At Open Letter to Irene (with a nod to Steve & Phil)
From: Fred Milverstedt
Subject: Open Letter to Irene
Date: Saturday, October 24, 1998 8:47 PM
Went out about noon today to get in a couple of hours of Wisconsin in the
fall before Bucky Badger and I-o-way kicked off at 2:30. Rode straight
north into Columbia County, low rolling hills, dotted by farms and patches
of little hardwood forests. It's not like west of here, where almost right
away you get a clear delineation of the hills and rivers and valleys. Much
flatter to the north. But still very pretty, especially when the leaves are
yer classic reds and golds and countless variations of browns and you're
surrounded by red barns and white houses and fields gray and dusty from the
harvest and the cows and the pigs. You can smell 'em, too, although the
stench is not overwhelming, rather, you get a nice pungent shot two or three times on a day and because
nature exists in a balance, yer usually through it and on up the road within a quarter mile so it really ain't all that bad.
The other great thing about it is that in weather like this, low to
mid-60s, maybe even 67 along about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, the bikes
really run well. Bugs could tell you all about it, with another half-dozen
of the bro and sisters chimin in, but basically it has to do with the cool
air rushing back in through a hole in the carburetor, which is
there to suck in as much air as it can in a great roaring whoosh and help
to mix with the gas and make the engine sing and the bike go very fast. You
can get on top of yer rpm in whatever gear you happen to be in and you can ride it there by
holding the throttle steady and you can hear and feel the engine
running just at maximum efficiency and it's like yer sitting on top of the
revs. And then every once in a while you give the throttle just a little crank and
the bike leaps forward with a deep throated snarl. And the sound of the
engine and the mufflers, the harmonics, are close to the divine.
So here I was today, heading north on County C and I was cruising along in
my leathers, no helmet, as is largely the custom, prescription sunglasses,
long blond hair sticking out on all sides and waving in the wind (or maybe
gray/blond hair, according to my wife) like a sort of biker-type Clarabelle the Clown.
Now, one of the more interesting elements of riding a motorcycle is the
fine line we walk between keeping our focus on what we are doing and who is
around, and leaning back into the pocket of the seat, sucking up big breaths of
fresh air and havin ourselves a great look around. That's about where I was at. Except for
the fact that one of the things that was running through my mind while I
was out there paying attention at 55, 60 miles an hour was the thread we
had this week that started with your close call the other day on the candy
colored streamlined gold flaked baby that you ride. I remembered telling
you that you have to try and stay aware all the time, because you never
know when some dumb shit is going to come along and do something clumsy or
thoughtless or downright stupid right there in front of yer eyes.
It was also on my mind because of a conversation I had with two of my
closest friends last night. A guy named Tom and another we call Den the
Zen. Tom hasn't been out and around in a year, never more on a Friday after
work, runnin with the boys down the honky tonk trail, reason being he flipped over in
his car on a dark lonesome highway on the way home one night from the honky
tonk trail and the only thing about the car that wasn't busted up and smashed was the few
square feet in which he sat. He crawled out of it with cuts and scratches. Had to
hitch-hike up the road a piece to find a phone booth sittin there on a corner of the
only two streets in the next little town and phone the police, or whoever
it is that you phone. The sheriff came and the ambulance, and by the time it was over
in Iowa County court a few weeks later, he'd lost his license, had to go to
a public safety night course twice a week for several weeks
and had a $700 fine. Only thing he didn't get was community service, three
Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition. 'Course, he ain't Catholic, though.
Well, that slowed Tom down a good deal, him bein a few years younger than
me but still old enough to know that life is precious but you often don't
remember that and pay it any particular mind until every once in a while
something comes along to bring you snap smack dab back into the middle of
remembering it so hard and so fast that when it's all over all you can do is sit there
shakin in yer shorts and ask yerself, did that just happen, am I really
here? So last night when he came out for really the first time since his
accident happened and we sat down to have a drink, we had a good talk about all that
had happened, and after all was said and done we came away confirming what we
both know but it is still hard to keep remembering in all the hubbub and
the daily rush, and that is that life is very precious and it can be extinguished in the flash of an eye, sometimes for
no apparent good reason at all.
Well, that's a helluva thing to have to think about on a beautiful crisp
October on a Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, a land blessed by providence
if yer a German, Norskie or Ho-Chunk, but as I was getting ready for the ride
this morning I couldn't help but think about just that. I was thinking about it when I sat down here at the
keyboard, logged in to e-mail and checked out the flow at the Roadhouse.
