by Dennis Lid
Motorcycle adventure odyssey and military biography/travelog - a quest for the Holy Grail.
| "First to Last - The Tale of a Biker"
Dennis W. Lid
It happens to all of us sooner or later. Your time will come as well. I remember standing on the sidewalk in front of the house watching a friend drive off on my last bike…as its new owner. He drove up the sidewalk and onto the road, taking a piece of my heart as he piloted the sleek black Ninja 750R away from me and into the sunset. I watched until he was out of sight and I could no longer hear the turbo-like drone, the heartbeat, of the vertical four. For a long time I stood motionless, holding the check from the sale of my geisha, as I was fond of calling her. Now she was gone, and there would be no replacement. The time had come to “hang up the spurs”; my riding days were over. All that’s left is the memory of the motorcycles I once owned and the good times had on all of them . . . from “First to Last.”
It isn’t as bad as it sounds, guys and gals. After all, there are still the memories. Have you forgotten your first bike? No, of course you haven’t. It’s as vivid in your mind as it was the day you bought it. Some things we never forget. That’s how it is with bikers and their mounts. My first bike was a glorified bicycle with an engine mounted above the rear wheel. The bicycle frame was reinforced, the suspension was improved with springs on the heavy gage front forks, but the rear frame was rigid, as there was no swing arm or shock and spring. It had a small gas tank and a single-cylinder, air-cooled, four-stroke engine mounted above the small diameter rear wheel with a motor scooter tire. Mounted on the front was a balloon-type tire on an ordinary bicycle wheel. It even had pedal assist for getting up steep hills. Finally, it was equipped with mechanical hand and foot brakes fore and aft. What a contraption it was – a real Rube Goldberg invention. Yet, as a young teenager, I was greatly impressed by that first set of motorized wheels. My first bike introduced me to the world of motorcycling and addiction to a sport and way of life that would last a near lifetime. It provided a means of mobility, freedom, independence and control. The style, power and adrenaline rush, however, would have to wait until years later. The novice moped was strictly a learning device, sufficient for scooting up and down the Northern California hills but not much more. Yet, it was a start, an initiation…a first bike.
My fledgling biker’s life was severely interrupted when the family moved and I was sent off to boarding school. I had to sell the bike. About seven years later, after graduation from university and a few years after entry into the army, I picked up where I left off. On returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam and taking up my new duties at Fort Benning, Georgia, I purchased my second bike. It was a Ducati, 125cc street version. The bike was a decent utility model for reentering the biker’s world. It got me to work and back and provided modest weekend enjoyment, mostly as a means to visit the motorcycle shop and talk with its owners and mechanics. Yet, noticeably lacking at that stage in my life was the adrenaline rush. The need for speed and excitement is almost overwhelming in a young person. I tried free-fall parachuting with the army club at Fort Benning to help satisfy the urge. That helped, but it wasn’t enough. Nor was the little Ducati. I had been eyeing a bigger, more powerful “crotch rocket” at the bike shop. It was a bright red Ducati 250cc, single-pot thumper, air-cooled, four-stroke, Mark III road racer. I traded the 125cc for the Mark III. I couldn’t help myself; I had to have it.
The Mark III was as sleek as a bullet in the wind and looked like it was going 100 mph when it was standing still. With its straight-through, tuned megaphone attached in place of the street-legal muffler and exhaust pipe, it wasn’t exactly quiet. This fact did not much endear me to the local population. You’ve got to keep the “revs” up to produce the power for the speed, and when you do…what a rush! The Mark III was fast and versatile, though a bit temperamental. It was not only a speedy road racer for its day but made a respectable showing at the drag strip as well. The bike and I took on all comers in our class at the drag strip in Alabama across the river from Columbus, Georgia, and beat most of them. I remember one fellow driving a Honda Hawk. He tried everything he could think of to increase the speed of his bike off the line, including the removal of the tuned exhaust pipes, which only eliminated the back-pressure on the twin heads and reduced the performance of his bike. He was one frustrated puppy as he suffered his losses.
