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How The World Wags

Being in the "right" mind has nothing to do with it
By Dave Kiffer

September 29, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - When you drive by the student parking lot at Kayhi these days, you won't see many motorcycles.

Duh, you say. We live in a rain forest.

Who in their right mind would drive a motorcycle to school in this weather? Well, once a upon a time quite a few of us did. And since we were teenagers, being in our "right" minds had nothing to do with it!

It seems odd that motorcycles would have any popularity in a community that gets 12 feet of rain each year, but just look at the Harley Riders. On sunny summer days, there are quite a few folks enjoying the wind in their face and the bugs in their teeth. Still, you don't see many people making bikes their primary form of transportation.

Motorcyclist v Lovebugs
©Jeff Parker, Florida Today
Distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc.

But when I was in junior high and high school, it was common to count the days until you turned 14 and could get your 5 horsepower or less motorcycle endorsement. Since there was a Honda motorcycle dealer in town in Newtown, you could soon be burbling around town on a Honda 70 (CL, SL or CT!). After a year or so, you could graduate up to a 100 or maybe a 125. Some of our older friends even had 250s and 350s, but that was too wild to even dream for. Besides, a motorcycle capable of 100 mph and a 15 year old brain is a very, very, very bad combination.

In those days, most of the bikes we had were either dirt bikes or combination dirt and street bikes called scramblers. My first bike was a Honda CL-70 scrambler. It was primarily a street bike, but could be used on the dirt trails and logging roads around town. I was never a real fan of riding on unpaved roads anyway.

When I was learning how to ride my cycle, my Mom and Dad took me out to Harriet Hunt road and let me rumble down the dirt. I was just learning how to use the breaks and would just "grab" the handle when I wanted to stop. That would bring the front end of the bike of very sudden stop and I would tip over. It was not a fun experience. Drive, stop, fall. Drive, stop, fall. Drive, stop, fall. You get the idea.

Fortunately, I eventually figured out the foot pedal for the rear brake, which when pushed too hard would lock up the rear end of the bike. That changed the process slightly to drive, stop, slide, fall. Drive, stop, slide, fall. I was a slow learner.

So, I preferred (and still do) pavement to dirt.

I eventually learned to stop and go and not fall. Then I was able to join a posse of other "Hell's Angels" in training. Lane had a Kawasaki 100, Jim M. had a Honda CT-70, Curt had a Honda 100, Jim P. had a Honda 125, Roy had a Hodaka 100, Morris had a Yamaha 125. I'm sure there were others, but my mind is drawing a blank.

We were tough, we were cool. We rumbled (actually with our small engines it was more of buzz!) from one end of town to the other, rain or shine. We rumbled to school, we rumbled home. We were pretty impressed with ourselves.

So were our young lady friends. They loved the "danger" of riding on our little motorbikes. I'm not kidding about the "danger." One time I convinced a sweet young thing to go to the movies and I squired her there on my motorcycle. I remembered to tell her to hold on tight (a good thing) but I forgot to explain that she had to lean with the bike when we went around corners. When we got to the Lutheran Church 's' curve, I leaned the bike over and she immediately leaned the other way. The bike straightened right up and we ended up slaloming between two cars headed in the opposite direction.

"That was really cool," she said. I was shaking too much to answer.

When we weren't trying to impress the females of the species, we were trying to impress each other by rumbling up Madison Street and going airborne over Second or Third avenues. This was probably illegal, but that didn't stop us from "jumping" the streets. We also "drag raced" up to the top of Madison from Kayhi to the college. Yes, it was unsafe, but you're only 15 once and if you're lucky you live to write about it in a column 30 years later.

After about a year, I decided that my CL-70 was not sufficiently powerful enough to convey the image of Marlon Brando motorcycle stud that I desired. I discovered that when I tried to set the CL-70 land speed record.

According to the specs, the CL-70 had a top speed of 50 mph. One day, I was in the Clover Pass area and I decided to try to top that going down the long hill that starts by the old Coast Guard radio station and ends more than a mile later past Knudsen Cove (where the pavement used to end on the way to Settlers Cove). I tucked into my best Kenny Roberts pose, cranked the throttle and blasted down the hill. Granted, going down a hill doesn't count for speed records but why quibble?

