The Norton Shirt

Oct 08, 2012 View Comments by

The white sheet of paper trembled in my hand, the main paragraph started with one of the most important sentences of my life: “Welcome to the B-52 aerial gunnery school.” I had just been accepted to the school to become a B-52 gunner; a life long dream had come true.

But not for long. Thirty days later I was in the hospital, the victim of a strange disease, I had lost my flying status, my dream, and almost my life.

Another year more, and I was a disabled veteran, roaming the streets of Denver in search of a new meaning and a new life. I found a little job and was able to buy a motorcycle—a barely running Virago 700 also in need of a friend. I fixed her, and she paid me back by keeping me alive and showing me roads less traveled.

One day we stumbled across a motorcycle shop that only worked on English equipment. We parked and I went in half expecting to be thrown out for riding a Japanese bike, but they were nice. They let me see a running Norton Interstate, answered some questions, and offered advice. Before I left I bought a t-shirt, my modest budget only allowed one so I chose carefully. It was white, said Norton on the front in black letters, and on the back had a nice Union Jack flag and the words: “Isles Motorcycle Specialties, Colorado”. This shirt was to become one of my most prized possessions.

Some time later, another white paper trembled in my hand, this time the paragraph started: “Official Order xxx”. I was being recalled by the U.S. Air Force and was to report to Robins AFB, GA, in 30 days. I was happy to return, but it was not the same. My beloved Strategic Air Command had been dissolved, the gunner’s position on all B-52s had been permanently removed, and I was still sick. But I didn’t argue, I took the opportunity to make, what turned out to be, the longest motorcycle trip I ever did.

I left Denver – it was sad, I loved the city – and I headed to Miami to see a friend, and, after a weekend there, drove to Robins, near Macon, GA. Once at the base, I was alone again, just the Virago and me. We rode to work together, watching the airplanes take off as we rode parallel to the runway. Then she would wait in the squadron’s parking lot for the trip home. All was well until, due to a series of poor decisions, I traded her in for a truck.

A few weeks later I was riding a 1975 Suzuki Titan 500, a 2-stroke twin, which also became my friend.

It was on this bike that I pulled into the base chow-hall wearing the Norton t-shirt. It was a nice spring afternoon, a fresh breeze caressed the nearby trees, and I felt good. As I pulled into the parking lot I spotted another motorcycle, a strange one, a BMW, white, old, and with chromed tank panels. On the ground rested an old full-face helmet of good quality but, like the bike, not in the best of shape. I looked at the ensemble as I took my helmet off, what a contrast! My bike, also old, had several coats of wax; I had polished everything with the dedication of someone who has nothing better to do. My cheap helmet was clean; and I would never have put it on the ground.

This bike here had all the allure of a hard working diesel locomotive, and the helmet on the ground spoke of a rider who either didn’t care about details or had a fat wallet. I went in, got my food, and looked for a place to sit. As I came around a corner I saw the owner of the BMW at a table eating. As he saw me, he looked up and asked: “Got one?” I was frozen in place; this guy was a bit strange. He wore a faded gray t-shirt, black jeans, and a thin leather belt. His hair was too long for an Air Force airman his jacket rested on the chair next to him, his fork was still in his right hand, and he was looking at me, still holding the position he had when he was eating. He looked like a gunslinger in a Mexican bar. “I got what?” I shot back. “A Norton” he said, bothered by the fact that I was too slow to catch on. I thought, “What the heck does he know about Norton’s?” But I answered: “No, I wish”. He offered an ample smile and a place at his table.

That is how I met Piers, an Englishman, a dedicated Air Force member, and most importantly, a friend. Later I met his friend Ben and the three of us became “Los Amigos del Camino,” we rode together, made friends together, and made memories. It was a sort of golden era of my motorcycling. We were simple guys, all we had were jobs and motorcycles, one helmet, one jacket, one dream.

With Piers I was able to connect in a way seldom repeated, we engaged in animated debates about war machinery, motorcycles, and girls. We talked over coffee and pie late into the night at the local Waffle House, or under a tree as we waited for the rain to stop. It was freedom; it was an era in which riding was the most important thing to us. Piers’ favorite bike was the H.R.D Vincent (he even knew a song made for it), mine the Brough Superior SS 100.

Sadly, we moved on in life. I was lucky to end up buying three Norton’s, and when I rode each one for the first time I wore my Isles Motorcycle Specialties t-shirt. That t-shirt progressively became more and more important as memories piled up in her fabric, until one day I realized that those days riding with Piers and Ben were gone forever. What we had then is impossible to find today.

The only thing I have left is the t-shirt. Piers is luckier, he still has Godspeed, his beloved 1973 BMW.

Text and photography by Jorge Picabea.

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