On being reassigned to a command position at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I sold the Mark III, thinking that I wouldn’t have much time to ride. I was mistaken. Life was slow during my off time at Leonard Wood. Although work did keep me busy, there was ample opportunity to ride on some weekends. So off I went to the local motorcycle shop just outside the post front gate. I purchased a used Honda 161cc, four-stroke, vertical twin. At Leonard Wood, Missouri, off-road riding was in vogue. I did trail riding and enduro racing for the next year. I’ll never forget the first night trail ride that the bike shop owner talked me into joining with a few of his biker friends. This was my initiation into off-road endeavors, and as the newbie, I was a sitting duck. It was a setup. They were familiar with the terrain, the trails and off-road riding, but I was not. I learned the hard way that night. I had modified the Honda by reducing as much weight as possible, but had to add a skid-plate and leave the lights in place. Whatever else could be removed from the bike to reduce weight was eliminated. In those days (1965), we had to make our own dirt bikes by converting street bikes. At any rate, the trail ride began with a swift entry into the woods. It was all I could do to keep the taillight of the bike in front of mine in view. Then, all of a sudden, that taillight went out, or I thought it did. Actually, the biker in front of me had turned a hard left, following the trail up the ridge. I missed the sharp left turn in the trail and flew off a steep twenty-five foot incline, arss over tea kettle, and ended up on my back at the bottom of the gulch with the bike next to me: handlebars askew with bent brake and clutch levers and a broken taillight lens. Other than that, all was well; no major damage was sustained by horse or rider. Then I heard the bikers on the trail above having a good laugh, and I knew I’d been had. They helped me get the Honda out of the gully and back in running shape up on the trail. From that time on, I was a member of their club. Those same riders taught me the ropes of endurance racing. I never won but sure wore myself out trying. The year passed quickly with the job, running the trails and enduro racing, and then it was time to be reassigned. I sold the Honda and went on leave en route to my new duty station.
I grew restless on leave in California visiting the family and decided to go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by bike. The only problem was that I had to get a bike. I bought a new Honda 305cc Scrambler and drove six days from Los Gatos to Fort Bragg. It was an interesting trip. During a sand storm on the high plateaus of New Mexico, the Scrambler lost power and sounded like it was not firing properly. I stopped and cleaned the air cleaner, gapped the sparkplug, fiddled with the carburetor and reset the points. It still didn’t run right. I kept going, cleared the storm and dropped down in elevation as I entered Texas. The bike ran smoothly again after that. I drove the last three days of the trip through the rain. That’s when I learned the value of good leathers and wet weather gear. I remember standing in a motel lobby on the last night of the ride, soaked to the skin asking for a room. “No vacancy, sorry,” said the night clerk. A passerby took pity on this wretched wet being and offered the spare bed in his room. Seizing the opportunity and thanking him profusely, I dried out and got a good night’s sleep. The next day I was off and running for Bragg. It was my day of grace (termination of leave). I arrived at Fort Bragg and signed in one minute before midnight. The Honda Scrambler brought me to my destination safe and sound, but with no time to spare. I sold the bike six weeks later to a soldier who just couldn’t live without it. It had served its purpose. Besides, I would soon finish the Special Forces Course, receive orders and proceed to Okinawa to join the 1st Special Forces Group.
I was off again to Southeast Asia and the war on temporary duty (TDY) eight months after arriving on Okinawa. After that “bumpy ride,” the army let me stay put for about a year and a-half at group headquarters staff on Okinawa. With a desk job during that interval of my life, I needed some action. There were two scrambles tracks nearby at Naha City and Kadina Air Force Base. All I needed was a sponsor and a bike. I found both at the local Kawasaki shop in Sukiran. The shop owner became my sponsor; a Kawasaki 175cc dirt bike became my new bike. After a few races at Kadina and Naha, which introduced me to the world of scrambles racing, I drastically modified the bike by sending the mill back to the states for a bore and rotary valve job, by replacing both front and rear suspension systems, and by making a few other appropriate adjustments to the bike. Thereafter, I began placing in the scrambles. I never took first place, but I did place second and third a few times. A highlight of those scrambles was the day I took a jump too fast at the Naha track and was unable to make the right turn afterward, only to inadvertently change scrambles into hill climbing as I blasted up the face of a near vertical cliff, did a loop-de-loop in mid-air, and landed in a heap on the track at the base of the cliff. Needless to say, both bike and rider were rendered incapable of continuing with that race. Another memorable event occurred at the Kadina track the day I took the second place trophy. In the final acute turn, about 30 yards from the finish line, the lead bike’s engine died going into the curve. The driver had a substantial lead and was jabbing the kick-starter furiously as I came barreling into the turn, skidding into a position adjacent and parallel to the lead bike as its engine burst into life. Both bikes blasted to the finish line neck-and-neck. The 200cc Bultaco turned on like a screaming banshee; my 175cc (+) Kawasaki fell one-half a wheel-length behind as we crossed the finish line in the face of a boisterous crowd. What a rush! I lost the race, but it was still a second place finish and a thrilling one at that.
