MAXWELL:  Finding a bit of heaven on a Harley

10/28/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I never pay attention to my birthday, but when it rolled around this year, a card arrived in the mail that transported me back to some of the best years of my life.

First, the card: On its front were the simple words “Happy Birthday.” Inside, against a field of white, was the imprint of a kiss _ fresh, ruby-red lipstick.

That was all. Just the outline of a distant kiss.

Who is this woman? The only clue was the St. Louis, Mo., postmark. A similar card has come each year since 1978, when I left Chicago and returned to Florida for good. During my first year back, I was living in Key West when a card came from Chicago. Since then, cards have come from several other cities, including New Orleans; Madison, Wis.; Los Angeles; New York; Portland, Maine; Albuquerque, N.M.; Tucson, Ariz. _ each a place I toured on my Harley.

My Harley was the reason that I left the Windy City and moved back to the Sunshine State: I wanted to be able to ride my Superglide every day of the year.

What a great time _ before I grudgingly accepted the enslavement of being an “adult male in society,” before limiting myself to riding on weekends and vacations only.

My love of Harleys began in Fort Lauderdale after I entered first grade, when my father would ride me everywhere on his baby-blue 1948 FL Panhead. I fell in love with the rhythmical ku-thunk, ku-thunk, ku-thunk of its engine. My father belonged to a touring club that consisted of African-American farm workers who had made South Florida their permanent home. They would ride to cities statewide, stand around in large groups, talk trash, flirt with “The Ladies,” drink Seagram’s gin from the bottle and admire one another’s hogs.

I longed to have my own hog, not a giant, chromed dresser like that of my father and his buddies, however. I craved a sleek Knucklehead that could slice through the wind, that could send that Harley protest echoing for a mile.

My dream came true on my 15th birthday, when my father drove me to the home of a biker who was “hanging it up.” There in his garage sat a cherry-red 1941 FL, the very “Knuck” that I wanted. From that day to now, I have never been far from a Harley, except for my stint in the military.

For me, as for everyone else in the hog brotherhood, riding a Harley is catharsis. Few things compare to the pleasure of feeling a V-twin thumping beneath you. As the massive pistons shove the bike forward, you feel the seamless vibrations. Your arms and legs become conduits of raw mechanical power. Your muscles tighten; your senses are energized.

I will never forget my first cross-country tour. Six other Harley owners and I left Daytona Beach in 1971 for Sturgis, S.D., and the Black Hills Motorcycle Classic. It was a trip of equal parts courage, fear, exhilaration and pain.

The open road was paradise. We streaked down winding highways, rarely under 70 miles per hour, as green fields, woodlands, valleys, mountains, rivers and lakes rushed past us. Harley riders can rise into air and look down upon themselves. I could see myself as an actor in a cosmic drama. I looked down the chrome forks, down to the glistening twirl of the wheel, down to the blur of black asphalt unwinding inches beneath the sole of my boots.

In turns, my companions and I would pull alongside one another, make eye contact and, silently, speak a language that only Harley riders understand. It is a language of pride. After all, they own the most celebrated “sled” made. It is a language of awe. They _ flesh, bone and blood _ are in control of an American myth, a wild iron horse.

The sense of speed is palpable; the torque, scary.

They listen to the tailpipe as the wind intermittently thrusts that rumbling sound in front of them. They pass through it, then a momentary silence, then the ku-thunk. They can feel and smell the heat of the engine.

During ensuing years I toured many other parts of the country, each trip always better than the last. Rain was never a reason to postpone a tour. Hell, we knew that we would run clear of the water somewhere down the road.

I had my best times when I rode with the Smokin’ Wheels Motorcycle Club of Madison. We regularly partied from there to New Orleans and back _ each of us with a beautiful woman luxuriating against the sissy bar. I can hear my girlfriends’ laughter after all of these years and feel their loving arms wrapped around my waist as we roared along the nation’s highways.

Which one, I wonder, still sends me a kiss on my birthday?