The Motorsickle

By Bob Cram ( T.J. Coongate)

On the front, between the handlebars, was bolted an ancient carbide miner’s lamp, its yellow flickering glow scarcely visible in the bright afternoon light. And over the rear, a ratty racoon tail waved at the end of a rusted whip antenna. The whole contraption tilted dangerously against a kickstand made of 2-inch pipe.
Dumps in the early 1960s weren’t the antiseptic waste collection sites they are today. At the dump outside Mooseleuk, garbage lay in heaps. Fires smoldered and clouds of smoke drifted on a sullen breeze. It looked just like a scene from a Stephen King novel, although King was still just as high school wannabe at the time.
Me and Joe were at the dump shooting rats, a favorite teenage pastime locally. As I drew a bead on a particularly repulsive specimen with my .22 rifle, Joe nudge me in the ribs. Aim thrown off, I neatly drilled an old shoe two feet in front of the rat.
“Hey, lookee there,” Joe pointed excitedly. “It’s a motorsickle.”
I glanced to where he pointed. The front wheel of an ancient bike of some sort protruded from a pile of metal. I started to ask what was so special about another piece of junk but Joe was already hurrying over to the pile.
“Gimme a hand here,” he grunted, tugging at the buried machine. Together we managed to pull the old motorcycle out from under its burden of scrap metal. Only it wasn’t actually a motorcycle, though it had obviously been one once. All that was left were two wheels and the frame and handle bars.
“Boy, ain’t she a beauty?” Joe said admiringly. “Must be a Harley, or maybe one o’ them Indians.”
I peered closer at the heavy pipe frame. “That looks like Cyrillic writing on the metal.”
“What’s seer-rillic?”
“Like, behind the iron curtain. Russian, or maybe Hungarian or something.”
“That don’t matter. Help me git her home. She’s gonna be just the ticket to use for getting into the back country.”
“But there’s no motor and no gas tank and no…”
“Don’t matter,” Joe said, pushing on the heavy machine to get it moving. “We kin work around all that.”
Work around it, I thought, pushing on the seat. This I’d have to see.
For the next few weeks Joe haunted the dump and the junkyards around town. One way or another he was able to acquire an old gasoline tank that leaked, rusted shafts and chains, thin cables fraying at the ends, and a long length of drive belt. How he gathered the materials with the scant funds of a north woods teenager was beyond me, but somehow he persevered. His crowning achievement was cadging an ancient three-cylinder motor of dubious lineage from his Uncle Leonard.
“Uster use thet motor to run the hay bailer,” Leonard said as he helped us load it on a handcart. “Too powerful fer that kinder work. Couldn’t ger ‘er down. I finally replaced ‘er with one o’ them Briggs n’ Strattings.”
“That’s just what we want,” Joe said enthusiastically. “Somethin’ powerful!”
“Seems awful heavy for a motorcycle,” I said as I panted along helping Joe to pull the handcart.
“Won’t matter once I git it bolted into the frame. She’ll be jest the ticket, you wait n’ see.”
For another week Joe kept me well away from his uncle’s barn where he was creating his new pride and joy. Finally, on a summer Saturday afternoon, he called for me to come over.
“Wait’ll you see ‘er,” he crowed enthusiastically. “She’s a ring-tailed beauty!”
He’d pushed the machine out of the barn and my first view of the hybrid motorcycle made me stop dead in my tracks.
“Whaddayer think?” Joe asked proudly.
“Well, I…I…that is…” I swallowed hoarsely. “I…I’ve got to say that I’ve certainly never seen anything like it!”
The old engine sat cross-wise the frame and connected to it was an ungainly collection of mysterious machinery. Atop this, wired precariously to the crossbar, perched the gas tank, its hole neatly plugged with pine pitch. Several old horse blankets were folded and taped to the frame behind the gas tank, where the seat would normally be. On the front, between the handlebars, was bolted an ancient carbide miner’s lamp, its yellow flickering glow scarcely visible in the bright afternoon light. And over the rear, a ratty raccoon tail waved at the end of a rusted whip antenna. The whole contraption tilted dangerously against a kickstand made of 2-inch pipe.
“C’mon,” said Joe with a wave of his hand. “Let’s take ‘er for a spin!”
With growing dismay I approached the strange contraption. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
“Safe? ‘Course it’s safe! Jist let me git her fired up.”
