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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

On the Road of Hard Knocks

The best compliment I ever received regarding my prowess as a motorcycle mechanic (I can tear down to the last nut and bolt almost any motorcycle made in the last 70 years; repair, rebuild and restore to like new condition) was from the owner of the Yamaha shop on Indio Blvd. In 1996 I purchased a very tired Kawasaki Z-1 for $1400. Today, fully restored, these bikes sell for about 50K. The bike had been wrecked and putridly rebuilt.

I got nothing but shit from Phyllis for bringing a Kawasaki into our garage. I had ridden and wrenched only Harleys for 20 years, and she did not want our property tainted with that kind of motorcycle. I had to replace the front wheel, which meant multiple trips to junkyards until I found the proper rim and a set of spokes. Then I had to endure that look from the mechanic at the chrome plating shop in San Berdoo when I brought non-Harley parts in for fresh chrome. By the sneers I got, you woulda thought I was Japanese, not the motorcycle.

Lacing and truing a spoked rim is an artform, one I had mastered about 15 years earlier. I didn’t have the right equipment to mount the tubeless tire, so I brought everything to the Yamaha shop to have the tire installed. When the owner saw the freshly chromed rim properly spoked and trued, and found out that I had performed the work, he offered me a job on the spot as his chief mechanic. I so much wanted to accept his offer, but my destiny lay elsewhere, so I thanked him but demurred.

It wasn’t always this way. Everyone starts from the beginning; I think my quest to learn to wrench began a couple of miles in front of the beginning. Before I bought my Honda 305 Dream (pictured above), which would be my way of tooling around the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, and my best friend on the trip west to California (dragged behind Phyllis’ Camaro), I picked up a Yamaha 250 from a college friend for a scant $125. It didn’t run; the crankshaft was seized – and the attempt to unseize that crank would be one of my first lessons in mechanics, physics, the law of gravity, and the law of grief -- all rolled up in a neat little package that would wop me upside the head before too long.

I didn’t even know what a crankshaft was back then. All I knew was that the rear wheel wouldn’t move, the kickstarter was stuck, and so was I, pretty much. I don’t recall how I got it from Syracuse home to Pa, or how I got it from Kingston to Cresco where I lived and worked for about six months – it sure didn’t fit in my VW bug.

What I did know was I wanted it running – I wanted to be back on two wheels again. I lived next door to three single women up in the mountains. One had a VW bus, and I got the bright idea to have her tow me on the motorcycle down the road to see if I could unfreeze whatever was frozen. It was a horrendously bad move; about from which I was going to be rudely awakened from my stupid stupor.

Joan P. didn’t want to tow me. She asked me several times if I really wanted to do this. Once stupid takes hold, foolish and idiotic prod you down the road to perdition faster than day turns to night in a room when the lights are turned off.

I tied a rope from her bumper to my handlebars. We got about 8 feet before the handlebars fishtailed and the bike went down. I was thrown over the handlebars, hands and headfirst into gravel. That was the first and last time I ever rode a cycle without gloves.

The pain was merciless. I had small, sharp pieces of gravel stuck in the palms of both hands, and they were bleeding profusely. Joan pushed me into the front seat with her and barreled down the road to the hospital and the emergency room. My hands looked like ripe watermelons at this point, but I had no idea the torture that lay instore for me. The nurse was cute and young and started removing the gravel stuck in my hands with a toothbrush. She asked why a big strong guy like me was crying. I guess she never tried to fire up a frozen crankshaft on a gravel road before.

There was no pain medicine, no anesthetic creams to ease the torture of the procedure. It was brutal, and it didn’t end there. I left the ER with both hands completely bandaged and had to leave them on for a full week. Figure out how you use the toilet, shower, and perform the myriad other required daily tasks, alone, with both hands bandaged.

I managed, and after they healed went back to work on the Yamaha. I didn’t fix it; and wound up turning the title over to the local motorcycle shop after six months of dead ends. Today I could probably have had it running in about 4 hours, give or take.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but that is just the way it is sometimes. I’ve laid down a motorcycle a half dozen times in the past 55 years of riding. Each time I learned something. I learned to always wear a helmet when I felt my head bouncing down the road inside of one after having been side swiped in New Jersey. I learned to wear a jacket after getting pinned between my bike and the rear bumper of the car in front of me. I fell forward and the exhaust manifold fell on my bare elbow, leaving me with second degree burns. I learned to install engine guard bars as I slid down Sunset Blvd. on a rainy day, said bars preventing the bike from crushing my leg.

Sometimes people learn these things before they have the accidents, sometimes not. The next time you are tooling around town in your 2 ½ tons of cold rolled steel -- and a motorcycle rider pulls up next to you wearing shorts, no gloves, and a short-sleeved shirt, dial 911. He’s on his way to an accident. We have an expression in the biker world: Two type of people ride motorcycles, those that have laid there bike down, and those who are about to.

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