By Art “Doc”Krieger
I met my cousin Fred when my parents took me upstate to work on my Aunt and Uncle’s resort/farm during my high school summers. Fred, a couple of years older than I, had a half a barn full of motorcycles and parts, including a servi-cycle and side car After a busy day of farm work, we would go for a ride on a tuned up special. One night on an unlit country road, I looked over his shoulder to the see the dimly lit speedometer wavering between 105 and 110 MPH. Fortunately that was just for a minute or so. Another time he signed up up for a midnight run in the middle of January with the Crotona Motorcycle Club to ride from the Bronx to Danbury CT and back. Fred hooked up the side car to the motorcycle and bolted a large swiveling searchlight from a fire truck to the side car with a battery in the footwell. I was the searchlight operator from the sidecar, picking out the road through the freezing sleet. It was a timed run and we came in second, no doubt due to my searchlight expertise. This was an exercise in mass hypothermia. We were buddies and I was willing to go along with anything Fred suggested.
It’s now midsummer 1949. I’m in my 18th year, graduated high school, have a drivers license, and no plans for the immediate future, so when Fred suggested we take a ride to California on his Harley, it sounded like a good idea.
The Harley we used was a 1947 with a 74 cubic inch engine, a three speed transmission driving the rear wheel with a chain. The clutch was a rocking pedal on the left footboard, toe down to engage and heel down to disengage, gear shift on the side of the gas tank. Rear wheel brake pedal on the right footboard, handgrip for front wheel brake.
Twist grip for throttle and spark. Dashboard has 120 mph speedometer with odometer, ignition key, thumbnail size lights for gen. and oil pressure. No gas gauge. The gas tank capacity was three gallons. When the engine sounds like its running out of gas, you reach
down to open a petcock to the reserve gas supply which hopefully has enough to get to a gas station. The kick-starter works the same as a crank handle for cars, although for the past 20 years, cars had electric starters. In short, the Harley was rugged, powerful, reliable and primitive.
Fred had fitted it out with a wooden dashboard map shelf covered with clear plastic and innertube
rubber bands to hold down maps. A piece of plywood fastened to the luggage rack on the rear fender supported a suitcase. The leather saddlebags held a roll of tools, small spare parts and raingear. Of course, no Harley would be complete without the Packard swan on the front fender.
Our riding gear consisted of Lindbergh style leather helmet with goggles, heavy duty leather jacket with lots of zippers, wide three buckle kidney belt to keep one’s insides in place and to promote good posture, and boots.
We cleaned out our bank accounts, and even though our parents did their duty and tried to talk us out of this foolish adventure, my dad gave us more money and Fred’s dad did also, so we figured we had enough. This was the day of no credit cards, no checkbook, no cell phone. A quick goodbye and we headed west to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and settled down to a steady 80 mph. We soon realized we were missing one important item: a windshield. It’s tiring enough without 80 mph of wind trying to slide us off the bike. We stopped at Cannonsburg, PA, where a long time friend spent the summer, and stayed the night.
The next day, we found a motorcycle shop and bought a windshield, blue top and red bottom. It was all they had so it had to do.. One looks over the windshield rather than through it.
The day after that we started out bright and early, maintaining 80 mph in more comfort, through Ohio, into Indiana, heading for Chicago. Slowing down from 80 to 40 seems like standing still, and we were stopped by a cop who looked us over, noted the NY license plate and told us we had a line of cars following us trying to keep up and we should just go slow through town. We thanked him and from then on motored slowly through all the towns. There were no interstates or cloverleafs, all highways went through towns or villages, but out on the open road, we twisted the throttle.
The pungent Chicago stockyard aroma is quite noticeable long before you get there, especially out in the open on a motorcycle. We checked out the stockyards and left Illinois, went through Iowa and up into South Dakota. We stayed in small hotels or motels, never spending more than $3 a night, treating ourselves to a hot shower and comfortable bed after a long day’s travel. We brought extra clothes, not much, and changed underwear every couple of days. I changed with Fred and he changed with me. Just kidding!
There were times we were riding at night on the open road. A car coming at us with his high beams. We flick our headlamp up and down with no response. Then we flip on the two spotlights behind the red windshield and the car’s headlights dim in the blink of an eye. That was always good for a laugh.
Rain put a damper on our fun. If we ran into a sudden rainstorm, by the time we stopped and broke out the rain gear, we’d be soaked, so we hunkered down behind the windshield and kept moving. Once we rode into a town when it started to rain and we spotted a gas station with an open bay and drove right in. The NY plates helped us make friends, so we hung around telling our stories until we dried off, filled the tank and moved on.