I hadn’t noticed the big hand wheel obviously taken from a discarded industrial valve that was mounted on the end of the crankshaft. Joe flipped a toggle switch taped to the handlebars. Then he gripped the big wheel with both hands and gave it a spin. There came a cough, a sputter, followed by several earsplitting backfires. Then the engine settled into an uneven roar, the exhaust spitting out of a straight piece of drainage pipe. The unguarded hand wheel spun in a blur.
“Git on behind,” Joe said as he straddled the horse blankets. I settled on behind him, my heart in my throat, both hands clutching the blanket tape.
“Now, hold on!” Joe shouted over the roar of the exhaust. “I ain’t figured out a clutch yet!”
“What does that mean?” I shouted.
“Means when I throw ‘er in gear, it’s d’rect drive to the rear wheel. Here we go!”
I grabbed at the blankets in panic. In seconds my panic was justified. Joe revved up the engine, clamped his jaws together in a grimace, grabbed a large shifting lever mounted on the frame and jammed it forward. The engine howled, the rear wheel spun furiously in the gravel, and then caught. We shot forward like a bullet from a gun.
Somehow, I managed to cling to the rocketing machine. By the time I’d pulled myself ahead of the seat again, Joe had throttled the engine back and we were tooling along the road toward town at a sedate 40 miles per hour. The mongrel machine balanced surprisingly well and, apart from the unorthodox starting procedure, seemed to be acting like a real motorcycle.
“Ain’t she a beauty?” Joe shot over his shoulder at me. “Ain’t many kids our age got a genny-wine motorsickle to use huntin’ an’ fishin’ an’ such.”
I had to admit that perhaps, for once, one of Joe’s harebrained ideas was proving worthwhile. We turned down main street and people along the sidewalks turned to stare. I’m sure the unusual look of the machine coupled with the deafening roar from the unmuffled engine combined to make this the most exciting thing to appear in downtown Mooseleuk for years.
At the other end of the street we passed another motorcycle heading into town. It was also an unusual looking machine, with large knobby tires, a skid plate under the engine, and a garish paint scheme. The rider glanced at our bike, then jerked his eyes back again in a double take. Looking back I saw him turn around in the middle of the road and speed after us. I tapped Joe on the shoulder.
“I think that guy wants to talk to us,” I shouted. Joe looked back, then pulled the gear shift back into neutral. The engine died to rumble and we coasted to the side of the road. Joe hit the “off” switch to kill the engine. The silence was deafening.
The other machine pulled in behind us. The rider lowered the kickstand, hopped off and hurried up to where we stood.
“Say,” he said, looking the bike over with a practiced eye. “That looks like an old Dubrovski, but it sure isn’t stock.”
“Nope,” Joe said proudly, leaning on his creation. “She’s been modified a dite. Done the work my own self, usin’ nothin’ but the finest materials.”
The man nodded uncertainly, eying the confusion of mismatched parts.
“Say, a bunch of us summer visitors are getting together a motocross event,” he said suddenly.
“A moto-who?” Joe asked uncertainly.
“Motocross. It’s the coming thing across the country. Specially modified machines like mine race across country, over woods roads and fields, for prizes.”
“You don’t say That’s right interestin’.”
“Yeah. Say, we’ve got a meet tomorrow. We’re racing from Mooseleuk Meadows to Jack Mountain. First bike there wins fifty bucks.”
“Fifty bucks!” I cried. “What’s the entry fee?”
“Five bucks. If you’re interested, bring your bike to the Meadows at 8:00 tomorrow morning.” He went back to his machine kicked the motor to life and roared off toward town.
“Fifty bucks!” Joe breathed reverently, staring after the departing rider. “With fifty bucks we could buy new fishin’ rods. We could by a bunch o’ new tackle. Why…we could even buy a new rifle gun!”
“We’d have to win the race first,” I said dryly.
“With this here powerful D’brofski, we’re a cinch!” Joe declared as he prepared to spin the hand wheel again and start the machine. “I done all the heavy work o’makin’ this here motorsickle. You come up with the five dollars to enter. C’mon, I wanna do a little fine tunin’ before mornin’.”
Just after sunrise the next morning 15 motorcycles pulled up to a makeshift starting line at Mooseleuk Meadows, along side the river. Several contestants came over to look at Joe’s machine. Most simply shook their heads and walked off. One grinned and shook Joe’s hand.
“I got to admit, I’ve never seen a machine modified as much as that. Good luck to you. I think you’re going to need it.”