And 3/4 of an hour later, maybe 30, 40 miles north of Madison in the low
rolling farm country, it was still there from time to time, running through
Which is not to say that I wasn't paying attention. The road I was riding
was new to me, leastwise 10 or 20 miles north of where I'd ridden it
before, and one of its early delights was a series of tight little curves
snaking their way due north for a couple of miles, and they were angled
hard enough so when I went into them I found myself laying back just a bit, not really
throwing the bike right into the deal the way I sometimes otherwise might.
That wasn't the worst thing I could do, though, turns out, which I soon concluded maybe halfway through the
third of maybe four sets of flat twisty turns when I came across a 45 degree righthander,
banked down toward the inside, with a line of loose gravel running down the center
of the lane through the mid point of the turn. I was ready for that, layin
back and tryin to find my way, as I was, so I scootered on through without
a twitch or a twiddle and settled back to ride that fine, fine line between
paying attention to what I am doing and havin a good look around. There
weren't another car nor a bike on the road, cept twice when I crossed other
county highways and I had a stop sign in my favor each o' the times.
I came up on another t-intersection, County CF going west, a continuation
of it to the east, no longer a county highway but one of those Happy Valley
roads or Messerschmidt Hollow trails that you tend to come upon in these
parts, and to my left there is a green van slowing down for his stop sign.
I don't have one, but since it is a t-intersection and I'm looping along in
fourth gear at about 50, 55, I drop it into third and ease down to, what,
maybe 40, 35? The van to my left is just about level with his stop sign,
and he's doing, what, 10, 15, 20 mph?
Well, the next thing I know, I am damn near to the center of the
intersection and much to my dismay, he hasn't stopped and he's right there
with me just a few feet away, comin at me broadside from the port quarter.
There was no time to even think about stopping. Time I got hit, three years
ago downtown in heavy traffic on the 750, I had time at least to turn the
wheel and sort of ride with parallel with the car to the right as it turned
across my lane. This time all I could do was crank it.
Now, at this point I 'd like to personally thank the engineers at Honda,
some of 'em probly now dead, who put this little bike together on the
drawing board, and to the guys in the factory when they cast the molds of
that V-Twin and whoever else came along and dialed in so much torque that
in damn near any gear you can give her a good old twist and she'll lift the
front wheel when she takes off. That's certainly true in first and second,
anyway, and in the other three gears she ain't no slouch. A "torque
monster" is the way it was described to me by a fella on a Ducati last
spring who was familiar with the breed. It's true of the early Shadows,
Sabres, and probably the Magnas, too, much as I know. When the
Japanese built 'em, they weren't sure of what you had to do with this sort
of bike in the American market to sell it, so I've been told by more than
one person who knows 'em that they have the look of cruisers and sport
tourers, but they have the souls of sport bikes.
Fact is, the torque saved my life. I was goin through the intersection,
next thing I knew he showed up right next to me only scant feet away, and I
goosed it in third and she responded. Took me flat out away, through the intersection and up the
road at a very brisk clip when only a split second before, I was fixin to
become a big and bloody spot on the front of his bumper and grill. Best
that I recall, I had just enough time to holler out, "God-Damn!," and then
I was a-goosin 'er.
I went on down the road a hundred yards or so with my eyes as big as
pumpkins, and I physically shook my head like a dumb old dog right after
you might bat him between the eyes with a two-by-four just to try and get
his attention, and I said out loud, "Damn! Did that really happen just
Next instant, I had 'er turned around in the middle of the road and was
headin hell bent for leather up Messerschmidt Hollow givin' chase. He had
me by 3/4 or a mile or so, and I just caught a glimpse of him headin up
over a hill as I made the turn and kicked 'er in the ass. The road ahead
was winding, not dead straight like the one we'd just been on, and there were
a couple of crossroads so I had to look both ways as I passed through each of 'em
to see if he had made another turn. I caught sight of him again on another
flat stretch approaching a three-way intersection and I backed 'er down
from about 75, 80 in fourth, through third and into second as I caught him
at the corner and laid on the horn.
He heard me, finished his turn to the right, and pulled over to the side a
few yards up the road.
I came along next to him and stopped.
It was a little old man, wire rimmed glasses, hearing aid in the left ear,
red bow tie and in a suit, late '70s, maybe 80 years old, and sittin next
to him there not sayin peep was the little woman, about the same age. I
took in the picture pretty quick, and as fate and the gods would have it, I
was completely rational with the poor old man.
