (now made in China); Jaguar (Owned by Tata, an Indian conglomerate); Mini Cooper (Owned by BMW of Germany), etc. You can still buy a new Triumph motorcycle today, but most of them are made in Thailand. Never forget what Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said about socialism: “It works until you run out of other people’s money.”
I finally did get my own Triumph, a used 1973 Bonneville 750, when I was in Rhode Island around 1985, and I still own it. My first real motorcycle, however, about 1960, was an old Italian Moto Guzzi (Italian for “Guzzi Motorcycle”) which I bought off a farmer, when I lived in France. I used to ride it up and down the Cote d’Azur, the Rivera, from Nice to Monaco. I remember that it used more oil than it did gas, and I never did manage to seal up all the oil leaks (The rule is: if it leaks, that means it has oil). I loved to ride the curvy Corniche alongside the coast, about where Grace Kelly later had her fatal automobile accident.
A couple years ago, I decided that I needed a side car on that motorcycle. It was mostly in self-defense; I knew that getting older, I didn’t have the sense of balance that I once had; I might fall over, and come to an inglorious end doing a header on some winding stretch of asphalt highway. I was surprised to learn that they are not that easy to find. One day, I was reading the coast daily newspaper online, and I saw an ad for a brand new Veloce (Italian for “very fast”) side car for sale in Ocean Springs, and the price was only $1200. I was familiar with this brand, made in Czechoslovakia, but I knew that it normally retailed for at least $4,000; consequently, I figured it was probably “hot” and possibly stolen. Nevertheless, I figured I better check it out. I had called ahead, and when my son and I arrived at the given address, I rang the doorbell and was greeted by an older gentleman, hooked to a portable oxygen breathing machine on wheels, smoking a cigarette. He invited us in, and there was the side car in the living room – fully assembled, sitting in front of the couch, covered with magazines, and serving as a coffee table.
He explained that he was retired from the Air Force, with Keesler being his last duty station, and that he had recently been diagnosed with end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). In fact, the doctor had recently told him he had only about three months to live. I talked with him a while and learned that he was a long time motorcyclist, but was trying to “tie up loose ends for his wife before he died.” To be honest, I felt bad about the price, as I knew how much the side car was worth; however, he did say that he had acquired it in a “trade.”
On the other hand, being a philosophy major, I have always tried to live my life according to the principle of “Occam’s Razor.” William of Occam (1287-1347) was an English Franciscan friar and philosopher. His “Law of Parsimony” is the problem-solving principle that basically says the simplest explanation is usually the best one – or, when confronted with competing solutions to a problem, pick the simplest one. So, I kept my mouth shut as I loaded the chair on my truck and headed back to Oak Grove.
I’m certainly not the only one to think philosophically regarding motorcycles. In fact, the basic rule of motorcycling: “Keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down,” has philosophical overtones. In a purely commercial sense, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”(1974), by Robert M. Pirsig, is the best-selling philosophy book ever written. In a novel of self-discovery, reminiscent of the movie, “Easy Rider”(1969), the narrator engages in discussion with his own past self who is referred to as Phaedrus, after Plato’s “Dialogue.”
Using examples of motorcycle mechanical problems during a journey from Minnesota to California, a focal point is a carburetor malfunction around Miles City, Montana, which gives the author an opportunity to summarize two basic approaches to life: the romantic and the rational. The “romantic” live in the moment (don’t maintain their motorcycles), and the “rational” approach life through the application of careful analysis, vis-à-vis competent motorcycle maintenance. It seems like a pretty simple message for a book that’s sold over 5 million copies; however, it’s rather profound when you think about it.
Although I’ve been to well over 100 countries in my life, all on Uncle Sam’s nickel, as I look back, most of those travels seem rather pointless – much like those motorcycles circling the drome of death – lots of noise and excitement, so much sound and fury, “sturm und Drang,” but going nowhere. It seems to me, too, that most of the significant choices and decisions of my life have vacillated back and forth between the romantic and the rational. And so it is with my choice to add two more wheels, a side car, to my motorcycle. Considering the alternatives and the possibilities, looking “cool” or falling over and dying on the highway - it’s the rational thing to do.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.