Precisely at 8:00 AM all the machines were idling at the line. Some riders cranked their throttles and raced their engines. The hoarse bellow of Joe’s engine drowned them all out.
Then came the crack of the starting gun. The other machines all sped away in a cloud of dust. Joe slammed the gearshift ahead and once again the direct drive system took hold. We spun in place for a few seconds before rocketing ahead to the front of the pack.
“Gonna be easy!” Joe shouted back at me. “All we gotta do is hold on!”
I watched some of the bikes take the Henderson Road while others climbed directly up the rugged side of Bean Pot Mountain. Any route was legal as long as it got you to the Jack Mountain finish line.
“I don’t know, Joe. Some of these guys look pretty good.”
Joe just snorted and leaned down over the handlebars. For a while we followed an old logging road that led across Blind Brook. Then Joe swung onto a skidder trail that seemed to head in the right direction.
“Duck!” he screamed suddenly. I squatted quickly as we shot under a leaning spruce tree. A stub on the bottom of the trunk snatched off my hat. The skidder trail petered out suddenly and Joe turned the machine into the thick woods.
It was rough going. We slowed to a crawl, skirting rocks and blow-downs and getting tangled in thickets.
“I think we’re falling behind!” I called out.
“I know,” Joe replied in a worried tone. “If we kin just find a road or even a good trail.”
Suddenly we lurched out onto a gravel road. Joe turned to the east and opened the throttle.
“Not the best road,” he shouted back over his shoulder. “But she’ll do. At least it’s headed in the right direction!” The roadside tree trunks became a blur as we picked up speed.
Something about the road looked familiar, but I couldn’t seem to place it.
“You know, Joe,” I leaned ahead to peer over the handlebars. “I think I know this road. I’m not sure, but I think…” Sudden realization came like a splash of ice-cold water.
“Joe!” I shrieked. “This is the road to Lover’s Leap!”
He had just leaned the boke into a rising turn. I saw the color drain from his head down through his shirt collar. He slammed the shift into neutral and cut the throttle.
“The brakes! The brakes!” I cried. “Slam on the brakes!”
Joe looked back at me, his expression a mask of total terror.
“Didn’t git around to makin’ no brakes!”
Before I could give one scream of fear, we flashed into the clearing at the end of the road. The edge of the cliff was before us and we shot across the lip without even slowing down. The bike continued on for perhaps 30 yards over thin air before it slowed and then dropped from under us with a sickening lurch. We screamed in unison all the way down.
I heard the crunching crash of the motorcycle before me and Joe hit. Then we slammed into a soft, yielding surface that still knocked all the breath from our bodies. Slowly, I saw up and looked around. Joe was trying to suck in air beside me.
“Hey,” I said in a rasping whisper. “I forgot the dump is at the foot of the cliff below Lover’s Leap.” We’d landed, purely by chance, on a pile of old discarded mattresses.
“Yeah,” Joe said mournfully, “but look at my motorsickle!”
The bike hadn’t lit in such a fortuitous spot. At full speed the makeshift motorcycle had slammed into a pile of gears and shafts from the abandoned tannery. Needless to say, it had instantly separated into its component parts and most of them weren’t identifiable. Not even an unbent wheel was left as a whiff of smoke rose from the fractured engine.
“There goes our fifty bucks,” I muttered as we staggered to our feet. Still a little wobbly, we headed toward the dump entrance. “I’m sorry about your bike, Joe. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Maybe we can…”
“What’s that?”
I looked to the pile of junk where Joe was pointing.
“What’s what?”
“Why, it’s an ol’ boat!” He quickened his pace to the pile of metal. From beneath a sheet of rusted roofing peered the dented bow of an aluminum boat.
“Joe, don’t you think we’ve had enough excitement for one…”
“Grab that corner of the roofin’. Help me clear this over here. “Look! She’s pracktickly new! All we gotta do is plug them big holes an make a transom. Say! Ain’t yore Uncle Arnold got an old outboard in his barn! Jest think! We kin go fishin’ in style! Maybe take some girls along! Don’t jest stand there with your jaw hangin’…grab aholt!”
Reluctantly, I grabbed aholt, wincing as the sharp edge of rusted and metal bit into my hand. Lord help us, I thought miserably, here we go again!”

Reader Feedback

The Northwoods Sporting Journal is the largest hunting and fishing magazine in the Northeast.