My scramble racing days abruptly ended when orders were received for Vietnam…again. I hated to sell that bike, not only because of the fun of racing it, but also because it was the bike I owned when I met my wife-to-be. On a five-month temporary duty tour to Taiwan, I shipped the Kawasaki to Taipei, got a temporary license and used the bike for transportation to work and back to the guesthouse each day. When I had time off, I toured Taipei and the outskirts. I met my little “Hakka” girl on one of these excursions, took her for a ride up to Grass Mountain, mini-skirt, high heels and all, bouncing along two-up on the dirt road and holding on for dear life until we reached the top of the mountain. It reminded me of entertainer Jackie Gleason’s favorite expression, “How sweet it is.” Thereafter, I returned to Okinawa and sold the bike, went on my final one-year tour of duty to Vietnam, an experience in itself, got out of the army, went back to Taiwan and married my little “Hakka” gal. Thirty-four years of bliss testify to the fact that it was the best thing I ever did. I owe that introduction to my Kawasaki 175.
I was back in the army one year later and during the next ten years owned only one bike. I purchased the Yamaha 250cc thumper dirt bike used and highly abused. It never did run right even after spending time and money trying to rehabilitate it. The bike reminded me of some muscle bikes; it looked good but handled like a dog. Yet, it did the job of running the dirt roads on East Range in the Koolau Mountains of Oahu, Hawaii, where I worked as an instructor at the Reconnaissance Commando Course (RECONDO). This was the only bike I was ever glad to be rid of. It wasn’t the make or model that made it so; it was the initial abused condition, which I could not correct.
After my last assignment to Panama for three years, I retired from the army and went to work for the Department of Defense as a civilian in Japan. It was a great 18-year experience that included a one-year hiatus to Europe for a special project. I owned three bikes at separate times during those years of cruising, touring and casual road-racing. The first was a Honda CX-500. It was a rabbit-ear, twin-cylinder, water-cooled touring bike, and a dependable and willing mount at that. I enjoyed the comfort of the upright sitting position for low-speed touring and cruising. However, at high speed without a windscreen, it was a constant battle to counter the wind resistance. Fortunately, this was only a problem on the expressways in Japan and not on the secondary roads, where most of our touring was accomplished. It was while I owned this bike that I joined the Camp Zama Motorcycle Club (ZMC) and enjoyed the comradery as well as the pleasures of touring all over Japan from the northern island of Hokkaido, throughout the main island of Honshu to the southern island of Kyushu. The CX-500 was smooth and capable on the long, lazy curves descending from the Skyline at Hakone National Park to the Kanto Plain and low hills of Sagamihara and Camp Zama. I remember keeping time to the music of my portable tape recorder as our troop of bikes undulated from left to right through those curves. It was like the music was written for riding that particular road, and the bike and I were dancing to the tune. The CX-500 was a willing bike but not quite able with regard to speed and torque. It was time to upgrade to a more powerful machine.
We did a lot of two-up riding in the ZMC. Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends enjoyed touring on weekends with the club. Even the kids came by van provided by adult club members so that the whole family could enjoy these weekend sojourns. My new Honda Saber 750cc did the trick for two-up riding with my wife. It was a great touring bike with its long wheelbase, shaft drive, windscreen, and bullet-proof V-four engine. It handled well and was as smooth as silk with plenty of power. It served us well on the long, overnight weekend rides to various destinations in Japan. The few years of ownership of the Saber ended when I was assigned to Europe on a special project for one year. I sold the bike and moved the family to Europe.