Out west, the speed limit in some places is “Reasonable—depending on conditions”. No worries—if Fred considers 105 reasonable on a country road, then a brisk 85 in the wide open spaces is well within reason.
We ate in small town diners where the locals ate. Out where big hats and western wear was normal, we in our motorcycle gear attracted attention and answered the same questions. Folks were friendly and curious. The motorcycle attracted the police, even standing still. The younger cops were just curious, but one thought that the spotlights behind the red part of the windshield just might be sort of illegal,
but he didn’t go any further. When I think back, no one asked to see any ID, license or
We drove through South Dakota to the Mt. Rushmore memorial, the Black Hills, and to Deadwood. We made a stop at Sturgis in time for the hill climb. We would have received a long distance award except for someone from Florida. Moving on through the northern part of Wyoming over the Big Horn Mountains to
Yellowstone Park. We were in Big Country, with endless expanses of prairie and highway. Passing cowboys on horseback, they returned our waves. Moving right along, leaving miles behind us, the engine sputters. Are we running out of gas? Fred opened the petcock to the reserve gas and we started looking for a gas station, standing on the footboards to look ahead. We slow down to conserve gas, shift to neutral to coast down the hills. Then way up ahead, we spot a gas station. We roll in on an empty tank.
We filled up, made sure we closed the petcock and never ran that low on gas again.
It took all day to see Yellowstone, the road was shale and slow going. We picked up a flier which told when Old Faithful was going to erupt, and got there just in time, so close that the sulphur smelling water washed over the tires. There were lots of bears in Yellowstone and Fred thought it would be neat to get a bear to climb on the motorcycle and put cookies on the seat. I stood way off in case the bear
touched the hot engine, but like everyone else, he was just curious, looked at it, took the cookies and walked away.
Leaving Yellowstone, we headed south to the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, Utah. Another couple of days south brought us to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Fred just had to ride up to the edge for a photo op. The next day we rode to the top of Boulder Dam and saw a film on how it was made. We moved
along at speed on the open road, but took time to see the sights on the way.
California, here we are! Hollywood to be exact. Fred’s father’s brother, Uncle Walter, was a psychiatrist to the movie and show biz types. His wife, Marie, was a child psychologist to their over privileged offspring. In keeping with their social standing, they had a grandhome in Hollywood and an office near Hollywood and Vine. In keeping with our social standing, we were bedded down in a small spare room furnished with two surplus army cots. Not too bad, we could have been put in the garage with the motorcycle. But it was a week we didn’t have to pay for food or a room. Our clothes were sent out for a professional degreasing, we serviced and cleaned up the motorcycle and toured around Hollywood and took in a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.. We went to the beach, rode the motorcycle down to the water’s edge, touched the Pacific in a “sea-to-shining-sea” symbolic moment.
We made ready for home. Uncle Walterhanded Fred $25.00 in case we needed it, and we headed east on Route 66. Just like the song, only backwards. From LA to San Bernardino, Flagstaff, Arizona, to Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and on to Amarillo, Texas. Oklahoma City is mighty pretty, andthere’s lots more of the US to see, but we were eager to get home so we put on the miles. Across Missouri to St. Louis, home Purina that makes food for man and beast, We did as before, stopping at local diners and the occasional motorcycle shop where we used their facilities. Fred is an excellent mechanic and kept the Harley running perfectly. At one rural gas station, a woman gaped at the Harley, “What’s that thang? I never seen nothing likethat!” She kept her distance while we filled thetank and moved on.
After St. Louis we left Route 66 to continue east through Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to Pennsylvania, where we stopped to visit my friend before continuing on to NY and home to St. Albans, Queens.
We were gone for a little over a month, six weeks, and covered over 11,000 miles, ayear’s worth of wear on the Harley. The mapswe used, the pictures we took, the postcards we sent home—all gone. We have just what we remember. The black and white photo was taken at home before we left. My father made the “California or Bust” banner, signifying hisapproval of our adventure. The picture withme was made somewhere along the way.
That’s it for memorabilia. Uncle Walter cameeast some months later and Fred told him wenever used the $25, so he took it back. What aguy!
We helped Fred celebrate his 85th birthdaythis past September, and I’m still two yearsbehind him. We see each other a few times ayear and talk about our time working on the farm and exchange anecdotes of our motorcycle trip. At the time, it was just a couple of young guys taking a ride, but it was something
we’ll never forget.