The Art of Motorcycle Repair, Without any Zen Whatsoever


Beautiful day yesterday, sunny, the sky kindergarten-blue. I decided to take Big Red up the fifty miles to Dalton to teach my class. Might as well get some practice on the bike in before the cross country trip. Loaded up my saddlebags with marked test papers, handouts, books, a few cigars and a thermos of coffee.

Drove down a few streets past prone dogs, charging dogs, car repair shops, fast food places and hair parlors offering feather extensions at $40 a plume. Got on the ring road and looked longingly at the sleeping Rome Braves baseball stadium and imagined I could hear the crack of the baseball bat and someone yelling, or spilling, “peanuts, cracker jack, cold drinks”. Turned left onto highway 53 where the speed limit goes up to 65, traffic lights are rare, the scenery mostly pastoral (except for the outside antiques at Bill’s Bargain Barn) and I can get into my “Zen”. Officially Zen is a type of Buddhism, zen being the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character “chan”, which in turn is the Chinese translation of the Indian term “dhyana”, which means meditation. My “Zen” is a Georgia motorcycle boy’s translation of this into: breathe deep, be in the present and let go of worrying about the past or the future, thank God and express gratitude for all I have, think compassionately about friends, begrudgingly struggle to do so with enemies, enjoy the scenery, watch out for cars turning in front of you and suicidal deer. Normally, I can achieve this stillness in motion, this peaceful alertness for a brief while, but not when the “check engine” light goes on and something unusual is happening when I shift into second gear. Like most drivers with any experience at all, I ignore the light and, what the heck I hardly ever use second gear. I’ll drop by the Harley shop in Dalton after my class.

After 20 miles the road curves in towards Calhoun and the scenery changes to scores of fast food places, gas (petrol) stations, beauty parlors, people standing near the side of the road dressed like the statue of liberty spinning advertising signs and shops where you can pawn gold jewelry and buy guns, often in the same transaction. I’m idling at a light on a four lane and spot a Bo Jangles and think that I have just enough time before class for a sausage and egg biscuit. The light changes, I shift from neutral to first, and then to that pesky second, almost. It won’t go. The bike’s stuck in neutral. I panic out of my zen state. I’m on a four lane highway with cars behind me, no road shoulder, the black top is not tipping downhill and the Road King, just out of the shower weighs in at 731 pounds. We’re not going far.  Still straddling her I manage to walk her into a right turn lane where there’s enough room for cars to safely pass me by. I look down at the gear shifter and it’s rocking free like a see saw a kid just pushed.

I would like to report that I am well trained for just such emergencies but I can’t. I’ve always aimed to be a “jack of all trades’ but, at best I’m a three of clubs. I can’t even change a tire on a motorcycle. I’m lucky if I can change my mind. I put the side stand down, get off the bike and bend down and examine her like I know what I’m doing. I perform the obligatory scratching of the back of my head. This is a basic posturing technique all motorcyclists perform to reassure onlookers not to worry, that the twins – confidence and competence – are at hand. In my case it’s usually all show. I study the bike and except for the loose and floppy lever the left foot uses to change gears, everything looks normal.  I size up the problem quickly and professionally: That lever has to stop being floppy. I open my saddlebag and dig out a set of tools my buddy Jeff gave me. I take a deep breath and have a Zen moment: Thank you Jeff.

Amazingly for me, I spot where the lever has come loose, has disengaged from the thingamajig that connects to the whatchamacallit that makes the gears change. If I can put that back on and re-tighten it we might be good to go. I fiddle with it for fifteen minutes and finally get it back on. I am so proud of my usually incompetent self! I go to shift gears and realize that I reattached it at the wrong angle and now part of the gear shifter is under the foot rest. I take the lever back off, reposition it, reattach it and it works. I look around but there’s no one there to be suitably impressed. I put the tools away, phone Dalton to let them know I’m running late and to let the guest speaker for my class begin and I hop back on Big Red. I crank her up and we take off. She winds out fine, the check engine light is off, I thank God and all is well with the universe.

I’m now on the bleached and battered concrete interstate where vehicles are rushing by and the zen state is both impossible and dangerous to attempt. Only constant vigilance will do. I make it safely the next twenty miles to Dalton, only ten minutes late for class. Everything’s fine and I go on to teach and facilitate the three hour class.

Afterwards, before getting on the bike I check the gear lever and it seems tight. I crank her up and take off. The check engine light comes on. I ignore it, pick up speed and shift to second, where it refuses to go. The green light glows telling me I’m still in neutral and the gear won’t move. I pull off to the side of the road and once more assume the basic bent posturing position. The gear lever is floppy again. I re-tighten it and say to myself: “If I can just get to the Harley shop!” It’s about a mile away. I crank Big Red up, put her in first and take off. I decide to just ride in first gear and wind her out as much as I can. Traffic light, turn left, cross the interstate bridge, past McDonalds, turn right at the light, and down to the Harley shop.

I speak knowledgeably to the service engineer about the gear shift lever, the thingamajig and the whatchamacallit. He scratches his head but then nods and says: “I think I know what it is.” I follow him back out to Big Red and he assumes the basic posture and examines the bike. This time the twins – confidence and competence – are present. He explains what’s wrong, that it’s not uncommon and that he should be able to fix it and get me back on the road in “no time”. I’m thrilled, agree, give him my details, and walk around the store looking at the Harley merchandise and pondering the existential meaning of “no time”.

In a Wrigley’s Believe It or Not moment the bike is repaired within 15 minutes and at a cost of only $40! I am stunned, appreciative and thankful. I hop back on the bike and take off. She moves easily and happily through the gears, chortling her appreciation. I’m back on the interstate again. I’m slaloming past trucks, their wind drafts sucking me out and in. I listen to the hum and hymn of the engine. I thank God, think of all the things I’m grateful for and keep my eye out for the Zen exit.

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