After getting settled in Landstuhl, Germany, and going to work on the project at Panzer Kasern near Kaiserslautern, I began the search for my dream bike. I had always wanted a BMW motorcycle. This was my chance. Yet, after visiting several BMW dealerships, I decided against it. The “Beamers” are beautifully crafted and well-made bikes, yet they are heavy, bulky and somewhat awkward looking. They are also very expensive. As I searched for that dream bike, I compared the BMWs with the Japanese bikes and decided to purchase the Kawasaki 750R. The 1987 Ninja was beautiful in design, high-tech, compact, complete with full fairing, powerful with its vertical four engine, excellent in braking and adequate in suspension. Its horsepower-to- weight ratio was perfect; its cost-to-benefit ratio was ideal. It probably would not last as long as the BMW, but it would definitely outlast me.
There are two things I remember most about the Kawasaki Ninja: speed and comradery. I put it to the speed test on the autobahn from Kaiserslautern, Germany, to Innsbruck, Austria. I wanted to see if the bike could reach its advertised 137 mph top- end. On a stretch of level road near Munich, I went into a full tuck and opened up the throttle. The turbine smooth vertical-four swiftly moved the bike past the 100 mph mark. I was amused at the fast moving Mercedes and BMW automobiles well in front of me that were moving over to the slow lane just to see what kind of motorcycle (or maniac) was closing the distance behind them so quickly. I felt like I was flying when I hit 120 mph. By the time I reached 130, there was a distinct feeling of skittishness or instability. I still had throttle left at 135 mph but declined to press it any further. The bike could definitely do the claimed top-end, but this driver had reached his limit. As I backed off the throttle and rose up slightly out of the full tuck position, the wind resistance on my helmet, chest and elbows rapidly reduced the speed to less than 110 mph. I brought the bike down to a speed of 85 and cruised the rest of the way to Innsbruck, passing through the mountain border crossing at two in the morning and arriving at destination about an hour later. Needless to say, that ride provided a real adrenalin rush. It would be followed by a few more such rides before completing the special project in Europe and returning to Asia.
My second fond memory of the 750cc Ninja was experienced in Japan over the next six years. It was that of comradery in riding with The Camp Zama Motorcycle Club of Sagamihara (Camp Zama), Japan. Whether our club rides were with a few bikes on a long trip or many bikes on a short trip, they were just plain fun. We certainly scratched the back of the main islands of Nippon from Hokkaido in the North to Kyushu in the South. The Japanese Alps on Honshu have some of the best knee-dragging, gut-wrenching, curvy mountain roads I’ve ever driven. The scenery was spectacular, the company superb and the whole experience was a pure delight. But, all good things must end.
The end of my riding days came gradually over a period of months. One rainy night while returning from a weekend trip to Saku, Japan, I experienced a blackout. It only lasted for two or three seconds, but it was a scary incident. I literally could not see during that brief interval. It occurred at night, in the rain, at 50 mph on a downhill run coming out of the foothills and onto the coastal plain near Nirasaki, Japan. After that incident, I noticed that I was becoming more cautious and conservative in my driving. I also avoided driving at night, especially in the rain. Driving aggressively with full confidence became a thing of the past. Yes, one must drive defensively to be safe, but one must never lose that aggressive offensive spirit that keeps a biker out of trouble and permits the use of speed and maneuver to get out of harms way. Once that spirit is lost, you’re “an accident waiting for someplace to happen.” That’s when wisdom tells you it’s time to quite riding for good. Add age with its inherent reduced strength and stamina, slower reflexes and response times, and general physical and psychological degradation, and the mix results in the conclusion that its time to “hang it up.” There was another ingredient as well. Call it an attack of spirituality: an urge to divest oneself of things, especially the most pleasurable things. And so, I put away my toy; I sold my last bike. That was not a pleasant experience, but I felt it was a necessary one. My time had come.
Remember this tale of a biker, and that your time will come as well. It happens to all of us sooner or later. In the meantime, keep on riding and hold on to those happy memories for a lifetime. Enjoy your bikes and every experience on each of them from “First to Last.”
This article was first published in Iron Horse Magazine, July/August 2005 issue. It was later embellished and expanded into a full-fledged book entitled First to Last - The Tale of a Biker by Dennis W. Lid. The book is published by CCB Publishing of Vancouver, B.C. and is available from Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, Powell’s.com and others in both print and e-book versions. If you like motorcycles and adventure, you will love the book. It’s a fast ride - a great read.