A few years back I bought a 1985 Honda Nighthawk 450. It was my first bike, purchased from an average man carrying an aristocratic name – something like Cannonball Bremenhold Jacobson III. The little Honda was was a great first bike in every respect – it was light, peppy but not dangerously powerful, and had room for two. It also had the sex appeal as a wet sock, so it collapsed my desire to showboat. Any attempts at hot dogging caused onlookers to contort their faces in confused disbelief, much like the Hugo's Hunchback before he started yelling “She gave me water!”
There was a small hitch with the Nighthawk, though, the kind of rookie mistake easy to make on a 700-dollar budget. The machine would start, run and ride beautifully, then, a half-mile from home it would die. When I say “die,” I mean the machine would sputter and burst like an epileptic horse until it collapsed, making no further sound than the pulsing melody of a whirring starter motor. Passersby would often think I ran out of fuel and offer to help. I would then explain that my machine functioned only within a half-mile radius of my house, and when that radius was breached, the machine would take two hours to reset, leaving me waylaid. Their offers changed to exhortations of “Oh, sorry. Good luck!” as they watched me push from the driver's seat. I’m happy to help, of course, so long as you don't expect me to get out of this car.
Of course, instead of pushing the machine, I could have left for the required two hours and let the bike establish a new “home” and half-mile radius; however, I invariably opted to push. I had sexy biceps and thighs in those days, in addition to a healthy cardiovascular system and a large map that decorated my office, one stabbed with pushpins in a vague circle, one mile in diameter.
As one might expect from the owner and purchaser of a $700 dollar motorcycle, many home remedies were tried to cure the machine's flagging health. Mystic interventions were common, ranging from the less-effective Gunk motor additive, to the more useful laying of hands and burning of sage. Periodically, after a particularly strong intervention, the motorcycle would run particularly well, and exceed its usual, half-mile radius, as if propelled by supernatural forces. This initially led to great joy and a renewed belief in the mystic, but always ended with a pushpin, if not anomalously placed, (blue for sage, gray for Gunk, pink for laying of hands, and so on.)
After a Friday evening with one particularly strong psychic medium, (a woman who claimed to channel the ghost of Sorichiro Honda's estranged mistress, Ashley, from Detroit,) the Honda ran particularly well. This, of course, inspired Kelsie and I to use the motorcycle for its intended purpose – a notion heretofore unspeakable – riding and enjoyment. I felt confident in the healing powers of Ashley, from Detroit, we climbed on and headed through town.
I've yet to meet anyone who prefers thick, city traffic to a beautiful country road, yet for some reason our Saturday morning destination was Sears, which meant an in-town drive up the melee of highway 29 – an eight-lane cinema of vehicular homicide. Many things in life are more relaxing than highway 29, including (though obviously not limited to) using your motorcycle to jump derelict vehicles (without health insurance,) or punching as suicidal bear. For some reason, however, I felt compelled to stay in town. Perhaps it was Ashley herself whispering into my ear. Whatever the cause, we opted to stay in town instead of taking our fitful steed to the Virginia hills, where the only signs of life read: No Trespassing.
Kelsie and I left home quite happy. We rolled through town on the little red machine, and it cooperated. We puttered on, up and out of the cul-de-sac, stopped at a few stoplights (and more importantly, left those stoplights,) and started our battle up 29.
Things were fine until we approached a 7-11 about and a half from our house, the machine first coughed, but continued, then it shuddered and pulsed, which I knew to be the beginnings of the death rattle, so we made our way across three lanes of traffic as the machine settled into an all-out epileptic fit, shit itself, and died – or died and then shit itself, I was too busy navigating by momentum to pay attention to the order.
Highway 29 had no shoulder, and more importantly, a mile-and-a-half was entirely too far for manual transport, even for my toned legs and biceps. Mrs. Chu, our psychic, had earned the Honda a black pushpin twice as far from home as any of the others, but it was still a pushpin day, and I had no idea how to get home.
In almost no time at all, a 30s-something ex-military man, tall with salt-and-pepper black hair pulled into the 7-11 next to the Honda. He rode a thick, low-slung cruiser, and new to motorcycles, I assumed that this butch bike and rider were here for a bit of chiding, if not downright nastiness. But, immediately he started asking about us and our troubles. Turns out, he had just gotten back from riding the Keys and knew what it was like to be broken down with no help. He said not to go anywhere, and rode away to fetch ancient gray Civic, then escorted us home.
During the ride, I explained the situation – the Honda, the misfires, the fading and the failing, the Gunk, anointed oils, and Mrs. Chu's psychic intervention. He was understanding. “Ashley, from Detroit?” He said. “She told me that the Torakusu Yamaha had a lover by that same name.” The conversation turned to things mechanical. What had I tried, what was my plan of action? I told him about the new fuel filter, amongst other things, but that my real suspicion lay in the head gasket. “Just replace it,” he said “you seem capable enough, and on a small motor it's not as hard as you think. Also, Mrs. Chu's fee of 29.95 might have paid for the gasket.”
I wanted to thank him, offer him some small token or gesture for his generosity, for his insight, but as soon as we reached our house, he only said, “OK, good luck!” and drove off.
Of course, he was right. All the magic potions that had gone into the crankcase were no more than rebranded Snake Oil, and it was time to quit dicking around. A couple hours later, Kelsie escorted me to the Honda by way of our Mazda 626, and watched me flog the poor machine home in fits and spurts, and plant it in the driveway, awaiting a brown truck to deliver a gift boxes containing a new head gasket and a Clymer manual outlining the procedure.
I still assume Cannonball Bremenhold Jacobson III was an honest injun – he even asked after the machine by way of email a few months later. I was able to tell him that not only had I diagnosed the problem, but had also fixed it, and it was a teeth-cutting task that opened the worlds of wrenching and motorcyclists in one stroke. Mr. Jacobson may not have realized the lemon he sold me, and I never could have understood how sweet it could make my life.
Since those days, I may have intimidated a few new riders by marching up on on them, particularly my thick, Kawasaki Concours in recent days, but I've learned a few things since the Nighthawk, namely how important it is to reach out and be reached when trying a new community.