The bike flew down the hill and soon the 60 mph speedometer was "pegged." At the bottom, I slowed down before the pavement ended, but there was a funny rattle from the engine. The bolt holding the engine to the frame had sheared off and the bike was being held together only by the carburator. No speed records were set on the very careful drive home.

Anyway, I fixed the CL-70, sold it and bought a Honda 125 Elsinore. It had more than twice the horsepower of the 70. Technically, it was in violation of the 5 horsepower law, but there were these throttle caps called "governors" that would prevent the bike from using more than 5 horsepower. That was what I told my parents and an older cousin confirmed that information. But that didn't necessarily mean that my new 125 actually had a governor on it. But why confuse the parents unnecessarily. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

At any rate, I was suddenly the "king" of the Madison Street hill climbs. I remember one day we were blasting up and down the hill at lunch and one of the guys who I didn't like so much asked to "try" my bike. He was a bit bigger, so it wasn't like I was going to say no. I handed him the key. He did a big honking wheelie and blasted up the hill in a blaze of blue smoke (the 125 was a two-stroke). When he came back down, there was a cop (who had been called by the principal) waiting. My "friend" didn't happen to have a motorcycle license so I hope his wheelie was worth the $100 ticket he got. The cop warned me to not let unlicensed drivers use my bike.

Oddly enough, the rain never seemed to bother us in those years. It kind of made us seem even cooler to arrive somewhere soaked to the bone in the halcyon, pre-Gore tex days.

Snow was another matter. It freaked me out even worse that dirt roads.

One memorable winter day, I rode my bike to school and it snowed several inches before school let out. The logical thing would have been to leave the bike at school and walk the four blocks down Jefferson to my house, but logic was never my strong suit.

So I started slowly down the hill. Natch, the minute I'd get going too fast, I'd lightly touch the brakes, the bike would start sliding and tip over. I'd pick it up, slide and fall again. I fell at least four times before I got down to First Avenue. My wild ride ended when I careened into a snow bank in our back yard at a reality high rate of speed, denting the gas tank and putting a slight tweak in the handle bars. The bike went straight into the basement for the rest of the winter.

Sadly, our motorcycle posse lifespan was brief. At 16, we all started getting cars. Motorcycles were fun, but they had a serious design flaw: No back seats.

Several years later, I had a Honda 550 when I spent a summer in Juneau. It was a spectacularly sunny summer and a great riding time. Except when I would pass over the Mendenhall River bridge. You could feel the icy breeze off the glacier water even through my specially insulated suit.

It was in Juneau that I also got irrefutable proof about the value of motorcycle helmets. I was burbling along the Glacier Highway one afternoon when a bumblebee the size of my fist hit me dead center in the face mask. The next thing I new I was airborne and then skidding on the pavement, my helmet slapping the ground. Without the helmet I wouldn't be writing this.

My next motorcycle experience was a decade later in Boston. I celebrated my college graduation (I was on the 8 year plan!) by impulsively burning most of my and my girlfriend's savings on Suzuki 1100. It was a big shiny super bike and I was very impressed with myself for several weeks as I rumbled (no dinky little buzzing engine on that baby. Over 100 horsepower, woo eeee!) hither and yon across New England.

One day, I was tooling up an on-ramp to the Mass Turnpike at a perfectly appropriate speed when I noticed that a semi was barreling down at me. I sped up, but I was quickly running out of room to avoid him. I gunned the engine and tucked in - just like I did that long gone day near Knudsen Cove on the little Honda.

Instantly I was flying, all the rest of the traffic just was standing still. I glanced down at the speedometer. It read 139 mph and I still had a full gear to go. I froze. Continuing to fly along, I actually passed a state police car, but the flashers never came on. I don't know if he even saw me. I started to slowly slow down. It seemed like it took miles before I was back down at a normal speed.

I took the next off ramp and headed - slowly - back home on the surface streets. When I got home, I called a friend who really liked the bike and sold it to him. At 30, I had met the enemy and he was me!

But now as I approach the half century mark, I am getting that motocyle urge again. I bet that old CL.-70 is in someone's garage somewhere around here.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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