Friday, March 15, 2013


The gentleman in the red ball cap was 81.  He told me so in the course of conversation.  “Served five years in the military between World War II and Korea.”
            I was in the waiting room at a Les Schwab cooling my heels while new brakes were installed on my wife’s Civic.  I’d completed a 90-minute circumnavigation of a lovely city park in an effort to stop gnashing my teeth over the fact that I should have cared for this component – a stuck caliper – better.
            “Job’ll take about an hour and a half,” said the cheerful service writer. 
            I figured my walk would allow me to avoid what was now happening.
            “Became an engineer,” the gentleman said.  “Learned to ask questions.  Look for ifs and thens, causes and effects.”  He went on to suggest that most people these days don’t do that.  I thought about the itchy whine that had been coming from the rear portion of my wife’s Honda for the past three weeks or so and felt my nose being rubbed in it.
            “Nope.  That’s why we’re in the state we’re in.”
            “What state is that?” I asked.
            “Oh, you know.  Politics.  Pollution.  The Middle East.”
            I couldn’t disagree.
            “I served in the Middle East, you know.”
            I didn’t.
            “Lebanon.  Folks were real friendly back then.”  He shook his head.  “I got out of the service, completed my degree in engineering down in San Diego and found myself hired by Lockheed to design a plant out ta Riverside and then design the rocket that carried the first shuttle into space.”
Photo Credit: NASA
            This pricked my curiosity.
            “They got me cheap and let me hire whoever I want.  So I got…” and he mentioned a name as if I knew of the guy.  He went on to explain how they fueled the prototype of the big rocket a bucket at a time.
            I took off the BMW motorcycle cap I was wearing and scratched my head.  I considered asking something about Morton Thiokol O-rings, but didn’t.
            He paused and looked at the hat.
            “What’s that there?” he asked, pointing.  “You got a BMW?”
            Inwardly I shrugged and wondered if I should have put on the Guzzi cap this morning.  “Yeah.”
            “Well we got a lot in common.”
            “We do?”
            “Yeah.  I bought me an R-50 back in ’61.  Brand new.  Cost me $1295.00.”    
Photo Credit: Jeff Dean Collection
            He stopped just long enough to grin.   
            “Only thing I did was take it home and cut the tips off the exhaust at an angle.”  He gestured with his hands.  “The thing was just too damned quiet.”
            I wanted to tell him a bit about my GS, and talk about places he may have been that we might have in common but wasn’t afforded the opportunity.
            “I rode that thing for ten years.  Went coast to coast twice and up into Canada.  Rode the thing to work most days.  Even parked it inside my office when it was raining out.  What could they say?  I was the boss.  Then I got married.”
            I nodded.
            “I keep wantin’ to get back on one, but the wife says I’m too old.”
            I kept quiet.
            “You know,” he continued. “I’m an engineer, so I know stuff.”
            Yes he does.
Photo Credit: BMW PressClub
            “And that R-50 is the best piece of transportation ever to see the sunny side of a sheet of paper.  Car, truck or anything else.   Pretty good looking.  Comfortable.  You could ride the thing all day.  Driveshaft?  Durable!  Man!  You couldn’t bust one if you tried.  Easy to work on…”
            “For an engineer…”
            “For anyone.”
            “Best piece of transportation ever?” I asked.  “Even better than a space shuttle?”
            “Yep.  Far better’n a space shuttle.”
He was reminding me that he’d designed rocket engines when a chipper voice on the loudspeaker announced that my Civic was done.  The old engineer’s face fell just a bit as I got up to leave.
            I patted him on his shoulder as I passed by thanking him for the chat.
            “You ride careful,” he said.
            And I regretted that my car’s brake job was finished up quite so soon.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Everybody has a story.Good on ya Mr. B for sharing this man with us. Makes you wonder about all the stories we have missed by failing to engage people.

  2. My dad had an R50. We pulled the engine out and hauled it into the basement one winter to fix a bad crankshaft bearing. Earles forks. All the fittings to attach a sidecar. There's no way cutting the tail pipes at an angle would make them louder. That would be like cutting the tail pipe on a car. My dad traded it in on a shiny new 1968 R60US in 1968. Telescopic forks. Way better bike, although it looked almost the same. I love the look of the old black airheads with the white pinstripes.

  3. I have a neighbor in his early 80s , kind of a character in his day , self employed , pretty independent.

    He had a minor collection of 40s-60s , I have seen , worked on and rode most of them . A stroke caused him to sell them all . He tells me the same stories and asks me the same questions every time we visit . Says the second saddest day of his life was the day the last one departed.

  4. While in the army, my brother bought (in about 1969 or 70) a used R-60 (I think it was a '62 or there abouts) that he rode just about everywhere. I mentioned this to the gentleman highlighted in this post.

    His response?

    "Oh! Those were good, too!"