I asked him if he knew what just happened back there, and he allowed that
he did. I asked him if he knew he ran the stop sign, and he said he
stopped, looked both ways, didn't see my light, and then started up again,
and all of a sudden there I was, shootin across the road only inches in
front of him. He said it shook him up, and that he still had the shakes.
They were on their way to a wedding in Columbus, and he was terrible sorry
and there's no way that he could apologize enough. Well, that may be all
well and good, I thought to myself, but metaphorically speaking, if you'd
care to get out and take a good close look at yer left front headlight,
Gramps, yer gonna find about an inch of my arse spread out real bright and
pink and sticky cross the lens.
But I didn't say that, I didn't argue or yell. I just told him that was as
close as I've ever come to checkin out quick on a bike, and maybe for the
rest of the day we could both go on about our business and try to be a
little more "aware" of what it is that's goin on around us, yes? He nodded
that would be the prudent thing to do, and I reached in through the window
and I shook his hand.
I rode on in to Columbus and stopped at the first bar I could find with
motorcycles parked out in front of it--two Harleys and an old Triumph--and
I pulled in next to a green ElectraGlide, shut down the bike, got off and
walked in. It was called the Cardinal's Cage. I had a shot o' Jack and a
Miller chaser, a cigarette, and then I left. Rode back into Madison, 40
miles or so on U.S. 151. Did my usual 75, 80 on the way, makin damn sure I
was aware of all the cars and roads and cows and pigs around me and thought
to myself, thank God, but it's great to be alive.
I gotta little bit o' Dawg in me. Dawgie told me last summer in Galena,
right after his rowdy pal Mav, there, slapped me around, that he ain't
exactly courting death, but if it all came down to a choice, he'd just as
soon go out real hard and quick on a lonely stretch o' highway somewhere,
rather than find himself lyin there in a hospital bed, his body full o'
tubes 'n' needles 'n' pain. I agree with Dawg. By the same token, however,
I ain't exactly ready to turn on down to ol' Cemetary Road all on account
o' my own urging, park the bike next to the shovel and tombstone and start
diggin' 'em the goddamn hole, and this here thing that happened today is
one o' those times when it becomes cold-sweat stark nekid apparent to me
that, given my druthers, that's the way, whatever else happens, that it's
gonna be before I go out. It reminds me of something Tom Wolfe wrote about
in The Right Stuff. He'd talk of Navy pilots flying along at Mach this
or that and all of a sudden for no particular reason something in the
system goes haywire and the next thing they know, they're spinning down and
round, out of control. You can hear 'em on the radio when it happens, no
screams, no panic, nuthin left to do but take the time to keep doin what
must be done, checkin through their checklists, pushin buttons, flippin
switches, all the way down. Trying this, no response; trying that, no
response; trying this, no response; trying that....Click.
I ain't a superstitious man, but I do believe in fate. And I believe
there's a whole helluva lot goin on in this life, or what appears to us as life,
than most of us are able to pick up on, much less stay on top of only half
the time. Like I say, as a species, we ain't so highly evolved.
But when I ride the bike, I have my amulets. The key is on a woven chain
that belonged to my late sister, and hangin from that is a silver medal
once won by my father 60, 70 years ago in the shape of a Germanic cross. I
also have a talisman--a medicine bag that I consecrated at the crack o'
dawn near the headwaters of the Hudson River in the Adirondack Mountains
State Park one morning maybe 15, 20 years ago. Saw two swallows, high in
the sky, soarin along in the dawn's early light. I've got the bike detailed
that way, gold on black on tank and fenders, like a bird in full flight.
'Tween my father and my sister and the Great Spirit, along here with my own
good reactions and sense, I figure I've got most of my bases covered nearly
all of the time.
This morning, though, puttin on the leathers, getting ready to head out on
the ride, I couldn't help but think about the conversation I'd had with Tom
last night, and then Irene, and the close call you had the other day. And
the truth of the matter is, I was just a tad uneasy, therefore, with the
thought o' goin out today. But then I thought, well, no wonder yer thinkin
that way, givin all that's been said about immortaility and all for the
past couple o' days, so maybe it's just a little reminder, like we all need
once in a while, to go on doin what we're doin but to be a little extra
special careful out there.
But just for the hell of it, I picked up my Steve & Phil patch and slipped
it into my left patch pocket with my medicine bag, right over my heart, and
then I headed out.
I'm gonna chalk up today as another one for Steve & Phil, that and for my
father and my sister and the Great Spirit who lives in us all.
And that's enough said.