Christmas and My Harley-Davidson

Dec 23, 2016 View Comments by

Winter road

It was close to the Christmas of 1947. I was helping to support the family, a mom and dad who didn’t work, and two sisters who did. I was working part-time for my brother-in-law in his body shop in Ohio City and commuted back and forth from Ft. Wayne by bus on the cold days. The distance was only 40 miles but took an hour by bus and a lot longer when I rode the Whizzer motorbike.

In my group, I was the only one who didn’t have a motorcycle. Riding the Whizzer was past. However, there was a motorcycle for sale that cold day in Ohio. It was a 1935 Harley 45-cubic-inch side valve with a “state-of-the-art suicide clutch” and hand shift. It was in bad shape but it ran. Kinda like a pickup truck previously owned by 10 guys—rode hard and put away wet. It ran despite years of neglect. I figured I could give myself a Christmas present.

In my youthful ignorance, I thought it looked great. The shifting gate had been removed because the shift linkage and the tranny were worn out, and more room was needed for finding and moving the tired old gears. This missing gate left the linkage with more room in getting the flathead Harley into second and third gear with an occasional shift to first, the lost gear, depending on the random workings of the shifting rods to “find” first gear at the time. There was no front brake—probably was an option—and the knob on the ignition switch was long gone, and someone had stuck a hairpin through the hole in the switches post. Whatever, it worked.

A lot of other things were wrong with it: the chain was rusted, the lights didn’t work, the frame was as rigid as a tired noodle, but, what the hey, it looked good to this 19-year-old. I bought it on the spot for $75.00. All right! Now I had to figure out how to get it home—heck, I’ll ride it, of course!

It was snowing when I left with a temperature of about 28 degrees. I put on jeans, long underwear complete with a “trap door,” Arctic four-buckle boots, work gloves, an old L.L. Bean jacket, and a wool watch cap. I counted on the old Harley’s windscreen to break the wind and figured this would keep me warm on that 40-mile trip back to Ft. Wayne on the Lincoln Highway.

After checking the oil (had to add two quarts of 70 weight to the tank) I was ready and willin’. After having some trouble with the shifting and that @#$A&* clutch, I was off. The 10-mile ride from Ohio City to Van Wert was cold. There were a few places on the road where the snow had started to drift and that tightened up my young butt, but all in all, not too bad. Arriving in downtown Van Wert, I hung a left onto the Lincoln Highway and stumbled and rattled my way through town. Nothing to it! I thought I had it made.

However, once I got out of town, the wind was fierce and I was riding into it. The snow hadn’t fully covered the road yet, but going past the windbreaks, like barns, trees, and such, was a different matter. The lack of wind started piling up the white stuff on the increasingly slippery road.

The Harley was perfectly content to cruise at a stately 45 miles per hour (the speedometer worked!) with an occasional drop to 30 to get through the snow. It was a good thing that it liked this speed since both rods were loose and they seemed the quietest at this pace. The windshield helped some but still it was cold. My gloves were soaked from wiping my nose. My knees set at a 90-degree angle—I know, because I looked down at them regularly to see if they were still there. My face was numb and my hands were past that point even though I had heavy gloves on. I kept talking to myself, asking why I was doing this … and was not getting satisfactory answers.

One thing that I’ll say about that Harley. It never missed a beat, just kept rattling along except for the one time I put my hand on the cylinder to warm up and touched the spark plug. Did you know that Harleys fire both plugs at the same time, whether the cylinder is on the power stroke or exhaust? I found that out. The double whammy from that weak ignition was enough to bring me back to full alert.

Except for being cold, the ride was good. The potato sound of that rusted exhaust made me feel like I was on top of the world (the North Pole) with an honest-to-God Real Motorcycle under me. Much better than my Whizzer motorbike and almost as fast!

It started snowing harder as I hit the city limits of Ft. Wayne. I still had to maneuver through about 10 different city streets on the east side before I got home to Mom and Dad. The roadways were covered in snow. It was getting dicey, some sliding, but no big deal—there wasn’t enough power to slide her sideways if I gunned it. I arrived home with my butt puckered up so far that it was all I could do to unfold my stiff knees. When I got off the bike, I did a fair imitation of Groucho Mark’s “duck walk,” but I was HOME.

That old Harley got me back in time for Christmas. That was many, many years ago, but I still remember it. Looking back, it was a Norman Rockwell Christmas, or at least it seemed like one. A simpler life with simpler goals, in a simpler world.

Merry Christmas to all out there!

Text: Wayne A. Doenges
Photography: Tyson Dudley


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